CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, Ill. - CHAMPAIGN COUNTY -- There's nothing clean about how James Ellis died: not the frenzied moments fighting over a bag of drugs, nor the days in which his children’s bedroom became a crime scene; especially messy, though, is the case following that night in December 2008.
“Multiple assailants, it involved a teenager,” recalls Don Shepard.
Shepard was the lead investigator on the case. He's now retired after nearly 30 years on the force.
“This was a monumental case in my career.”
The night of December 19, 2008, Ellis, his wife Melinda, and their two children were asleep in their converted garage apartment.
Ellis was a known drug dealer. When the two masked men broke into their home that night. they demanded money and drugs.
One aimed a gun at Melinda, pulled the trigger, and nothing happened. When Ellis thought it meant the pistols were fake, he charged at the men. They fought through the apartment and into the children's bedroom, where one of the men shot Ellis with his very real gun before running away.
When Melinda found him, her husband was dead.
“When it's a homicide, you never know when you're going get a surprise,” said Shepard.
But here, the surprise was not the first suspect, Tyrone Franklin, Melinda’s teenage son. He’d already gotten in trouble with the law at his young age and was described as having a “bad relationship” with Ellis. He was at the top of the list.
No. The surprise came when an unlikely source put the name DeMarco Taylor in the mix.
“A key interview was someone that reached out to me that was incarcerated,” remembers Shepard.
It was Qwantrell Ayres, a friend of Taylor's, with several felonies to his name. But as Shepard recalls, Ayres wanted to talk to him because he was done with crime.
“He was wanting to turn over a stone, start a new life.”
Ayers agreed to wear a wire while he talked to Taylor to get some of the details on the record. Meanwhile, Detective Shepard tapped the conversation from an unmarked van not far away. It's something he says is common practice in Champaign County. It took a court order and several extensions, but eventually Shepard got what he was looking for: Taylor told Ayres he was there the night of the murder, that he even fought Ellis, “pistol whippin’ him.” But he said left before Franklin pulled the trigger and killed his stepfather.
It’s one of the clearer pieces of evidence Shepard says he’s gotten from using a listening device.
“Some of it's like, ok you've got to connect the dots here, and sometimes it's, this is a dead ringer.” This one was the latter.
Then, another unsuspected twist with a second suspect criminal, a man named Richard Howard. He agreed to tell the jury about how Taylor, his cousin, bragged about the murder from their shared jail cell.
Attorney Steve Beckett reviewed the details of this case. He says this "no-strings-attached" testimony from both Ayres and Howard seemed suspicious.
“I think, in this particular case, that's where things get murky,” he said. “I haven't come across too many people that don't have some self-interest.”
Perhaps they were looking for help untangling their own cases, if they knew something Taylor wouldn't admit to?
He never confessed to the crime.
But he didn't need to: with no physical evidence against him, and based mostly on the testimony of a cousin and a friend, a jury found Taylor guilty. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
“You sort of have to ask yourself the big question, why is the witness doing this?” asks Beckett.
It’s a question defense attorneys asked, too. Taylor hand-wrote several appeals before a judge determined both Ayres and Howard did, in fact, get perks in their cases for testifying. That means they lied on the stand.
“We’re asking the jury to take away the freedom of another individual,” says Beckett. “And to accept evidence as proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And so we shouldn't be doing this with one hand tied behind the defendant's back.”
The prosecutor on this case, Assistant State’s Attorney Dan Clifton, didn't respond to requests for comment. If he would have corrected the record to show the witnesses were expecting some favorable treatment for testifying, though, Beckett says there would be no grounds for the post conviction petition.
Detective Shepard insists that whatever their expectations, the witnesses weren't promised anything.
“This is something with our court proceedings. The prosecutor will look at your level of cooperation and give you consideration.”
The fact they got lighter sentences was enough for a judge to grant Taylor a new trial, set to start in December. But instead of facing more murder charges, Taylor took a deal. He pleaded guilty to armed robbery.
“I think that what the defendant is looking for is a light at the end of the prison tunnel,” says Beckett.
For Taylor, who maintains his innocence in the Ellis murder, the end of the tunnel is closer, but still nearly two decades away.
The public defender who helped Taylor negotiate the plea deal is unable to comment due to attorney-client confidentiality.
“I think a case like this demonstrates how terribly difficult it is for the police to have to investigate into that community,” says Beckett.
It's a crime which blurs family lines, secret wire conversations, witnesses who wouldn't come back to the stand, like Ayres.
“[He’s] taken a lot of ramifications after word got around that he wore a wire and, in his world, snitched,” said Shepard.
Two others arrested for the crime pleaded to lesser crimes. And Franklin, who Taylor says pulled the trigger in his stepfathers murder? His first trial ended with a hung jury, then they found him not guilty. He walked free.
Now, Franklin is in jail awaiting trial in another murder. He's charged with the November 2016 shooting death of Robert Lee Brown. He was named as the suspect three days after Taylor signed his plea deal.
When police found him, Franklin was with Joshua Young, who was wanted in the pivotal 2014 slaying of Rakim Vineyard.
Now, 8 years later, nobody is in jail for the murder of James Ellis.
“You piece it together and you've got a really, really good case and conviction and now it's gone, poof, it's evaporated,” says Beckett. “It's got to be frustrating.”
“I find frustration in it, but I don't find blame,” says Shepard. He doesn't blame the prosecutor or the laws on the books. He says if he could change anything, it's the web criminal activity and the tangled justice system which lead to Ellis's murder.
“I did my job,” he says. “I know we were dealing with a nest of rats.”