The Murders at Starved Rock: will we ever know the truth about Chester Weger?

David Raccuglia in Murders at Starved Rock - Courtesy of HBO
David Raccuglia in Murders at Starved Rock - Courtesy of HBO /

In 1961, Chester Weger was convicted of brutally murdering Frances Murphy, Lillian Oetting and Mildred Lindquist while visiting the LaSalle County, Illinois state park Starved Rock in 1960. The new three-part HBO Max docuseries The Murders at Starved Rock investigates whether or not Weger, who was imprisoned for more than 60 years before getting granted parole, was actually innocent of the murders.

While directed by Jody McVeigh-Schultz, the more interesting component of this docuseries is David Racculgia, son of Anthony Raccuglia, the prosecutor who got Weger convicted all those years back. It is David who decided to make a documentary film about Weger and the case that fascinated and haunted him since he was a child.

As his father was at the helm of the prosecution for his first criminal trial at just 26 years old, Weger became David’s personal bogeyman, primarily due to Anthony’s absolute belief that Weger was 100% guilty of the murders despite many believing otherwise.

The Starved Rock murders have been a pall over LaSalle County for decades, with many people still adamantly refusing to visit the state park because of what happened there. But even though Anthony remained adamant about Weger’s guilt until he died in 2019, Weger has virulently maintained his innocence throughout his decades behind bars.

There have always been doubts regarding Weger’s guilt. Weger’s slim stature led many to believe it would have been impossible for him to brutally murder three grown women. Then a local historian, Steve Stout, published a novel in the early 1980s that led to appellate attorney Donna Kelly trying to reopen his case on appeal.

At the heart of the appeal is that Weger might have been coerced into giving the confession that ultimately got him convicted by a jury of 12 peers. However, it’s hard to discern what really happened as the case is riddled with inconsistencies, many from Weger himself, who has changed his story several times over the years and even brought up a brand new alibi never heard during the original investigation.

Murders at Starved Rock
Anthony Raccuglia, David Raccuglia in Murders at Starved Rock – Courtesy of HBO /

The Murders at Starved Rock: What are David Raccuglia’s motivations?

Over a decade ago, David started making a movie about the case, extensively interviewing many of the key players involved in putting Weger in jail, including his own father and Stout. Both men have remained unyielding in their belief that Weger was the murderer. David was even granted permission to interview Weger himself after several failed attempts to contact him via letters.

It was the first interview with Weger that initially convinced David that Weger was wrongly imprisoned, although, by the end of the third episode, David is clearly still torn with countless questions lingering as to the case’s veracity, the way it was initially handled and whether or not Weger is truly innocent or not.

Weger was released on parole in 2020 but continues fighting to completely clear his name. By the end of the docuseries, we learn that his current attorney has won a case to get forensic testing done on some of the original physical evidence. Results should arrive sometime next year. They could exonerate Weger or potentially prove that the prosecution was right all along.

Undoubtedly there will always remain lingering questions with this particular case, especially because so much time has passed and the years have warped the real story. It’s hard to imagine ever getting real closure.

The Murders at Starved Rock is a better true crime documentary than some I’ve seen as of late, but it also follows a trend in this genre that veers away from working to help the victims. And sometimes I wonder if these types of stories are doing more harm than good, potentially giving voice to people like David Marsh and the Free Chester Weger Committee, a Q-Anon-like group of conspiracy obsessives who have even been disavowed by Weger’s own family, despite their own battle to clear Weger’s name.

Murders at Starved Rock
Chester Weger in Murders at Starved Rock – Courtesy of HBO /

The Murders at Starved Rock: will we ever know the truth about Chester Weger?

At times, this docuseries comes across more like a vanity project for David, who is clearly trying to work through issues with his father. What are his motivations for doing this docuseries?

It’s never made 100% clear, but it’s obvious that he didn’t do this with the sole intention of finding out the truth. A lot of this docuseries plays like a man attempting to work through problems that stem from perhaps not being accepted by his father for going a different path than Anthony expected from his son (David mentions that his dad wanted him to follow in his footsteps to become a lawyer while David had aspirations of becoming a hairdresser).

In short, David appears obsessed with this case because of the impact it has had on his life rather than because he genuinely cares about getting justice for the victims (if indeed Weger is innocent). That being said, the reasoning behind the creation of this docuseries was likely always going to be murky at best, considering the case happened so long ago and, as David himself notes, most of the people involved have long since passed on. This was never going to “solve” anything, but it does give us a unique angle.

David has gone above and beyond to find every little scrap of evidence and interview a broad pool of people. I respect his willingness to present an unbiased approach to the best of his ability.

The first episode highlights the prosecution’s side, the second episode the defense and the third and final installment draws from both, though it likely won’t leave you feeling 100% convinced one way or the other, which I imagine is how many people feel who have followed this case since the early days. David admits that he went from believing Weger was evil as a kid, to advocating for his innocence, to later no longer thinking that Weger is 100% innocent.

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