A 45-year-old Peoria murder case is being brought back to light. After reviewing details of the incident, court documents and statements from witnesses, several people say the suspect who’s serving a 100-year prison sentence is innocent.
Here are the undisputed circumstances of the murder:
On May 26th, 1970 at around 1:00am, a black man arrives at the Bellevue Drive-In -- that’s no longer here -- and announces a robbery. The offender ties up the projectionist, and when police arrive, he fires three shots through the window of a police car, killing officer Sgt. Raymond Espinoza. The offender takes off in a getaway car, then crashes and flees on foot, escaping from the officers in pursuit. Thirty minutes later, a black man, 27-year-old Cleve Heidelberg, walks toward the crashed vehicle. The car belongs to him. When officers see Heidelberg, they arrest him.
“When I lay this all out to a current female police officer who’s an investigator and would not be afraid to she said 'he would not have come back to the scene, he didn’t do it,'” retired Peoria Police officer Marcella Teplitz said.
Teplitz is a private investigator looking into Heidelberg’s case. She says an investigation turned up statements that allege Heidelberg loaned his car to a friend, and minutes after the murder, he received a phone call from that so-called friend.
“And said, ‘things didn’t go the way they should have, and you need to come get your car, it’s at such and such location,’" Teplitz said. "Of course they left out important information like: it’s wrecked and by the way, there’s a dead police officer.”
Teplitz recently started investigating the criminal case after an attorney from Chicago contacted her in October. Teplitz says in her initial research, she found glaring irregularities that were “unacceptable,” even by 1970s standards. For instance, three witnesses were corralled together during a lineup. She says standard police procedure is to keep witnesses separate, so as not to influence each other. But records indicate that didn’t happen.
“Two people who were working at the drive-in theater, as well as a paid police informant who was riding in the police vehicle with Sgt. Espinoza," Teplitz said. "They were all put in the room together, there were statements made, some people blurted out, ‘I think that’s him.’”
Descriptions in the report from that lineup is at odds with witnesses’ testimonies given during the trial. Teplitz says after two months examining documents, like police radio transcripts and eyewitness testimonies, she came to the conclusion that Heidelberg is innocent. And she’s not alone.
Andy Hale is a Chicago attorney, who typically defends police officers in court. But in this case, Hale says the evidence favors Heidelberg.
“I think Peoria’s worried that ‘if we admit this is a big mistake, this guy’s been in prison for 45 years, what kind of liability is this going to be?’ And I don’t think that’s a proper consideration. A proper consideration is ‘did Cleve Heidelberg commit this murder?’”
Hale learned about Heidelberg after investigating a 1982 Chicago murder. It was the focus of a 2014 documentary “A Murder in the Park.” The suspect in the case, Alstory Simon, was innocent. His conviction was vacated soon after the release of the documentary.
After Simon was released from prison, he asked Hale to look into another criminal case.
“He said ‘Andy, can you look into the case of one of my best buddies in prison, who I think is also innocent?, his name is Cleve Heidelberg,’” Hale said.
Hale conducted a full-fledged investigation. And what Hale found, he says, stunned him.
“I generally come at these wrongful conviction cases with a skeptical attitude because I defend a lot of these," Hale said. "But his case had so many problems, not to mention that another person confessed, that I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Hale’s investigation found some evidence, like the initial police report, was destroyed, and significant pieces of evidence was ignored -- including a confession to the murder, before Heidelberg was sentenced. The confession filed in an affidavit, by James Clark, describes shooting officer Sergeant Espinoza as a “kill or be killed” situation.
“I was quite struck by the depth and breadth of his confession," Teplitz said. "And putting that together with all the information, I felt that this is the man that should have been on trial.”
Teplitz says it's important to note James Clark's brother was a member of the Black Panther Party. She says it was 1970s Peoria, in the wake of Martin Luther King Junior's assassination and race riots at the Taft Homes.
“I know it was not unusual for perhaps a police officer to interact with a criminal, and if there were other police around say ‘ this guy’s bad, if you see him, kill him,'" Teplitz said. "But I’m sure that James Clark, and anybody else would take that to mean, 'yeah, I could be killed.'”
Andy Hale compiled the details of his investigation into a 27-page letter and submitted it to the Peoria County State’s Attorney in December 2015. In the letter, Hale cites the affidavit and the discrepancies between court testimonies and eyewitness accounts. Hale is requested that the state’s attorney reopen the case.
Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Brady denied Hale’s request last month.
Brady says he reviewed the file and "did not find a basis to reopen it.” Brady declined to do a recorded interview for this story. Brady’s position also takes into account pending litigation in this case going on above him.
In the meantime, Hale and Teplitz are sewing together their research for a documentary following Heidelberg’s case and created a social media campaign called "Justice 4 Cleve." Teplitz calls it the capstone of her career.
“I’m not advocating let’s just let everybody out of prison, and let’s let all these killers out. No. Anyone who’s ever worked with me knows I am a strong law and order person," Teplitz said. "I’ve sent many, many people to prison. Lengthy prison sentences. And I don’t regret that. But when you find things that are not correct, they must be remedied.”
A court review of the case would appoint a special prosecutor to look at the matter on behalf of the court. Hale says he plans to file a petition making that request this week with the Peoria Circuit Court.
Meantime, Cleve Heidelberg is still behind bars at a Galesburg correctional center. He’s 73 years old, and his health is failing. Since the murder, nearly half a century ago, Heidelberg has maintained his innocence.
Editor's note: An earlier broadcast version of this story incorrectly reported Cleve Heidelberg was 33 when he was arrested. Heidelberg was 27.