Pelo verdict brings closure, but not joy
Years of public and private angst gave way to relief Wednesday as jurors confirmed rape and stalking allegations against Jeff Pelo, validating victims who said a police officer assaulted them and authorities who investigated one of their own.
But the closure that came with former Bloomington police Sgt. Jeff Pelo's conviction -- on 35 felonies related to four rapes from 2002 through 2005 and the stalking of a fifth woman in 2006 -- was far from joyful.
Women have been indelibly scarred. A police force has been shrouded in distrust for not handing over a case against a colleague. And a family has been torn apart, its patriarch marked as a monster capable of unimaginable betrayals.
Assistant McLean County State's Attorney Mark Messman, the chief felony prosecutor who orchestrated the case against Pelo, said despite a favorable resolution for the state, questions about an officer turned rapist will forever linger.
"You can never tell . . . what it is that makes somebody cross over and let that evil into their heart," he said after the verdict was announced.
Such psychology is of little consequence to Sarah Kalmes and Andrea Lawhun, the last two sexual assault victims in January 2005. Both women agreed to have their identities published and have married and moved from the area since the attacks.
"I think I'm still a little overwhelmed that we don't have to worry about this person devastating any more lives," Kalmes said, adding Pelo's family to the list of victims. "I can't imagine their hurt and devastation. . . . My heart goes out to them."
Kalmes and Lawhun picked Pelo out of police lineups before his arrest on the rape charges and pointed to him in court as the man who attacked them. The other two rape victims could not identify Pelo. But Lawhun said after the verdict that she's never had any doubt.
"It's been a very long process, and I feel calm and confident," Lawhun said.
However, Pelo's wife, Rickielee Pelo, later told reporters, "They've got the wrong man."
And defense attorney Michael Rosenblat told The Associated Press he still believes Pelo is not guilty and will appeal the verdict. He plans to file motions arguing McLean County Associate Judge Robert Freitag erred when he allowed jurors to see images of violent pornography found on Pelo's home computers and denied the defense an expert witness on the reliability of eyewitness identification.
Regardless of the outcome of that appeal, McLean County authorities feel they scored a permanent symbolic victory with Pelo's conviction - a restoration of the public's trust that they will execute their duties no matter what suspect surfaces during an investigation.
Bloomington police Sgt. Clay Wheeler, one of the lead detectives on Pelo's case, said even colleagues are subject to the same unflinching examination when they commit a crime.
When a police officer violates the oath to serve and protect, "You're not the person we thought you were, and we've got to do what we've got to do," Wheeler said.
Matt Buedel can be reached at (309) 686-3154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.