MARKHAM, Ill. (STMW) — More than 35 years after Kenny Hellstrom took his last breath as his mother cradled his bleeding body, a man admitted fatally stabbing the Homewood teen.
Fred Rogers pleaded guilty Friday to killing Hellstrom near his house on Jan. 19, 1977.
Judge Michele Simmons then sentenced him to 22 years in prison.
The plea came too late for Carol Hellstrom, who waited 30 years to see someone charged in her son’s death and then dutifully attended every court hearing for Rogers after his 2007 arrest: She died in June 2010 at age 75.
Her five daughters filled the front row as Rogers uttered the word they’d been waiting to hear: Guilty.
Their brother, 17, was stabbed several times as he walked home from a part-time job at a gas station.
He made it to the kitchen door of his house, where his 13-year-old sister — now known as Janice Rees — found him lying bleeding in the snow and his mother took him into her arms.
“Help me, help me, I can’t breathe,” were his last words, Assistant State’s Attorney Ethan Holland said.
He’d been stabbed three times in his chest and four in his back. He died a short time later at South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest.
“We’re so glad the whole thing is over with,” Rees said after the hearing, “and now we can put this to rest.
“Thank God (our mother) was alive when he was caught and she knew he did it.”
During a three-decade, off-and-on investigation, detectives questioned hundreds of people, including infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy and searched for possible links between the slaying and a homosexual prostitution ring that Hellstrom had testified against in court.
Homewood police said Rogers, now 51, was initially a suspect and fled his Flossmoor home the night of the murder.
A classmate of Hellstrom at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Rogers was never questioned in the investigation, evading police for many years as he drifted from state to state — including Pennsylvania, California and Tennessee, often working as a day laborer on construction jobs, police said.
But Rogers became the focus of the investigation after Homewood police and the Cook County Cold Case Squad took a fresh look at the case in 2005, police said.
Police had no new information leading them to zero in on Rogers, but a reorganization of the existing evidence made the case clearer, detectives said.`
Neighbors said Rogers occasionally returned to visit his father at his childhood home, and court records show he gave that address when he was charged with battery after an incident in Matteson in 1996. He moved back to the home permanently a year ago after his father’s death, neighbors said.
Rogers had argued with Hellstrom and arranged to meet him the day of the killing, police said.
In March 2007, police pulled Rogers over for a traffic violation and found pot in his vehicle. Police said he confessed to the murder shortly after his arrest.
After Rogers’ arrest, the case was tied up in court as attorneys battled over several issues, most notably whether Rogers, 16 at the time of the murder, could be tried as an adult.
A judge decided he could in October 2007.
Rogers, who’ll serve about eight years based on sentencing laws from 1977, had no family at his sentencing Friday. In a voice so quiet the judge asked him to repeat himself, he said “I’m sorry for what happened. It’s done away with.”
Simmons snapped at him.
“Unfortunately, it’s not over for those people,” she said, pointing at the Hellstroms.
“You hear all that pain?” she asked him. “You caused it.”
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2012. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)