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Viewpoint: Three innocent of county charges

July 1, 1993

Viewpoint: Three innocent of county charges

By Joe Baker

Three innocent of county charges

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

Political harassment of Tom Ditzler and his family and friends came to a dead end last week in a courtroom on the second floor of the Winnebago County Courthouse.

A jury found Christina Ditzler and Jessica (Crow) Mermel innocent of battery charges after a deliberation lasting three-and-one-half hours.

The trial before Judge J.T. Kennedy lasted two days, plus jury selection.

Charges resulted from an incident at the Ditzler homestead on Cunningham Road when Winnebago County workers appeared to begin felling trees on the property in preparation for building the Springfield-Harrison Avenue extension.

The two young women were accused of interfering with the tree cutters and throwing mud at them. A deputy sheriff also was said to have had her uniform shirt smeared with mud by one of the women.

Trouble was, the county’s witnesses couldn’t seem to agree on where the mud hit the victims. It was stated the mud was on the tree cutter’s side, then it was said it hit the front of his shirt, then on the back, and finally one said: “When he stepped away, he was covered with mud.”

Nobody took any pictures of the mud-splattered victims, so there was only their word. At least one claimed the women had been carrying buckets of mud.

In addition, the two deputies involved did not agree in their testimony as to what took place when they confronted the two women.

This farce tied up the judge, up to three prosecutors, a defense attorney, the jury and the witnesses for three days. How much it cost the taxpayers isn’t known.

Judge Kennedy made no comment during or after the trial, but when objections arose in the course of the proceedings, the preponderance of his rulings favored the defense.

The judge did his best to maintain an impartial judicial demeanor on the bench, but many observers had the impression he regarded the whole affair as nonsense and a waste of tax dollars.

Some law officers thought the most the incident could command in the way of a charge was disorderly conduct. One said the whole matter should have been dismissed.

Then there was the case of Mark Hollis, an employee of Dean Ekberg. Hollis was Ekberg’s night watchman.

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Again, the state had three prosecutors at the bench trial before Judge Gary Pumilia. Hollis was arrested while working at Ekberg’s quarry at night. He was charged with possession of a firearm.

Deputies confiscated Hollis’ weapon and seized his vehicle. At the trial, the state argued that even though state law allows a night watchman to be armed, the intent of the law was really to bar such activity, under the argument that a night watchman is a security guard and must be licensed by the state. Hollis had no such license.

Judge Pumilia disagreed and granted a defense motion for a directed verdict of innocent. He ruled that the night watchman classification is codified in law, differing from a uniformed security guard who works with the public; and he laid particular stress on the provision stipulating a night watchman does not have contact with the general public and works when the business is closed. Therefore Judge Pumilia dismissed the concealed weapons charge against Hollis.

However, he did sternly admonish Hollis and Ekberg for the potential disaster that could have occurred because Hollis wore all black with his face camouflaged and had a semi-automatic rifle, large caliber handgun, a pellet/BB handgun, crossbow pistol, and wristrocket slingshot in his possession at the time of the arrest.

Ekberg’s position was that his equipment had been vandalized repeatedly, with damages totaling over $20,000, and he had a right to protect his property.

Cal McGee, a night watchman for William Charles, LTD/Rockford Blacktop’s Winnebago Reclamation at Pagel Pit, called in the complaint on Hollis, reporting he saw a masked man with a weapon. Rockford Blacktop is a competitor of Ekberg‘s Quarry. Conflicting testimony was given by McGee, the arresting deputies and Ekberg as to the location of the Ekberg Quarry gate, whether or not a sign existed marking the entrance as such, and whether McGee was aware who Hollis was, who he worked for and what he was doing.

At the time of the arrest, Hollis and Ekberg were active supporters of the Ditzlers in their battle with Winnebago County over the eminent domain/quick take of Ditzler’s property for the Springfield-Harrison extension.

Ekberg asserts the state, however, still refuses to return Hollis’ weapons and other property. He also said the state voided Hollis’ firearms owner’s identification card.

Ekberg said Hollis, a former city police officer, has been unable to work since because security work is what he does. Ekberg alleges that before the misdemeanor trial, one of the prosecutors told Hollis, “You’re guilty until proven innocent.” If that is true, apparently, we have a new maxim in this county not covered by the Constitution.

It seems the criterion of the state’s attorney’s office is which side of the political fence you are on. If you dare to question the authority of the county, they will come after you, hammer and tongs. Paul Logli, considering all the political baggage involved in these cases, particularly with the girls and the mud, doesn’t the term “ridiculous” fit?

To our friends in most of the local media, excepting the excellent coverage by WROK’s Fred Speer and WNTA’s Chris Bowman, if these folks would have been found guilty, would you have covered their verdicts then? Their arrests certainly received plenty of coverage.

The facade of justice in this county is pretty shopworn and doesn’t fool too many people anymore. The view outside of here, when you mention this place, is: “Oh, that’s Winnebago County. They make their own rules.”

Editor and Publisher Frank Schier also contributed to this editorial.

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