A deadly night on Blackhawk Island

reformation-logo-WEditor’s note: The following is the second in a five-part series. Part one appeared in the Aug. 12-18, 2009, issue.

By Joe McGehee

Staff Writer

As Kieth Nielsen, then 19, spent time recovering from a substantial list of injuries suffered during a high-speed motorcycle crash in which he was propelled into a limestone-laced creek bed Aug. 5, 1984, he soon began to notice how quiet everything suddenly seemed. He missed the life he knew before the accident, the life he had filled with more than 19 years worth of friends.

However, injuries like a broken left arm, a solid fracture of the C2 vertebra, a compound fracture of the right femur, damage to the Achilles tendon, multiple heart and lung contusions, and having a ring finger shoved through the palm can keep people from living the lives to which they are accustomed.

“It nearly drove me crazy being stuck in that house recovering,” Nielsen said. “I was used to being with my friends every day, and suddenly they were all gone.”

While the amassed pain of his numerous injuries attacked his body, the noticeable absence of his friends soon began to produce its own lingering agony. Nielsen grew depressed and withdrawn. The days passed slowly. Time was dragging like a rusty muffler on a 1969 Dodge Dart, only without the sparks.

“Pretty much all I did was play video games and watch the History Channel,” Nielsen said. “The only life I knew back then—at 18 or 19—was drinking, drugging and going to Kishwaukee Park to hang out. Being couped up in that house almost drove me crazy.”

The home Nielsen felt so “couped up” in was that of his parents in Rockford. Nielsen’s mother, who had endured the nightmare of receiving a late-night phone call telling her that her only son, and oldest child, was near death after a horrendous accident, gave him the kind of care only a mother could provide. She doted heavily on her son, and just like the vast majority of mothers throughout history, ensured he was well-fed.

A mother’s love and a full stomach are only parts of life’s equation for restless 19-year-old males. Though he never shunned or took for granted his mother’s care and attention during his convalescence, the void created by noiseless months spent alone in agonizing pain was too vast to be filled by the caring attention—and tireless cooking—of a mother.

After some 18 months spent alone recovering from those injuries, Nielsen rejoined his friends, and things began to feel “normal” again.

“All I wanted was to get out of that house and get back to running with my friends,” Nielsen said. “It was like being lost for a long time.”

Nielsen began to enjoy his friends’ company, the noise of their presence, and the laughs that did not come easily just a few months ago. Nielsen fell right back into the “drinking and drugging” lifestyle he had traded for the piercing, but healing, silence of his parents’ home.

Parties were thrown to celebrate Nielsen’s return to the fold. Scenes very reminiscent of the evening that produced the horrendous accident almost two years earlier soon played again on the backdrop of summer evenings. Nielsen had his life back.

Aug. 16, 1986

The very same day nine years earlier found the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” Elvis Aaron Presley, dead from an apparent drug overdose on the toilet of his Graceland mansion. In terms of historical significance, Aug. 16, 1986, was merely a blip on the radar of human existence.

Madonna turned 32, and celebrated by watching her single, “Papa Don’t Preach,” ascend to the top of the Billboard charts. The Office’s Steve Carell turned 23, and was probably somewhere overacting—even before being cast in front of a camera.

Other than Jack Morris of the Detroit Tigers outdueling Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd of the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on a humid evening in the late New England summer, there were no surprising stories on the evening news. No catastrophes, no great advances, no news.

Closer to the Rock River Valley, a party was being planned by some of Nielsen’s friends on Blackhawk Island. They were amassing teenagers at a remote home for what was going to be a Saturday night to remember.

“They called me to go and get beer for everybody,” Nielsen said. “I was the only one old enough to buy it with a legit ID, so it just made sense that I go get the beer.”

After arriving with beer and an assortment of alcohol, Nielsen settled in and began to enjoy the warm summer evening with his friends and acquaintances. The evening faded from sight, and darkness began to shroud the inlets and streams of Blackhawk Island. But like a bolt of lightning in a blank night sky, words from a friend would soon strike sparks Nielsen would see for years to come.

“We’d been drinking for a while, and my friend just says: ‘Kieth, why don’t we go do that thing we been talking about?’” Nielsen said, as his face changed to stone. “I was drunk. I didn’t even think about it, and said, ‘Yeah, all right.’”

The “thing” they had been “talking about” was a home located far off the shoulder of Illinois Route 2, about 1 1/4 mile to the east of the Byron Fire Department. Nielsen and his friend had been watching the home and discovered the family was away on vacation.

“We knew they were gone on vacation,” Nielsen said. “We had been watching the house for a week or so. It was pretty clear they were gone somewhere.”

The home’s distance from that aging strip of Illinois Route 2, which was no more than half-a-mile to the east of the site of Nielsen’s Aug. 5, 1984, motorcycle accident, also intrigued Nielsen and his friend.

“We figured he had something good in there,” Nielsen said. “He had a good job and all; and we just wondered why he’d build his house so far back from the road if he didn’t have anything in there.”

Nielsen and his friend finished their drinks, and headed out under the cover of night. They approached the home, and turned off the engine and headlights.

“We came to a dead man’s stop,” Nielsen added. “We killed the engine and lights about a couple hundred yards from the house, and rolled to a silent stop away from the house, near the road.

“I don’t remember a bunch of what happened in there that night,” Nielsen continued. “I remember kicking in the front door and heading for a bedroom, because that’s where I figured the jewelry would be.”

The two had never planned on the home’s owner being present for the burglary. They had watched the home for so long to prevent this very instance. However, fate and a terrible sense of timing often conspire to destroy even the best plans.

“When I got to the bedroom, the next thing I hear is: ‘He’s got a gun,’” Nielsen continued. “I’d been shot at before. I know when I hear those words, I have to get out of wherever I am. I ‘made a door,’ and jumped out of the house and landed on the ground. To this day, I still don’t even remember hearing the gunshot.”

But there was a gunshot. A .410 rifle had ripped through the silence of that quiet, rural home set back far from the road. A husband lay dead in the entrance of his own kitchen. A wife was screaming in the front seat of the car. A wife exited the car in stunned silence and arrived at a puddle of blood.

Nielsen, who had burst through a window, was bleeding profusely as the double panes of the window had shredded his face upon exit. He stumbled blindly to the road, and was struck by a passing car before finding and crashing the getaway car into a telephone pole on Blackhawk Island.

Nielsen was taken to SwedishAmerican Hospital in Rockford the next morning, where he was admitted for treatment. Soon, the police arrived and arrested him for DUI, and eventually for the murder. The other accomplice was picked up at Beloit Memorial Hospital in Beloit, Wis., where he faced extradition to Illinois to face capital murder charges. Those words, that “thing,” or plan that resulted in the death of a husband, a father, a brother, an uncle and a son, was about to land both young men behind the gray walls of prison.

Though Nielsen had not fired the shot that killed the surprised homeowner, he would pay dearly for his role in the attempted burglary. He was convicted of capital murder, and would spend the next 14-plus years in an assortment of Illinois state correctional institutions.

From the Aug. 19-25, 2009 issue

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