UPDATE: Judge Albert Purham orders appointment of special prosecutor to review Cleve Heidelberg case from 1970.
Steve Heidelberg remembers nothing from the 1970 murder trial of his father Cleve Heidelberg, but he now sees some of the legacy that trial left on his family.
It wasn’t until after his parents were divorced and he and his mother had moved from Peoria that his father was arrested and tried for the murder of a white Peoria County sheriff’s deputy.
Steve Heidelberg grew up in Springfield with his mother, stepfather and siblings in a loving and supportive family, insulated from his Peoria connections, never fully realizing why his last name was different until he began to ask questions.
“My stepfather and mother sat me down on a Sunday afternoon and told me what they knew,” said Heidelberg, now a 53-year-old former military man with a successful career in electronics technology.
He was 11 or 12 when his parents spoke with him and shortly after that, he met his paternal grandmother for the first time.
“She was short, intelligent, well-spoken and very fashionable. She looked like a strong church lady,” Steve Heidelberg recalled.
His grandmother picked him up one day and drove him to Joliet Penitentiary to visit his father.
“I couldn’t tell you what we talked about,” he said recently, recalling the visit. “It was cold and clammy with a strong musty odor. It smelled of sweat. We sat at a cement table on cement seats and got to meet face-to-face. But I don’t remember the conversation.”
He does remember that his grandmother told him his father was innocent. She was about 70 at the time and was strip searched before she and her grandson were allowed to visit.
Only recently did Steve Heidelberg learn his grandmother had been receiving death threats.
“She was a little 4-foot, 10-inch-woman who couldn’t hurt a flea,” he said.
The trial had occurred during an era of intense racial conflict in Peoria and the nation. The states attorney at the time had sought the death sentence. When Heidelberg was found guilty, he was sentenced to 99 to 175 years in prison, where he has been for the past 45 years, all the time maintaining his innocence. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics while in prison.
Attorneys Don Jackson and Andrew Hale are now trying to get that trial reopened and examined in light of new evidence. Some of the public records from the police investigation were never submitted to the court and some records were destroyed.
“I only got bits and pieces of information growing up,” Steve Heidelberg said. “But my mother always warned me never to go to Peoria. Over the years, I had received a couple of job offers from Peoria, but I never took them.”
Periodically while he was growing up, Steve Heidelberg searched newspaper archives for reports on the trial.
“He was painted as a career criminal in the papers,” Heidelberg said.
His grandmother died believing her son was innocent. Pressed about his own conviction, he said “I just don’t know. It could be police snatched the first black guy who came by. That happens in Chicago all the time.”
Steve Heidelberg served in the military in Maine, Iceland, Spain, Puerto Rico and Bermuda.
When he was based in the Great Lakes, the Navy warned all personnel that black drivers were regularly profiled and stopped after leaving the base and driving to Chicago.
“We were told never to go alone. Always have other people in the car,” he said. “If you are stopped by police, always be nice and respectful, never get belligerent.”
After speaking with Andy Hale, Steve Heidelberg understands the attorney is convinced his father is innocent.
“What would happen if he (Cleve) gets out? He has missed everything. He missed my wedding, my kids being born. I barely know him except from seeing him behind bars,” Steve Heidelberg said. “I gave up years ago. I felt the next call would be to ask where to ship his body. But his sister has never given up. She has sent him money all these years. Sent (discretionary) money to him to put on his books. She is his rock.”
Marcella Teplitz, a private investigator and former Peoria Police detective, has been working the case with attorneys Hale and Jackson and is convinced of Cleve Heidelberg’s innocence.
Teplitz said an elderly Heidelberg relative also convinced of his innocence said, “I only hope I live long enough to see him walk out of prison.”