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Public tipsters help catch suspect in killings

The television image of fugitive murder suspect Nicholas Sheley's mug shot was fresh in Samantha Butler's mind as she ventured out to get dinner for the family, warning her relatives to lock the door behind her.
Bodies Found Media
Nicholas T. Sheley is escorted out of the Police Department Wednesday in Granite City, Ill. Authorities in two states conducted an exhaustive search for Sheley, who is suspected in eight grisly killings. Jeff Roberson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The television image of fugitive murder suspect Nicholas Sheley's mug shot was fresh in Samantha Butler's mind as she ventured out to get dinner for the family, warning her relatives to lock the door behind her.

The real-estate agent discovered police swarming a Subway sandwich shop in the St. Louis suburb of Granite City, Ill., and overheard an officer say the man suspected of eight killings in two states had just been there and couldn't be far. That's when Butler decided Tuesday's dinner would come from nearby Bindy's bar, a police hangout with a grill.

At Bindy's, Butler gave a description of the suspect and told the bartender that police were everywhere hunting for the 28-year-old fugitive. Then, she grew quiet and fearful as she got her first clear look across the bar and saw the wanted man sitting on a stool, staring back.

Butler quietly slipped out to flag down police, as did a Bindy's regular who realized the stranger in a dirty T-shirt was the suspect he'd seen minutes earlier on the news.

Police arrested Sheley moments later, after he stepped outside for a cigarette.

The capture is the latest example of how quickly fugitives get flushed out when their names and faces are broadcast to the public.

"I can't stress enough how important it was" to make Sheley's mug shot and description public, said Tim Lewis, the police chief in Festus, Mo., where investigators suspect an Arkansas couple found slain were part of Sheley's alleged rampage covering more than 250 miles.

"The pictures we put out helped us," the chief said, smiling. With them, "you go from 100 sets of eyes to thousands."

Authorities have recruited the public's help at least since the days of the Old West, when bad guys' faces graced "Wanted" posters. More recently, authorities point to Fox's nationally televised "America's Most Wanted," which credits viewers with helping capture 1,000 fugitives the program has targeted since 1988.

Certainly, public appeals have prompted bogus or mistaken phoned-in tips. But Lewis considers Sheley's capture testament to when things go right, hastening the arrest of a man he worried had more bloodshed in mind.

A person close to the investigation told The Associated Press, on the condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, that Sheley virtually ensured his capture by using the Subway shop's phone to call his lawyer, who was under the direction of the FBI.

Lewis disputes suggestions Sheley had grown weary and was intent on giving up.

"I don't think he had a plan to surrender to anybody," the police chief said of the suspect, who had once been convicted of aggravated robbery and who was alleged to have held a knife to the throat of a drug dealer and shot at a man during another home invasion.

"He was cornered," the chief said of Sheley. "He was running, he was desperate, and he didn't have anywhere to go. That's what made him so dangerous."

Eight dead
Authorities believe Sheley killed eight people in the final days of June. The dead, including six in northwestern Illinois, ranged in age from a 93-year-old man from Sheley's hometown of Sterling to a 2-year-old child found with three other bodies in a Rock Falls apartment.

Sheley is jailed on $1 million bond in Knox County, where he faces first-degree murder and other charges in the beating death of 65-year-old Ronald Randall, whose body was found Monday behind a grocery store in Galesburg.

So far, Sheley is charged in just one other killing — that of 93-year-old Russell Reed — but authorities say evidence links him to each crime scene. Authorities have not discussed a possible motive.

The search for Sheley intensified around St. Louis on Monday night, when a man matching his description was seen outside Busch Stadium, Lewis said.

The next day, Lewis said, investigators figured Sheley remained in the region, with "more good evidence" the chief wouldn't publicly discuss pointing to Sheley as a suspect in the Arkansas couple's slayings.

'Boots on the ground'
Investigators fanned out over St. Louis and its suburbs, including Illinois, before taking their search to media outlets. That way, they were ready to pounce as soon as viewers began calling in about Sheley's whereabouts, he said.

The phone calls started shortly after the mug shot and description were broadcast on the news, Lewis said.

"Luckily, we had a lot of boots on the ground," Lewis said.

It wasn't long before all roads to Sheley led to Bindy's.

Luck also played into Sheley's capture, Lewis said.

"It was our luck that he walked into Bindy's, where people were watching television and saw him," never mind that it was a cop bar," he said.