A killer whose life was spared last year when Illinois’ governor emptied out death row could again face a death sentence — this time in Missouri — if convicted of murdering his boss in St. Louis.
Thomas Umphrey, 43, was sentenced to death in 2000 for kidnapping and killing a woman in Illinois. In January 2003, outgoing Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of the state’s 167 death row inmates to life in prison because of grave doubts about Illinois’ criminal justice system.
Authorities believe that six days before the slaying in Illinois, Umphrey killed his boss at a foam rubber factory in St. Louis.
On Dec. 14, Umphrey was moved from an Illinois prison to the St. Louis city jail and charged with murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
“The primary motivating factor was the victim’s family really needed closure on this case,” prosecutor Rachel Smith said.
Also, authorities were worried that without the second murder conviction, Umphrey could be moved to a less-restrictive prison in Illinois. He once tried to escape from prison while serving time in Missouri, Smith said.
No trial date has been set.
Questioning need for another trial
Tom Block, a St. Louis-based death penalty opponent, questioned the need for another trial when Umphrey was already behind bars for life.
“Can’t they see the handwriting on the wall that neither the country nor Missouri in particular is enthusiastic about executing people?” Block said. “Why bring this man to prison in Missouri? Illinois is supporting him. You’re talking about spending $1 million to $2 million to give this person death.”
Umphrey is a career criminal who has served nearly two decades in prison for armed robbery and theft. He was on parole in 1998, working at C.J. Zone Manufacturing Co. in St. Louis, when he quarreled with his boss, Gerald “Gary” Eichschlag, 45.
The two men stepped outside to settle their differences, authorities said. Umphrey shot Eichschlag in the back of the head, then used a shovel from Eichschlag’s truck to bury the body near the factory, police said.
Six days later, Umphrey’s pickup truck stalled near Springfield, Ill. Parts that had fallen from the truck caused a flat tire on a car driven by Phyllis Liles, 46. Umphrey helped her fix the flat, then kidnapped her and shot her in the back of the head. He buried Liles’ body under logs and brush near a dam.
Confessed to murders
Umphrey was arrested as he tried to cross into Canada in Liles’ car. He confessed to both murders and drew a map showing where the bodies were buried, police said.
Fifty-five men are on death row in Missouri. The state has not carried out an execution in more than a year. Since the Democrats gained a majority on the Missouri Supreme Court two years ago, the court has overturned several death sentences and brought the scheduling of executions to a standstill.
Umphrey could become the second of the 167 commuted inmates in Illinois to return to death row. Andrew Urdiales, 40, was convicted in August of another Illinois murder committed years ago and was sentenced to death.
There was no answer at the city public defender’s office, which is representing Umphrey.