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Murder in Kell: The Amy Schulz Story

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

On the warm summer evening of July 1st, 1987, ten-year-old Amy Schulz left her home in Kell, Illinois. Kell is a tiny town in Marion County which a census of only 231 at the time of the 2000 census (Wikipedia). Amy was the youngest of three children and the only girl. She was the pride and joy of her father Dennis and stepmother Esther. On this night in 1987, Amy was going to find her older brother who had been searching for the family dog. After Biscuit returned home, Amy decided to go find her brother and let him know the search was over. She never found her brother and a new search began, this time for Amy.



When Amy’s brother returned home without Amy, her parents and brothers began searching for the little girl. In 1987, residents in tiny Southern Illinois towns like Kell left their doors unlocked and allowed their children to play outside until the streetlights came on. Crime rates were low, giving residents a false sense of security. “It could never happen here” mentality was in full force. Until it did happen in Kell. Ten-year-old Amy Schulz vanished without a trace. It wasn’t until the next morning, July 2nd, that her body was found face down in a field. The innocence of the community was shattered.

Amy was found just eight miles from Kell. The citizens of the tiny village and surrounding communities were heartbroken and devastated. “I don’t know if bigger communities understand this, but when something like this happens in a small community, it doesn’t happen to somebody—it happens to your neighbor, your close friend, your child’s schoolmate, your student in your Sunday School class. People are close-knit out here. We have to turn to ourselves for support, for security” said Rhea Ellen Alvis, who organized a neighborhood watch group (Hancock, 1987).

The crime scene provided some initial evidence including shoe prints on Amy’s back and a pool of blood underneath her head. The pool of blood indicated that she was killed where she was found as the blood did not cover other parts of her body. Fibers were collected from the scene and body as well as two male pubic hairs from Amy’s buttocks. Near her remains, police found tire impressions and shoe prints that were cast.

The autopsy provided more detail on how the young girl had been killed. Amy had a 14.5 cm wound running from the middle of her throat to behind her right ear lobe. Her throat had been slashed so deeply that it severed her carotid and jugular arteries. Additional injuries included a hemorrhaged right eye, an abrasion to the left eye, her ear was torn off, and her lips were lacerated from being compressed under her teeth. Amy also had severe bruising and abrasions to her genitals. Amy suffered three subdural hematomas, a fractured rib, a bruised esophagus, and bleeding vocal cords. Her liver had been lacerated. Her rectum had torn, and pubic hairs were found, suggesting she had been molested.

The medical examiner concluded that Amy’s death was a result of homicidal violence. The autopsy showed that she had been strangled into unconsciousness, anally penetrated, and then her throat was slit. If this wasn’t brutal enough, the killer then stepped on her back, forcing blood to leave her body at a faster rate. The coroner estimated the time of death to be between 9:30 pm and 11 pm on July 1st based on her stomach contents. This means Amy was abducted and killed shortly after leaving home around 9 pm.



The town of Kell suddenly became almost a ghost town. Playgrounds were empty and kids were kept inside. Citizens lived in fear as they grappled with the reality of what happened in their own community. Police followed up on over 500 leads during the first three months of the investigation. Unfortunately, they were not able to identify a suspect during this time.

Forensic experts determined that the tire prints found near the body were consistent with just two tires manufactured in North America. The tire prints were consistent with Cooper “Falls Persuader” and Cooper “Dean Polaris” model tires. Testing also concluded that the shoe prints were from a boot sold only by K-Mart, called the “Texas Steer” (Murderpedia). These were the only two solid leads police had, but they could not connect them to a suspect. The information was entered into VICAP, the FBI’s Violent Crimes Apprehension Unit in hopes that a suspect could be identified.

In October of 1987, park rangers at Glacier National Park in Minnesota were under attack, prompting the FBI to become involved. There had been four shootings in one day by an alleged sniper. While there were no deaths, there were injuries. Once the FBI became involved, shots were fired upon them as well. One park ranger sustained a gunshot to the abdomen after a bullet penetrated his truck door, bounced off his steering wheel, and struck his abdomen. The federal agents finally found the man, who had been camping in the park for ten days and placed him under arrest. His name was Cecil Sutherland, a thirty-two-year-old man from Dix, Illinois.

During the arrest of Sutherland, FBI agents noted that the man’s vehicle contained a single Cooper Falls Persuader tire on the right front wheel, matching the VICAP description. He also had a pair of Texas Steer boots in his possession. With this information, police began to investigate Cecil Sutherland. At the time of Amy’s death, Cecil was living with his mother in Dix, Illinois, just a few miles from where Amy’s remains were found. In fact, his brother lived less than a mile from the crime scene. With this, police were able to obtain a search warrant for Sutherland’s vehicle, tires, and boots.

Whilst the investigation continued, Cecil Sutherland plead guilty in federal court to attempted murder in the sniper case and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to serve his federal sentence. Sutherland also sat down with investigators, who only stated they were working a case in Southern Illinois. Mr. Sutherland responded with, “I know exactly where I was on July 1st” (On The Case with Paula Zahn), which authorities felt was indicative of guilt. Sutherland then ended the interview.

Forensic experts compared the tire on Sutherland’s vehicle and his boots to the impressions from the crime scene. The experts were able to determine that both the tire impressions and shoe prints were consistent with Cecil Sutherland, but they could not state that it was an exclusive match. Another expert determined that the tire impressions were the same size and model as Cecil’s tire and that the wear patterns were consistent. While not conclusive, this was damning circumstantial evidence.

Forensic also tested hairs and fibers that were found on Amy and her clothing. Some of the hairs were determined to belong to a dog. They compared these hairs to Amy’s dog Biscuit and other family dogs, all of which were inconsistent. Then, they compared the dog hairs to the black lab owned by Cecil Sutherland. Family members indicated that Cecil often traveled with his dog in his vehicle, leaving hair behind frequently. The hairs were consistent with the black lab, further incriminating Sutherland.

The fibers found on Amy and her clothing were compared to the interior of Cecil Sutherland’s vehicle. This study showed the fibers were consistent with the fibers on the interior of the vehicle. Additionally, inside the vehicle, fibers were collected that were consistent with Amy’s clothing. Although DNA testing was not yet available, the two pubic hairs found on Amy’s buttocks were compared to a pubic hair sample from Cecil Sutherland. The expert concluded that the hairs were very consistent with Sutherland and were not a match to any of Amy’s family members or neighbors who provided samples.

This was enough evidence to charge Cecil Sutherland with the murder of Amy Schulz. The charges included three counts of first-degree murder, one count of aggravated criminal sexual assault, and one count of aggravated kidnapping (Daily-Republican-Register). Court proceedings began in October 1988. As court hearings occurred, increased security was present at the citizens of Southern Illinois were outraged. According to law enforcement, many threats were made verbally against Sutherland. The public wanted his head on a stick.

The trial officially began in May of 1989. Amy’s father Dennis cried in court as he recalled the horror he experienced in 1987 when his daughter’s body was found. He remembered crying “Not my Amy” over and over (Associated Press). Dennis testified that he did not know Sutherland beforehand, despite living only miles apart. He went on to say, “Until Amy was murdered, I didn’t know animals like that existed” (Associated Press).

The trial continued with testimony from various forensic experts. The defense motioned to have the search warrants and findings from them taken out of evidence, but this motion was denied. The defense stated that Sutherland was at his brother and sister-in-law’s home, only a half mile from the scene, the night of the crime. His sister-in-law testified that Sutherland was at her home until between 8 pm and 8:30 pm before Amy had been abducted. Sutherland’s mother testified that he called her at about 11 pm from a gas station in Mount Vernon because his car had broken down. She picked him up at about 11:30 pm. This provided plenty of time to commit the crime according to the prosecution, but the defense argued that he would not have had time to abduct her, kill her, clean up himself and his vehicle, and get to Mount Vernon.

The defense also countered the fibers and hairs. “Each one of these is basically a zero in connecting Cecil Steven Sutherland to these crimes, and even if you add them up or multiple them, you still get zero” the defense attorney James Henson stated (Associated Press). The prosecution argued that the fibers and hairs found proved that Cecil Sutherland had killed Amy. The prosecution said they were a match.

On May 24th, 1989, the jury returned a verdict after just four hours of deliberations. Cecil Sutherland was found guilty on all counts. Prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty. “I feel he deserves the maximum penalty the law will allow” Esther Schulz, Amy’s stepmother, said (Associated Press). During the penalty phase of the trial, the prosecution described Cecil Sutherland as a “vile killer” and “sexually perverted sadist” (Associated Press). The defense presented four witnesses, Sutherland’s mother and friends. They testified to his character, describing him as “a pretty good guy” (Associated Press). The jury found the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances and sentenced Cecil Sutherland to death.

Dennis Schulz wanted to help kids who were victims of sexual abuse and violent crimes. He used his grief to develop and open the Amy Schulz Child Advocacy Center in 1990. The center, located in Mount Vernon, Illinois, provides a safe place for children who are victims of sexual or severe physical abuse. The board, staff, and multi-disciplinary team members work together to provide intervention, prevention, education, and advocacy services for the best interest of abused children. The center continues to operate in Mount Vernon and Carlyle, Illinois.

In 2000, the Illinois Supreme Court heard Cecil Sutherland’s appeal, a normal part of the automatic appeal process associated with death penalty cases. The defense stated that the forensic evidence, hairs, and fibers, had been presented by the prosecution as a conclusive match to Sutherland. The court agreed that this was misleading, as the evidence could be described as consistent but not conclusive. Additionally, the court agreed that the original defense attorney failed to present all evidence in Sutherland’s favor including Sutherland insisting that he bought the boots after the crime had occurred. The court vacated the conviction and sentence, remanding Cecil Sutherland for a second trial.

For the second trial, the prosecution could still present the fibers and hairs as evidence but would not be allowed to portray them as conclusive evidence of guilt. The state could, however, provide additional testing on the evidence including DNA analysis. The second trial was moved to Saint Clair County to avoid jury bias in the small community. This time, the hairs were matched to Cecil Sutherland using DNA evidence. The fiber evidence was presented as being consistent with Sutherland this time, avoiding the same misstep.

The defense presented an alternative suspect during the second trial, the step-grandfather of Amy Schulz, Bill Willis. Bill Willis lived only a hundred yards from the Schulz family and had since been convicted of child molestation. At Willis’ sentencing hearing, Amy’s brother testified that his step-grandfather had molested all three Schulz children, including Amy. The defense claimed this provided reasonable doubt and suggested Willis was the killer.

Bill Willis took the stand, denying he had ever molested Amy and did not kill her. He did, however, admit to molesting at least four boys. He said, “I’ve never forced any child to do anything” (Hundsdorfer). He further stated, “I made them think it was their idea” and “I was never attracted to females” (Hundsdorfer). Bill had, however, been the last person to see Amy before her abduction as she walked past his home on her way to find her brother. Bill was a former martial arts instructor, a fact the defense said could be consistent with the wounds to Amy’s neck that suffocated the girl. The defense also presented evidence that Willis was friends with the lead investigator in this case. However, evidence showed that Bill Willis was at work at the time of Amy’s murder.

The jury in the second trial of Cecil Sutherland certainly had more to consider when deliberating. The jury found Cecil Sutherland guilty on all counts once again, demonstrating the strength of the forensic evidence in this case. As the jury returned to start the sentencing phase, the defense made an announcement. Cecil Sutherland had elected to be sentenced to death, and the judge granted his wish.

It may seem as if this was Sutherland finally accepting guilt, but he also benefited from accepting the death penalty. He was now eligible to receive money from the Capital Defense Litigation Fund, which would provide financing for his appeals process. Death penalty cases are also automatically appealed. On death row, Cecil would be segregated from the general population. This benefited him as he feared for his safety in prison.

Sutherland remains in prison as of 2023, currently housed at the Shawnee Correctional Center. In 2011, the State of Illinois abolished the death penalty. Sutherland was resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He continues to appeal his case, stating that evidence should have been suppressed in his case, but has thus far been unsuccessful.





The Amy Schulz Child Advocacy Center services Clinton, Washington, Marion, Jefferson, Clay, Wayne, and Hamilton counties in Illinois. Their current objectives, per the website, include reducing the number of interviews child victims must endure, coordinating and delivering services in an expeditious manner, providing support services for the victims and their families, conducting forensic interviews in a non-institutional setting, providing a comprehensive prevention program on child abuse to children pre-school through high school aged, and provide training and public speakers. In 2022, the center served 305 clients and families, conducted 258 forensic interviews, and provided Body Boundaries Program in forty-seven schools and groups, reaching nearly 5,000 children and teens.

You can donate to The Amy Schulz Child Advocacy Center here: Donations (mvn.net)


REFERENCES

On The Case with Paula Zahn. (2016). From Dusk to Darkness. Season 14 Episode 11. Available on Discovery +

Sklles Luke, S. (2000). Slain girl’s father to relive ’89 Mount Vernon trial. The Paducah Sun. 18 Nov 2000

Hundsdorfer, B. (2004). Step-grandfather of slain girl testifies in court. The Belleville News-Democrat. 04 Jun 2004

Davis, L. (2004). Child advocacy center a symbol of triumph in the face of tragedy. Southern Illinoisan. 01 Aug 1990

Hundsdorfer, B. (2004). Sutherland faces second trial in girl’s death. The Belleville News-Democrat. 04 May 2004

Associated Press. (2004). Man convicted of murder opts for death penalty. Journal Gazette. 16 Jun 2004

Obituary (1987). Amy Rachelle Schulz. Evansville Courier and Press. 05 Jul 1987

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (1987). No leads in murder of Southern Illinois girl. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 04 Jul 1987

Associated Press. (1989). Father recalls girl’s savage slaying. Herald and Review. 12 May 1989.

Larcombe, J. (1987). Sniper suspect arrested. The Missoulian. 22 Oct 1987

Daily Republican-Register. (1988). Schulz murder trial begins. 22 Oct 1988

Daily-Republican-Register. (1987). Sex-slaying casts pall over village of Kell. 13 Jul 1987

Associated Press. (1989). Jury begins deliberations in Child-Murder case. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 24 May 1989

Associated Press. (1989). Sutherland is convicted in death of 10-year-old Kell girl. The Belleville News-Democrat. 24 May 1989.

Associated Press. (1989). Sutherland sentenced to die. The Vincennes Sun-Commercial. 14 Jun 1989

You can donate to The Amy Schulz Child Advocacy Center here: Donations (mvn.net)


REFERENCES

On The Case with Paula Zahn. (2016). From Dusk to Darkness. Season 14 Episode 11. Available on Discovery +

Sklles Luke, S. (2000). Slain girl’s father to relive ’89 Mount Vernon trial. The Paducah Sun. 18 Nov 2000

Amy Rachelle Schulz (1977-1987) - Find a Grave Memorial Hundsdorfer, B. (2004). Step-grandfather of slain girl testifies in court. The Belleville News-Democrat. 04 Jun 2004

Davis, L. (2004). Child advocacy center a symbol of triumph in the face of tragedy. Southern Illinoisan. 01 Aug 1990

Hundsdorfer, B. (2004). Sutherland faces second trial in girl’s death. The Belleville News-Democrat. 04 May 2004

Associated Press. (2004). Man convicted of murder opts for death penalty. Journal Gazette. 16 Jun 2004

Obituary (1987). Amy Rachelle Schulz. Evansville Courier and Press. 05 Jul 1987

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (1987). No leads in murder of Southern Illinois girl. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 04 Jul 1987

Associated Press. (1989). Father recalls girl’s savage slaying. Herald and Review. 12 May 1989.

Larcombe, J. (1987). Sniper suspect arrested. The Missoulian. 22 Oct 1987

Daily Republican-Register. (1988). Schulz murder trial begins. 22 Oct 1988

Daily-Republican-Register. (1987). Sex-slaying casts pall over village of Kell. 13 Jul 1987

Associated Press. (1989). Jury begins deliberations in Child-Murder case. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 24 May 1989

Associated Press. (1989). Sutherland is convicted in death of 10-year-old Kell girl. The Belleville News-Democrat. 24 May 1989.

Associated Press. (1989). Sutherland sentenced to die. The Vincennes Sun-Commercial. 14 Jun 1989

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