In the summer of 1989, the small town of Beckemeyer, Illinois was shocked by the first murder in the entire county in almost a decade (Breese Journal, 1989). The victim was a young mother who had spent the previous night out drinking. Before DNA evidence was the gold standard, other forensic science techniques would provide the key to solving this case. This is the story of the Beckemeyer Barhop Murder.
Sandra Shelton was born Sandra Johnson on October 29th, 1956. She was raised in the small southern Illinois community of Beckemeyer. Her parents had eight daughters before divorcing. After her father remarried, Sandra was joined by a brother and two more sisters. She married Robert Shelton and had two children, Natalie and Nicholas, before divorcing. Her children tragically lost their father prior to Sandra and her children moving back to Beckemeyer in 1988. Sandra began renting a white two-story home on Elizabeth Street in November 1988 (Breese Journal, 1989).
On July 11th, 1989, Sandra’s daughter was staying with grandparents while her son Nicholas was staying with a different grandparent. Sandra had stopped by her mother’s house earlier in the evening to show her the new black purse she purchased (People V. Todd, 1993). Around midnight, she entered Page Bar & Grill and ordered a beer. She was soon joined by a man at the bar. They began a conversation and left together according to the bartender (People V. Todd, 1993). At about 12:45 am, Sandra and a man entered the Main Street Saloon in Beckemeyer. Sandra and her male companion wrote on the wall at the establishment, an apparent tradition, before ordering a six pack of Miller Light to go. They left the bar together, according to witnesses (People V. Todd, 1993).
The next day, around 11:00 am, Sandra’s daughter returned to their home. When she entered the house, the fourteen-year-old found her mother’s body lying on the floor. The young girl also noticed the smell of natural gas. She turned the burners off on the stove before leaving the house to get help from her aunt who lived across the street (Breese Journal, 1989).
When cops arrived at the home, they found a strong odor of natural gas as well as several burning candles (People V. Todd, 1993). Sandra was found lying face up and nude on the floor. She had a blouse and necklace tied around her neck, shoes strings tied to one wrist, and a watch on the other wrist (People V. Todd, 1993). She had bruising and swelling to her face and stab wounds to her chest. She was laying in her own fecal matter. She had drops of red wax on her body.
The investigators, led by Alva Busch, found two empty Miller Light cans and a red candle near the body (People V. Todd, 1993). They also found four unopened cans of Miller Light in the refrigerator. Sandra’s bra lay near her and was torn. Her pants and underwear were found inside out and appeared to have been removed by someone else (People V. Todd, 1993).
The autopsy on Sandra was performed on July 12th, 1989. Her cause of death was determined to be strangulation. Her trachea had been crushed (People V. Todd, 1993). Additionally, the victim suffered at least five blows to her head and five stab wounds were noted in the chest. One of the stab wounds would have been fatal, but due to the small amount of blood in the chest cavity it was determined that the wound was likely inflicted shortly after her death (People V. Todd, 1993). She also appeared to have bruising to her chest, wrists, and superficial cuts to her abdomen. Sandra has suffered a brutal death.
Toxicology testing determined that the victim had consumed considerable amounts of alcohol the night of her death, with her blood alcohol level reaching 0.48 during the night but was approximately 0.35 at the time of her death (People V. Todd, 1993).
Sandra was found nude, suggesting sexual assault. Her autopsy findings were not conclusive enough to prove sexual assault, however. There were no sperm found on the body and no obvious signs of vaginal or anal trauma (People V. Todd, 1993). However, investigators still believed sexual assault was the motive.
The bartenders at the two local establishments described the night Sandra died to police and were able to identify the man they had seen Sandra with as well as describe his vehicle accurately. On July 13th, 1989, Robert Todd was arrested and charged with first degree murder (Breese Journal, 1989). Todd had moved to Carlyle, Illinois about six weeks prior to the murder. He was an unemployed construction worker at the time of the murder (Breese Journal, 1989).
Robert Todd was born June 21st, 1962. He was the oldest with two younger sisters. Their mother was apparently a very strict and often abusive woman. His mother allegedly physical abused him and his sisters frequently including one time throwing a knife at Robert (People V. Todd, 1997). Robert developed a stutter at a young age and was often bullied in school. Robert’s defense attorney argued that he had a learning disability which is why he did poorly in school (People V. Todd, 1997).
Despite difficulty at home and in school, Robert Todd graduated high school and then went to one year of bible college before dropping out. He also enlisted in the army but was out of the service within a year. He began to abuse drugs and alcohol as a young adult. He attempted to commit suicide on more than one occasion (People V. Todd, 1997). At the time of this crime, Robert had a fiancé near his hometown of Decatur, Illinois.
Robert Todd, under the advisement of his counsel, elected to waive his right to a trial by jury (People V. Todd, 1997). The judge alone would determine his guilt.
Scott Neilson testified against Robert Todd at his trial. Scott had shared a cell with Robert at the Clinton County Jail after his arrest. He gave testimony that Robert gave him details of the night Sandra died while they were in prison. Todd allegedly told Neilson that he met a woman at a bar and danced, signed their names on the wall, and then went back to her house and listened to Bob Seger. He told Nielson that he drank two Miller Lights and then tried to make sexual advances towards the woman, but she rejected him. He then slapped her, but he couldn’t remember what happened after that and his next memory was the next day at a convenience store (People V. Todd, 1993).
In the tape deck, the Bob Seger tape remained in place after the murder. The confession matched the evidence of two empty Miller Light cans found at the home. The wall at Main Street Saloon revealed Sandra Shelton’s name written and Robert Todd’s name just below hers. The witnesses at both bars positively identified Todd as the man with Sandra the night of her death.
Sandra’s black purse, the one she showed her mother earlier that day, was found a month after the crime in a field. Sandra’s identification was inside but her money had been taken. Aside from the physical violations she suffered, Sandra was also robbed.
A forensic scientist specializing in latent fingerprints and footprints testified at the trial as well. Todd’s shoes were a match for the footprints found at the crime scene (People V. Todd, 1993). Additionally, a fingerprint was positively identified at Todd’s at the crime scene. Another forensic scientist testified that using a chromatography test it was determined that the wax droplets from the crime scene and from Todd’s bathtub were similar enough to have come from the same candle (People V. Todd, 1993).
Robert Todd was facing three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of felony murder. The judge found that he was guilty as charged on all charges by reviewing the totality of evidence against Todd (People V. Todd, 1993). The felony murder charges stemmed from the sexual assault and robbery. The prosecution’s theory was that Todd assaulted Sandra when she rejected his advances, strangled her, stabbed her to ensure she was dead, and then attempted to light the house on fire to cover the crime.
The judge heard evidence from the victim’s family as well as Robert Todd’s family and defense witnesses in order to determine his punishment. Todd was facing capital punishment. The defense pointed to the alleged abuse at the hands of Todd’s mother, his learning disability, his mental state and suicidal history, and a history of head injuries as mitigating factors (People V. Todd, 1997). Despite this evidence, the brutality of this crime was too much to overcome and Robert Todd was sentenced to death.
Robert Todd repeatedly appealed his death sentence without success. However, in the end it didn’t matter. Governor George Ryan commuted all death sentences in the State of Illinois to life without the possibility of parole on January 12th, 2003 (Death Penalty Information Center). Robert Todd is currently serving his time at Pinckneyville Correctional Center.
In a town with a murder rate of zero per year on average, the savage and brutal murder of Sandra Shelton disturbed the illusion of safety in the community. The family, friends, and children of Sandra Shelton will forever be without her presence. Robert Todd was spared the death penalty by a blanketed commutation that did not take the individual crimes and impact of the victims into account. Hopefully Sandra’s loved once can take solace in knowing that Robert Todd will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
FindAGrave (Accessed 2021) Sandra K. Johnson Shelton; Retrieved at: Sandra K. Johnson Shelton (1956-1989) - Find A Grave Memorial
People V. Todd (1993) Supreme Court of Illinois Ruling; Retrieved at: People v. Todd, Illinois Supreme Court, State Courts, COURT CASE (ecases.us)
Breese Journal (1989) Beckemeyer woman murdered; man arrested, held without bail; Retrieved at: 20 Jul 1989, 1 - The Breese Journal at Newspapers.com
IDOC (2021) Robert Todd; Retrieved at: Offenders (illinois.gov)
City-Data.com (2021) Crime Rate in Beckemeyer Illinois; Retrieved at: Crime in Beckemeyer, Illinois (IL): murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, thefts, auto thefts, arson, law enforcement employees, police officers, crime map (city-data.com)
People V. Todd (1997) People V. Todd; Justia US Law; Retrieved at: People v. Todd :: 1997 :: Supreme Court of Illinois Decisions :: Illinois Case Law :: Illinois Law :: US Law :: Justia
Death Penalty Information Center (accessed 2021) Illinois Death Row Inmates Granted Commutation by Governor George Ryan on January 12th, 2003; Retrieved at: Illinois Death Row Inmates Granted Commutation by Governor George Ryan on January 12, 2003 | Death Penalty Information Center