Unsolved in Highland: The Winet Murders
This story is something straight out a horror movie, but it’s very real. The story starts in 1972 in rural Highland, Illinois. The Winet family lived on a farm on 160, across from where Highland High School now sits. James and Betty managed their farm and were active in their community. James was on the Board of Directors for the Madison County Farm Bureau and Betty was a member of the women’s committee. Betty was also an avid bowler.
James and Betty were married on Valentine’s Day in 1950 and were parents to four children. In 1972, the oldest two children were off at college. Son Michael was attending the University of Illinois and daughter Patricia was a student at Eastern Illinois University. Sons Robert and Edwards were young teenagers and still living at home. The family were members of Evangelical United Church of Christ in Highland.
On the evening of January 8th, 1972, James and Betty were dressed in their finest clothing, including a real fur coat for Betty, and ready to attend a part for the farm bureau. The couple left their youngest children at home, in the care of their grandparents. Through out the night, the boys received multiple phone calls from an unknown person. The boys heard heavy breathing on the other side of the phone line before the caller hung up. The calls were creepy and very horror movie like.
Following the party, James and Betty went to the Powhatten diner, a 24-hour establishment in nearby Pocahontas, Illinois. They had a late night, or early morning, meal together and left the restaurant around four am. Around the same time, the boys and their grandparents heard dogs barking nearby, but didn’t think anything of it. No one could have predicted what would happen next.
About an hour later, the bodies of James and Betty Winet were found on the side of the road with their vehicle. James, still in the driver’s seat of the car, had been shot twice in the back of the head. Betty was nearby in a ditch, clearly deceased. Betty had been shot twice in the chest and finally in her head. She had scratched and lacerations, indicating there had been a struggle. Three deep cuts to her arm suggested perhaps someone with a “hook” had hurt her. Police thought perhaps the suspect had a prosthetic hand or arm.
Authorities found a few different witnesses who saw the car on the side of the road, very close to their home, that night. The first was a couple who left a nearby party about 4:30 am and saw the vehicle on the side of the road. They stopped but left when they heard an argument happening inside the vehicle. Moments later, an elderly couple said they drove by and saw Betty sitting outside the car mouthing “help”. The couple rushed to a nearby house to retrieve their son, a police officer, but once they arrived back at the scene Betty was dead.
The police originally suspected a murder-suicide, but that was quickly ruled out since no gun was found at the crime scene and Betty’s body showed signs of a struggle while James had likely been shot from behind and showed no signs of being in a physical struggle. James’ wallet and Betty’s purse, fur coat, and jewelry were also missing. Betty was also known to carry large amounts of cash on her. The motive seemed to be robbery.
Authorities wondered if the couple picked up a hitchhiker on the way home. Could a hitchhiker be responsible for the robbery and murder of the couple? Police also suspected a former employee of the Winet family, a farm hand, may be responsible. He had a history of mental problems and may be angry at Mr. Winet. Authorities theorized he may have sat in the back seat of the Winet’s car and surprised them. Witnesses put the farmhand at the Powhatten restaurant at the same time as the James and Betty. He was eventually given a polygraph and passed, so he was ruled out as a suspect.
Two men from Granite City were also considered suspects. The two, who were in jail already for burglary charges, took lie detector tests and passed them. They were seen at the service station near the restaurant early that morning. However, police were able to eliminate the two as suspects following the polygraph examinations. A palm print found on the scene did not match any of these suspects.
The case grew cold after those suspects were eliminated. Through the years it remained cold despite several police officers attempting to solve the case. The lead detective in the case had a theory that he eventually shared with the eldest Winet child, Michael, but this remains very quiet as it’s an open investigation. Nearly fifty years after the murder, the case remains unsolved to this day.
Michael Winet dropped out of college in order to take over his family farm and raise his younger brothers. He now works for the post office and his younger brother manages the farm. He says that he believes the now deceased detective’s theory on who killed his parents. While a name has not been made public, the suspect was apparently in and out of prison his entire life.
All these years later, it seems unlikely that justice will ever be found for the Winet family. Many of the original investigators are now deceased as are many of the suspects. This crime gives me the chills for many reasons. First, the odd phone calls the teenagers received while their parents were out. Second, the “hook for a hand” theory as to how Betty received her injuries. Third, the couple that saw Betty, presumably mid attack, mouthing “help me” at the passing car. These could all be scenes straight from a horror movie. But this wasn’t a movie. This is real life and crimes like this brutal murder happen in even small safe towns. That fact is the most chilling of all.
***The Podcast episode for this story is for Patrons only. Please sign up to be a Patron on our website for access to exclusive content***
FindAGrave (Accessed 2021) James Ray Winet & Elizabeth Talluer Winet; Retrieved at: Elizabeth “Betty” Talleur Winet (1930-1972) - Find A Grave Memorial; James Ray Winet (1928-1972) - Find A Grave Memorial
Alton Telegraph (1972) Obituaries: Winet; Retrieved at: 11 Jan 1972, Page 11 - Alton Evening Telegraph at Newspapers.com
Alton Evening Telegraph (1972) Former farmhand sought in Winet murders; Alton Evening Telegraph; 14 Jan 1972; Retrieved at: 14 Jan 1972, Page 3 - Alton Evening Telegraph at Newspapers.com
Gauen, P. (1995) Deaths baffling after 23 years; St. Louis Post Dispatch; 06 Feb 1995; Retrieved at: 06 Feb 1995, Page 89 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Newspapers.com
Amand, A. (2005) Parents’ murder killed a dream, but crops and families still grow; St. Louis Post Dispatch; Sep 18 2005; Retrieved at: Parents' murder killed a dream, but crops and families still grow | Illinois | stltoday.com