Herrin murder featured on 'Forensic Files'

2005-10-17T00:00:00Z Herrin murder featured on 'Forensic Files'by: andrea hahn the southern The Southern
October 17, 2005 12:00 am  • 

CARTERVILLE - The premier episode of "Forensic Files" airing as part of Court TV's Forensics Week on Friday might seem familiar to Southern Illinois residents.

The episode tells the sad and frightening story of the 1992 murder of Kathy Woodhouse at a Herrin dry-cleaning company where she was employed.

"A Clean Getaway," as the episode is called, highlights the forensic science that was instrumental in the arrest and conviction of Paul Taylor, the Louisiana man who was found guilty and originally sentenced to death for the murder.

Woodhouse, 40, was killed on Jan. 18, 1992, at Fox Dry Cleaner in Herrin. She had been sexually assaulted and killed by blunt force trauma to the left side of her head. The mop wringer found near her was determined to be the murder weapon.

Part of what led to Taylor's arrest was old-fashioned police work. Police tracked down a woman who had left a check at the dry cleaner. She was able to provide them with the description of a man she thought may have been an employee but who police figured was probably the killer.

Several other witnesses placed a man of the same description in the area at the time of the murder.

Detectives also checked out an anonymous tip leading them to Taylor by name. They found he had dropped off dry-cleaning at Fox's several days before the murder.

Much of the rest of the case rested on crime scene forensics.

Taylor had called police that night alerting them to the murder. Latent fingerprints were lifted from the receiver of the payphone police determined he'd used to place the call.

When first confronted by police, Taylor denied committing the murderand claimed to have an alibi. He did, however, consent to be fingerprinted and voluntarily gave blood, saliva and hair samples.

These samples were used to compare with semen deposits found at the scene. Both revealed the same genetic marker.

A microscopist was able to match a piece of ripped pantyhose found at the scene with a ripped piece found beneath Taylor's mattress during a search of his residence. Microscope examination also showed that pubic hair at the scene matched Taylor's.

Taylor was found guilty, and sentenced to death. His was one of the death sentences commuted to life in prison by former Gov. George Ryan.

Christine Stewart, assistant producer for Med-Star Television, which creates "Forensics Files" for Court TV, said forensics has to play a key role in the resolution of the case for a true crime story to be considered for the show.

"It always helps if the story is a good 'whodunnit,'" she said. The Woodhouse story was also selected because it was an example of "good, strong police work" in a case with no immediate, strong suspects and the involvement of several agencies, Stewart said.

The case also has to be "completely adjudicated" - all appeals must have been exhausted.

Besides providing entertainment for a public that can't seem to get enough of crime drama, Stewart said the show helps make science interesting for the general public.

"We hear from teachers that they use our show in their classrooms," Stewart said. "And I think a lot of people are much more informed. Jurors are going into court with a basic understanding of how it works."

Local author Harry Spiller, whose query to "Forensics Files" is what led to the upcoming airing of the story, said he hopes people learn something from it - and from the several books he has written about crime in Illinois - too.

"I've had people say I've scared them to death," he said. "I'm glad. I want people to be careful. Crimes like this don't just happen in the city - there's a lot that goes on in rural America."

Spiller, a former Williamson County Sheriff, said what drew him to this story is the vulnerability of the victim.

"Here you've got a woman working on a main street in town, and a man just walks in and rapes and murders her," he said.

Spiller said he was also attracted to writing the story because of the way it was solved - with forensic technology that was new and little-publicized at the time.

When it comes to creating the narrative, he said, it is a little like piecing together a puzzle to create a narrative that is both interesting and accurate.

Spiller said he first contacted "Forensic Files" in February, sending copies of some of his Murder in the Heartland series of books. In May, he was informed that one of his crime stories had been selected, and in late June, the producers were in Southern Illinois filming.

It is the first time one of Spiller's stories has been filmed, he said.

"The closer it gets to airing the more excited I am," he said. "To have one of your stories run on a program like that - it's hard for me to comprehend."

Stewart said interviews with officers from the Williamson County Sheriff's Department, Herrin Police Department, state police crime lab in Carbondale and Spiller himself were conducted on site in Southern Illinois.

The brief re-enactments were done in the studio.

"We want to give the viewers a real sense that real people were affected by this crime," Stewart said.

The episode will air at 8 p.m. Friday on "Forensics Files" on Court TV.


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