This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
In August 1996, Kelly Lee McGinnis murdered Thomas Meyer, who was his ex-wife’s divorce lawyer, and eluded capture for 87 days. He wrote a series of letters to the press during his run, suggesting that he killed Meyer to protect his children from an unjust court system and unfair lawyers.
From 1996-1997, the Belleville News-Democrat published more than 60 stories about McGinnis, recording the area’s obsession with the shotgun-toting outlaw.
The saga of McGinnis began when his spouse, Kathleen McGinnis, filed for a divorce.
Kathleen McGinnis was represented in the divorce proceedings by Thomas Meyer. Meyer was a third-generation lawyer from Belleville and East St. Louis who moved his law office to Greenville in the 1970s. He was described as highly respected by members of the community.
Kelly McGinnis was represented by lawyer Larry LeFevre, who had a law office in Vandalia. Judge Ann Callis presided over the McGinnis divorce and child custody case.
On April 14, 1996, Callis awarded custody of the couple’s two children to Kathleen McGinnis.
In a new letter to the BND — sent Monday from Lawrence Correctional Center — McGinnis said he had no interest in a face-to-face interview. But he wrote that his actions were prompted by an unjust court system.
“My actions in regard to 95D9 (his divorce case), were not so much about rights for divorced fathers, as it was about stopping legal professionals from causing unnecessary harm to children and the rule of law,” McGinnis wrote in the letter. “Further, our adversarial system seems to contribute to injustice, rather than provide justice. It does make lawyers wealthy, though.”
In previous letters to the press, portions of which were published by the BND on Aug. 31, 1996, and Oct. 16, 1996, McGinnis labeled divorce as “one of the greatest tragedies affecting our families today.”
He suggested that lawyers and judges created an “industry” to profit from families divorcing.
McGinnis wrote in 1996, “Lawyers must not be allowed to put their profits ahead of children and law,” and, “My own lawyer clearly threw the case.”
He did not appeal the child custody ruling in a court that he described as corrupt with lawyers he accused of being “in cahoots.”
Instead, McGinnis purchased a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun from the Sports Authority store in Fairview Heights.
When Meyer left his law office in Greenville on Aug. 12, 1996, McGinnis pulled his dark green Ford Windstar minivan behind Meyer’s car, blocking his ex-wife’s lawyer in the parking lot.
Meyer saw the shotgun in McGinnis’ hands. McGinnis would later tell court officials that Meyer blurted, “My God, you’re serious about this.”
McGinnis fired, hitting Meyer in the abdomen. His second shot struck Meyer in the chest.
Meyer died and McGinnis went on the run, prompting a multistate search.
The public was asked to look for the green minivan with Illinois license plates: AWF 574. McGinnis was featured in segments on the television shows: “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted.”
In a BND story from Aug. 17, 1996, the Rev. Greg Courtright of the First United Methodist Church in Greenville, which McGinnis attended, asked his congregation to pray that their former choir member would give himself up peacefully to authorities.
Courtright is quoted in the story as saying: “As far as I was able to observe, he was always a good father. His children always seemed to be a high priority on his list of concerns.”
Courtright added, “It just doesn’t seem to be the character of the Kelly that I have known over the two years as his pastor.”
Courtright, contacted again last week, declined comment.
McGinnis’ actions caused LeFevre and Callis, the lawyer and judge from the divorce case, to go into hiding in fear for their lives.
An anonymous donor gave Greenville $5,000 for a reward for the capture of McGinnis.
Greenville police, along with police agencies across the region, pulled out all the stops trying to locate the fugitive, even utilizing an airplane and helicopter to search from the skies.
In a story from Oct. 10, 1996, the BND reported: “Police are beginning to wonder if the slippery McGinnis has the ability to make himself and his van disappear.”
Glenn McCoy, editorial cartoonist for the BND, drew a cartoon of police searching maps of the area with a McGinnis-like figure hiding in the corner of the room — with a lampshade on his head.
Later, it was discovered that McGinnis traveled to at least 12 different states while evading police. Receipts found in his van showed that he had been in Indiana, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida.
On Sept. 26, 1996, McGinnis was sighted at LeFevre’s law office in Vandalia, prompting speculation that McGinnis was there to kill his own divorce lawyer.
In a BND story from Sept. 28, 1996, Betty Brown, a receptionist, said she couldn’t believe McGinnis was standing outside LeFevre’s office. “I just screamed: ‘It’s Kelly McGinnis! It’s Kelly McGinnis!’” Brown said.
Everyone fled further into the building, terrified that McGinnis was there to shoot them all. McGinnis couldn’t get into the locked building, so he took off, and the encounter ended without bloodshed.
He drove away in his green minivan, becoming an almost mythical figure to some members of the community.
An anonymous comment supporting McGinnis from a reader of the BND was published in the Sound Off column on Oct. 15, 1996, “McGinnis defended: I hope that Kelly Lee McGinnis, the man accused of killing his ex-wife’s attorney, will read this and realize he has the support of many people, including myself. If he is ever caught and brought to trial, I will probably contribute to his legal defense fund. Better yet, I’d like to be on the jury that would definitely set him free again.”
While on the run in 1996, McGinnis wrote multiple letters to the press criticizing divorce lawyers and the judicial system. He also wrote about what he perceived to be close calls with police. One of those close calls came at a camping site in Henderson, Kentucky, where police found McGinnis’ tent but not McGinnis himself.
In a letter published by the BND on Oct. 16, 1996, McGinnis wrote, “P.S. Tell my kids this is not their fault and that I love them. Also ask the Henderson, Ky., police to give my tent to the kids.”
McGinnis’s letter-writing frustrated police. In a BND story from Oct. 17, 1996, Greenville Police Chief John King said McGinnis was “writing his own press releases now.”
King added, “I believe that what he’s doing is piecing out information, feeding the media just enough to keep his cause in the limelight, his cause being that the system has harmed not only him and his family but other fathers as well.”
There were signs of some moral support for McGinnis. A sticker that said “Go, Kelly, Go!” was sighted on a wall along the parking lot of the Redwood Inn, a tavern in Vandalia. A spray-painted message reading “McGinnis for President” was seen on an overpass in Fayette County.
In a BND report from Oct. 26, 1996, Larry Wehrle, a divorced truck driver from Mulberry Grove, was quoted as saying: “We’re all backing (McGinnis). He’s the only guy who’s had enough nerve to do what everybody else has wanted to do. You can’t keep taking a man’s life away forever and expect him to just put up with it.”
Wehrle said, “I wouldn’t take the $5,000 (reward) and turn him in. I’d give him a hundred to keep him going.”
LeFevre wrote his own letter to the editor, stating that his family had been hiding from McGinnis for weeks, unable to return to their normal lives.
In LeFevre’s letter, which was published in full in the BND on Nov. 9, 1996, the lawyer wrote: “I learned that ‘a lot of people don’t have too much remorse for a divorce lawyer.’ I cannot imagine what pain those comments must have inflicted in Tom’s widow, children and friends.”
LeFevre added: “I hope Kelly McGinnis did not come to my office on Sept. 26 to kill me — but I am certain he did. ... Mr. McGinnis did not lose everything unless and until he pulled the trigger. The system may not be perfect but it is not corrupt.”
LeFevre, contacted recently, declined comment.
The saga came to an end when McGinnis returned once more to LeFevre’s Vandalia law office on Nov. 6, 1996. He entered LeFevre’s office, but the divorce lawyer was still in hiding.
McGinnis shot inside the lawyer’s empty office three times, blowing holes in LeFevre’s desk and chair.
Vandalia police Officer Todd Wagner responded when McGinnis’s green minivan was spotted in town. He arrived at LeFevre’s law office before McGinnis could escape.
Wagner said he told McGinnis: “Kelly, it’s over. Don’t make me have to shoot you.” McGinnis was taken into custody without further incident.
McGinnis faced two trials: one for murder and the other for armed violence because of the shots he fired in LeFevre’s office.
Barbara Meyer, Thomas Meyer’s widow, attended McGinnis’s arraignment hearing. In court, McGinnis said he wanted the help of an attorney.
In a BND story on Nov. 8, 1996, by reporter Brian Brueggemann, Barbara Meyer said, “It’s ironic, though, that now Mr. McGinnis says he needs an attorney — the very profession he hated.”
When asked how she would like to see the case end, Barbara Meyer said: “I have never thought of what would be justice. I don’t think there is justice in this world, is there?”
When contacted recently, Libby Glasgow, Meyer’s daughter, declined to comment on McGinnis. She wrote in an email: “I miss my father very much, but I have forgiven Kelly McGinnis and I still pray for him and his family. And now God is calling us to look forward and beyond all that.”
The Bond County State’s Attorney John Knight, now a judge, ultimately decided not to pursue the death penalty for McGinnis for the murder of Meyer. Knight said that he came to this decision with input from Meyer’s family.
For the murder, McGinnis was sentenced to 60 years in prison by Judge John DeLaurenti. He received an additional 10 years for the armed violence charge. McGinnis was 40 at the time.
The BND reported on Feb. 22, 1997, during McGinnis’s sentencing, DeLaurenti said: “Mr. McGinnis, this is a wrong thing you did. It did not justify taking this man’s life.”
In his new letter to the BND, McGinnis wrote: “There are important questions that should be asked. But, they should have come from government officials investigating why a good person would shoot a lawyer for cause.”
In regard to how his life turned out, McGinnis wrote, “(I feel) disappointed in Illinois government. (I feel) trapped by duty, as a good citizen and patriot to defend what so many have fought, and died, to establish and maintain. And, (I’m) looking forward to my meeting with God on these matters, knowing, I did the best I knew how.”
He added: “As for Judge Callis and Larry LeFevre, I have no desire to ever see, or speak to them again. They have no reason to fear, should I ever be released. They will have to answer to God for (their) conduct.”
McGinnis’s projected parole date is Nov. 6, 2031. At that point, he would be 75.