The trial of a volunteer firefighter accused of terrorizing and attempting to rape a 19-year-old woman was canceled shortly before it was scheduled to begin in Jackson County Circuit Court.
The reason? Authorities could not find the victim.
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“Without a victim you can’t have a trial,” said former county prosecutor Mike Wepsiec.
The woman never got to testify about what happened to her beginning in the early morning of Aug. 20, 2005, while she walked alone on her way home from her grandmother’s house.
Instead of facing a felony sex crime, John M. Jackson, now 40, was allowed to plead guilty on the day of the trial’s start to one misdemeanor battery count and received probation. It was the second time he was accused of a felony sex crime.
Jackson stood trial for rape in 2002 and was acquitted by a Franklin County judge. Three years later, prosecutors knew of the previous charge but still allowed Jackson to plead to the misdemeanor charge.
Jackson also would be charged in 2012, again in Franklin County, this time with felony sexual abuse but that charge was eventually dropped, and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery. In that case, the planned prosecution witness list contained the name of the woman who could not be found for Jackson’s attempted rape trial six years earlier.
Jackson said the attempted rape of the 19-year-old woman in 2005 in Jackson County never happened.
“I did not do it. There is no proof I did anything. It’s not true. It did not take place. I was falsely accused,” he said during an interview outside his Franklin County home in Mulkeyville. “You know three weeks later she was arrested for prostitution,” Jackson said. He declined further comment.
The newspaper found no record in Jackson County that the woman was ever arrested for prostitution. Her criminal record shows a robbery conviction for the theft of a purse in 2006 and another felony prosecution in 2008 for fleeing a police officer and possessing a controlled substance. The fleeing charge was dismissed and she received probation for the robbery and the drug convictions. In 2013, she was sentenced to a year in state prison for probation violation.
Court records also show that when she was 13, she was sexually violated by a family member who was charged with felony sexual abuse of a minor. Lee V. Clay, 64, pleaded guilty and received probation.
Attempts by BND reporters to contact the woman failed. The BND does not publish a sex crime victim’s name unless the person is an adult and gives permission.
Her mother tried to convince her daughter to agree to the interview.
“She was real angry that I even asked her about it,” the mother said. “Even if you could find her, she might go off on you. She can be difficult.”
That’s how Melvin “Pepper” Holder described the now 29-year-old woman he considers a friend. Holder, 65, a long-time radio show host at station WDBX, is well-known in the African-American community in Carbondale. He and the woman are black; Jackson is white.
“This really affected her,” Holder said. “A lack of prosecution is only one of the things that have troubled her throughout her life.”
Holder said the failure to prosecute her attacker made the woman feel like, “Who cares? Who gives a damn?” He asked, “Then does the community stand up and provide nurturing and care and healing?”
Wepsiec, the former county prosecutor, said, “We were ready for trial. It was a terrible thing. But we couldn’t find her.”
According to reports from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and the Illinois State Police, on the day of the attack in 2005, a man driving a blue pickup truck offered the woman a ride, which she accepted. It was about 6 a.m. He offered her a cigarette. She accepted that, too.
After driving a few hundred feet, he turned abruptly and drove off the pavement and through wet grass until the truck was concealed behind an abandoned house. He then turned to her and said, “(Expletive) me like a bitch is supposed to” and attempted to rape her. She resisted.
He tore her shirt and shorts and cocked his arm back as if to strike her, according to the Jackson County sheriff’s report.
While the man was pulling his pants down, she fled. He called out, “I’ll run you over.” She hid under the front porch of the abandoned house while he drove back and forth on the street looking for her. When he left, she ran blindly through brush, discarding her torn clothing.
Ten minutes later and farther down the street, a 16-year-old boy waiting for his ride to a school golf tournament saw the woman running toward him. She was dressed only in her panties. The youth told police the woman seemed terrified. After she put on a robe offered to her by a neighbor, the boy gave her his cellphone to call 911, but her hands shook so badly she dropped it. Finally she made the call and police arrived within a few minutes.
About an hour later and a mile or so away on a rural road, a state trooper pulled over a blue, 2004 Chevrolet pickup truck driven by Jackson.
This time another teenaged African-American girl was in the front passenger seat. The investigative reports state that Jackson told the officer he had just picked her up to give her a ride. The girl was not harmed. She gave a brief statement to police and was released.
Jackson was arrested for driving on a revoked license. He was handcuffed, searched and placed in the back seat of a squad car. The trooper searched Jackson’s truck, which made him angry.
“The search further aggravated Jackson and I had to return to my car to ask him to stop beating his head against the window and cage,” the trooper wrote.
When Jackson demanded to call his lawyer, the police questioning ended.
At the sheriff’s department, the woman who had fled the truck told a detective that the dashboard of her attacker’s truck was equipped with a scanner and a blue emergency light like volunteer firefighters use, the same description noted by the trooper who later stopped Jackson. She said the man wore a black baseball cap, a dark T-shirt and blue jeans, which is how Jackson was dressed when stopped.
When deputies found the abandoned house they reported discovering fresh tire tracks in the wet grass as well as a torn shirt and blue jeans the woman identified as hers. Nearby, they also found her belt and two buttons that matched her shirt.
At the sheriff’s office, she picked Jackson’s photograph out of an array of six mugshots.
“I know it’s him, 100 percent,” she said.