The three-year old’s case was bursting with bad judgement and poor police work.
Riley Fox via murderpedia.org
Kevin Fox walked solemnly into the Will County Courthouse main court, wearing a red jumpsuit and ankle shackles. Just five months earlier his life had been perfect, but now he was facing a first-degree murder charge and the death penalty, for the murder of his little girl, Riley.
Kevin and his wife Melissa had met at school and soon after, the couple became pregnant with their first child, Tyler. After their wedding, Riley came along and by 2001, their family unit was complete.
On the 6th of June 2004, Melissa was at an overnight charity walk in Chicago and Kevin was at a concert with his friend and Melissa’s brother. Tyler and Riley were spending the evening with their grandmother, and Kevin picked them up around 1 am after the gig.
Exhausted after a long day, Kevin didn’t have the energy to sort out the children’s beds and instead left the two sleeping children in the front room on the sofas. He then went upstairs, but the night was hot and it was difficult to sleep, so instead Kevin ate and watched television for a while. He eventually retired to bed around 2.30 am.
Later that morning, Kevin and the children had planned to meet Melissa at the finish line of her walk, but that idea immediately changed, when Tyler awoke his father to tell him Riley was missing.
The three-year-old wasn’t known to wander off on her own, so trying not to overdramatize the disappearance, Kevin began to calmly search the house for his daughter. When he realised she wasn’t in the home, he called the non-emergency hotline to report Riley missing. Within an hour, the whole community was looking for the little girl. Kevin had called Melissa to tell her about Riley’s disappearance and she arrived soon after, speeding from Chicago to Wilmington. By the afternoon, a task force of 500 residents was on the hunt for the missing child, but by 3 pm the search had ended.
A mother and her daughter had decided to look for Riley in Forsythe Woods, near Kankakee River. Riley was floating face down in the water in her dirty clothing. Her mouth was covered in duct tape and there was remanence of the sticky gum on her arms. Her autopsy would later show that the little girl had been sexually abused and had likely died from drowning. There was some bruising to Riley’s head and when samples of foreign DNA were taken from her, a saliva test of the little girl’s vagina was determined to be ‘inconclusive’.
At the beginning of the investigation into Riley’s death, Will County detectives appeared supportive to the couple who’d just lost their child in horrific circumstances. They were among the mourners at Riley’s funeral and showed their sympathies to the family, but the police in attendance weren’t there for compassion; they were watching Kevin Fox.
While it’s normal for the family of the victim to be questioned, son Tyler was interviewed for over an hour, during which investigators watched from the other side of the one-way mirror. He was finally taken home after answering questions about his father and whether he’d taken Riley that night. The boy had been so upset that he’d cried and struggled to catch his breath throughout the interview.
Back at home, Tyler told a detective that his father ‘took Riley somewhere’ that night, but struggled with details when questioned further. The detective also reported that Tyler claimed to see his father in the kitchen, cleaning his clothes after he’d returned that night. The police also had video footage from a gas station in town, that showed a blue Ford Escape — the car that Kevin drove — driving around at 4 am on the morning of the 7th of June.
By October, Kevin Fox was now the prime suspect in his daughter’s murder. Rumours of lavish vacations and trips to Las Vegas the family had taken had spiralled around the community, and the media began to turn against the Foxes. New cars were bought, and no reward was ever offered. From the outside, something wasn’t adding up. It was time to bring the father in.
Kevin was told by a detective that there had been news in Riley’s case and that he and Melissa should come into the station. He told his parents of the potential development, but they were concerned — it didn’t feel right.
While Melissa was taken to an area to answer some more questions, Kevin was sent into a small room full of investigators, and the interrogation began.
They wanted to know why he hadn’t called 911, and instead called the non-emergency hotline on the morning Riley went missing. They wanted to know why he had been spotted at 4 am, driving in his car.
The questioning went on for hours, and detectives eventually told Kevin to take a polygraph test to clear his name. By then, the painter had been up nearly 24 hours and was exhausted. An hour later at 1 am, Kevin was told he’d failed the exam.
The interrogation continued, where Kevin later claimed he was shown photos of his dead daughter, just after she’d been fished out of the water. After almost 12 hours of questioning, little sleep or food, Kevin Fox was told that if he admitted to involuntary manslaughter, he could go home on bond and likely only serve a few years in prison. He took the deal.
His taped confession lasted just 20 minutes, telling the detective that he’d accidentally hit his daughter in the head with a door and thought she was dead. He told them that he’d grabbed the duct tape from the house and put the lifeless Riley into his car and driven her to the woods, where he’d used his finger to make it look like she’d been assaulted. He told them he was guilty of killing his daughter.
Kevin wasn’t given bail he was told he’d get, and instead was taken to Will County Adult Detention Center, where he was now facing a murder charge and the death penalty. Kathleen Zellner, known for her involvement in Making a MurdererSteven Avery’s case, became involved early in the trial.
The lawyer immediately began to pull apart her client’s statement. The door Kevin claimed he’d hit his daughter with was thin and to get the bruising found on Riley’s head would have needed much more force. Another oddity was that Kevin knew CPR — if his daughter wasn’t breathing, why didn’t he try and save her?
Son Tyler’s claim that he saw his father cleaning his clothes that night was quickly quashed when the water metre showed no use that night, and the video footage from the gas station was too grainy to even see the make of the car shown, let alone a licence plate.
The apparent evidence wasn’t stacking up well, and much of what was recorded in the case was hearsay. The media’s reports of the Foxes vacationing so close after their daughter’s death was in fact a wedding, and the family had been told by the police not to issue a reward, despite their insistence.
In fact, the DNA sample taken from Riley hadn’t even been tested. The lead detective in the case had cancelled any testing on the sample because he thought they’d found the girl’s killer. Zellner pooled her resources and had the sample sent to a private lab in Virginia, but weeks passed and the results still hadn’t been returned. The same detective had been involved in the second test and in the confusion, the sample hadn’t been sent to the Virginia lab.
Finally, the DNA sample was tested and the results showed that the DNA didn’t belong to Kevin Fox. The father was released after enduring months in prison and death threats from his fellow inmates.
From the beginning
Though one innocent man had been released, there was still a killer to catch. Police had spent so much time trying to ensure Kevin Fox went to prison that they’d completely ruined the investigation. They had to start from the beginning.
During the investigation, multiple clues were ignored while hunting Riley’s killer. Because detectives believed they had their killer — Kevin Fox — they’d discounted important pieces of the puzzle, that were left in plain sight.
On the night that Riley was abducted, there was a robbery in the house across the road from the Fox’s home. Not considering that the two events may be connected, the theft was never treated as such, as the burglar only got away with $40.
Another huge clue was the pair of shoes found at the crime scene that were never tested or followed up until the second investigation. The mud-caked sneakers even had their owner’s name handwritten on both of the tongues; Eby.
After the Fox family offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to Riley’s killer — something they’d been told wasn’t necessary by the Will County police — the FBI spoke to a woman who told them that her ex-boyfriend had been acting strangely about the murder case.
Trisha Kiefer told 20/20, “I was saying, ‘I can’t believe somebody did that to that sweet little girl’, And he said, ‘Oh, that was such a shame wasn’t it.’ And the way he said [it] was cold, like he didn’t mean it. It was like an actor reading a script that didn’t know how to act, and, for some reason, it just stuck in my head.”
Scott Eby via murderpedia.org
That ex-boyfriend was Scott Eby, a 38-year-old sex offender who on the day of Riley’s disappearance, had even asked the police if they’d found her yet. Eby was already in prison, serving two seven-year sentences when the FBI questioned him at Lawrence Correctional Center. And after being probed by the FBI, he called his mother to plead with her to visit him as soon as she could.
“I’m fixin’ to spend the rest of my life in the penitentiary, mom. Only thing that I can tell you is that the FBI came and visited me today, OK? And that’s the only thing I can say,” Eby said. “You gotta come down here, mom, so I can give you a hug and a kiss one last time, please.”
Something about the FBI’s visit had touched a nerve, and just days later, Eby had tried to kill himself and had left behind a letter entitled, “A Confession to Murder”.
He spoke to the FBI once he’d recovered, and told them that while out on parole he’d broken into the house across the road from the Fox’s house and had taken $40. The broken screen on the Fox’s backdoor — which was problematic in Kevin’s defence — was a lure to Eby who easily walked inside and decided to take sleeping Riley and drive her to Forsythe Woods.
“She’s looking directly at my face and stuff, and I realize that my mask is no longer on my face, and then I really panic. She kept saying, ‘I want my daddy,’” Eby told the FBI.
After matching Eby’s DNA to the sample found on Riley, he was charged with first-degree murder and predatory sexual assault in 2010. He pleaded guilty to the crimes and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In April 2010, the Fox family, alongside Kathleen Zellner, sued Will County Sheriff’s Office for $15.5million in damages. They were eventually awarded $8.5million by a jury of their peers. “My daughter got raped in a bathroom at Forsythe Woods and they didn’t even process that bathroom [for DNA evidence],” Kevin Fox said. “He threw her underwear in a garbage can, and they didn’t even search the garbage cans for it. They didn’t find it,” Kevin Fox told abc news.
It’s been 17 years since Riley Fox was abducted, raped and murdered by a man who walked into her home. With everything that went wrong in this case, the very thing the Fox family were told not to do eventually helped solve the case.
Kathleen Zellner wants people to watch the 20/20 two-hour special about Riley’s murder, to see how important rewards are and how we can learn from this case in the future.
“I think Ms. Kiefer was very motivated to talk to the FBI when they conducted a neighborhood canvass because she knew she was dying of breast cancer, and she wanted her young son to be provided for after she was gone. I think our decision to make a reward offer was a critical component in solving the case,” Zellner told Patch.
Though Riley’s case is finally closed, the investigation shines a light on how poor police work can ruin lives and devastate those involved. Though this will not be the last botched police investigation, it serves as a reminder that not all crime makes sense, and sometimes the rulebook must be thrown out in order to find the justice the victims deserve.
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