In the summer of 2004, a little girl named Riley Fox was abducted and murdered in the small town of Wilmington, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. It was a gruesome crime that rocked the Rust Belt community and remains a mystery to this day.
But more than just a tragedy and a whodunit, the Riley Fox case is the story of her family's strange, overwhelming ordeal -- a nightmare in which Riley's death was only the first excruciating episode.
On the morning of June 6, 2004, Kevin Fox was home alone with his two children, 3-year-old daughter Riley and son Tyler, 6. His wife Melissa was away that weekend for a walk to raise breast cancer awareness in Chicago.
Just before 8 a.m., Tyler woke Kevin and told him that Riley was gone. Kevin began searching for her himself, but after 40 minutes with no luck he called the police.
By the time Melissa found out and rushed home from Chicago, nearly the entire town was helping search for the little girl. The turnout was a testament to just how close the community is.
"Everybody was so supportive. I mean, I still, I can't thank everyone enough ... It was really unbelievable," Melissa said.
Kevin and Melissa Fox grew up in Wilmington and were high-school sweethearts. Kevin, a painter, doted on his precious daughter, saying she had "big brown eyes, the way she would look at you, and her smile. She just made your heart melt."
'I Was Definitely Not Wasted'
The sequence of events on the night of Riley's disappearance would prove crucial to the case. While Melissa was in Chicago, Kevin made plans to go to a street festival in Chicago with one of Melissa's brothers, leaving Tyler and Riley with his mother-in-law for the evening. How big an issue was alcohol that night? "It wasn't a big issue at all," says Kevin. "I had some beers. I was definitely not wasted."
Around 1 a.m., Kevin returned home with the children, who were both fast asleep. He put Tyler on a chair in the living room and Riley on a couch, covering her with a yellow blanket. He went to bed and slept until Tyler woke him to tell him Riley was gone.
At around 3:30 that afternoon, two female volunteers found Riley's body face-down in a creek in the Forsythe Woods, about a two-and-a-half miles from the Fox residence.
"I just had this really bad feeling about this place," one of them said. "And that's why I came here."
The police were called, but it would be some time before Kevin and Melissa would learn of their daughter's grisly death. They were first brought in for questioning. Later that day, they were told that Riley had been sexually assaulted, bound and gagged with duct tape and drowned.
Through their sadness, the family resolved to find the killer.
An Intruder? Or Foul Play?
Because Riley's body was found outside of Wilmington, the investigation was taken over by the Will County Sheriff's Office. And as is typical in cases like this, Riley's parents and the rest of the family all agreed to be questioned and provide DNA samples. Kevin and Melissa even allowed investigators to interview Tyler, who police hoped could offer clues because he was asleep next to Riley before she vanished.
From the beginning, the Foxes believed an intruder came into their house and kidnapped Riley.
But investigators didn't think the house showed signs of forced entry, and, more importantly, they figured it would take a great deal of planning or luck for the killer to sneak into the house and snatch Riley during the few hours when her father was asleep and her mother wasn't home.
They also wondered why Kevin waited 40 minutes after realizing his daughter was missing before calling the police. Kevin said when he was growing up he learned that the only time to call 911 is, "if there is a fire ... I never ... I never thought my daughter was kidnapped. Never, never in a thousand years," he said.
While they spent time canvassing the neighborhood and interviewing local sex offenders, the Will County Sheriff's detectives grew more interested in Kevin, the last known adult to see Riley alive.
They shot surveillance footage of him at Riley's funeral, and they took special interest in a security video from a gas station located between the Fox home and the creek where she was found. Investigators believed it showed a car similar to Kevin Fox's Ford Escape passing the station around the time of the murder.
The summer progressed with no named suspects, and public support for the family waned after a TV report portrayed the parents as indifferent to the death of their little girl. Rumors started swirling.
The Foxes sensed the community was turning, but Melissa never questioned her husband's involvement.
"I know Kevin way too well and watched him be a parent to our children every day," she said.
There was another dynamic at play. As the State's Attorney Jeff Tomczak was dealing with pressure to solve the case, he was also fighting for his political life, with Election Day was approaching.
A week before the election, Will County detectives called the Foxes and asked them to come to the station. After arriving, they were immediately separated.
Kevin was taken into a very small room and interrogated for the next 14 hours. According to Kevin's account, detectives told him they had reason to believe that he had killed Riley.
"They broke me down mentally, physically, emotionally… but I stayed strong. I knew… I, I denied everything, everything that they would say to me," he said.
Kevin said the investigators told him to take a polygraph test, and he agreed, confident he'd pass. But afterwards, detectives told him he had failed. Finally, Kevin broke, offering a statement admitting he killed Riley.
According to the investigators, Kevin said he woke up in the middle of the night went to the bathroom, where he accidentally hit Riley with the door, causing her to stumble and hit her head on the bathtub. Thinking he'd accidentally killed her, he panicked and supposedly did something to make it look like she was sexually assaulted. Investigators said he put duct tape over Riley's mouth, drove her in his car to the river and walked down the side of a small bridge and dumped her into the river.
Hours after making that statement, Kevin Fox was charged with first degree murder.
Seeking the Death Penalty
The next day, Tomczak announced he would be seeking the death penalty. "The young child in this case died a terrible death," Tomczak announced at the time, "And for that reason, the penalty deserves to be death."
Hal Dardick, who covered the Fox case for the Chicago Tribune, noted that the decision to seek the death penalty is usually reached over weeks or months, not days. But Tomczak has consistently denied that his decision was motivated by the impending election, which he ultimately lost to Jim Glasgow.
Kevin insisted to his family that his confession was false and that after 14 hours, he believed it was his only way out of that room.
"Say you were trapped in a, a burning room, and there was only one door, and the fire was just flaming around you," he said. "It was my only way out."
Attorney Kathleen Zellner, who built a reputation for freeing the wrongly accused with DNA evidence, believed him. After a single meeting with Kevin at the Will County jail, Zellner agreed to take his case.
"I decided a long time ago, I did not want to defend people that I thought were guilty," she said.
"Just looking at him and listening to him, I decided I was going to take a chance with him."
Zellner says she was persuaded because Kevin had no history of child abuse, and she believed his confession was coerced.
"It fit perfectly. It was a classic case of false confession," said Zellner.
Zellner said the trauma of Riley's daughter made Kevin vulnerable to what she calls psychological manipulation by interrogators. Kevin said the detectives showed him pictures of Riley's dead body and refused to let him speak to his father or a lawyer and made graphic threats. Kevin said that the investigators would "have me raped every day I was in there if I didn't say anything."
Police said Kevin's account of the interrogation was exaggerated and inaccurate, and pointed out that he had failed the polygraph test. But Fred Hunter, who has years of experience working for both Zellner and Will County authorities, offered another explanation.
"It is pretty much polygraph 101 that you would not to test a subject who had been interrogated for hours. The validity of any test results after that are going to be tainted," Hunter said.
Zellner said she found the confession itself suspicious. She said that on many fronts, the details he gave were, "an absolutely impossible story." If Kevin had really accidentally hurt his daughter inside the home, then why didn't he take her to a hospital or simply call an ambulance? And if he drove off with the little girl, then why was no forensic evidence found inside the car?
And lastly, Zellner had serious questions about the steep embankment Kevin allegedly walked to the water's edge.
"I mean, the chances he could have come down that side are pretty remote," Zellner said., adding that the current at that point in the river was too weak to carry Riley's body.
She conducted her own test at the creek and said it proved a body dropped at that site couldn't have drifted to the location where Riley's body was discovered.
Zellner also cast a critical eye on the fuzzy surveillance video of the car seen passing the gas station on the night of Riley's murder. She carefully analyzed the video and said, "The wheel base is shorter. The angle of the windshield is different. You would have to have the license plate or a very clear picture of his face to ever have that hold up in court."
Despite all of that, Zellner was still concerned about swaying jurors from Kevin's confession.
"The only way you can trump a confession is with DNA. You've got to have DNA," Zellner said.
Because Riley's body was in the water for hours, it was much harder to retrieve a DNA profile. Zellner feared that she'd been robbed of the silver bullet which had worked for her so often in the past.
"I thought it would take miracle for us to find DNA," she said. And she was right. The tests came back negative for blood and semen.
For saliva, the test read "inconclusive." Dr. Karl Reich, who runs a private Chicago-area lab called Independent Forensics, told Zellner the word "inconclusive" was actually a cause for hope.
"Inconclusive" simply means it hasn't been read, and Reich said one reason for that could be that the state lab's equipment might not have been sophisticated enough to pick up on what little DNA was there.
"Another testing, called Y-STR testing, could certainly be possible and might in fact be the right kind of testing for this case," Reich said.
Y-STR testing analyzes the Y-chromosome, which is nearly identical in males of the same lineage and can be tested in small amounts. Though that partial profile may not be enough to fully identify a criminal, it is enough there to eliminate a suspect with 100 percent certainty.
"It's a well-established technique," said Reich. But though it was valid in court, neither the state of Illinois nor the FBI was using it at the time. So Zellner convinced the Will County prosecutor to send the samples to a respected lab in Virginia.
But she told Kevin the chances of gleaning anything from such a small sample were slim.
It would take months to get her answer. Bureaucracy held up the DNA samples and as the family waited, Melissa struggled to keep it together.
"It was a nightmare, but I knew the only thing I could do was support Kevin, stay strong for Tyler," she said.
Finally, on June 16, 2005, after eight months in jail, Kevin learned the results of the DNA test.
Zellner remembers that phone call from Virginia: "I pick up the phone and she said, I've got the profile done. There was enough DNA, I've excluded your client. I said, 'well, you just saved somebody's life.'"
She raced to the Will County jail to tell Kevin. The accused father was stunned.
"It hit me that, that I was going home and, and my name would finally be cleared," he said.
With the case against Kevin collapsing, the new Will County State's Attorney Jim Glasgow held an immediate court hearing. Kevin Fox, who could have faced the death penalty, was released with all charges dropped.
But the case that had shattered the Wilmington community was far from over. Zellner switched from defense to offense, pursuing a massive lawsuit on behalf of the Foxes against Will County. The Fox family claimed that the investigators didn't simply make innocent mistakes which led to Kevin's arrest. They were out to convict him from the beginning.
That DNA had been sent to the FBI, which is often the case when DNA samples need further testing that state crime labs aren't equipped for. But in this case, FBI records showed that "all additional DNA analyses were discontinued" once Kevin offered that confession. The FBI stated that a Will County investigator told them to stop, despite the "inconclusive" finding.
"It's the one piece of evidence that could disprove the confession?..that could have set him free," Zellner said.
The police, Zellner argued, deliberately ignored evidence suggesting that an intruder was in the house. She said that there are numerous parts of the house they never bothered to check, including the back door, which was standing open.
"We know what's how the intruder came in because the lock was broken," she says. Zellner also claimed one of the windows was open from the inside, potential evidence of an intruder looking for an exit route. None of this was ever fingerprinted, nor was the blanket used to cover Riley that night.
Jury Awards Millions to Fox Family
Professor Ann Burgess of Boston College, who was worked with the FBI profiling killers, testified on behalf of the Foxes that cases involving intruders are not as rare as many think. "There're many cases where an intruder comes in and and takes a child, Elizabeth Smart, absolutely, perfect case."
In fact, just this summer, DNA analysis from the same lab that cleared Kevin Fox definitively cleared Patsy and John Ramsey in the notorious murder of their daughter, Jon Benet. In the Ramsey case, the detectives once discounted the intruder theory as well. A lead investigator even wrote a book arguing that Jon Benet's death was an accident quickly staged to look like a murder. Zellner thinks that's what inspired investigators in the Fox case to adopt their own accident theory.
To convince the jury, Zellner turned back to the interrogation of 6-year-old Tyler Fox. She said the tape of the interrogation reveals how badly the police wanted Tyler to point the finger at his own father. Tyler can be seen covering his head with his hoodie and becoming more and more upset in the video as the interviewer questions him about Kevin's possible involvement in the crime. According the Zellner, she counted 168 times that he's asked and he shook his head, no.
"He's trying to tell her he doesn't know anything and she just won't stop," Zellner said of the interviewer. "I think what you see in that is just purely evil. They take this child who's in this horrible situation and they are trying to manipulate him to help them frame his father. It is despicable."
The interviewer on the tape settled with the Foxes out-of-court and denied any wrongdoing. But the Will County detectives went to trial.
After five weeks of testimony, a jury awarded Kevin Fox and his wife Melissa $15.5 million in their civil rights case against Will County.
"We want people to know the truth. We are not bad people; we never were," Melissa said.
Though the jury rejected the most serious charge of conspiracy, for Kathleen Zellner, the huge judgment is an extraordinary victory for the wrongfully accused. "I've won a lot of big trials," she said. "I have not done a trial where I have felt that I so exposed people as lying."
The Foxes' Private Investigation
ABC News' David Muir attempted to talk about the case with Jeff Tomczak, the first prosecutor and former state's attorney who originally charged Kevin Fox with murder. Tomczak negotiated a resolution with the Foxes before the case went to trial. He has denied any wrongdoing and told Muir, " I stand by the decisions in that case."
Will County authorities are appealing the massive verdict. The detectives declined comment, but in a written statement, current State's Attorney Glasgow said he "continues to stand behind the detectives. The facts and circumstances would have led any prudent investigator to determine they had probable cause to arrest Kevin Fox."
Glasgow believes the outcome of the civil trial would have been different if the jury had been allowed to view a videotape of Kevin's confessions. But that video was suppressed and had never been made public.
The Will County Sheriff's Department says a new team of detectives is now investigating Riley Fox's murder, but Kevin and Melissa aren't just relying on them. The Foxes hired two private investigators, Rich Grove and Carlos Rodriguez, to chase down any leads and loose ends. The Foxes believe they can advance the case themselves because they now have that partial DNA profile.
"Y-STR profiling can't identify someone uniquely, like nuclear DNA, but it could certainly start a conversation with an investigator," Reich said.
Though the Foxes won't see any money until the appeals process is finished, Zellner believes her client has won back something even more valuable: his reputation. But even after the DNA and the jury's verdict, there remain some people in Wilmington who still believe Kevin Fox killed his daughter.
That's one reason the Foxes have moved to another Chicago suburb and why it is still hard for Kevin to go back to Wilmington.
"It hurts that some people around here don't understand," he said.
But for all they've lost, and all they've endured, Kevin and Melissa turn to their newest gift. In March 2006, their third child was born -- a little girl they named Teagan.
"Teagan does remind me a lot of Riley, her personality," says Melissa. "They're kind of the same. But we miss her. Every day is a struggle. To know that you had something so wonderful in your life, and that someone took it."
Kevin is trying to move forward as a dad by being thankful for what he has today.
"I have a beautiful daughter at home; a son; and a beautiful wife. You never know what's gonna happen. So have no regrets and, and… just enjoy what you have."