For almost 30 years, Nancy Rish, 52, has claimed innocence in the kidnapping and murder of Stephen Small in Illinois in 1987.  Rish’s boyfriend, Danny Edwards, a small-time drug dealer lured Small from his home and buried him alive inside a plywood box.  The narrow pipe Edwards had installed in the box as an air vent was inadequate and Small died.  Edwards’ plan was to extort one of Kankakee, Illinois’ wealthiest families.  At trial and in her appeals, Rish, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole, has maintained that she did not know what Edwards was planning or doing.  Rish was accused of conspiring with Edwards and driving him from his home to the burial site and to pay phones to make ransom calls.

During the last 27 years, all of Rish’s appeals have failed.  This month, Rish is asking Gov. Pat Quinn for clemency.  Her lawyers are citing several trial errors and an affidavit from Edwards that says that Rish knew nothing about the plan.  The buried alive case was high-profile at the time and Rish’s attorneys also allege that prosecutors distorted facts and concealed evidence in order to build a circumstantial case against Rish to gain a conviction.

“I have no words for the Small family. Sorry does not even begin to cover it,” Rish said in a recent interview at Logan Correctional Center, “But I did not do anything like what [the state] said [I did].”

Rish and Edwards have both maintained from the beginning that his plan was a secret and that Rish knew nothing about it.  For years, Edwards tried to stave off his death sentence through appeals, but eventually dropped his appeals.  Edwards, who now says he is suffering from heart problems, signed the affidavit last year.  The Chicago Tribune wrote a series of articles exploring Rish’s innocence or guilt in the 90s.  The investigative series raised several questions about her involvement.  Rish’s clemency hearing was on July 8th at the Thompson Center before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.  This is her best chance at freedom.

“The governor should let Nancy go,” said Chicago attorney Margaret Byrne, who is representing Rish, “There is no evidence to connect her to this crime. She has been in prison, basically, because she was living with the wrong man.”

Before 1985, when Rish met Edwards, Rish’s father was an alcoholic whom she rarely saw.  She became pregnant at 15 and married at 16, eventually divorcing three years later and sharing custody of her son with his father.  She met Danny Edwards in 1985.  Edwards was still married at the time.  Rish says that she didn’t begin dating him until he told her that his wife was tired of him cheating, with women other than Rish, and kicked him out.  They became a couple and he moved into her house, which she rented from her sister.  Edwards sold cocaine, a business that was earning $4,000 a week.  Edwards persuaded Rish to quit her two jobs.  They spent the summer on Edwards’ boat with her son.

“He said ‘Just take the summer off,’ ” said Rish, who had worked as many as three jobs to support herself and her son since she had dropped out of high school, “He was a pretty fast talker.”

Edwards said he was dealing drugs for about 8 months before he was arrested.  The police raided Edwards’ river house.  Edwards had $10,000 cash when the police arrived at his house.  He cooperated with police, but failed when he tried to set up his supplier.  He avoided jail for his efforts and lost all of his drug connections.  Edwards didn’t want to go back to working trade jobs and he couldn’t deal cocaine, so he hatched a new get rich quick scheme.

Small was one of the richest men in the area and an heir to a publishing and broadcasting fortune.  He was the grandson of a former Illinois governor and neighbor of a future governor, George Ryan.  Edwards himself was the son of a respected family and grew up in a neighborhood near where Small lived.  He saw Small around town in his Ferrari and knew Small was working on a Frank Lloyd Wright home.

“One thing [the prosecutors] got right at my trial,” said Edwards, “I wanted money. Stephen Small had it…”

Edwards’ plan was simple.  In September of 1987, he lured Small out of his house by posing as a police dispatcher.  He called Small around midnight and told him that a break-in had been reported at the Wright house.  Edwards then slipped into the garage as Small was pulling out and kidnapped him at gunpoint.  He took him to a secluded spot in the woods and had him record a ransom message on a tape recorder.  Edwards then buried Small in a 3 x 6 foot box with PVC pipe Edwards thought would serve as an air vent system.

“He asked me, ‘Are you sure this is going to work?’ ” Edwards said, “I told him, ‘You’re going to be fine.’ “

Stephen Small, then 40, likely suffocated before Edwards made his first ransom call that night.  He demanded $1 million.

Edwards and Rish were together for just a few months when Edwards hatched his ransom plan.  Rish said that after she met Edwards she became addicted to drugs and depended on him for her supply.  Edwards lived at the river house and Rish lived in a town house in a nearby town.  As his drug money ran out, he moved into the town house.  Rish and Edwards constantly fought.

According to Edwards, when he began building the box, he told Rish he was making something to hold the supplies for his brother’s pool.  Rish said that there was nothing suspicious about the box, which he built in the garage and with the door open.  The police station was just down the street from their house.  The night of the kidnapping, Edwards had Rish drop him off near Small’s house around midnight, but refused to tell her why.  Rish said he told her, “you don’t want to know”.  Rish said that when she pushed Edwards for answers about his secretive behavior he threatened to shoot her and her son.

“I assumed it was some kind of drug deal,” Rish said, “…he was a drug dealer.  If I had known what he was doing. I would have told someone…I wouldn’t have stayed.”

The night he was caught, Edwards told police Rish wasn’t part of the kidnapping or death of Small.  Edwards never did much to help Rish after she was also charged by police.  He clung to what he later admitted was a lie, that his drug supplier had forced him to kidnap Small.  He now admits no one helped him, he did it by himself for money.

“I lied, sure. I was on death row. But Nancy had nothing to do with it. I have never wavered on that…,” Edwards said in a recent interview at Pontiac Correctional Center, “Don’t believe me…Look at the evidence.”

“If she was helping me, why would I need the box?” Edwards said, “I couldn’t take him to a hotel for three days. Nancy would have asked where have you been…I couldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t have helped me. I didn’t have the kind of friends where you could say ‘I need you to help me kidnap someone.’ That’s why I buried him. I figured I’d get the money and tell them where to go dig him out.”

Edwards didn’t know his plan was a disaster before it even started, having made the box incorrectly.  Within hours of the first ransom call, the military was in the air with infrared cameras searching for Small and the FBI and local police were combing his home.  Authorities traced one of the ransom calls to a pay phone and then to Edwards.  For the trials of Rish and Edwards, accused of trying to extort one of the richest families in the area and killing a wealthy philanthropist and father, veteran prosecutors were brought in.  Rish’s trial lawyers would later submit motions in her appeals admitting to their inadequate representation of her.  For example, when prosecutor Michael Ficaro said in his closing statement that Rish made the call to lure Small out, her lawyers did not object. Even though there was never any evidence or testimony to back this claim up.  In fact, Ficaro turned around and said in the closing arguments at Edwards’ trial that Edwards made that call.

“I think the jury must have believed that she lived with [Edwards] while all this was going on, so she must have known,” said Byrne, Rish’s lawyer in the clemency case, “And Ficaro just took it…[and ran with it]. That [false] statement [about the call], had there been an objection, might have been grounds for a mistrial.”

Jurors deliberated for just 90 minutes before returning a guilty verdict for Rish.

“I was just numb,” Rish recalled, “My attorneys told me I was going home. They said there was no case against me. It wasn’t 50-50…it was you’re going home.”

Rish’s best chance now is the Prisoner Review Board and Gov. Quinn.  Since taking office, Quinn has worked on the backlog of 2,500 cases left over from Rod Blagojevich’s administration.  Quinn granted clemency in 1/3rd of the 2,932 petitions recently ruled on.  Many pardons are often for minor charges or cases that are already finished (i.e. prison time was already served).  Byrne, Rish’s lawyer, who has won clemency for 15 of the 65 clients she has represented, said that perhaps 2 percent of offenders who are still in prison are granted clemency.

“It is a plea for mercy…” Byrne said.

In an ironic twist, the man who built the Small family fortune, Lennington Small, served two terms as Illinois governor in the 1920s and granted clemency to the Capone syndicate.

While in prison, Rish has earned her GED and a junior college degree.  She has received certifications in dog grooming and cosmetology.  Her mother, suffering from polio, can no longer make the 4-hour trip to visit her daughter.  Rish’s son, now an adult, is married and has children of his own.

“I do let myself imagine life outside these walls,” she said.

Edwards has resigned himself to death in prison.  Edwards has suffered 3 heart attacks, a quadruple bypass, and 12 stents.  He stopped his appeals in 2005, but isn’t on death row anymore.

By 2000, Illinois had exonerated more people from death row than they executed.

This caused Gov. George Ryan, a neighbor and friend to Small, to establish an indefinite moratorium, halting all executions.  Despite the moratorium, 15 more people were added to death row during the 10 years it lasted.  The death penalty was a major issue in the 2010 gubernatorial election.  Gov. Quinn won paving the way for the end to Illinois’ troubled death penalty system.  After the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011, Gov. Quinn commuted all current death sentences to life in prison without parole.

“Listen, I did it. I kidnapped a man for money and buried him alive, and he suffocated and died,” Edwards said, “If that doesn’t mean I deserve to spend the rest of my life in prison, I don’t know who does.  But, Nancy?  She didn’t do anything.  She doesn’t belong in prison…”

Sources:

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