Twice-convicted killer faces another Illinois trial in deaths of 4 in Rock Falls apartment

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Two men, a woman and a 2-year-old boy were brutally beaten to death in an apartment they shared in the northwest Illinois town of Rock Falls in June 2008. Each was hit with a hammer, again and again, an autopsy later showed.

Authorities say the man who swung that hammer is Nicholas Sheley, who already is serving two life terms for killings in Galesburg and Sterling that same June. In all, police believe Sheley killed eight people in Illinois and Missouri over seven days.

Sheley's third murder trial in Illinois, focused on those four deaths, is expected to start this week in Rock Island after jurors are selected. Barring a mistrial, it could be his last trial in Illinois before facing further charges in Missouri that carry a possible death penalty.

The 34-year-old has pleaded not guilty in the Rock Falls killings. But his defense attorney, Jeremy Karlin, has said in court that he doesn't intend to present any witnesses.

The killings shook Rock Falls hard, and the violence — which police say was fueled by alcohol and drugs — remains fresh in the minds of residents in the town of 9,200 almost six years later.

The four victims — Brock Branson, 29; his fiancee Kilynna Blake, 20; her 2-year-old son, Dayan; and Kenneth Ulve, 25 — were all found in the apartment two days after they were killed. It was just a few days after a previous Sheley victim, 93-year-old Russell Reed, was discovered in the trunk of his car in Sterling, just across the Rock River about 110 miles west of Chicago.

"People were afraid to go outside during that period," said Rock Falls City Councilman Mark Vandersnick, 52. "It has not left anybody's mind here in Rock Falls."

Prosecutors have not indicated whether they considered not trying Sheley for a third time in Illinois. He already is serving two life terms with no chance at parole, and the previous two trials cost counties upwards of $85,000 apiece.

Vandersnick acknowledged that due process and sensitivity to the victims' families are important, but questioned the time spent being spent on Sheley in Illinois.

"We should just ship him right to Missouri and be done with him," Vandersnick said.

Defense attorney Karlin and prosecutors from the Illinois Attorney General's Office and Whiteside County State's Attorney's Office would not talk about the case as the trial was getting underway.

Police said Sheley killed Reed on June 23 as he searched for money to buy cocaine. Five days later, he killed 65-year-old Ronald Randall in Galesburg and stole his truck. Sheley has been convicted in both of those deaths.

Prosecutors say he then went to the apartment in Rock Falls, first killing Ulve and then waiting for the others to return before attacking them in the front hallway.

Sheley, who is from Sterling, believed Branson was having an affair with Sheley's then-wife, prosecutors have said.

He also is charged with murder in the deaths of a Sherwood, Arkansas, couple who were traveling in Missouri, where prosecutors could pursue a death sentence. Jill and Tom Estes, both 54, were killed in Festus, Missouri, about 35 miles south of St. Louis.

Sheley surrendered to police on July 1, 2008, outside a bar in Granite City, Illinois, just a few miles east of St. Louis.

This week's trial was moved out of Whiteside County to Rock Island at Karlin's request because he feared Sheley couldn't get a fair trial.