LINCOLN – A deathbed confession has confirmed that Russell Smrekar, convicted in 1977 of the killings of a Lincoln couple, also was guilty of two more murders – all motivated by Smrekar’s desire to avoid prosecution for two petty thefts.

LINCOLN – A deathbed confession has confirmed that Russell Smrekar, convicted in 1977 of the killings of a Lincoln couple, also was guilty of two more murders – all motivated by Smrekar’s desire to avoid prosecution for two petty thefts.


Lincoln police announced Friday that, before his death Thursday at Menard Correctional Center, Smrekar confessed to killing Ruth Martin of Lincoln and burying her remains under then-under-construction Interstate 55. Smrekar also admitted killing Michael Mansfield of Rolling Meadows, who had been Smrekar’s classmate at Lincoln College.


“Smrekar’s confession and details of what happened has brought peace to the family of Ruth Martin,” Lincoln police said in a news release.


 


Killed over three steaks


Smrekar, who died at age 56, was convicted in April 1977 of the brutal shotgun slayings of Lincoln bait-shop owner Jay Fry and his pregnant wife, Robin. Smrekar was sentenced to two 100- to 300-year prison sentences.


Jay Fry, the produce manager at a Kroger grocery store, was scheduled to testify against Smrekar, who was accused of stealing three steaks from the store. Martin, who was in the parking lot when store employees confronted Smrekar, also was on the witness list.


Martin disappeared June 2, 1976. Blood was found in her home and in her abandoned car, which was located in Bloomington.


Martin’s body was never found, but authorities were convinced for decades that Smrekar killed her and Mansfield as well as the Frys. The Frys were killed in October 1976.


Mansfield, apparently the first Smrekar murder victim, disappeared from his Rolling Meadows home on Dec. 31, 1975. Newspaper archives indicate Mansfield was scheduled to testify against Smrekar in connection with a burglary at a dorm room in which a guitar and records were taken.


Notified last month that Smrekar’s health was deteriorating, detectives from Lincoln and Rolling Meadows interviewed Smrekar in prison.


“Smrekar admitted to burying Ruth Martin under the Interstate 55 construction taking place at that time. This was done late at night on the day of her disappearance,” the news release said.


Smrekar was brought to Lincoln in early October and taken to several places along the interstate in an attempt to locate Martin’s burial site.


However, “due to the time that has elapsed since the murder and the fact that the burial took place late at night, Smrekar was unable to give detectives a precise location of the body,” the press release said.


Smrekar died of a medical condition, but prison officials did not explain the nature of his illness.


 


Murders shook Lincoln


When he was sentenced in April 1977 for murdering the Frys, Smrekar, then 21 and originally from Joliet, showed no emotion, newspaper archives said.


“Society really doesn’t have a place for Russell Smrekar,” Circuit Judge John McCullough said at the time. “If it were up to me, an eye for an eye would be the proper sentencing.” At the time the crimes were committed, Illinois did not have the death penalty.


Dan Fulscher, director of Logan County’s emergency management agency, was a few years out of high school when Martin disappeared and the Frys were murdered. He said the brutal crime changed the small town, prompting people in Lincoln to start locking their doors.


“It was almost eerie,” Fulscher said. “We were such a small town. It was like those things don’t happen here. You read about them in the paper.”


 


Case reopened in 2006


Lincoln police reopened the Ruth Martin case in 2006 in the hope that new technology would help solve the case, Detective Sgt. Paul Adams said.


A cadaver dog searched Kickapoo Creek Park and Immanuel Lutheran Church property in late March of that year. Adams said the dog indicated “some type of material” at the church grounds.  But the search found nothing.


During Smrekar’s 1977 trial, Macon County Jail inmates Jimmy Cooper Jr. and James Kennedy testified that Smrekar bragged that he had killed Jay Fry and Martin. Smrekar killed Robin Fry because she was with her husband at the time, they said.


At the time of his arrest, authorities said Smrekar also was plotting the murders of the manager of the store where the steaks were taken and the sister of Jay Fry.


 


John Reynolds can be reached at (217) 788-1524. Dan Tackett of Gatehouse News Service contributed to this story.