Lake County prosecutor looks back at career
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller will retire Dec. 3. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 27, 2012 4:28PM
After serving as Lake County’s top prosecutor for 22 years, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller is retiring.
His last day will be Dec. 3.
“It’s been a great job,” Waller said. “It’s been very fulfilling and I’m walking out the door with my head held high.”
The Waukegan resident started his career in 1973 as an assistant Lake County state’s attorney.
Like others in the position, Waller started prosecuting cases in branch court. He was assigned to a high profile murder case in 1976. Waller prosecuted Frank Slago for the murder of his classmate, high school cheerleader Kimberly Mungo, 16. Her partially frozen body was found on Hanlon Road in Mundelein on Jan. 3, 1976. The appellate court upheld Slago’s conviction.
“It was an emotional case. I was assigned to it at a relatively early point in my career,” Waller said.
He worked as an assistant state’s attorney from 1973 until 1979. He moved into private practice for seven years and returned to the State’s Attorney’s Office in 1986 to become its chief deputy. He was appointed State’s Attorney in 1990, was elected in 1992 and was re-elected four times.
Waller announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election. Republican Mike Nerheim will be sworn in as the next State’s Attorney.
“I love working in this office ... I guess I kept running for re-election because I kept getting elected,” he said. “This is really the only job I ever wanted to do. I think what I’m really proud of is that for 22 plus years, I’ve run a very professional, non partisan State’s Attorney’s Office.”
He has seen the number of attorneys double during his tenure. There are now 75. His office also has prosecuted a higher number of child abuse cases, domestic violence and sex abuse cases.
“There was an increased awareness in handling those cases over the course of my career,” Waller said.
The State’s Attorney’s Office has handled more than 90,000 felony cases since Waller took the lead role. About 340 of those were murder cases, he said.
Four of those cases came under public scrutiny after DNA evidence pointed to other suspects. DNA technology didn’t exist when Bennie Starks was convicted of a 1985 sexual assault. DNA profiling was in its infancy in the early 1990s when Juan Rivera was charged with the rape and murder of Holly Staker, 11. DNA evidence later cleared him.
DNA evidence also cleared James Edwards, who was charged with the 1994 murder of Fred Reckling. DNA evidence eventually pointed to another suspect in the Mother’s Day 2005 slaying of Jerry Hobbs’ daughter Laura, 8, and her friend Krystal Tobias, 9.
Hobbs confessed to police, but that interrogation was not recorded. In 2005, recording of murder interrogations became mandatory in Illinois, but the effective date was after Hobbs’ interrogation, Waller said.
“After the original decisions were made, whenever (there was) new evidence, we’ve always reviewed it and made a decision based on that,” Waller said.
“Recent murder cases are getting DNA in the early stages. (We are) able to identify the offender at the early stages through DNA,” Waller added. “That’s made a big difference. Science and technology has developed and increased significantly. To a certain extent, these controversial cases are caught in a time warp,” Waller said.
Extensive investigations led to “what appeared to be at the time very persuasive evidence.”
He said whenever DNA is an issue in a case, he directs his assistants to get it tested.
“My view is if there’s an issue, let’s test it,” Waller said. “I certainly think the last thing anybody wants to see happen is have the wrong person convicted. That’s the worst thing that can happen in the criminal justice system.”
Waller also said he knows that everyone who worked on the four cases mired in controversy acted in “good faith” and tried to make “the right decision” based on the evidence at the time.
Four also is significant to his career because that’s the number of county-wide councils Waller established dealing with domestic, juvenile, sexual assault and drugs. The councils have developed treatment, education and prevention programs in their areas.
He also noted that 16 of his assistant state’s attorneys have been elevated to judge.
Waller said he plans to take at least two months off after his last day.
“I’m going to continue on the Nicasa board. I’ve been on the board since 1990,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done. It’s a premiere (drug) treatment and prevention program. You can’t just arrest people and put them in jail. People aren’t necessarily bad. People make mistakes. If you can turn their lives around, that’s what you ought to do.”