Rodney Woidtke

Rodney Woidtke didn't want anyone to think he was homosexual, so he falsely confessed to a rape and murder

Rodney Woidtke, a mentally ill drifter from California, was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison for the 1989 murder and rape of Audrey Cardenas, an intern at the Belleville News-Democrat, whose body was found in a creek behind Belleville East Township High School a week after she was last seen alive. The conviction rested solely on a series of coerced false confessions that were inconsistent with the facts of the crime.

After Woidtke's conviction in St. Clair County Circuit Court in 1989, various persons who had followed the case remained skeptical that the right man had been prosecuted. Among these was the victim's mother, Billie Fowler, who suspected from the start that the confessions were false. Psychiatrists and the courts ultimately agreed with her that Woidtke apparently had been motivated to falsely confess partly because he did not want the police, or anyone else, to think he might be homosexual.

When the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction based principally on ineffective assistance of counsel in 2000, St. Clair State's Attorney Robert Haida took the case back to trial. Woidtke, however, was acquitted.

Billie Fowler, the victim's mother, has since accused police and prosecutors of failing to investigate more promising suspects while focusing on a pathetic — but obviously innocent — man.

The 2001 retrial "had nothing to do with finding out the truth, finding out what happened to my daughter," said Fowler, but rather was "all about making sure that they convinced the public that they didn't make a mistake.

"But, guess what? They did make a mistake — and they got caught."

— Rob Warden