It is possible for a sex-offender -- even a murderer -- to work at a carnival or amusement attraction in Illinois, and there's virtually no way for state inspectors to know about it, NBC 5 Investigates has found.
NBC 5's three month long investigation shows that the Illinois Department of Labor -- the agency tasked with inspecting every nut and bolt of the state's 3,000-plus rides and attractions, from the largest roller coaster down to the smallest bouncy house -- must do that job with only four full-time inspectors for the entire state.
And though state officials insist that carnival-goers are safe, NBC 5 Investigates has found one instance that raises questions about how closely these amusement companies are required to be monitored, and just who is allowed to work at fairs and carnivals across Illinois.
On a Saturday last September, a 21-year-old man named Blayne Benefield took some family members to the Heritage Days festival in Farmer City, Illinois, a town of 2,000 people located just off Interstate 74 about halfway between Champaign and Bloomington. The annual four-day celebration featured a car show, a 5K race, and a free ham and bean dinner for fair-goers.
The festival also featured a carnival, and Big H Amusements -- located up the road in Fairbury, IL -- was hired to operate the midway and amusement area. Big H brought in big rides like the Zipper, where riders are whipped around and turned upside down, and gentler rides for little children, such as one called the Safari Train.
Benefield's young relatives were on the Safari Train when he snapped a photo of the ride, with a carnival employee standing in the background. Authorities believe the man in that photo is also the man who now -- along with his brother and fellow carnival employee -- stands accused of murdering Benefield just hours after the picture was taken.
"Once you had Blayne for a friend, you had a friend for life," says Cherri Benefield, Blayne's mother. She and her husband Bard learned of the murder the next morning, after Benefield's body was found near a green fence off the main street in downtown Farmer City. It's the same green fence seen in the photo Benefield took at the carnival.
Bard Benefield says police told him that his son had been stabbed and strangled in a botched robbery attempt. Police quickly arrested Alex and James Jacquart, two brothers from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, who were both employed by Big H. Both had criminal histories. Alex, in fact, pled guilty in 2011 to felony sexual assault of a child. When he was working for Big H in Farmer City last September, he had a warrant out for his arrest on a theft charge.
So how was it that two men with criminal histories - including one who had pled guilty to the sexual assault of a child -- were allowed to work at carnivals in Illinois?
All ride operators at all Illinois carnivals are supposed to pass a criminal background check. But NBC 5 Investigates has learned that state law says those checks should be entrusted to the carnival operators -- not the state. State inspectors are only supposed to make sure the checks were donem not do them themselves.
IDOL Director Joe Costigan admits that the process is a kind of honor system. "But it's a system [where the operators] know that we can go in any time and inspect the records," he says.
And in the case of Big H, that is exactly what inspectors did. NBC 5 Investigates has learned that Big H disclosed both brothers' names to state inspectors, who'd reviewed Big H's rides and staff lists several times earlier in 2013 in order to give them a permit to operate in Illinois. But according to Ryan Culton, who manages the IDOL's Carnival and Amusement Ride Division, Big H listed the brothers simply as employees - not as ride operators.
That's an important distinction, because Illinois state law mandates that only the actual operators of amusement rides are required to pass criminal-history checks, and then only to make sure they have not been convicted of murder or specific sex offenses. Other convictions are not prohibited under state law. And Culton confirms that state law exempts other carnival employees -- those who run the midway games or the food stands, for example -- from any criminal-history check.
And that was the case for James and Alex Jacquart, Culton says. Inspectors didn't check up on their criminal histories because Big H didn't list them as ride operators, and therefore didn't run them for criminal background information.
Big H hung up the phone when NBC 5 contacted the company for comment.
Both brothers are now charged with Benefield's murder, and both have pled not guilty. One brother's trial will begin in the next few weeks.
Since last September, the murder, arrest and upcoming trials have all been in the news, including the fact that the Jacquart brothers were working at a carnival at the time. But NBC 5 Investigates has learned that neither Culton nor Costigan, had any knowledge of the incident until just weeks ago, when NBC 5 first contacted the department for information on Big H's inspection.
"We learned this from you," Costigan told NBC 5.
Could that be because of the relatively small number of inspectors tasked with the state's amusement rides? NBC 5 compared Illinois' staff of four to the staffs for several other large states. In Ohio, there are eight full-time inspectors -- in addition to one supervisor and one chief -- to inspect 3,589 rides. That's nearly twice the staffing, per ride, as Illinois. According to New Jersey officials, the state has 17 inspectors for 3,329 rides - roughly four times the staffing as Illinois. California lists seven inspectors to check approximately 2,200 rides, and the state is working to fill a vacancy for an eighth.
Despite the small staff, both Costigan and Culton insist that their inspectors get the job done.
"We do the best that we can, with the people that we have," said Costigan. NBC 5 Investigates reviewed a year's worth of work records and time sheets for the four state inspectors, and found they spend an average of 2-1/2 hours per day, out in the field, inspecting rides, with an average inspection time of 45 minutes per ride.
But Costigan also confirms that the department has gotten approval to add a fifth full-time inspector, who is currently in training, and that the Illinois General Assembly may give approval to hire a sixth full-time inspector within the next year.
As for the minimal requirements for background checks in Illinois state law, Costigan points out that a small number of communities have started requiring their own background checks for amusement operators, as an extra layer of protection for carnivals and fairs in their towns. The state says those communities include Round Lake, South Elgin, St. Charles, Palatine, Morton Grove,Burbank, Algonquin, West Chicago, Carol Stream, Lombard, and Libertyville.
"The Illinois Department of Labor is working to enact legislation that will require background checks of all individuals hired by carnival and amusement ride companies in Illinois," Illinois Department of Labor spokeswoman Anjali Julka said in a statement.