Tearful relatives begged for clemency Tuesday for a woman who they say was wrongly convicted nearly three decades ago of taking part in a macabre kidnaping plot, in which a wealthy Kankakee businessman suffocated after being buried alive.
Supporters of Nancy Rish argued that she was the victim of an abusive relationship at the hands of Danny Edwards, the true mastermind of the kidnapping of businessman Stephen Small. They said even though she drove Edwards to various pay phones where ransom calls were made, and even picked him up from the burial site, she had no knowledge of what he was doing.
“She doesn’t have it in her to do such a thing,” said Rish’s sister Lori Guimond. “If she had any, even a small clue what was on his mind to kidnap, she would have gone for help.”
Small was a member of a prominent Kankakee media family, and the great-grandson of Len Small, former governor of Illinois. He was kidnapped from his home September 2, 1987, and buried alive in a plywood box in a remote area outside Kankakee. A pipe which supposedly would have provided air failed to function, and he suffocated before a million dollar ransom could be paid.
Small’s family wrote letters, begging the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to reject Rish’s petition.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my husband and miss him,” his widow Nancy Small wrote. “I continue to have nightmares and wake gasping for breath.”
Small’s son Ramsey recalled taking the phone call which lured his father to his death.
“The first time I heard Nancy Rish’s voice was on the night of September 2nd, 1987 at 12:30am, when she called my family’s home,” he wrote. “Nancy Rish portrayed herself as the Kankakee County Sheriff’s office reporting a burglary alarm at a property my father owned.”
“I often wonder what would have happened that night if I had gone with my father downstairs to the car. Would Nancy Rish and Danny Edwards have fled our garage and made a later attempt?”
Rish’s lawyers say that when Edwards was put on trial, prosecutors argued that he, not Rish, made that phone call.
“Nancy was dependent on him, and he used her as he used other people,” said defense attorney Margaret Byrne. “He actively deceived her, and lied to her about what he was doing.”
Indeed, Edwards himself filed an affidavit with the board, coming to her defense for the first time in 27 years.
“I alone planned and committed the kidnapping of Mr. Small,” Edwards wrote. “I actively worked to conceal my plan from Nancy Rish, so that she would have no knowledge of what I was doing.”
Assistant attorney general Erin O’Connell warned the board not to buy it.
“The judge said a life sentence in this case was appropriate,” she said. “Willingly participating in a kidnapping for ransom scheme that results in someone being buried alive warrants a natural life sentence.”
The Prisoner Review Board took the matter under advisement, and will make a recommendation to the governor, who faces no precise timetable for a decision.