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Jury finds ex-Bloomington officer guilty of 4 rapes
Associated Press
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Published: 6/18/2008 4:06 PM

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CHAMPAIGN -- A former Bloomington police sergeant whose home computer contained depictions of violent sex forced on women was convicted Wednesday of raping four women and stalking a fifth toward the end of his 17-year law enforcement career.

Jurors in Bloomington deliberated over parts of three days before convicting Jeff Pelo on 35 counts, including 25 of aggravated sexual assault.

Pelo, who spent much of the trial looking at the table in front of him and taking notes, shook his head and sobbed as the verdict was read. His wife, Rickilee, yelled and ran from the court with the couple's three teenage children.

She later apologized for her outburst but insisted to reporters: "They've got the wrong man."

"I feel badly for the victims," she added. "I stand behind my husband. I know my husband is not guilty."

Defense attorneys had argued Pelo was a wrongfully accused man arrested on flimsy evidence.

The six men and six women jurors reached their decision despite a lack of DNA or similar forensic evidence linking Pelo directly to the rapes, acknowledged prosecutor Mark Messman, who added he was pleased for the victims.

"There was no smoking gun; (but) there were several very strong pieces of evidence," he said.

Messman said he would expect jurors had varying reasons for finding Pelo guilty.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you polled the jurors...if you got 12 different responses, or three or four different responses," he said.

Defense attorney Michael Rosenblat said he likely would appeal. He planned to file motions arguing Circuit Judge Robert Freitag shouldn't have let jurors view pornographic images found on Pelo's home computer, and should have let Rosenblat call an expert witness to testify about the reliability of eyewitness identification of suspects.

"I believed before opening statements and I believe today that Jeff is not guilty," Rosenblat said.

The most serious charges against Pelo carry sentences of up to 45 years in prison, and prosecutors have said the 43-year-old could spend the rest of his life behind bars after his Aug. 12 sentencing.

A woman who said she was a friend of one of the rape victims said outside court Wednesday that Pelo deserves a life sentence.

"You can never make up for what he did to them," Pam Lubeck told The (Bloomington) Pantagraph. "But if they put him away for life, it will help."

At trial, Messman portrayed Pelo as a man driven on the one hand to rape by violent, pornography-fueled fantasies, and on the other by a desire to be his victims' boyfriend. At least one of the women described her attacker as gentle and polite.

But another testified that between what were multiple rapes over two hours, she told her attacker she was pregnant. After seeing an engagement ring on her finger and asking how her fiance and parents would feel knowing she'd been raped while pregnant, she said the attacker was elated.

"He was like a kid at Christmas," she said while crying.

Investigators found numerous images of violent pornography -- some depicting forced sex at gunpoint -- on Pelo's home computer.

"He has some fantasy, as messed up as it sounds, that they're going to like him," Messman told jurors during his closing arguments.

Rosenblat countered that whatever taste Pelo might have for pornography was irrelevant.

The defense attorney seized on discrepancies offered by the victims, particularly one woman's description of an attacker as young as his early 20s.

"The descriptions of these attacks vary widely," the attorney told jurors. "They differ because different people committed these attacks."

Messman also laid out evidence that Pelo's police computer login had been used to access background information about the rape victims before their attacks.

Pelo pleaded not guilty to all 37 counts originally facing him; two charges were dropped during trial. He was charged in the rapes of four women between 2002 and 2005 and the stalking of a fifth woman.

He has been jailed since his June 2006 arrest outside a woman's home, unable to afford the $100,000 he would have to pay to make his $1 million bail, and resigned from his job last fall after 17 years with the Bloomington police.

Another Bloomington officer spotted Pelo outside the woman's home late on June 11, 2006, after she called to report a prowler.

Pelo said he was merely in the neighborhood shopping for a home to buy his mother-in-law. His wife backed up that claim, saying her husband often kept strange hours after spending most of his 17 years with the Bloomington police working night shifts.

But Pelo eventually was charged with stalking the woman, who prosecutors said he'd tracked through police databases.

Pelo initially faced burglary and stalking charges, but the other charges were added a month later after three of the four rape victims identified Pelo from photos as their attacker. Two of them also said his voice was that of the man who'd raped them.