By Dennette Bender (Russell), Edited by Andy Betz
It was not a typical Friday in 1994. It was the first day of the annual Decatur Celebration, a day many in central Illinois looked forward to. It was the marking of another great midwestern summer. Local corn harvesting, farming, and vacations were coming to an end. Children were getting ready to return to school, and local college students were heading back to classes at Millikin University. I was looking forward to this downtown event, as I do every year. Several roads would be blocked in all four directions. I would have to remember which roads were open and the best place to park, since many Decatur roads are one way. Wanting to get my work wrapped up to meet the twins, Terry and Sherry (my younger sisters), I spent most of the day cutting hair at the barber shop I owned, then decided to head over to the real estate office, my latest work adventure.
Cutting men’s hair had lost its thrill for me. Urged by my younger sister, Sherry, I began a career in real estate. She was a real estate agent and was doing well. She owned a Corvette, fancy clothes, and a gorgeous remodeled home on the lake. We were all proud of Sherry and looking forward to sharing good times at the lake. Business from satisfied customers, detailed lists of homes to fit client needs, and her constant follow up kept business coming her way. She was a woman driven to succeed.
Once I arrived at the real estate office, I spoke with Sherry about meeting in Central Park that evening near the fountain. I told her I would call when I got there, if I decided to go. She said, “Okay, talk to you later, I have to go, I’m running late to my one o’clock appointment.” As she continued to gather some things I went on to my car. I waited to see if she would be out soon since she was going to show a house, but she didn’t appear before I needed to leave for a one o’clock appointment back at the barbershop. Not wanting to keep my client waiting, I drove on.
On my way, I was thinking about how I wanted to let Sherry know I had decided not to go to the Decatur Celebration tonight after all, but intended to join her on Saturday and Sunday. I had two jobs and would be well rested and eager to enjoy the festivities better tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. For now, I still had to get home to feed my tiny long-haired Maltese, my son, boyfriend, and his three adorable little girls. He and his girls were spending the night so we could get an early start by seeing the traditional parade. They loved the excitement, the baton twirlers, cheerleaders, and catching candy the firefighters threw off the truck.
The local street festival would block off most of downtown and the main streets would be lined with families awaiting the parade. Once the parade was over, the crowd would disperse to different activities and food vendors. The event has grown bigger every year. Terry, Sherry’s twin sister, had her fiancé in town from Coal City, IL, south of Chicago. Since Terry lived at Mom’s house, he would stay there. I was looking forward to seeing them, as well as friends we don’t see regularly. This is where you run into them one time a year and try to catch up on what they have been doing.
In the middle of the night the phone next to my bed rang. It was Terry. “Deb! It’s Terry!” Terry’s voice sounded strange to my ears. What was going on? Why does her voice sound so strained?
“Deb, did you see Sherry tonight?” Terry asked, trying to keep her voice from quivering. I replied, “Yes!” and then after waking up more, said, “no, it was in the afternoon when I saw her. Why?” I asked.
“She was found dead…. murdered…stabbed to death.”
“What? What?,” I repeated. Terry’s voice became unclear. My brain seemed to be receding to the back of my skull. Everything seemed foggy. The shock made me unable to think. “Wait! What did she say?”, I thought.
“Yes, at one of her listings,” Terry continued.
“No, no it can’t be true!” Hoping I had heard her wrong as tears began to fill my eyes.
“I just saw her, it had to be someone else.”
“Debbie, Kurt and I were returning from the celebration around 11:30 last night,” Terry said. “When we saw two guys in suits walking up to Mom’s house. They had flashlights and were checking the house numbers. My gut feeling was that it had to be about Sherry because I couldn’t reach her all night. She never showed up at the Decatur Celebration.”
“The Macon County Coroner and someone from the Macon County Sheriff’s Office asked us,
“Is this the home of Mrs. Carol Finley?” I told them, “Yes, I’ll get her.” As Kurt went to get mom, I asked them if it was about Sherry? and they said, “Yes!” Then I asked if she was dead, and they said, “Yes, I am sorry to say, but she is.”
Terry continued, “When mom got downstairs she heard the coroner say that Sherry was being taken to Springfield.” Mom asked, “You mean she’s being taken to the hospital in Springfield?”
“No,” the coroner corrected, “I mean she is gone and will be taken to the morgue and an autopsy will be run to determine the cause of death.”
When mom learned Sherry was dead; the victim of a homicide, her knees became weak as she was reaching for something to brace herself when Kurt caught her and eased her into a nearby chair. She cried for a long, long time, trying to ask questions between her crying.
The two gentlemen told Mom that Sherry had been murdered in a house on Finch Drive. They weren’t sure, but thought she had been stabbed. The amount of blood made it difficult to tell what type of wound it was. We will know more after the autopsy. We all sat there crying and in shock trying to absorb the information.
Terry said, “I asked if it was a vacant house and they said, “Yes, it was.”
“I suspected maybe she was in a car accident of some kind, Debbie, but I NEVER expected murder.”
The news of Sherry’s death moved me from a sound sleep to wide awake in seconds. I got dressed and went to meet my family at Sherry’s home, knowing she wouldn’t be there. I am not sure why we went there. Shock maybe? Or thinking we could look for her, not believing she was gone. Once the family all arrived, we hugged and cried in each other’s arms, then sat dumbfounded trying to think of who would want to kill her. No one could think of anyone.
Sherry’s home was being remodeled. She had moved in a few days ago. She was buying new things already and trying to spruce it up. She worked so hard for this new home and could not wait to enjoy it. She had even sold her Corvette to buy this house. It was a great house with a boat dock. Papa had given her his old boat. She already had a wave-runner and my father gave her two mopeds. We had talked about our plans for Sherry’s new place. We all anticipated enjoying boating, skiing, cooking out, and being together for years to come. A sad thought now, instead of a joyous one.
I looked down at the driveway below, expecting her to pull in. My heart was heavy with grief causing a sick feeling to rise in my throat as I choked back sobs of sorrow.
Back inside we looked around the house for clues, checking her desk, the home phone message recorder, and anywhere else we could think of. It was odd that the police allowed us to go through Sherry’s things and were not there to monitor our activity. Maybe, they don’t know how to handle this case.
Terry pressed the play button on the recorder and heard her own voice, “There’s my message! I tried to reach her to let her know I was going to be late.” The recorder display showed the call was at 6:30 pm. “I was calling to let her know I wouldn’t be able to be at her house until seven.”
“When she didn’t answer, I thought for a moment that it was a little strange and something may be wrong, but dismissed it, thinking she may have shown a house at the last minute and didn’t have time to call to let me know.”
“I thought she would call me later, but I didn’t hear anything from her,” said Terry. “I kept calling her, on her home number and cell. I couldn’t get an answer all night. It was strange.
Mom added, “I tried calling her several times also on both lines.”
Terry went on to say, “Wednesday night we made dinner here together, then on Thursday evening I talked to her a couple of times. “Sherry and I were going to meet at her house and then meet my future sister-in-law, at the Central Park fountain at nine o’clock. Those two telephone conversations were the last times we talked.”
Unable to contact Sherry, I assumed she had gone on to the Celebration. Although, it was not like her not to contact me about a change of plans. “I was worried, but you never think anything awful is going to happen,” said Terry.
Mom added, “Sherry had been with me earlier in the morning, and had told me she had an appointment to show a guy a house at one. Sherry was optimistic about selling the house to the man. I asked her if it was anyone she knew and she said no, it wasn’t.”
After having breakfast, Sherry said she was going shopping to pick up some paint and rugs for her new house. Mom noticed the things and the sales slip on the table and pointed them out to us.
“She must have returned home before going back to the office and to her one o’clock appointment. Why aren’t the police here looking into details of her day, the purchases, the time on the receipt, etc. This is crazy! We are finding out more than they are.”
If I had known that yesterday was the last time I would see my ambitious younger sister, I would never have left without talking to her more.
Heading home, my father and his wife followed me. Noticing lights on in the real estate office as we drove by, I pulled into the parking area with my father close behind.
The Macon County Sheriff’s officers, investigators, and the owner of the real estate office were all surrounding Sherry’s desk looking for leads and/or evidence, removing things from her desk, such as her client files, appointment book, and a few other things and putting them into a box an officer was holding. Seeing the police searching Sherry’s things made her death real. I pictured Sherry earlier with her blonde hair hanging around her shoulders, her no nonsense voice all business, the sound of shuffling papers indicating her sense of urgency in her work, and her heels clicking, clicking, clicking across the floor. She was just here. Now these men were picking through the remnants of her routine life like a vulture picking at the remains of a deceased animal.
On my drive home, my mind raced with thoughts of Sherry struggling for her life. What haunted me was how scared she must have been. Being older, my nature was to comfort, protect, and shield her from harm and worry. Her face full of fear and helplessness flashed in my mind causing me to flinch at the pain she must have suffered. I pictured myself fighting the murderer off of her, wishing I could have saved her. I was so angry. The tears began to roll down my face. The pain was unbearable. Who would do this to my baby sister?
When I arrived home I tried to sleep, but wasn’t able to. Sherry and I had always spent so much time together. We worked together and hung out at each other’s homes. I helped raise her for the first 12 years of her life and did not know how I would survive without her?
I waited until a decent hour before calling my son, Doug, and dear work associate, Tracy. They immediately came over for support. Over coffee, we sat at the breakfast bar and talked about Sherry. We read about murders all the time in the newspaper, but never dreamed it would happen to someone close to us. I grabbed the Decatur Herald & Review which had just arrived, there it was in black and white:
Decatur Woman’s Body Found
A Decatur businesswoman was found slain Friday night
in a far northeast side house that was listed for sale. The
Macon County Sheriff said the death of the woman, who
was in her 30s, would be investigated as a homicide.
The victim was found in the kitchen of the house on the far
west end of Finch Drive. There was evidence of a struggle.
Finch Drive is off Greenswitch Road, west of Illinois 48
and south of Mound Road. The location is within the
sheriff’s jurisdiction, even though it is surrounded
by property within the Decatur city limits.
As of midnight, the sheriff would not comment on
the motive, saying the investigation was in its earliest
stages. The body was found by the son of the owner of
the property. “He had come to the residence about 8 p.m.
to get a vehicle” the sheriff said, “and check on the house.
The victim’s car sat in the driveway of the residence. It is
believed the woman was slain sometime in the afternoon.”
Friends began to call, stop by, and bring food, and cards. Someone even left a single rose on Sherry’s doorstep. I would always wonder who left that rose.
Later that night as I watched the news, the sheriff said that Sherry had no apparent reason for being at the house. What? I was so angry. I mean what the Hell!I wanted to pull his hair out, what little he had. What an idiot! They had her damn appointment book. It showed a 1 p.m. appointment to see that particular listing. It was her own listing with her name on the sign in the front yard. They knew exactly why she was there. Why would they say she had no apparent reason for being there? “Come on, how dumb can you be?”I yelled at the TV.
Well, my father saw the same news channel and he marched right down to the sheriff ‘s office and gave him a piece of his mind about the “she had no apparent reason for being there” comment.
Dad questioned the sheriff about why the investigators knew about her appointment, but he didn’t. My dad got right in his face and said, “Before going on TV and saying things about MY daughter, you better have your facts straight.”
Now, I had to do my part. I looked through all our Massey home ads to see which house she was murdered in on Finch Dr. I wanted to know where she had been, the house site, and if Sherry had advertised it.
Ah ha! There it was! It was one of Sherry’s listings, posted in the Decatur Herald & Review. I discovered it had been on the market for the last three months, but was recently vacant for four days. It was advertised as “a darling dollhouse in a park-like setting.”
I looked up the directions. It was near the skating rink where I used to take Doug skating when he was younger. I got in my car and drove to see the house. Driving down the street gave me the creeps. There were several tiny, run-down homes and a few clean, neat, little houses. The one Sherry had listed was the nicest one on the street, but that wasn’t saying much. A darling dollhouse was definitely a marketing tactic to spark interest in buyers.
As I got to the end of the street, I gasped when I saw the yellow and black crime scene tape surrounding the property. My hair stood on end. I sat there and stared at the tape. The words “crime scene” looked like something out of a cop show. I couldn’t move. A flood of questions raced through my mind.
Who would do this and why?Do I know him or her or them? Was it anyone local or someone who had come from out of town for the Decatur Celebration? Who would want to hurt Sherry, let alone kill her? I remembered the police said there was a name in her appointment book in her car. I did not recognize the name. A dark and eerie feeling, on the now quiet street, I drove home with a heavy heart.
Having chest pains and not sleeping well, the next day I went to the doctor. He said it was stress-related and prescribed some medication. Once home, I switched on the television after taking some of the medicine to calm me. Sherry’s case lit up the local channel. I changed the channel to get away from the tragic story and the constant thoughts of it, but it was on every channel. I opted to turn off the television and try to get some sleep.
I woke up the next morning feeling somewhat better but knowing it hadn’t changed the outcome of what happened. As a matter of fact, the front page of the Sunday paper read: Police searching for leads in slaying of real estate agent. As I reached for the prescription bottle and some water, I began to read aloud to my boyfriend who had started some breakfast to keep me nourished, since eating had not been easy to do.
“Sheriff’s deputies in Decatur are looking for who lured Decatur real estate agent
Sherry Lewis into a house and strangled her Friday. The slaying has sent shock
waves through the real estate community and prompting companies on Saturday
to remove lock boxes from sales properties because Lewis’ keys are missing.”
Deb’s shock rang out with, “Oh no, whoever killed Sherry has the keys to every house on the market.”
Then the article went on to say, Sherry worked for Massey Realty and for Bagley & Associates Realty. Debbie adds, “ We both came from Bagley Realty. They were like our brothers, but Massey’s office offered more tools to agents so we moved for business reasons. Do you think if we had stayed with the Bagley boys Sherry would still be alive?”
“Don’t second guess things, you can’t change anything that has happened.”
The article mentions her dark green Toyota Camry in the drive, he continued.
“Wasn’t her car navy blue,” her boyfriend questioned.
“That’s right it was, maybe the person at the paper got it wrong,” Debbie adds.
“Or else the investigator was color-blind.”
“Could have been,” Deb agreed.
Okay, let me continue, the next part says….
“We don’t believe she was accompanied by anyone when she went to the house,” the investigator said. “Her slayer either drove to meet her there or walked into the neighborhood. Her purse and belongings were found, but not her keys or portfolio work folder.”
“They are saying they found her personal belongings… that is right! But they found them in the car, untouched,” Debbie clarified., adding, “I wish they would get the facts straight.”
“Oh, listen to this! Then it says, the local man whose name was in her appointment book gave a false name and isn’t a suspect. I wonder how they know that already?”
Jumping off the page at me was the mention of her head being bloodied and her body battered, along with the remark, “She fought with her killer and was strangled with bare hands.” I froze.
I began to feel the struggle, the kicking, trying to get away, feeling the killer’s hands on my own neck. The killer’s hands tighten as I try to pull them away to gasp for air. Seeing the killer staring into my eyes as if waiting to see the light go out, a desperate fear in my own eyes took over as he …oh…oh…hurry…I am going to be sick…I rushed to the bathroom to throw up.
The next day in the real estate office, staff members and co-workers consoled me and admitted any one of them would have shown the house in the middle of the day. It was our instinct that made us fear the night, but now we feared the daylight too.
“I know I would have,” one co-worker said. She even mentioned, “I remember Sherry was in a hurry at the printer on Friday afternoon before leaving for that appointment.”
Another agent added, “Sherry received the call to see that listing the night before she was killed. She was on call from four to six that evening. Whenever I worked the floor and someone called about a listing or showing and I was busy, I would ask them if I could call them back once I had pulled the property information.”
The phone records were pulled by the sheriff’s department for the realty office. Matching every phone number to the city directory, there was a call to the local hardware store, where the name of the person on her appointment book worked. The call log read six eleven for the evening prior to the appointment. Phone records for this person were never obtained from his work or home for investigation by the police. When I questioned the sheriff on why his phone records were not looked into I was told, “We can subpoena Sherry’s phone records, but not the suspects.” That didn’t sound right to me.
Ed Rankin, Sherry’s best friend, said he was the one on the phone with Sherry right before she left the office for her 1:00 PM appointment the day of her murder.
One of the girls in the office asked, “Hey, Debbie, did you see what Jack Myatt, the CEO of the Decatur Association of Realtors recommended to agents? He recommended they go in pairs to show vacant houses now, or with spouses and for sellers to have more than one person home.
“No, was that in today’s paper?”
Later I found the article she was talking about. It offered good comments about Sherry’s character as an employee, which was nice to hear among all the turmoil.
What she did was common practice in the real estate community. The article mentioned training sessions had been conducted and literature distributed about the dangers real estate agents and women might face. Funny, I don’t remember any “dangerous” literature being distributed before Sherry’s murder or any information about what was happening to real estate agents across the country.
The next day Mom and Dad were busy making arrangements for Sherry’s funeral. A burial plot on a wide open, well-manicured space with flat headstones on the ground at Macon County Memorial Park in Decatur was purchased. Next to Sherry’s resting place was a big shade tree with branches that seemed to welcome her. My heart ached for Terry who was planning a wedding and buying a burial plot next to her twin where she and her fiance will be buried all at the same place. Thinking about this, I thought about how hard it must be for Terry having the funeral and her wedding so close together. Both days will be difficult for all of us, but especially for Terry.
As we began to inspect her we noticed cuts and bruises around her wrist. “Oh my god! Look at those marks,” Mom said. The dark purple coloring from where she had been bound stood out against her pale skin. “She looks like she was tied up.”
Mom’s look of mental suffering and sheer panic was one I had never seen in her eyes before. A somber moment took hold as tears began to flow like a gushing river out of control. No one spoke, we stood, put our hands on our loved one and mourned. After a few moments, the silence was broken by Terry who said, “I think I see something on top of her head, back a little on the left? I guess the killer hit her on the head with something. I wonder what he hit her with and if the instrument or weapon was found by the police.”
Sherry had a nice photo in her real estate ad. “Do you think the killer may have been attracted to her picture,” Mom asked with even more terror in her voice? “Could have been,” I answered. “At least, according to the police, she still had her clothes on,” said Terry. “We will know more once we get the autopsy report.” The pain ran deep on Terry’s face as well and my heart hurt for her. I can’t help but ask, “What went wrong that day? We were all trained to give up the money and knew it wasn’t worth our lives. The nightmare kept playing over and over in my head.”
I checked the obituaries in the newspaper the next morning and Sherry’s was there.
“Sherry Lynn Lewis, 30, of Decatur died Friday. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m.
Tuesday. The daughter of Jack Lewis and Carol Finley. Siblings, cousins, and other
relatives were mentioned as all surviving her. Sherry was a beautiful, bright, loving,
and a funny girl, who embraced life, and was a glowing light in all our lives.
God will hold her dear to his heart. ” (August 5th, 1994)
In Loving Memory of Sherry Lewis
Author: Dennette Bender (Russell)
Anyone with information regarding the Lewis murder should contact the Macon County Sheriff’s Office at (217) 424-1337.
The family of Sherry Lewis is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the murder. Contact the Illinois State Police, Zone 5 Investigations at 815/844-1500 or call Crimestoppers at 1-866-371-TIPS(8477).
Further reading and references:
Author Bio: Dennette Bender (Russell), Friend of the Family of Sherry Lewis
Editor Bio: Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 40 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 29 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates. Andy has written many great things that have been posted to The Yard: Crime Blog. He has written “Oleander“, “Senny” in collaboration with Dounia Saunders, “Et tu”, “The Less You Have, The More It Hurts To Lose It“, “How My New Life Began“, “I Knew Her as Tigist“, and “Water“, which was written by Jaysa Brown, in collaboration with Andy. “In Loving Memory of Sherry Lewis” is a collaboration in which Andy Betz edited and Dennette Bender (Russell) wrote