A Jacksonville murder case that concluded in criminal court 5 years ago is now set to possibly see a civil trial. Nearly 5 years ago to the day, 56 year old Robert Heitbrink was sentenced to 27 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections by a jury in Morgan County court for the July 27, 2013 stabbing death of his father-in-law, 70 year old William McElhaney, at the Heitbrink’s Ivywood Drive home.
On July 17th, 2015 William McElhaney’s widow Connie filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit in Morgan County Court. The case has been in litigation since. Initially, Heitbrink retained Springfield Attorney Daniel Kepner as counsel, but Kepner withdrew from the case in February 2016 and Heitbrink has been defending himself pro se ever since.
The McElhaney Family has retained the Effingham law firm of McDevitt, Osteen, Chojnicki, and Devers with Daniel McDevitt the primary partner serving as direct counsel for the majority of the case.
According to the hearing today in Morgan County Court before Circuit Judge Chris Reif, Heitbrink disputed a default judgment filed by the plaintiffs. Heitbrink said that he had answered the complaint twice in October and November of last year, but Reif determined the answers to be legally deficient. Heitbrink indicated to McDevitt today that he would be willing to negotiate a settlement. The plaintiffs have filed four counts of wrongful death in the case, saying that Heitbrink provided an intentional act and is liable for gross negligence in the death of William McElhaney.
Connie McElhaney is seeking $50,000 for herself and each of her 3 children in the lawsuit, according to State Journal Register. McDevitt has requested a jury trial in the case. Reif said in court today that jury settings were not made in November or December due to corresponding holidays. Reif also noted that Heitbrink was the first IDOC inmate he had seen in person due to transportation issues since COVID-19 began. Reif says he is unsure when he will be able to see Heitbrink in person again due to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. McDevitt said he would discuss the jury setting with his client to possibly request a bench trial for a quicker conclusion, but wished to proceed with setting a status for jury trial. Reif also said that collection of any damages in the case will likely be the most difficult decision for the jury or the court in the case due to Heitbrink’s incarceration.
Heitbrink will be returned to Galesburg to Hill Correctional Facility where he is required to serve 100% of his sentence from the criminal trial. A status in the civil trial has been set for January 11th, 2021 at 10:30AM in Morgan County Court.