Robert Heitbrink, the former president of the Jacksonville realtors’ association, has been found guilty of first-degree murder.
Jurors in the four-day trial reached that verdict in Morgan County Court after about an hour-and-a-half of deliberation. The 51-year-old Heitbrink was convicted of stabbing his father-in-law, 70-year-old William McElhaney, to death in the garage of his house at 37 Ivywood Drive in July 2013.
Heitbrink, who has avoided jail by making bail and living under house arrest at his father’s home while wearing a GPS ankle monitor, was handcuffed following the verdict and led to the Morgan County Jail.
Heitbrink’s defense attorney James Elmore and special prosecutor Charles Colburn made closing statements earlier in the afternoon following a morning that saw Heitbrink himself testify.
Elmore argued that much of the evidence presented by Colburn was irrelevant, given that the defense conceded Heitbrink stabbed McElhaney but claimed self-defense. He said it was designed to “tug at the heartstrings” of jurors, and urged them not be biased as a result.
Colburn responded by saying Heitbrink’s testimony from Tuesday morning was a made-up story to fit the physical evidence.
Heitbrink claimed McElhaney charged at him with a knife, Heitbrink punched him multiple times, and then in an ensuing scuffle, picked up the knife and stabbed him on the backside.
When asked why he didn’t get up and walk away when both men were on the floor, with the knife out of McElhaney’s hands and in Heitbrinks, he told Colburn, “Because he was kicking me.”
Colburn told jury members he believed Heitbrink knocked McElhaney unconscious, having punched him and slashed him in the head, and then stabbed him nine times in the legs and backside. A forensic expert testified one of the stab wounds punctured McElhaney’s femoral artery, leading to massive blood loss.
The two had been drinking since the McElhaneys returned back with their grandchildren the previous evening.
Heitbrink said he told McElhaney he was concerned about one of his sons going on a cross-country vacation because of his anxiety issues. He claimed McElhaney became agitated and started to say that he wasn’t a child molester, or a pedophile.
Colburn said it was a despicable allegation to make, and that Heitbrink took McElhaney’s life, and was now trying to take his reputation.
We spoke to Colburn following the verdict.
“These cases are really decided on physical evidence. When you have a murder case and only one person survives, the victim doesn’t get to testify, and you hope that the jury will do more than just take the word of the defendant, and they did that here,” he says.
“They looked at the physical evidence that just didn’t match up things that he asked them to believe, just physically couldn’t happen, and we pointed those out, and the physical evidence really tells the story in a case, more than anything else, and I think it told it here,” Colburn continues.
Colburn said he appreciated the work the jury put in to the case.
“It was a long case, a lot of difficult evidence, and they certainly did a tremendous job going through everything, and we just really appreciate the work the jury did. Thoughts go out to members of both sides of the family. I certainly got to know the McElhaney family and got to know some of the children involved in the case, and everybody’s been very strong, and hopefully they can get on with their lives now and put these things behind them,” Colburn says.
“Just a tremendous job by the Jacksonville Police Department, and particularly the detective division. They did a great job, very professional [with] everything we asked them to do, and a real credit to the community,” he adds
Heitbrink’s attorneys declined to go on tape as they walked out of the courthouse.
Members of the McElhaney family have been ever-present during the last week of court proceedings. James Swainston, Connie’s brother, and Horace Wahl, William McElhaney’s brother-in-law, offered us their thoughts.
“I was a little opposed at first to the small-town [setting], but it proved that it does work. The state attorney did an excellent job, and again, it’s just relief after two years of watching my sister suffer, when they had so much planned for the future, and now it’s not, you know,” Swainston says. “But, some justice was served.”
“Relief of justice, added Wahl. I think the jury saw exactly what was meant to be seen. They did a good job.”
Sentencing is set for December 15th. Heitbrink is facing a possible sentence of 20 to 60 years in prison, and would have to serve all of it, according to Morgan County State’s Attorney Bobby Bonjean. He says there is a possibility of parole.
View our previous articles on the Heitbrink trial: