In the late 1970s, a pair of high-profile murder cases thrust the quiet village of Elk Grove, Illinois, into the limelight.
A suburban Chicago community just west of O’Hare International Airport, the 10-square-mile village with about 40,000 residents is probably a nice place to live — no safer or more dangerous than any other place in the middle of an American megalopolis. It was simply random chance that in 1976 and 1977, two bizarre, violent murder cases linked to the village.
(OK, one actually occurred in nearby Long Grove, but the killer worked in Elk Grove…)
Bet She Doesn’t Get Many Visitors
On May 7, 1976, Chicago police found a car belonging to Elk Grove resident Frank Columbo abandoned after apparently being stolen. They notified their counterparts in Elk Grove and the responding officer encountered a gruesome sight in the Columbos’ neat home.
Frank, 43, had been shot four times in the head. Before he died, however, he had been cruelly tortured and beaten. Police said he had been beaten with a bowling trophy and a lamp so severely that the back of his head “disintegrated.” There were several cigarette burns on his body. He had also been stabbed in the throat and chest.
His wife, Mary, 41, was shot once between the eyes. Her throat had been slashed and she also had been beaten, this time with a glass vase. She was clad in a nightgown and her underwear had been pulled down to her ankles. Her autopsy revealed no signs of sexual assault, however.
Their son, 13-year-old Michael was also dead. He had also been shot, beaten with the bowling trophy and stabbed more than 80 times — mostly in the neck — with a pair of sewing scissors. There were indications that he had been sleeping when the attack occurred and was awakened and forced out of bed by his killers.
Despite the fact that the family’s car had been found miles away in Chicago, there were no indications that anything else in the house had been disturbed or taken. This was obviously no ordinary crime.
According to the Elk Grove Daily Herald, then-Village President Charles Zettek said “the community was literally drowned in shock.”
Ray Rose, the investigating detective who is now the chief of police for Mundelein, said recently that he has never been able to forget what he saw that day. “Evil, death, tragedy,” were his initial thoughts when he saw the carnage.
“Frank was shot in the back of the head and his teeth came out,” Rose told The Chicago Sun-Times. “(Mary was probably dead before she hit the floor. I can still see the rage on Michael’s body.”
The only survivig member of the family was the Columbos’ 19-year-old daughter, Patricia, who was living apart from her family with a 37-year-old co-worker, Frank DeLuca. Her behavior immediately raised red flags to investigators.
“What I saw was very curious,” Rose told the Sun-Times in May 2006. “If you had just found out your whole family had been killed, you’d run to the scene.”
Instead Patricia went to the police station and began suggesting possible motives and leads. One, which was quickly ruled out, was that Frank Columbo was the target of a mob hit. There was never any indication that he was in any way connected to organized crime.
Lying to police in the course of a murder investigation is never a good idea, and when you are the sole surviving member of the family, it is an even worse decision. As a result of her statements and behavior after the crimes, Patricia Columbo became the chief suspect.
“She could turn it on and turn it off,” Rose told reporters. “Smoking and joking, and then at one point laying over the casket and crying.”
It took police just 10 days to make an arrest in the murders. On May 17, 1976, Patricia was charged with murder, solicitation of murder, and conspiracy.
It turns out that Frank Columbo and his wife had a strong dislike for the married man and father of five — twice their daughter’s age — who was involved in a sexual relationship with Patricia. At one point, Frank approached DeLuca at the drug store where he worked as a pharmacist and cracked him in the jaw with a rifle. Assault charges were filed and then dropped due to Patricia’s pressuring.
DeLuca and Patricia met when she was 16 years old and their relationship quickly became physical.
“There wa a lifestyle that Frank introduced me to,” Patricia Columbo said years later. “That included sex with other couples. With other people.”
DeLuca photographed Patricia in sexually provacative poses, including one where she was naked with a German Shepard.
Fallout from the love affair prompted Patricia to move out of the family home. She lived with DeLuca and his wife for a while and then DeLuca separated from his wife and he and Patricia rented an apartment.
In the summer of 1975, Patricia met two men that she seduced and tried to hire to kill her family (Patricia claims one of the men forced her to have sex). She provided them with a diagram of the Columbo home and photos of the family.
The men did not act on her request and on May 4, 1976, she and DeLuca entered the home and attacked her family.
“I wanted to beat my father to the punch,” she said in a police interview, claiming she feared he had “ordered a hit” on her and her lover.
“It’s not an occurrence that took place over a five-minute period like a bar-room brawl,” prosecutor Algis Baliunas told the jury in the couple’s 1977 trial. “It’s a preplanned, premeditated, systematic eradication of three people that started six to eight months before the murders occurred.”
Evidence showed that both were willing participants with Patricia acting as a decoy to be admitted to the house. When Frank Columbo opened the door and turned around, DeLuca entered and shot him with a .32-caliber handgun.
“Frank DeLuca did the shooting,” Rose said. “And the mutilation, the stabbing and the bludgeoning of the bodies was done by Patty.”
After a monthlong trial filled with lurid accounts of sex and photographs of unimaginable horror, the pair was convicted. They were both sentenced to a minimum 200 years in prison.
In July 2006 Patrica was denied parole for the 12th time. Most of her relatives have repeatedly urged the Parole Board to keep her in prison.
“Some crimes are so horrible, so gruesome, that those responsible should spend the rest of their lives behind bars,” wrote the Sun-Times in a May 2006 editorial. “The murder of the Columbo family in 1976 is certainly one such crime.”
The Unhappy Teacher
Nola Jean Weaver and Patricia Columbo may have passed each other in the halls of Elk Grove High School before Patricia dropped out. The only other thing they had in common was that both chose to kill members of their families.
In December 1977, while Patricia was beginning her long stretch at Dwight Correctional Center in central Illinois, Nola Jean was living with her husband in Long Grove, Illinois — about 5 miles north of Elk Grove — in an unhappy marriage.
Nola Jean was an attractive physical education teacher at Elk Grove High School and her husband, Larry, an assistant superintendent for Wheeling Township District 21.
Nola Jean was involved in two extramarital affairs: one with EGHS’s then-athletic director and the other with her sister’s husband. Neither man was implicated in any wrongdoing (except having a liaison with a married woman).
When Larry confronted Nola Jean to put a stop to her affair with her brother-in-law, a violent confrontation erupted and Larry apparently struck his wife. Nola Jean retrieved Larry’s rifle and pointed it at him. He grabbed the barrel, believing the weapon to be unloaded, but it discharged and sent a bullet into the ceiling of the couple’s bedroom. Larry subsequently unloaded the weapon and threw away the bullets, according to witnesses.
Two months later, according to the prosecution’s case, Nola Jean again picked up the .22 rifle and while Larry was sleeping and shot him to death.
She then set fire to the bed and watched as the fire began to consume Larry’s body. Nola Jean then ran next door and alerted a neighbor who called police. This same neighbor told police that earlier in the week he noticed two men in a sedan driving slowly by the Weaver home as if they were casing it for a robbery.
Larry Weaver was burned over 90 percent of his body and his body had been doused with an accelerant.
Nola Jean told police that at about 1 a.m. two men entered the home and confronted the couple. Nola Jean had retrieved the .22, but one of them took it from her. They demanded money, and when Larry told them that he did not have any on hand, one of the men took him in the Weavers’ car to get some. When they returned, the men herded Larry into the bedroom, shot him, set him on fire, and fled.
Police found no evidence of a forced entry into the home, and no signs of robbery. There was evidence that Larry was in bed, under the covers and asleep at the time he was shot. All doors in the house were found locked from the inside, except the door Nola Jean had exited. The doors equipped with dead bolt locks were dead-bolt locked. There were no signs of tampering with the doors or windows, nor were there any signs of ransacking in the house.
The engine block of the car usually used by Nola Jean was warm; the other car was cold. There was water on both front seat floor mats in the blue car, and the seat was in the full forward position. Larry was 6 feet tall; Nola Jean is approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall. Her purse and car keys were found on a counter near the door leading to the garage.
No weapon was ever found.
Nola Jean accompanied her husband’s body back to Arkansas where he was buried. On the plane heading home she was kept under surveillance by a Long Grove detective who noted that she was cuddling and “nuzzling” during the trip. Her seatmate was the high school athletic director.
On January 17, 1978, Nola Jean was indicted by a grand jury for Larry’s murder. The evidence against her was entirely circumstantial and few people who knew her or worked with her believed her capable of murder.
“She always talked about her husband,” said one student at Elk Grove High. “She always seemed really happy.”
At trial, the prosecution brought up Nola Jean’s motive and opportunity.
She would be financially benefited by her husband’s death, or at least not substantially burdened, they argued. She had a $70,000 insurance policy on his life and the couple owned the home they lived in, a Florida condominium and land in Arkansas and had other assets.
Prosecutor Ann Regan told the jury that the crime was “the product of adulterous love affairs . . . and resentment built on seven years of discontent.”
Nola Jean’s lawyer responded by saying he would prove Nola Jean’s story that Larry had been killed by burglars. “The police did absolutely nothing to find and locate and prosecute the real murderers,” he told the jury.
On Nov. 1, 1978, the jury found Nola Jean guilty. She received a 40 to 60 year sentence.
However, two years later, the Illinois Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, citing jury selection irregularities.
“I knew all along she wasn’t guilty,” her father said. “I’m delighted that she’ll get a second chance. She was convicted in the press.”
This time, Nola Jean pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a 14-year term. Based on the time she had already served, she was eligible for parole in six years.
Unlike Patricia Columbo, Nola Jean Weaver, then 44, was freed on parole after serving about five years. After her probation term ended she left the state to begin a new life.