Monday, December 27, 2004


Man once on Illinois' death row could face execution in Missouri

The highlights...

ST. LOUIS - Convicted of kidnapping and killing a woman in Illinois, Thomas Umphrey was spared a death sentence when that state's governor emptied death row. Now, he could again face a death sentence - this time in Missouri - if convicted of killing his boss in St. Louis.

Umphrey, 43, was sentenced to death in 2000 for the Illinois murder. In January 2003, outgoing Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of the state's 167 death row inmates to life in prison.

But six days before the murder in Illinois, authorities believe Umphrey killed his boss at a foam rubber manufacturing plant in St. Louis. He has yet to be tried in that case, and prosecutors here have worked for months to extradite Umphrey to face the charge.

On Dec. 14, Umphrey was moved from an Illinois prison to the St. Louis city jail and charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Assistant prosecutor Rachel Smith confirmed the circuit attorney's office is seeking the death penalty.

"The primary motivating factor was the victim's family really needed closure on this case," Smith said. And, authorities were worried that without the second murder conviction, Umphrey could be moved to a less-restrictive prison in Illinois. She said he was previously accused of trying to escape from prison while serving time in Missouri.

The case is expected to move quickly because Umphrey filed for a process that requires his case be tried within 120 days, Smith said. No trial date has been set.

Tom Block, a St. Louis-based death penalty opponent, questioned the need for another trial when Umphrey was already behind bars for life.

"Can't they see the handwriting on the wall that neither the country nor Missouri in particular is enthusiastic about executing people?" Block said. "Why bring this man to prison in Missouri? Illinois is supporting him. You're talking about spending $1 million to $2 million to give this person death."

Umphrey is a career criminal who has served nearly two decades in prison for armed robbery and theft. He was on parole in 1998, working at C.J. Zone Manufacturing Co. in St. Louis.

On Nov. 5, 1998, Umphrey quarreled with his boss, Gerald "Gary" Eichschlag, 45, of Arnold, a product supervisor at the plant. The two men stepped outside to settle their differences, authorities said.

Umphrey shot Eichschlag in the back of the head, police said, then used a shovel from Eichschlag's truck to bury the body near the manufacturing plant.

Six days later, Umphrey's pickup truck stalled along Interstate 55 near Springfield, Ill. Parts that had fallen from the truck damaged a car driven by Phyllis Liles, a 46-year-old mother of three from Virden, Ill., who was on her way home from work.

She stopped to fix a flat caused by the debris. Umphrey helped her, then kidnapped and shot her in the back of the head. He buried Liles' body under logs and brush near Spaulding Dam in central Illinois.

Later, Umphrey was arrested in Minnesota as he tried to cross into Canada in Liles' car. He confessed to both murders and even drew a map to show authorities where the bodies were buried, police said.

Fifty-five men are currently on death row in Missouri, but the state hasn't carried out an execution in more than a year. There is no official moratorium. But since the balance of the Missouri Supreme Court tipped toward Democratic-appointed judges two years ago, the court has overturned an increasing number of death sentences and has slowed the scheduling of executions to a standstill.

Umphrey would be the second of the 167 commuted inmates in Illinois to potentially return to death row.