Written by CNN Staff Writer
Illinois could soon free a man who spent nearly four decades in prison for a triple murder.
More than a week after a judge set his release, a suspect in the 1990 shooting deaths of his family still has not surrendered. Thomas Elsberry, 63, had fled to Texas after spending 43 years behind bars for the crime.
Since then, he has stayed in the national spotlight.
“This wasn’t a short stay,” Willie Wilson, a pastor in Illinois who advocated for Elsberry’s release, told CNN affiliate WSB-TV. “He’s done a long time in jail.”
Elsberry’s family was in Illinois on July 19, 1990, to visit family members and celebrate his uncle’s birthday. That night, two men stopped his minivan and fatally shot his sister-in-law Monique, his brother-in-law Melvin and his nephew Ronald Jr.
Elsberry, an alcoholic and drug addict, told detectives that he pulled a gun on his parents after learning they were cheating on him, according to a statement from the Illinois attorney general’s office. His father, William, told police his son shot him in self-defense, the statement said.
Elsberry had served 17 years of a 35-year sentence for the crime.
His defense attorneys argued his confessions had been coerced by police, and Elsberry was acquitted of the crime in a subsequent retrial in 1992.
Authorities secured a new arrest warrant in February and asked for help tracking down Elsberry, who was believed to be living in Texas. In June, the US Marshals Service tried to serve the warrant, but Elsberry fled.
Blast from the past
The local police department in Florida where Elsberry was reported to be living quickly denied he was in the area, authorities said.
Shortly after, Wilson called Elsberry’s name from a stage in a sermon, and the pair struck up a conversation, according to a statement from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office.
The minister recognized Elsberry’s name from the news. Wilson provided the address of his former church, where Elsberry recently used his last name.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul was in the audience at the church when the two met. The senator had been lobbied for years to do something about Elsberry’s case, according to Madigan’s office.
‘Justice is not ever delayed’
On Friday, Judge Melody Anderson ordered Elsberry freed from the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections in Schererville, Indiana, because the state had not made an effort to track him down.
Elsberry is not expected to return to Illinois or return to the United States until late next week, according to the Illinois Attorney General’s office.
The office is working with the US Marshals Service to locate Elsberry and has reserved four charter flights for him, depending on the number of people who want to meet with him, Madigan’s office said.
Wilson told WSB-TV the case is a reminder of the disproportionate impact minority communities have when they are arrested and serve decades in prison.
“For some reason, minority groups are generally treated more harshly than other people when we’re in these situations,” he said. “And I think that’s got to stop.”
Walker Renaldo, the man who was accused of killing Elsberry’s family, was sentenced to three life sentences for the murders. Renaldo reportedly confessed to the crime and had his sentence reduced to 25 years, according to the Illinois attorney general’s office.
“Justice is not ever delayed,” the pastor said. “The only thing that is delayed is a dead man, and that’s the only one that suffers.”