Sometime between 11 p.m. on June 5, 1980 and 9 a.m. the next morning, someone entered the luxurious bedroom of 38-year-old Darlene Rouse and her 44-year-old husband Bruce and at point-blank range opened fire with a shotgun. The first blast took off the top of Darlene’s head, killing her instantly. Bruce, awakened by the shot, was hit by buckshot in the face, but did not die immediately.
The killer struck Bruce at least seven times with the butt of the shotgun and then began hacking at his body with a large knife. Finally, Bruce succumbed to his wounds.
There was an overnight thunderstorm in the north Chicago suburb of Libertyville that night. The loud storm provided two of the Rouse children, 15-year-old Billy, and 16-year-old Robin, with an explanation of why they never heard any shots despite sleeping directly above their parents.
Of course, that meant that the killer would have been able to time the shots with the thunderclaps, something authorities found hard to believe.
“Amazing luck,” said First Deputy Chief James Donaldson, who headed the investigation.
Robin was the one who discovered the bodies at 8:30 a.m. when the manager of one of Bruce’s four gas stations called wondering where the workaholic owner was.
“It was a hate killing,” said Lake County Sheriff Tom S. Brown. “The way the bodies had been treated — brutally — it must have been a crime of hate.”
Robbery was not a motive, police said, because Darlene was still wearing several expensive rings. Bruce’s wallet containing $300 was still on a dresser. Nothing else appeared to be missing. Nothing, authorities noted, except for several weapons from Bruce’s collection of shotguns.
The night she died, Darlene had spent the evening with her bridge club. Bruce and his younger son, Billy, spent most of the evening installing a spray paint booth, and arrived home around 10:30 p.m., a half-hour before Darlene came home. Bruce, who started his workday around 6 a.m., went right to bed and Billy said he dozed off in front of the television in the rec room. He told police he awoke sometime in the night and went upstairs to bed.
Robin was already asleep, and the oldest son, Kurt, 20, was probably asleep in his apartment in the former servants’ quarters.
By outward appearances the Rouse family was an American success story. Bruce and Darlene, who met as high school students, were active in the community and were known as philanthropists. They had money to share because not only did they own four gas stations, they were partners in a local cable television company and had several land holdings.
Bruce “wasn’t just a businessman. He was a big, gentle, warm human being,” recalled a family friend, Larry Dunlap. “He was a very kind soft-hearted man.”
Beneath the surface, of course, there was trouble in the family. Like their father, each of the Rouse children was considered “driven” by those who knew them.
“The whole family didn’t get along together,” an investigator told the press. “There was trouble among everyone.”
Much later, unproven allegations that Bruce was violent with his wife surfaced. It was clear from the outset that the parents frequently argued with their sons.
Kurt had been a state-ranked wrestler in high school and starting lineman on the Lake Forest Academy football squad. Unfortunately, by 1980 it appeared that Kurt had already peaked. He didn’t have a steady job, which irked his parents. With no college ambitions, Kurt was resisting the pressure his parents were exerting to join the military. When their relationship became strained, Kurt moved out of the family home, but didn’t go far. He moved a few yards away into the detached barn that had been remodeled into a living quarters for hired help.
Robin was the apple of her father’s eye. She was a good student and was rarely, if ever, in trouble. Her relationship with her parents was solid, but she was not on good terms with Kurt, according to police.
While Kurt was just unmotivated and ambivalent about his future, Billy, the baby of the family, was trouble. He had an undiagnosed learning disorder that kept him from reading at grade level, and found it more fun to cause havoc than to apply himself to his studies, although he was also a good athlete. Billy had been expelled from the local school district for vandalism and was attending a “correctional school” at the time his parents were slain.
Billy had been a drinker for many years and had graduated to marijuana by the time he was a teen. His drug use, vandalism, and truancy became a major point of contention between him and his parents.
Kurt was unaware of the killings until police woke him up at his apartment. He seemed confused and “out of it,” they said.
Billy, however, was helpful to investigators, something that immediately set off alarm bells.
“Intuitively, you pick up on a lot of things,” said Kurt Proschwitz, an investigator. “From the onset there was suspicion.”
One of the first indicators that Billy knew more than he was saying was his concern that the funerals and other arrangements would keep him from participating in a soccer game that weekend.
From the beginning police suspected one or more of the children were involved, however, within hours of the slayings each of the children lawyered up and refused to cooperate in the investigation. They were all summoned to appear before the coroner’s inquest and the grand jury, and before both panels the children remained mute at the direction of their attorneys.
Of course, that is their right under the U.S. Constitution and cannot be used as evidence or as an implication of guilt — but that’s in court. Police, on the other hand, have every right to assume that three children who refuse to share what they know about their parents’ murders have something to hide.
The clues clearly pointed to an inside job:
- Two of the three children were allegedly asleep directly above the room where two people were gunned down with a shotgun, yet neither heard anything.
- None of the children would take a polygraph or talk to investigative bodies under oath.
- Robin did tell a detective that one of her brothers committed the crime, but refused to speak further.
- The family’s Labrador Retriever never barked.
- There was a quarter-sized dollop of blood on the exterior of Bruce’s car.
- There were bloodstains in the trunk of the car as if someone had put bloody clothes there.
- The windshield wipers on the car were in the on position although it did not rain until 3 a.m. — long after Bruce returned home.
- The doors to the home were locked and there was no sign of forced entry.
- The items “stolen” from the home — five shotguns and some jewelry — were all located at the bottom of the Des Plaines River days after the murders.
- Neither the knife used on Bruce or the shotgun used in the killing were ever found.
Police were never able to come up with any motive beyond the problems the children were having with their parents.
Within weeks, the investigation was at a standstill.
“I have no idea when we will have a suspect,” Sheriff Brown said. “It will not be an immediate arrest.” Brown probably had no idea when he made his comments that an arrest would be 15 years away.
Police had narrowed down the suspects to three: Kurt, Robin, and Billy, but could not positively link any of them to the murder. With the surviving Rouses united in their stonewalling of the probe, authorities could not even offer one immunity to discuss what he or she knew for fear that that one would claim complete responsibility.
“The problem is not so much that we have to find who did it, but we have to be able to show that no one else could have done it,” Brown said six months after the killings.
Shortly after the murders, Billy and Robin were each hospitalized, suffering, it was reported, from post-traumatic stress disorder. Both were soon released and were undergoing therapy when Billy decided to talk to authorities about the murders. What he said, however, wasn’t much help and the case remained open, but very cold.
The Rouse children subsequently inherited much of their parents’ $1 million estate, and with the investigation stalled, went their own ways.
In 1983, Robin Rouse died in a one-car accident outside Racine, Wisc. She was traveling at high speed when she lost control of her car and hit a utility pole.
Sheriff Brown’s successor, Robert “Mickey” Babcox said her death dealt the investigation a serious blow.
“I do feel that she was one of the closest ones and best to deal with,” Babcox said. “She’s a Rouse, she was there when it happened.”
There was never any indication that the crash was anything other than a tragic accident.
By the time Robin died, Kurt and Billy had dropped out of mainstream society. Kurt took his share of the inheritance and was living quietly on land he purchased in California. Billy, however, was still having problems.
He had a series of drug- and alcohol-related legal scrapes, and was living in a transient hotel in Key West, Fla. Neither Kurt nor Billy was cooperating with authorities periodically looking into the killings. After all, police surmised, there was nothing that could be done until one or the other confessed or implicated their late sister. By 1984, no investigator was working on the case except to keep track of where Billy and Kurt were living.
“It’s their business to say whatever they want to say,” one of the family’s attorneys told the media. “But there’s no case — nothing that’s being done that I know of.”
Another 11 years would go by with no movement on the case until Billy was arrested as an accomplice in a pair of South Florida bank robberies.
By 1995 he had burned through his inheritance and had been in jail at least four times on various drug-related charges. He had been married and divorced and was living in a flea-bitten, rotting houseboat with several other itinerants. In 1984 he was arrested for attempted murder in a stabbing over a chess match. He was convicted of misdemeanor battery and received 60 days in jail.
“His lifestyle to me was one of someone who was running from something,” said the prosecutor who handled that case. “He was always on the edge, trying to run away from something.”
Key West police lieutenant Duke Yannacone, who had been in contact with the Lake County, Illinois cold case squad over the years, recalled his first interview with Billy.
“He was sitting in a room across the hall from my desk and he told me he had gotten 300 grand,” Yannacone said. “I asked him what he did with it, and he said, ‘I blew it drinking.’”
In 1995 Yannacone contacted Lake County authorities about Billy’s arrest and on October 9, 1995, cold case detectives rushed south to interrogate him once more. This time Billy was willing to talk.
“As soon as he looked up and saw Chuck (Sgt. Charles Fagan, an original investigator), he started crying,” said one person who was present. “The time was right to talk with him again.”
On October 12, 1995, Billy confessed to killing his parents in a 37-minute, profanity-laced admission of guilt.
“I expected you guys a long time ago,” Billy told Sgt. Fagan. “I think I really might have done it.”
Billy agreed to take a lie-detector test. He discussed his final argument with his mother over his drug use and became incensed when she told him he was heading to a military school. After his parents went to bed, while under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms and booze, Billy decided to kill them. He considered using a steak knife, but decided instead on the shotgun.
“I decided I’m going to get rid of my mom. I said if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it,” he confessed. “I walked into the room, put the shotgun up to her head and the trigger went off.” When his father awoke, he shot him, blowing off his jaw, but not killing him. Billy stabbed his father to death.
After the killing, he was immediately struck with remorse, he said.
“Why’d I do this, man? Why’d I do this,” he asked himself. Then, he told detectives, he realized that “the shit I had to deal with then was gone.”
In 1996 32-year-old Billy was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to two 40-year terms — the maximum penalty available at the time he committed the crimes.
The “Rouse House” as it was always known, had an interesting history of its own.
After the murders was sold several times, including to the Chicago Outfit — the city’s Cosa Nostra franchise, which operated it for a few years as an illegal casino with a capacity for 70 people. In 1982, a gambler who had run afoul of the Outfit’s Infelise crew, was murdered there.
In 2002 the house was destroyed in a mysterious fire that left nothing behind but ashes and bad memories.