Deadly Dispute: The 1977 Murder of 17-year-old Kenneth Hellstrom
The senseless murder of teenager Kenneth Hellstrom, Jr. remained unsolved for 30 years until Fred J. Rogers confessed in 2007.
Kenneth “Kenny” Hellstrom, Jr. was born on October 20, 1959, to Kenneth and Carol Hellstrom. Kenny was one of seven children and the only son.
The Hellstrom family resided at 18511 Lexington Avenue in Homewood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Kenny attended Homewood-Flossmoor High School and worked part-time at a Homewood gas station at 2124 183rd Street, just blocks from his home.
On January 19, 1977, Kenny had finished his shift at the gas station at 9 pm. His mother, Carol, offered to pick him up, but he declined, choosing to walk the short distance.
Carol Hellstrom was watching television in the den with her daughters. One of Kenny’s sisters, around 14 years old at the time, went to the kitchen to make popcorn. Suddenly, someone was pounding on the back door. When she answered it, Kenny fell to the snowy ground. His sister hollered for Carol, who came rushing to the back door.
Carol later told Margaret Seltzner of the Southtown Star:
“Kenny was looking at the sky. He said nothing, but his eyes were open, and I could tell he was still breathing. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter?’ but there was no response.”
Carol then asked her son, “Who did this to you?” but he did not reply. Carol told her daughters to call the paramedics.
Despite being severely wounded, Kenny had staggered, bleeding heavily, several blocks to his home.
Carol held her son in her arms until paramedics arrived.
When the paramedics arrived and removed Kenny’s one-piece snowsuit, Carol “saw every spot where he was stabbed.”
They were able to revive Kenny once when his heart stopped.
Paramedics rushed Kenny to South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, where he died two hours later.
Kenny Hellstrom had been stabbed three times in the chest and four times in the back.
Homewood had not seen a murder in 22 years until the death of Kenny Hellstrom. Investigators questioned hundreds of people throughout the investigation.
At the time of his death, Kenny had $250 on him. Therefore, the police ruled out robbery as a motive.
In the recent years before his murder, Kenny had been the state’s star witness against a local man convicted of running a nationwide gay prostitution ring. Kenny’s family wondered if he was killed in retaliation, but investigators found no evidence linking the two cases together.
But something or someone had terrified Kenny in the days before his untimely death. Kenny had asked his mother if he could switch bedrooms with one of his sisters.
“He asked me if he could go upstairs because he was afraid,” Carol said. Kenny thought somebody was looking in the windows at him.
“We let him go upstairs, and he went and put paneling up over the windows. But he would not tell me what he was scared about.”
The night before his murder, Kenny decided to stay home and play with his German Shepherd, Chico, instead of going out with friends. According to Carol, he remained in the basement the entire night playing with Chico and eating Doritos. She thought this was strange because he usually liked to go hang out with friends.
John Wayne Gacy
A few years after the murder, detectives looked into the possibility that serial killer John Wayne Gacy had killed Kenny Hellstrom.
Gacy preyed on young men and boys in the Chicago area between 1972 and 1978, often dressing as a killer clown when he murdered them.
Kenny’s sister, Karen, checked out Gacy’s autobiography from a local library and noticed penciled marks on a page that talked about a possible Kenny and Gacy connection.
In the early 1990s, Homewood detectives interviewed John Wayne Gacy. But one of the investigators later said, “That’s not one of the angles we are looking at now.”
Three decades passed, and the murder investigation remained open.
A Fresh Pair of Eyes
In 2005, the Homewood Police Department was preparing to give Kenny Hellstrom’s murder case, its oldest unsolved homicide, to the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Cold Case Squad.
Homewood police records clerk Cynthia Murray, a former police officer, and Pat Harris, an investigator with the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, pulled the Hellstrom case files and arranged the information in an incident timeline. They checked for gaps or missed steps in the 1977 investigation.
The timeline revealed one person, in particular, was not appropriately interviewed in 1977.
A Long-Awaited Arrest
Fred J. Rogers was 16 at the time of the murder and attended high school with Kenny Hellstrom. He was a suspect in 1977 but ran away shortly after the killing, and police could not locate him.
Investigators learned that Rogers had drifted around the country, living in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. He earned money doing general labor work at construction sites.
Fast forward to 2007. It happened that Fred Rogers returned to his childhood home in the 18700 block of Crawford Avenue in Flossmoor, IL.
On the night of Friday, March 16, 2007, local police pulled Rogers over at 183rd Street and Kedzie Avenue for improper lane usage by sheer luck. Rogers had marijuana on him at the time, and police charged him with marijuana possession, in addition to the traffic violation.
Investigators asked Rogers about Kenny Hellstrom’s murder, and Rogers admitted that he had killed Kenny in 1977.
Following his arrest, Rogers told investigators why he killed Kenny Hellstrom and what kind of weapon he used, but the police did not release that information to the public.
Police said Kenny had agreed to meet Fred Rogers on the night of his murder, and a struggle ensued.
Trial and Conviction
Rogers appeared in Cook County Juvenile Court on Monday, March 19, 2007.
Because Rogers was a juvenile in 1977, prosecutors had to petition the court for Rogers to be charged as an adult.
A judge decided that Rogers would be tried as an adult.
At trial, Assistant State’s Attorney Nick D’Angelo testified that Kenny Hellstrom met Fred Rogers in a parking lot behind a local church. The two smoked a joint together.
During a videotaped interview, Rogers told investigators that Kenny made “sexual advances” during their meeting. Rogers pushed Kenny away, and Kenny told him, ‘he knew he liked it,’ D’Angelo said. Rogers became angry and stabbed Kenny.
In June 2012, Fred Rogers was sentenced to 22 years in prison for the murder of Kenny Hellstrom.
Due to sentencing laws in effect at the time of Kenny’s murder, Fred Rogers served only six years of his sentence. He was paroled in 2018 and lives in the Chicago area.
Kenny Hellstrom’s parents eventually relocated to Indiana.
Kenneth Hellstrom Sr. did not live long enough to see justice for his only son and namesake. He passed away on January 19, 2000 — the exact day of his son’s murder. He was 64 years old.
Carol Hellstrom passed away on June 1, 2010, at the age of 75.
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Grogg, Mitchell. “Man Sentenced in 35-Year-Old Murder Case.” NBC Chicago. June 15, 2012. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/fred-rogers-homewood-homicide/1929089/
Houlihan, Tom. “Justice Delayed as Time is Frozen.” Southtown Star. March 25, 2007. Downloaded on May 25, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com/image/538402874
Janssen, Kim. “‘This Was a Personal Issue’ Police Say of Teen’s Murder 30 Years Ago.” Southtown Star. Downloaded on May 25, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com/image/538401444
Seltzner, Margaret. “After 30 Years, Answers in Kenny’s Killing.” Southtown Star. March 22, 2007. Downloaded on May 25, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com/image/538401886
Sjostrom, Joseph. “Clues Sought in Town’s 1st Slaying in 22 Years.” Chicago Tribune. January 21, 1977. Downloaded on May 25, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com/image/383985541
Towle, Andy. “‘Gay Panic’ Surfaces as Motive Behind 1977 Chicago Murder.” TowleRoad.com. August 29, 2007. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.towleroad.com/2007/08/rogers-who-left/
Walberg, Matthew. “Luck Led to Arrest in 1977 Cold Case.” Chicago Tribune. March 21, 2007. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2007-03-21-0703210057-story.html