In 1979, teenagers in Morton Grove, Illinois, often hung out by a river in a patch of woods. They would smoke pot there or just goof around, generally away from authority figures.
But on Sept. 5 that year, the community was shocked when two 17-year-old girls were found shot dead there. The girls, friends Eyvonne Bender and Sue Ovington, were well-liked, and homicides were almost unheard of in the north suburb.
Forty-four years later, the case remains unsolved. Family members are frustrated that no charges have been filed and little information has been shared about the case. Ovington’s parents went to their graves not knowing who did it, and Bender’s parents remain suspicious of various people connected with the case.
Now, a family friend has come forward and offered to increase the Cook County Crime Stoppers’ reward in the case to as much $10,000. Tom Sprague, who like the girls was a senior at Niles West High School, said he remains haunted by the tragedy.
“I think a better word is, it angers me,” he said. “It’s horrifying. It’s the fact that it happened and the Police Department, at least from the outside looking in, is doing nothing.”
Morton Grove police dispute that, and issued a news release publicizing the reward and laying out what they have been doing, stating, “The investigation has remained open, and ongoing leads have been investigated.”
The case originally was investigated by department detectives and reviewed by them with investigators and forensic specialists from the North Regional Major Crimes Task Force in the 2000s.
In 2005, the department and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office cold case unit continued a joint investigation and reviewed all leads. Since 2020, police said, Morton Grove detectives have been actively working on this case, following up leads, and interviewing witnesses across the country.
The police denied a request by family friend Paul Meyer to see the case file under the state Freedom of Information Act. The Illinois attorney general’s office ruled the department should share the file with its office and explain why it shouldn’t be shared with Meyer. Morton Grove Chief Michael Simo replied in a letter that the investigation was active and could be compromised by divulging information that could invite false confessions, as already happened once, or could give the offender ways to avoid prosecution
There have been 34 interviews conducted in the case, most recently in March 2023, with 62 more interviews planned of friends or suspects or persons of interest in the near future, Simo wrote.
Simo disputed claims the police haven’t had the funding to conduct the investigation, writing that detectives have traveled to multiple states to conduct interviews, have been paid significant overtime, with significant spending on private labs. There also is a commitment for future funding for additional advanced testing of items to help identify a killer or killers.
“There is real actionable intelligence in this case that could lead to the arrest of the offender(s),” Simo wrote.
Detectives continue to meet with DNA experts from the Illinois State Police, Northeast Illinois Regional Crime Lab and FBI to review and reexamine DNA evidence.
Police said they also continue to consult with the state’s attorney, the FBI Behavior Analysis Unit and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Private laboratories such as Bode Technology in Lorton, Virginia, continue to analyze DNA evidence. Federal and private grants have been applied for to fund additional testing and analysis.
Simo, who joined the force in 2014, said he has experienced investigators on the case, including the head of forensics for the regional violent crimes task force.
“Though I understand that some people might be frustrated with what happened in the past,” he said, “all we can do is go forward, and do the best we can now.”
Surviving family members were upset that the department initially investigated the case without the help of more experienced investigators from Chicago. Sprague, whose father was an officer on the Morton Grove police force and who says he is pro-police, called it a “Barney Fife” investigation, referencing a bumbling TV cop.
One of the Morton Grove investigators who originally worked on the case, Stanley Kubas, who later became a forest preserve ranger, was convicted of poaching deer in a forest preserve and received probation for possession of a pound of cocaine.
Family members described the two girls as bubbly and friendly. Ovington had tried out for the cheerleading team and didn’t make it. She worked at a store not far from the homicide scene. Bender taught Sunday school.
The day of the killings was to have been the first day of school at Niles West, but classes were canceled due to a teachers’ strike. Ovington, who lived nearby in Morton Grove, and Bender, of Skokie, were last seen about 2:15 that afternoon when they left in Bender’s car to go shopping.
After Ovington didn’t show up for a 5 p.m. date with her 22-year-old boyfriend, Joe Majerus, he found her car at a shopping center at Waukegan and Dempster roads. Their purses were inside the car, with money inside.
Bender’s 22-year-old boyfriend, Larry Olker, of Palatine, told the Tribune at the time that he became worried after Bender hadn’t returned home by 8 p.m. He and Majerus organized a search party of friends, who found the bodies around 9 p.m. that night in St. Paul Woods Forest Preserve near the same intersection.
Police said the victims were killed along a bike path behind a Goldblatt’s department store, and dragged behind brush near the North Branch of the Chicago River, at a popular spot for teens. The girls had been shot in the head and body with a .38-caliber gun, which was not recovered, and they were partially clothed, according to news accounts.
Several of the boys in the search party owned large-caliber guns and turned them over to investigators. Police said they dragged the river three times but found no weapon. They questioned all the youths twice about how they were able to find the girls in the dark.
Majerus had been dating Ovington for three years after they’d met at a gas station where they worked. In his wallet, he carried a picture of her with the inscription, “I’ll love you until the day I die,” a Lerner newspaper reported. Olker said he met Bender through Majerus, his childhood friend.
Police at the time said they were checking for any possible connection with a rape that occurred about a mile away less than two weeks previously, when a man forced a 15-year-old girl off Dempster Street and into the woods at knifepoint.
Sue Ovington’s brother, Dick Ovington, of Crystal Lake, said Majerus was a trusted boyfriend to his sister. Ovington was upset that police wouldn’t share information in the case after so long that might help shake loose new leads.
“We’re getting the same story for 44 years,” he said. “They’re talking to people, they’re interviewing people. It got to the point where my dad just told them, don’t bother calling anymore unless they have someone in custody.”
Bender’s older sister, Sharon Peterson, who had to view both victims at the county morgue, said the killings and aftermath were a huge burden for family members.
“I’m hoping that someone eventually will have a guilty conscience and say I know who did this,” she said. “It would be great to have closure, because my mother has never been the same since then.”
Anyone with information connected to the Morton Grove case is asked to call the police tip line at 847-663-3828.
While cold cases are notoriously difficult to solve, the murders of seven people at a Brown’s Chicken in Palatine in 1993 was solved nearly nine years later when one of the killers was implicated by his girlfriend.