NAPERVILLE, Ill. - The clues pointed toward Larry Eyler for more than a decade.
A dead man's blood was found on his boots, but the evidence was thrown out on a technicality. The day after another body was found, Eyler was treated at a hospital for a knife wound. Later that day, he bought handcuffs and a knife.
So it was little surprise to prosecutors across Illinois and Indiana when a lawyer announced yesterday that Eyler had admitted before he died of AIDS on Sunday that he killed 21 people over two years in the early 1980s.
"He was our prime suspect" in the death of a man whose body was found in 1982, said Tim Bukowski, a spokesman for the Kankakee County Sheriff's Department.
Eyler died while on death row for a murder he never admitted to. He also was serving a 60-year sentence for one of the 21 killings.
Kathleen Zellner, the lawyer who handled his appeals, said Eyler had told her over the past three years of the slayings.
Zellner couldn't reveal the confessions while Eyler was alive because of lawyer-client privilege, but she said she persuaded him to let her release his confession after his death.
"I think there's a poetic justice in it, that what couldn't be accomplished through the legal system, I guess, was taken care of maybe by a higher authority," she said.
His admission brought relief to the families of his victims.
"We thought for a long time that Larry did it. Now we know for a fact that he admitted to doing it, and we can maybe go on with our lives now," said Charles McNeive, whose brother Danny was found dead in Indiana in 1983.
Zellner released a list of 21 killings Eyler confessed to, along with the places and dates where victims were found between 1982 and 1984. Zellner's list gave no name for seven of the victims. Eleven were found in Indiana and nine in Illinois; one body has never been found.
She also released a letter Eyler wrote in 1990 to former Gov. James Thompson offering to confess to the killings. The letter was never mailed.
Eyler was sentenced to death for killing a 15-year-old male prostitute in 1984 but never admitted he was guilty. The dismembered body was found in trash bags near his Chicago home. He pleaded guilty in 1990 to participating in a 1982 killing in Terre Haute, Ind., and was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
In 1983, Indiana authorities investigating a series of killings confiscated some of Eyler's belongings, including his boots and a knife. They later said blood taken from the boots matched that of one of the victims.
But a judge suppressed the evidence, saying it was illegally obtained.
Zellner described Eyler as a brilliant, manipulative man whose urge to kill was fueled by drugs and alcohol and sparked by fights with his lover.
"He described the rage that would build up in him. He described the killing, and then he described a sense of relief afterward," she said.
Eyler lured his victims with offers of liquor, drugs and money, then drove them to remote areas where they were handcuffed, bound, gagged and blindfolded, she said. Not all of Eyler's victims were homosexual, Zellner said, and Eyler never had sex during the abductions.
Zellner said an accomplice helped Eyler commit four of the killings. She said she knew the person's identity and would give it to authorities. She also urged others who may have helped in moving evidence to come forward.
The confessions are not enough by themselves to prove Eyler was responsible for the slayings, prosecutors said.
"I don't think that anyone's any closer to determining that Eyler committed these crimes," said Andy Knott, spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney.
That doesn't mean the confessions serve no purpose.
"It's not for the police, it's for the families," said Indianapolis police Lt. Steven Garner. "When your son, your brother has been dead for years, you want some sort of finality to it: `Just tell me the truth, no matter how grotesque it is.'
"All of these families can now put their children to rest."