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Remembering George Ryan's victims

Benjamin Willis. Joseph Willis. Samuel Willis. Hank Willis. Elizabeth Willis. Peter Willis.

Remember them? Sorry to say, it looks like many of the reporters covering former Republican Gov. George Ryan's release from prison don't think those names worthy of a mention.

In 10 stories I have read today on Ryan's release, including the AP story on our website, I found the Willis children mentioned in one.

They were six children who burned to death on Nov. 8, 1994, when a tail-light assembly fell off of a semi-trailer on a Milwaukee expressway and caused the Willis' minivan to burst into flames when it punctured the gas tank. The oldest, Benjamin, was 12.

Investigation found the driver may have paid a bribe to get his license, when Ryan was secretary of state. The path of licenses for bribes, which got funneled into Ryan's gubernatorial campaign fund, eventually led to Ryan, who was convicted in 2006 on 18 counts of corruption.

Ryan's attorney, former Gov. James Thompson, spoke for his client, who under the terms of his probation is not allowed to speak to the media.

"He would like me to tell you he's grateful to leave the penitentiary. He's grateful also for the encouragement and support from many people. He has paid a severe price. The loss of his wife and brother while he was in the penitentiary, the loss of his pension, his office, his good name and 5 1/2 years of imprisonment. Now near 80 years old, that is a significant punishment. But he is going to go forward."

No apology for destroying so many lives. But Ryan is sorry that he lost his pension.

So how did the Willis children die? We can go to the letters that their parents, Scott and Janet, wrote to the judge who sentenced Ryan. From mother Janet:

"I saw my son moments later lying on the street as people tried to help him. He hardly looked like my Ben. His hair and eyebrows were gone, his burned lips made it hard for him to talk. But I was grateful to be able to talk with him, a brief sentence or two. He asked about the others, then said, 'My feet are hot.' People were trying to quickly but gently pull off the remaining burned clothes. One man asked me if I would mind if he put his T-shirt over Ben's body. He had moistened it with a water bottle. As I stood there, I suddenly was aware of searing, blinding pain in my burned hands; I could not imagine what my son who was burned over much of his body was going through. Ben was put into a helicopter and the paramedic later told me our son was relatively calm and lost consciousness before landing.

Over a year later, I found out that Ben was very much alert in the emergency room. I had the opportunity to talk to the attendant who was at his side. In pediatric cases, she was in charge of simply being an emotional support to young patients who had no parent available. She told me, 'I believe he knew he was dying. He asked me to pray with him. He asked if someone would hold his hand; I couldn't because of his burns.'"

Ryan finished 5 1/2 years of his sentence, and only had to spend a few hours in the halfway house before returning to Kankakee today. The Willises, for the record, are on day 6,659 of their life sentence.  Tomorrow will be day 6,660. No parole or halfway house in their future on this earth.

And no apology from Ryan for sentencing six children to death. But he's sorry he lost his office.

No rememberance of Ryan's victims would be complete without the names of  Ed Hammer and Russell Sonneveld.

They were secretary of state police officers while Ryan still held the office before his election as governor. Their internal investigation as to how an unqualified truck driver got a license led them to Ryan's door.

And Ryan and his lieutenants did their best to destroy them. They squashed the investigation, transferred Hammer and fired Sonneveld.

Sonneveld, whom Ryan went after personally, died last October from cancer at age 63.

But Ryan is sorry that he lost his good name.

If I have anything to say about it, his name is, and always shall be, Inmate 16647-424.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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