By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
Scott Schweickert's hometown neighbors can't relate a good-hearted kid to a murder investigation.
PERU, Ill. - Scott Schweickert grew up here, in the wide open heartland, where only the weathered silos and white clapboard farmhouses interrupt the corn and soybean fields that stretch toward the horizon.
The town of Peru, population 9,900, sits on the banks of the Illinois River. It's 100 miles west of Chicago, but a world away. People here still wave to passing cars. Church steeples dot the landscape.
Robert and Rosanna Schweickert have lived here for decades in a modest house in a modest neighborhood, where tall trees shade well-manicured lawns.
They had 13 children, so it's nearly impossible to live in Peru and not encounter a Schweickert. Several followed their father into the masonry business. One ran a bar. One works as a postmaster. Another headed to the Air Force.
When Scott Schweickert, 39, was arrested last week in Tampa and implicated in connection to the murders of two gay men, the news sent chills down Main Street.
"You have to understand, every family in this area would have had a connection to the Schweickert family," said George Leynaud, a local lawyer who grew up in Peru. "They are a wonderful family." He called them well-respected, hard-working and reputable.
Therein lies the mystery of Scott Schweickert.
In Tampa, if investigators are correct, he is a sadistic, scheming predator prone to drugging unsuspecting gay men, torturing them and assisting in their gruesome murders.
In Chicago, he is a question mark, a man who lived briefly in a heavily gay section of the city and now has people there wondering if he is connected to a gay man's murder in 2004.
But in Peru, he is still just Scott, the polite, quiet boy who made good grades, worked on his high school yearbook staff, attended the local Catholic church and shuttled people to Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
At LaSalle-Peru Township High School, Schweickert graduated in 1983 with a 3.64 grade-point average, his school transcripts show.
He spent time at a local community college before transferring to Illinois State University, in Normal, Ill., where he earned two bachelor's degrees.
For most of his life, his biggest transgressions seemed to come behind the wheel of his car. Since 1988, records show, he has accumulated more than 15 violations, from speeding to driving with a suspended license.
But an incident in February 1998 hinted at a more sinister side.
According to court records, Schweickert met an ISU student and asked about having work done on his computer. The two went to his Bloomington, Ill., apartment.
As the man worked on his computer, Schweickert confronted him with a pair of black handcuffs and a 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun. The man tried to flee, and Schweickert pistol-whipped him in the back of the head, records show. The man escaped, but needed stitches.
Schweickert pleaded guilty to aggravated battery, a felony, in McLean County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to 30 months probation and served 6 months in jail, state records show.
A judge also ordered him to undergo a mental health evaluation. The evaluator strongly recommended psychotherapy. Records show Schweickert saw no need for counseling.
Ed Auer, the father of the battery case victim, said the crime traumatized his son and should have included more prison time.
Asked about Schweickert's recent Florida arrest and his alleged connections to the murders there, Auer sighed. "I'm not surprised," he said. "When people like that are just let go, what do you expect? Obviously, the established laws don't frighten them."
Three months into his jail sentence, Schweickert's parents wrote the judge, begging that their son be allowed to attend their 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
Records show the request was denied.
Schweickert moved on to a series of jobs.
Records show he worked for a Cincinnati hardware supply company and 84 Lumber in Pennsylvania.
In 2003, he headed to Orlando to become a certified personal trainer. But he had trouble, with the law and with money. Court records show his debt reached as much as $40,000 from credit card bills, student loans and a car loan.
In December 1999, while working in Athens, Ga., he was arrested on DUI charges. He pleaded no contest. A judge found him in violation of his probation.
Other traffic citations followed, in Tennessee and in Illinois. In June, he was arrested back home in LaSalle County for driving with a revoked license, his second such offense. He pleaded guilty and wrote a letter to the judge claiming he'd driven to help a friend. He said jail time would ruin his burgeoning personal training business.
At least six other people - parents, friends, even a neighbor - wrote the judge, praising Schweickert.
"I can confirm he is a man of great integrity, honesty, and character," one friend wrote. "He is extremely dedicated to his family, friends, and work, and is entirely peace-loving." His parents expressed similar sentiments and added that he often helped around the house.
The judge sentenced Schweickert to 60 days. He was released in April and, according to authorities, headed to Florida.
Somewhere along the way, he met Steven Lorenzo. Federal affidavits claim the two men often chatted over the Internet about finding unsuspecting men to dominate.
One affidavit claims Schweickert told investigators how he and Lorenzo, 46, met two men at 2606, a Tampa bar. The affidavit says Schweickert and Lorenzo invited the men to Lorenzo's Seminole Heights bungalow, sexually assaulted them, killed them and dumped their bodies.
Schweickert, 39, has not yet been charged in the murders, but authorities say he implicated himself in the killings of Jason Galehouse and Michael Wachholtz, 26-year-old men who lived in Tampa and disappeared in late December 2003. Federal prosecutors are charging Schweickert as an accessory after the fact to a drug-facilitated crime of violence.
The recent Tampa charges have garnered attention in Chicago, where police announced Sunday they are investigating whether Schweickert is connected to at least two unsolved murders there.
While the case has made ripples in Chicago, it has made a splash in the small towns 100 miles west. The local newspaper has picked up the story, and clerks in the county courthouse talk about it in hushed tones.
At Schweickert's parents' home on Wednesday, a man who identified himself as Scott Schweickert's brother answered the door and politely declined to comment.
In court files, the contradictory descriptions of Scott Schweickert stretch from Peru to Bloomington to Chicago, and on to Georgia and Florida. Some call him a sexual deviant with a penchant for violence. They call him, in many ways, a killer.
But then there are the other files, where family and friends swear their Scott is the kind one, the man of integrity and character, the small town kid with a good heart. They include loving parents, pleading with a judge not to take their son.
"P.S." his parents wrote earlier this year, "We need him! We are each 77 years old and need his help. Don't know what we would do without him."