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True crime psychologist sharing insights with Central Illinois library-goers

The chair of Illinois Wesleyan University’s Department of Psychology, Dr. Amanda Vicary, knows a thing or two about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men — and women.

Vicary will discuss her research on true crime and why people — especially women — are drawn to tales of murder and mayhem during a library-hosted webinar to he held on Wednesday, June 29, at 6:30 pm.

“It seems the things women are attracted to about true crime is that there are things that could lead to them not being victims of violent crime themselves, such as preventing being kidnapped or learning what to do if they were to be kidnapped,” said Vicary, who earned her undergraduate degree at Bradley. “People, especially women, seem to be drawn to that information.”

At Wesleyan, Vicary teaches courses on crime and the justice system, gender, and social psychology, as well as research topics related to the criminal justice system. In recent years, Vicary has led first-year psychology students in exploring cases of potential wrongful convictions in Illinois. These cases include those of convicted murderers Barton McNeil, who was sentenced to 100 years in prison for the murder of his daughter, and Jamie Snow, who was found guilty of murder during a robbery that netted $60 on Easter Sunday 1991. Both men are from Bloomington.

“Bart was convicted back in (1999) for the murder of his daughter. There’s new evidence in the case, the biggest being the fact that the person he originally pegged for the murder, his girlfriend, went on to murder someone else. Bart is represented by the Innocence Project and the case is working its way through the court system,” Vicary said.

Snow, also convicted in the 1990s, was found guilty in the slaying of fuel station attendant Bill Little. “There was some questionable eyewitness verification and snitches in his case, and he is being represented by the Exoneration Project. That case is also in front of the court. We study these cases in my classes and the students have a chance to talk to both of the men on the phone, read their trial transcripts and things like that,” said Vicary.

More than a dozen central Illinois libraries are hosting the interactive webinar, which is sponsored by the Chillicothe Public Library, in part.

“True crime is certainly popular right now — not only that section of the library shelves, but also in popular culture, podcasts, and TV,” said Catherine Barnett, activities director for the Chillicothe Public Library. “And libraries seem eager to bring the topic to their patrons, too: we reached out to other libraries in the region to see if they would like to collaborate, and we ended up with a group of more than a dozen partnering libraries! We are all excited to host Dr. Vicary and get her perspective on this phenomenon.”

In the same true crime vein, Chillicothe Public Library hosted a discussion of "The Starved Rock Murders" on June 28, the day before Vicary's program. The book is an account written in 1982 by Steve Stout about a triple murder at Starved Rock State Park in 1960. The discussion is part of the library's nonfiction book club, Curiosity & Cheesecake, which meets monthly on the last Tuesday at 6:30pm.

Vicary has appeared on a number of podcasts and in other formats to discuss true crime. These podcasts, which are still available online, include a 2018 interview with Scott Reeder for his “Suspect Convictions — Season 2” series, National Public Radio, HBO’s “The Staircase” (pending) and, the Oxygen Network and, most recently, IDTV, where she discussed the Jeff Pelo case.

In June 2008, a jury convicted Pelo, a 17-year veteran of the Bloomington Police Department, of 35 counts that included 25 counts of aggravated sexual assault. His attorneys are still working to get the convictions overturned.

Vicary said she caught the “true crime bug” at a very early age. Her passion for reversing wrongful convictions is newer, occurring over the past five or six years, she said.

“I think I was drawn to the mystery component of it: Did this person really do it? Because if not, who did? You’ve also got the emotional element of just how horrible it would be to be imprisoned for something you didn’t do, with the whole world thinking you’re a rapist or a murderer and no one is listening? It struck a chord with me as to just how terrible that must be,” said Vicary.

Those interested in the 6:30 p.m. June 29 webinar may register for the Zoom or come in person to the Chillicothe Public Library to participate with others. You may call the Chillicothe Public Library with questions at (309) 274-2719.

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.