Habitual offenders: A case study in decades of crimes committed by a few

Target 3

CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA)– Much of the serious crime taking place in Central Illinois is committed by a small percentage of people.

WCIA’s Target 3 investigative team has heard frustration about numerous cases over the last several months, and when a victim of domestic abuse by a habitual offender in Coles County reached out to tell her story, we dove in a little further.

“That’s my biggest fear every day when I come home: Is my door still locked? Is he going to be hiding around the corner?” Jodee Gravil shared with investigative reporters in her Charleston home.

Gravil is talking about her ex-husband, Alphie Vatalaro. He has a lengthy criminal history, including arson, multiple burglaries and domestic battery. Those charges date back to the early 1990s, crossing multiple county and state lines.

In Champaign County, 31 felonies have been filed against another man in a similar time period. Most recently, Stephen Booker is accused of hitting a woman with his car on purpose, then getting out of the car to beat her.

So, how do some offenders continue to be released and re-offend for several decades?

In this article, we took a closer look at a few habitual offenders, both from the perspective of the prosecuting attorneys and the victims, whose trauma doesn’t disappear when a case is closed.

“I was in shock. I just had no idea who he was.”

Jodee Gravil, Charleston, IL

Jodee Gravil Met her ex-husband Alphie Vatalaro about three years ago. They used to live together at Gravil’s house in Charleston.

“He had told me that he had two DUIs so he didn’t have a license. I knew he had a couple of other instances, things that I had looked up in Coles County,” Gravil explained. “…Those were the records that I had seen at that point.”

That is until things escalated this year.

In April, Charleston police were called to their home for a reported domestic battery. According to the affidavit, Gravil told the officer that Vatalaro was drunk and they began arguing over something on his phone.

“He had gotten up and I picked up his phone and went towards the kitchen,” Gravil began. “…And he punched me in the back, very hard. I landed on my face, and he immediately jumped on my back, grabbed my hair…”

Police found Vatalaro a couple of blocks away, according to the affidavit. After initially denying it, Vatalaro admitted he pushed his wife down but he denied hitting her or pulling her hair.

Vatalaro was arrested that night. Less than a month later, he was arrested again for breaking into another woman’s home.

“Her sliding glass door was shattered and her house looked ransacked,” Gravil described.

She too had read that affidavit and at that point, Gravil ran a nationwide criminal background check on Vatalaro through a private company.

Through our own search of public court records and Freedom of Information Act Requests, we were able to confirm at least two DUI convictions, a stolen car, a previous domestic battery charge, property damage and two more burglaries, among other more minor offenses.

And, that’s just accounting for the convictions across three Illinois counties.

An arson charge stems from Sacramento, California in 1993 where he received his toughest sentence to date, six years in jail.

“I was in shock. I just had no idea who he was,” Gravil said about what she learned from the background check.

Alphie Vatalaro’s booking photo at the Coles County Jail on May 8

Of the convictions that got Vatalaro prison time, it’s unclear how much he served. The Illinois Department of Corrections denied that FOIA request for information.

“Calculating what defendant is going to serve in the Department of Corrections anymore is a very educated guess,” Coles County State’s Attorney Jesse Danley said in an interview at the courthouse.

“And they’ve left a lot of that up to the department because of resources, that’s plain and simple. No one wants to pay any more for prison but everybody wants, you know, offenders to go to prison so there’s the catch.”

As the state’s attorney, Danley is the chief prosecutor in Coles County, where the majority of Vatalaro’s cases have been tried.

“We do our best to be fair, that’s all I can say,” Danley responded when asked if he believes his office leans toward tough or lenient.

Danley added, although past crimes are a factor in sentencing, at some point people should be rid of their past.

Prior to the domestic battery charge in April, Vatalaro’s last felony offense was 11 years ago.

“So the older his or her criminal history is, the less weight it has,” Danley explained.

He said sentencing is part judgment and creativity, but mostly it’s about following state statute.

“And that’s what the Legislature has told us. It’s what the courts have told us, is that, you know, really we’re looking at the last 10 years,” Danley continued.

Vatalaro plead guilty to the burglary and domestic battery charges last week and he was sentenced to a total of six years for the two charges. Gravil said that feels minimal.

We asked the same of Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz.

Renée: “Does it matter how long ago previous offenses are? I mean, how do you sort of calculate that without an algorithm to put it into?”
Julia Rietz, Champaign County State’s Attorney: “Well, in the federal system, there is an algorithm actually…It is very set and mathematical but in the state criminal system, there is not that kind of algorithm and it really comes down to judgment.”

Rietz added, prior criminal history is rarely allowed to be used in a trial.

“We don’t want the jury to find somebody guilty of theft because they’ve committed theft before,” she explained. “You know, we have to prove that specific case.”

Rietz said commonly recurring crimes like domestic violence are typically an exception, but that requires witnesses.

“You have to ask, you know, somebody to come in and talk about something that happened to them in the past,” Rietz explained.

The prosecutor’s ability to prove a case is just as important to the outcome of a sentence as criminal history is, according to Rietz.

All of that said, as offenses pile up, the prosecution has the power to recommend increasingly tough sentences in Illinois.

Each felony class has a range of possibilities, including jail time or probation:

  • Class 4: 1-3 years in prison
  • Class 3: 2-5, years in prison
  • Class 2: 3-7 years in prison
  • Class 1: 4-15 years in prison
  • Class X: 6-30 years in prison
  • First Degree Murder: 20-60 years in prison.

Beyond that, with repeated offenses like battery, extended-term sentences become available.

“That’s basically double the regular range,” Rietz simplified.

Stephen Booker is awaiting trial in an aggravated domestic battery case from June.

Overall, 31 felony charges have been filed against Booker in Champaign County. He was not convicted on all of them but of the convictions, several show a pattern, including domestic battery and robbery. He was given extended sentences for both of those charges, according to Rietz.

Stephen Booker’s booking photo at the Champaign County Jail on June 14

Booker’s last robbery resulted in an 8-year prison sentence, as opposed to the typical 2-7 years.

Renée: “Are those maximums tough enough? Is jail the answer?”
Rietz: “You know, there are two different schools of thought. There’s the lock them up and throw away the key school of thought…Then there’s the ‘Give people an opportunity,'” she replied.

“…I don’t want to live in a world where we just throw away people and we don’t believe that people inherently have the ability to change and move forward positively.”

Once we solidified how state’s attorneys consider criminal history in recommending sentences, the question remained: Do they also look at records that exist beyond county or even state borders?

Danley said yes to both, but added, nationwide and even state records are a little less reliable than county records.

There is a statewide database called “LEADS” or Law Enforcement Agencies Data System. The interface is not exclusive to Illinois, but it is used statewide. County clerks are required to continuously update it with charges and dispostions, and according to Danley, it’s fairly accurate.

There is also a nationwide criminal records system: NCIS, or National Crime Information Systems. Danley said, in contrast, it’s not very reliable for finding past convictions.

“It’s amazing and you know, social media can…Something can happen in, you know, Bangor, Maine and we know about it in about an hour. You know, whereas criminal histories across state lines are very challenging,” he added.

The Coles County State’s Attorney said he typically focuses more on Illinois criminal history in the courtroom because he trusts its accuracy.

Let’s return to Jodee Gravil’s story. She told Target 3 she fears for her safety because of her ex-husband’s past, and since she’s known him, he has spent no more than two months in jail.

Although that will likely change given Alphie Vatalaro’s recent 6-year prison sentence, he’s managed to bond out of jail while awaiting a verdict on multiple charges in the last year alone.

It’s an option available when anyone is arrested. Once a cash bond is set, they have the option to pay to go home until there’s a conviction. If a case goes to trial, it can be a years long process.

So, how is the price of bail determined by the courts?

Let’s start with Vatalaro. Gravil’s ex-husband was arrested in April for an allegedly shoving and hitting her during an argument. A few days later he was released from the Coles County Jail on bond.

He paid $250.

Vatalaro was arrested again about three weeks later, that time it was for a residential burglary. Since then, he bonded out of jail again.

“I’m just blown away that he can just…He has no regard to the law whatsoever,” Gravil reacted. “…I don’t feel like I know him so I don’t know what to expect out of him. That makes the fear worse because I don’t know what he’s capable of.”

Fast forward to August. Gravil said Vatalaro kept reaching out to her. He sent her almost 50 messages in a single night.

That violated the order of protection Gravil has against him. He was arrested in late August and he has been in the Coles County Jail ever since.

He remained in jail Wednesday. Although, the order of protection violation has since been dropped. That happened in the same hearing that Vatalaro was sentenced for the burglary and domestic battery.

The Coles County State’s Attorney said state statute was followed in setting Vatalaro’s latest bonds.

“I will own every single mistake I’ve ever made, my office ever made, I will, I’ll own it but this is not one,” Danley added. “You know, we set bond in the amount that’s based on a lot of different factors.”

A long list of factors are spelled out in state statute, but again, there is no set algorithm dictating what a judge ultimately sets.

“So in this, Mr. Vatalaro’s, case and I mean, it is consistent with the statute,” Danley added. “And when it was very clear, a month later, that he committed residential burglary, do I wish he’d been in custody so it hadn’t been committed? Of course, but he posted bond.”

Looking at the three offenses Vatalaro was charged with in 2021, the bond amount increased each time.

In the domestic battery arrest, bond was set at $2,500. Vatalaro paid the 10% required by state statute, which is $250. When he was arrested for residential burglary, his bond increased to $50,000. Vatalaro paid $5,000. Three months later he violated the order of protection and the court set bond at $100,000.

“And that’s the question is not how I feel about it, it’s am I following the law?” Danley added.

In August, a small group held a peaceful protest for higher bonds and tougher penalties outside of the Coles County Courthouse.

“The people of Charleston, at least in my opinion, are tired of justice not being served properly,” shared protester Teresa Grammer.

For the most part they were protesting what they say is a lack of action around a young woman’s death.

Jason Jennings is accused of drug-induced homicide for the death of his 26-year-old girlfriend Nichole Carver in Sept. 2020, a Class X felony. The Charleston man made bail about a week and a half after his arrest this August, almost a year after Carver’s death.

Picture of Nichole Carver, courtesy of her mother Jennifer Moffett

Danley wouldn’t comment much on the case, citing fear of tampering with the trial, but he did say, “It’s been a complicated, ongoing investigation for some time.”

He added, he “couldn’t file charges a moment before [he] believed [he] could prove the case in trial.”

Protesters were frustrated that Jennings remains free on bond while he awaits trial. A date has not been set.

“I do not feel that the bond he received was in accordance with the crime,” Grammer said. “I find that disappointing and insulting.”

Jason Jenning’s booking photo at the Coles County Jail on August 6

Public record shows the state requested Jennings’s bond be set at $250,000. The court ended up setting it at $50,000.

“The judge has to consider these factors, the state has to argue these factors. Do I agree with all of them? Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Danley said. “Do I want higher bonds than the judge gives me sometimes? Absolutely.”

“…But that’s a tough thing to describe to anybody in the public or otherwise, that’s not in the courtroom every day seeing, you know, what the arguments are [that are] being made and the framework in which those arguments have to be made,” he continued.

Gravil said she’s worried the more often domestic abusers are released, the less likely women are to report it.

“Because if it just infuriates the abuser and they don’t get any protection, then either they’re going to get hurt worse, or they’re going to go back and just stay in it because they have no other options,” she explained.

For some non-violent offenders, the cost of posting bonds can be a huge burden.

State lawmakers have been moving away from using cash bail for several years. The 2017 Bail Reform Act said people charged with non-violent misdemeanors or low-level felonies can be released without paying.

And in 2021, Illinois legislators passed the Pretrial Fairness Act. It’s poised to eliminate the role of money bonds by 2023. Instead, judges can impose other restrictions like wearing electronic monitors or setting curfews.

Finally, how can we reduce recidivism, or repeat offenses, in Illinois?

Danley said it needs to happen before crimes are committed, in other words, identifying and addressing things like mental illness and substance abuse at an earlier age.

Rietz said people also re-offend due to barriers that exist when someone is released from prison.

“Housing, employment, access to services, you know,” she began.

“And just, frankly, the idea that ‘I’m a convicted felon, and therefore I can’t accomplish the things that I want to accomplish.’ You know, that’s a mindset that that that might not be true, but is very easy to fall back into.”

Rietz said there are a number of organizations currently working to improve access to these basic needs.

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