Small southern Ill. town stunned by truck driver’s confession

By Ryan Lenz

ALBION, Ill. – Many people in this southern Illinois town thought Bruce Mendenhall was loud, hot-tempered and a little peculiar, but they still were stunned to hear police say he has confessed to killing six people.

“Everyone’s in disbelief that we had an individual living here like this,” Albion Mayor Ryan Hallam said Friday.

Mendenhall, a 56-year-old truck driver who once ran unsuccessfully for mayor in Albion, was arrested Thursday in Nashville, Tenn., at the same interstate truck stop where 25-year-old Sara Hulbert was found fatally shot two weeks ago.

Mendenhall was charged with criminal homicide, and police said he confessed to killing five other people in Tennessee, Indiana, Alabama and Georgia.

Illinois State Police were preparing to search Mendenhall’s house Friday. The small white house surrounded by cornfields had been roped off with police tape since Thursday.

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“We’re looking for any items of evidence of first degree murder,” state police Lt. Tom Oliverio said.

Mendenhall’s wife, Linda, was at her sister’s house and left the room when a reporter came to the door. “We just want the family to be left alone for now,” her sister Judy Kohler said.

A court-appointed attorney for Mendenhall, Jason Gichner, declined to comment on the case.

A Nashville police detective recognized Mendenhall’s rig and trailer from a description of a truck that had been spotted at the truck stop shortly before Hulbert’s body was found, according to an affidavit filed Thursday by a Nashville prosecutor.

When the detective approached Mendenhall he noticed blood inside the cab.

Nashville police say Mendenhall confessed, and then gave them details about five other killings.

Local authorities said they were investigating whether Mendenhall was responsible for a 48-year-old woman found June 6 who had been fatally shot and stuffed into a trash can in Lebanon, Tenn.; a 43-year-old woman found shot to death Feb. 22 at a Lake Station, Ind. truck stop; a 43-year-old woman found dead Jan. 29 at a motel parking lot in Atlanta; and a 44-year-old woman shot to death July 1 in Birmingham, Ala.

Police in Indianapolis said they have not been able to match the information Mendenhall gave to Nashville authorities to any unsolved killings.

Word of Mendenhall’s arrest swept like wildfire through his tiny southeastern Illinois hometown of Albion, which has only about 2,000 residents and is best known for its annual pork festival held just last weekend.

The mayor said Mendenhall – married with two grown children – was “a little different” from other people in town. He had a loud voice, but generally kept to himself, aside from an unsuccessful campaign against a preacher for the mayor’s seat about a decade ago.

“He didn’t mix well with the others around him, but we never had any problems with him,” Hallam said.

Mendenhall apparently ran for office because he was angry at the city for ordering him to clear junked cars from his property, Albion Police Chief Doyle Judge said.

“We’ve had a few encounters with him, but nothing of any great magnitude,” Judge said, noting only one disruption over a traffic stop involving Mendenhall’s daughter.

“Otherwise, you didn’t hear from him,” said Judge, a 34-year veteran of law enforcement in Edwards County, among the tiniest in Illinois, with about 6,000 residents. “He had some different concepts on things. He appeared to be pretty easily upset, provoked, that kind of thing.”

Mendenhall has no known criminal record, Sgt. Joe Murphy of the Illinois State Police said Friday.

Neighbor Kiley Barnett, a 27-year-old stay-at-home mom, said she always thought the entire family was weird, “especially him.” She said they would never wave hello when they drove past her mobile home.

“I’ve tried waving at him a hundred different times and nobody in the car ever waved back,” she said.

Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report