Man in prison for stabbing death of Edwardsville attorney wants to withdraw guilty plea
Twists and turns continue in an Edwardsville murder case involving prominent attorney Randy Gori, who was robbed and stabbed to death three years ago while at home with his two children.
First, accused killer Timothy Banowetz changed his plea from not guilty to guilty minutes before his 2021 trial was set to begin in Madison County Circuit Court. Then, he dismissed his court-appointed attorney at a sentencing hearing and started representing himself.
Now Banowetz, 31, a former St. Louis college student serving a 70-year prison sentence, is asking Judge Kyle Napp to withdraw his guilty plea and vacate his sentence. The office of State’s Attorney Tom Haine argues that his motion comes too late.
A hearing is scheduled for April 13.
“The plea was not made voluntarily and was made because of both coercion and inadequate representation,” Banowetz stated in his hand-printed request filed on Dec. 5, 2022.
“I was told by my lawyer that I should take the deal because it was what the Gori family wanted. Then Sheriff Lakin, who had accepted a bribe (aka, political contribution) from the family, had me moved out of protective custody into general population.”
Banowetz went on to maintain that his former attorney, Madison County Public Defender Mary Copeland, never showed him discovery (disclosure of evidence) or discussed a “defense strategy.”
“Copeland said that her only job was to make sure that my conviction would hold up on appeal,” Banowetz wrote. “When I found out that the judge that would be sentencing me had accepted a $40,000 bribe (political contribution) from Gori, I asked her to file for a change of venue and Copeland refused to even file it for me.
“I then told Lauren Trager from News 4 about the bribe, and instead of Judge Napp removing herself from the case, she issued a gag order and Sheriff Lakin blocked me from using the phone.”
Banowetz was referring to his KMOV-TV interview from the Madison County Jail on the day before his trial was scheduled. He told Trager, an investigative reporter, that he felt unsafe and had been “threatened” not to reveal information he knew about Gori.
Banowetz said he couldn’t get a fair trial in Madison County due to Gori’s political connections and contributions to Napp’s election campaigns.
“I feel like I should have a judge that’s impartial,” Banowetz said at the time.
$28,000 in contributions
Randy Gori, his wife, Beth Gori, and his law firm, Gori Julian & Associates, have contributed $3.2 million to the campaigns of judges, legislators and other state and local politicians, mostly Democrats, since 2009, according to an Illinois State Board of Elections database.
That includes about $28,000 to campaign committees for Napp, who ran for election in 2012 and reelection in 2018; and $700 to committees for former Sheriff John Lakin, who retired last fall.
Napp didn’t respond to a BND request for comment last week. KMOV-TV reported in 2021 that the judge promised to be “fair and impartial” in the Banowetz case, as required by her oath of office.
Madison County Chief Judge David Hylla, who shared a campaign committee called Citizens for Judicial Excellence with Napp in 2018, declined to answer questions last week about the process involved when defendants want to withdraw guilty pleas and vacate sentences.
Copeland didn’t respond to a request for comment last week. Chief Deputy Marcos Pulido spoke on behalf of Lakin and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.
“Because this is an ongoing court case, and because there is a motion to withdraw (Banowetz’s) plea, we would not make any comment,” Pulido said. “The case is still pending.”
Under Illinois law, attorneys can’t give money directly to judges, but they can contribute to their campaign committees.
Legality aside, it’s long been debated whether such contributions affect judicial decisions or create a public perception of impropriety, according to a study by Thomas McClure, professor of legal studies and acting chair of politics and government at Illinois State University in Normal.
A defendant in Illinois has 10 days after a judge is assigned to a case to get him or her replaced without specifying a reason. After that, another judge would have to find “just cause” for replacement.
“There certainly would be evidence (in the Banowetz case), based on the contributions, that there was a connection between the judge and the victim,” McClure said.
“But probably what would happen is the judge would testify that, ‘I don’t think that’s going to influence my decision because I’m just going to look at the facts.’ And that is very difficult to dispute.”
On March 6, Madison County Assistant State’s Attorney Chad Loughrey filed a motion to dismiss Banowetz’s request to withdraw his guilty plea and vacate his sentence.
Loughrey argued that, under an Illinois Supreme Court rule, a defendant has 30 days from his sentencing date to file such a request, and Napp notified Banowetz of this deadline in open court.
According to court documents, Banowetz claims that he mailed the request to withdraw his guilty plea on Dec. 20, 2021, from Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, where he’s incarcerated. Loughrey’s motion states that Illinois Department of Corrections records don’t support this.
“There is no practical explanation how the defendant’s pleading could have been mailed on December 20, 2021, yet not be received by the Clerk of the Court until December 5, 2022,” Loughrey wrote.
“There is no evidence that the defendant made any inquiry or attempt to determine the status of his pleading at any time after the date he purported to deposit said pleas in the U.S. Mail.”
Murder and robbery
Police found Randy Gori, 47, dead in his sprawling, isolated home at 4586 Mooney Creek Lane, northeast of Edwardsville, about 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, after getting a 911 call from a woman who reported being attacked by a man in the driveway.
The following Monday, former Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons announced that Banowetz was being charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, aggravated unlawful restraint and an offense related to vehicle theft.
The charges alleged that Banowetz bound the hands of Gori and two children before using a knife to stab Gori, then stole cash and two cellphones and fled in Gori’s black 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV.
Former Assistant State’s Attorney Jacob Harlow, the lead prosecutor, later stated that he had evidence proving that:
Banowetz was facing a Jan. 13, 2020, deadline for paying a $10,000 tuition bill at St. Louis College of Pharmacy and didn’t have the money.
Banowetz searched online for binoculars, zip ties and fake guns, as well as information about Gori and his family and directions to their home, in advance of the murder.
Banowetz ran up to Gori and his children, ages 13 and 15, on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, holding what he represented as a gun when they returned home from dinner, forced them to the ground and zip-tied their hands.
Banowetz instructed the three to go inside through the garage, demanded money, searched the home and took their cellphones, as well as Gori’s wallet.
Banowetz slit Gori’s throat and stabbed him multiple times in the basement while the children were upstairs.
Banowetz was apprehended Sunday morning, Jan. 5, 2020, in a wooded area about 1,200 feet from the home, where he was looking for his Ford truck, which had been towed.
Banowetz was wearing clothes stained with Gori’s blood and shoes that appeared to match those worn by the suspect in surveillance video; and carrying more than $4,000 in cash stolen from Gori’s kitchen.
Haine also told reporters that Banowetz was talking to police when he inadvertently pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket that appeared to be a checklist of steps to committing the alleged crime.
It read: “Watch with binoculars from woods, use gun and knife to subdue, zip-tie hands and Duct-tape mouth, have withdraw $4 to $6 million from bank, kill all of them and take zip ties and Duct tape off, burn bodies and house.”
Estranged from family
Banowetz lived in Wenzville, Missouri, and later St. Louis, but authorities believe he was homeless at the time of his arrest. His family’s former attorney said he had been estranged from them for months.
Investigators and prosecutors found no evidence that anyone else was involved in the Edwardsville murder or that Banowetz had a personal relationship with Gori, according to Haine.
The jury hadn’t yet been seated for Banowetz’s trial on Oct. 5, 2021, when he announced that he had decided to accept a prosecution deal and plead guilty to one count of first-degree murder and two counts of armed robbery. The other charges were dropped.
Banowetz notified Napp at his sentencing hearing on Dec. 10, 2021, that he was dismissing his court-appointed attorney and wanted to represent himself.
The judge questioned Banowetz about his educational background and whether he had any legal experience; he didn’t. She asked if he was under the influence of any substances or had been threatened or intimidated. He said he was making a conscious choice.
Napp advised Banowetz that proceeding “pro se” was risky, given the gravity of the case, but granted his request. She appointed Copeland as “stand-by” counsel.
Banowetz tried to withdraw his guilty plea at the sentencing hearing, claiming he hadn’t been provided with documents from the pre-sentencing investigation. Napp and Copeland disputed this.
“I’m not going to let you play games,” Napp told Banowetz, citing previous refusals to cooperate during the investigation.
Banowetz didn’t object to any evidence presented by prosecutors and offered no mitigating evidence of his own at the sentencing hearing. Napp noted several times that Banowetz was shaking his head so it would be reflected in the record.
When the judge asked if Banowetz had anything else to say at the end of the hearing, he replied, “It really doesn’t matter. You’re going to give me the maximum.” She sentenced him to 60 years in prison for murder and 10 years for armed robbery.
At a press conference afterward, Haine characterized Banowetz as a “delusional, violent narcissist” who showed “absolutely no remorse” for murdering Gori and terrorizing his children.
Haine noted that Banowetz limited his options for appeal by pleading guilty, representing himself at the sentencing hearing and offering no mitigating evidence in his defense.
“He is a man who should go into obscurity now,” Haine said.