The girls were 14, 15 and 16; Zane Merreighn, the adult son of a Springfield police detective, is charged with sexually abusing them, and their parents say area law enforcement failed to adequately protect their daughters.
Merreighn, the 22-year-old son of detective Jennifer Oglesby Mack, was arrested Oct. 26 on charges of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl. After the arrest, Illinois State Police continued to investigate additional allegations, and on Jan. 26 he was indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse and sexual assault involving the two other girls.
One of those girls, a 15-year-old Lanphier High School student, told Illinois Times she was sexually assaulted the morning of July 4, 2021.
The girl's father believes if area police had been more proactive in an encounter with Merreighn earlier that day, the alleged rape never would have happened. The father contends Merreighn was cut a break because his mother is a Springfield police detective assigned to investigate sex crimes.
The 15-year-old girl, who Illinois Times is not identifying because she is a minor, said she sneaked out of her north-end Springfield bungalow where she lives with a parent at 11:30 p.m. the night before to see Merreighn, whom she said she met online. They drove to Taylorville to meet two other girls.
The Lanphier student is one of a number of young females the Illinois State Police and Illinois Times have separately interviewed who say they have been sexually targeted or victimized by Merreighn.
In Illinois, anyone 16 or younger cannot give consent to have sex. But in reality, if both are willing parties older than 13, charges are rarely filed. However, if one party is over the age of consent and the other isn't, it is a crime. Whether it is felony or misdemeanor depends in part on the difference in age and whether force, intoxication or other factors are involved.
Some of the girls and their parents say area law enforcement has turned a blind eye toward many of Merreighn's transgressions because of his mother's position.
On the night the Lanphier student says she was out with Merreighn, he had an encounter with Taylorville police in which he was allowed to sober up in his car despite, by his own admission, being too drunk to drive. He also told officers he had been smoking marijuana and more than the legal limit of marijuana was discovered in an unsealed container within his car.
When Taylorville police encountered Merreighn at 2:30 a.m. on July 4, they were responding to a report of him threatening a resident with a handgun. Three girls claiming to be 15 were with him. Although four police officers were involved in the half-hour encounter with Merreighn, no incident report was ever written and no arrests were made or citations issued.
Illinois Times pieced together what happened by reviewing Taylorville dispatcher logs and reviewing body camera videos of two of the officers who responded.
In addition to depicting possible legal violations, the video footage captures Merreighn telling officers – multiple times – that his mom is a Springfield detective.
While Taylorville officer Jody Grove talks to the girls and bemoans them being out drinking with a 22-year-old man, Merreighn can be heard in the background telling other officers that his mother is working overtime investigating a homicide. He tells them he's thinking of taking the Springfield police exam himself.
When Grove confronts Merreighn about the girls being with him, he again mentions his mother, a sex crimes detective. And he mentions a young relative who he says was sexually abused by his cousin as a reason he would never harm anyone.
Detective Oglesby Mack has not responded to emails and a certified letter from Illinois Times seeking comment. During a jailhouse interview with Illinois Times, Merreighn declined to discuss anything that happened on July 4.
Taylorville police initially responded to the scene when Carter Sinkhorn told police he was threatened with a gun when he was driving home. Sinkhorn, who is a race car driver, said he was driving home early July 4 from a race in Lincoln and was turning on to Illini Drive, where he lives.
In an interview with Illinois Times, Sinkhorn said, "I accelerated up to speed pretty quick, but I wasn't flying, and I'm a race car driver. So, I obviously have control of my vehicle. But some dude ran out in the road and was cussing at me and screaming. And it was like 2:30 in the morning. So, I stopped. I was like, 'What's going on?'
"He's like, 'You need to slow the fuck down.' He's cussing and telling me I'm doing this and that. So, I put my car in park because I'm not going to let anyone talk to me like that. But then I saw he had a gun. I could just tell by his build that the chickenshit would probably use it. He waved it at me. So, I just got back in my car and drove to my house and called the police."
When Merreighn heard a police car approaching, he threw the handgun under the Ford Mustang he had been driving, the 15-year-old Lanphier student told Illinois Times several months later. The police body camera recording shows when the first police officer arrives, she asks if he has any firearms. He tells her he does not and offers to allow her to search his car – but warns he has "weed" in the middle console.
The car is searched, marijuana is recovered. An officer notes that it is over the legal limit and the dispensary seal was broken on the container.
The marijuana is confiscated but no ticket is issued or arrest made. The car's trunk and backseat are searched, but no one looks underneath the vehicle.
"I'm not worried about weed. We just want to make sure nobody's got a firearm," Officer Grove says.
"My mom's a detective," Merreighn responds.
Grove talks to the three girls who were with Merreighn. They claim they are 15 years old, although the Lanphier student later said she believes the other two girls were both younger. The officer notes they are drinking alcohol and with a much older man.
Merreighn's car is parked in front of a Taylorville home where two of the girls are spending the night. An officer sends the two into the house. The 15-year-old from Springfield calls her father and asks him to come and pick her up.
Grove then turns her attention to Merreighn. "I'm a mother of kids. And if I ever came home and found out some 21, 22-year-old is at my 15-year-old daughter's house and I'm not there, I'm hunting you down."
Merreighn responded, "I honestly wouldn't be here, but you want me to be honest with you? I drank, so I don't really want to drive."
He said he had a "pint of E&J" (brandy) and a "couple shots of 99s" (schnapps).
Another officer questions him about when he smoked his last joint.
At the end of the video, after a bit of arguing, Merreighn is allowed to sleep in his car and drive home when it's daylight and he's sober. The Lanphier girl is driven home by her father.
But as Merreighn sat in his parked car and the girl's father drove her home, they texted back and forth, according to the girl. He suggested they get together later that morning and she said she would think about it, the girl recalled. Sometime mid-morning on July 4, Merreighn stopped at her house in Springfield, she said.
"And he came and picked me up and I was still in pjs, I just had woken up. So, he had picked me up and we were driving. He was like, 'Do you want to go to my house?' And I was like, 'OK.' And so, we went to his house (in the Westchester subdivision) and we had just sat on the couch and everything was normal. He didn't try to do anything with me. Like, he was perfectly fine," she said.
She said she made it clear to him that she was not interested in doing anything sexual.
"We had kissed before, like we're flirting with each other, that was normal," she said.
She said he then presented her with a gift.
"So, he randomly was like, I have an outfit for you. He had bought me clothes. And so, he went into his room and he came out with a white plastic bag with a brand-new Nike outfit in it. Like, everything was in my size, everything. ... It was a cute outfit."
The girl said Merreighn told her to put it on and she entered his bathroom and locked the door.
"And when I was in his bathroom changing, he unlocked it with a butter knife and I was butt naked, and he came in and was like touching on me and feeling. I was like, 'I don't want anything sexual.'
"Like, I don't even want you in the bathroom when I'm naked. There's a reason I locked the door in a whole different room and I was like, 'no.' And he's like, 'Trust me with your body – it's OK.' I was like, 'No I don't know you like that.' I don't want to do anything. Like, I'm not ready for that situation that could end badly."
She said Merreighn picked her up and as he carried her, she ordered him to stop.
"And then he had taken me into his room and there was this light brown air mattress. And he put me on it. And that's when I started actually fighting and screaming for probably around 20 or 25 minutes, while he just sat there and laid on me. And after 20 minutes, I gave up and he fucked me for two hours. He did not pull out once. And I had no emotion past the 20 minutes. He just laid there and said stuff to me. ... Like, he would tell me to moan for him. And I was just like, 'Get off of me.'"
She said when he finished, he patted her on the stomach, laughed, put his clothes on and walked out of the bedroom, slamming the door.
"And I just sat up and was like, 'There was nothing more you can do besides accept it.'"
Afterwards she said they sat on the sofa and Merreighn spoke to her after setting his handgun on a glass coffee table and telling her they needed to talk.
She said he told her he was 22, not 17 as he previously claimed. She said she was frightened and told him she had no problem with the age difference but wanted to be taken home.
She said she didn't initially go to the police in part because Merreighn had repeatedly told her his mother was the city's sex crimes detective.
"I think he knew he was going to get in my pants, whether there was consent or not. So, he knew if there wasn't consent, he was going to try to scare me and try to have me think like, oh, if I come out with this, I'm going to get called out as a liar because his mom's a child-predator detective."
When Merreighn was arrested Oct. 26 on charges of sexually abusing a different girl, the Lanphier student said she posted the news article on social media.
"I praised Jesus that he got locked up. I posted and made a celebration post," she said.
The post apparently came to the attention of a state police special agent who is investigating Merreighn. He contacted her and she said she provided a DNA sample to try to match it with material collected from Merreighn's apartment. She said she also was questioned by a forensic interviewer at the child advocacy center in Jacksonville.
The state police investigator declined to discuss the ongoing investigation with Illinois Times. During his jailhouse interview with the newspaper, Merreighn denied ever having sex with an underage girl. He also said the only gun he has is one that only fires blanks.
The father of the Lanphier student said, "The state investigator told me, my daughter is his ace in the hole for the whole investigation."
Taylorville police Chief Dwayne Wheeler reviewed the entire body camera video with an Illinois Times reporter and two of his senior officers. Afterwards, he said the officers handled the situation appropriately and he could see no evidence that Merreighn was given any preferential treatment. But he acknowledged that officers have discretion on how to handle minor offenses.
Wheeler added, "It's the officer's discretion (as) to what you want to do. If you pull over somebody, you know, who knows a cop ... it's always a discretionary issue. There's professional courtesy in every business, we all know that that's never going to go away."
Evidence gone after cop's son accused of sexual assault
The 16-year-old Rochester girl sat in the room and told a tale of repeated sexual violations as a forensic investigator questioned and a video camera recorded. Behind a one-way window, a Rochester police officer and a Sangamon County deputy took notes. The man she accused of sexual assault in 2018 was Zane Merreighn, the son of Springfield Police sex-crimes detective Jennifer Oglesby Mack.
On other days, Oglesby Mack might find herself sitting behind the same one-way window taking notes as a child related sexual abuses. She's a regular at the Sangamon County Child Advocacy Center, where the interview took place, working closely with its staff and meeting monthly there with her counterparts at the Sangamon County Sheriff's Department and the Department of Children and Family Services.
The Child Advocacy Center, located in a squat building behind the Sangamon County courthouse, is a county agency designed to promote cooperation among various governmental organizations, investigate child abuse and help children recover.
The then-16-year-old girl being questioned said the interview was difficult, causing her to relive three incidents in which she says she was sexually violated by Merreighn. In addition to being underage, she alleged that she was incapacitated at the time of the sexual encounters. Although she is now 20 years old, Illinois Times does not usually identify alleged sexual assault victims, and she is referred to as A.B. in court documents.
By their nature, forensic interviews are intrusive, painful probings of intimate violations. But a strange thing happened after the June 2018 interview: nothing.
"We never heard anything after that," said her father, a Sangamon County businessman, in a recent interview. "We never received a letter or email from the prosecutor on whether they would pursue the case. No one from law enforcement did any follow-up. We heard nothing at all."
At the time, the family was in crisis. A.B.'s mother was undergoing cancer treatments. Her parents had separated, although they have since reconciled. And their daughter had reported being raped and had been placed in an inpatient psychiatric facility.
Making sure the criminal justice bureaucracy was doing its job was not the family's first priority.
It wasn't until Illinois Times began making inquiries three-and-a-half years later that the Sangamon County Sheriff's department contacted them. And law enforcement officials had bad news: a critical piece of evidence was missing.
The video recording of the forensic interview had mysteriously disappeared. The video was not only missing from the sheriff's department, but so were the investigator's notes. Stranger still, the video recording also disappeared from a computer hard drive at Child Advocacy Center. And the disk sent to the prosecutor's office, purportedly containing the interview, was blank.
Sherriff Jack Campbell, who was not with the department at the time of that interview, contacted the now-retired personnel who were involved in the case. Their recollections are dim at best.
"Our detective does not recall receiving anything," Campbell said. "But it's important to remember that was three years ago, and he has worked a lot of cases since then. We don't know if there was one disk or three. I thought there were three, but if that's the case, I don't know. ... I can tell you that there was never a DVD entered into evidence for us."
Illinois Times obtained investigative notes written by the Rochester police officer present for the forensic interview. His final notation is that he turned over the DVD of the interview to the sheriff's department and it was agreed that that agency would continue the investigation.
The same week as the interview, deputies were dealing with flooding, a murder, a missing person case and a lieutenant who was on a two-week vacation, Campbell said. It's possible that amid the confusion the disk was misplaced, he added.
Denise Johnson, director of the Child Advocacy Center, told Illinois Times recently the center's hard drive, believed to contain the recording of the interview, crashed. Neither technicians with the Springfield Police Department nor a federal law enforcement agency were able to recover the lost data, she said.
Johnson, who, like Campbell, was not in charge of her agency at the time of the interview, says it's a mystery as to what has happened to the recording.
Both Johnson and Campbell said they can't rule out that someone may have deliberately sabotaged the investigation by stealing or destroying the recordings. But both said they don't want to believe anyone working for them would do such a thing.
Johnson said her agency took steps at the time to minimize any potential conflict of interest, since the accused assailant was the son of Oglesby Mack.
The Child Advocacy Center, a county agency, provides counseling, medical referrals and forensic interviews to minors believed to have been sexually abused. Once a month, sex crimes investigators from the Springfield Police Department, the Sangamon County Sheriff's Department and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services meet at the center and discuss their ongoing cases. Oglesby Mack has been a part of these meetings for many years, director Johnson said. Because of the close relationship between the Springfield detective and the center, a forensic investigator from Decatur was asked to travel to Springfield to conduct the interview.
A.B's father said that in May of 2018, he and his wife found their 16-year-old daughter emotionally distraught and uncommunicative about what had happened to her. They took her to Springfield Memorial Hospital's emergency department, where she was referred to an inpatient psychiatric facility. A rape examination was not performed at the hospital because sexual assault was not suspected.
After A.B. had been admitted, her parents found her diary where she wrote about the alleged crimes. On May 18, the Rochester police were notified and, along with the sheriff's department, arranged for her to be temporarily released from psychiatric care so she could be interviewed.
A.B. was 16 at the time, too young to legally consent to sexual intercourse in Illinois. Even if a person is of age, whether they can give consent depends on their ability to make informed decisions free from pressure, coercion and incapacitation. If a person is incapacitated from alcohol or other drugs, consent cannot be given. She said that not only was she underage, but she was also too incapacitated at the time to make an informed decision. A grand jury indictment issued Jan. 26 further accuses Merreighn of "the use or the threat of force."
Looking back, A.B. said she was going through a period of rebellion because her mother was sick, her parents were apart and she was angry. She said the system failed her.
"We heard nothing from anyone. I kept asking my parents if they had heard anything and they kept saying 'No.'"
Although no criminal charges were filed at the time, A.B. was granted an order of protection from Merreighn.
The end of the Rochester officer's 2018 report concerning her allegations notes it was decided that the Sangamon County Sheriff's Department would take over the investigation. A copy of the DVD recording of the interview, along with his notes, were passed from the Rochester officer to Ben Helton, a detective with the sheriff's department, the report states.
Sheriff Campbell said this is the only written reference they have found to the DVD.
A.B.'s father said he has known Campbell for many years and believes him to be an honorable and good man. But he noted Campbell was not with the sheriff's department at the time of his daughter's interview. The father says he doesn't believe the video disappeared by accident. He noted that Merreighn's mother had a close working relationship with both the child advocacy center and sheriff's deputies who investigate sex crimes.
Because the Sangamon County State's Attorney's Office routinely works with Oglesby Mack, it recused itself from involvement with the matter after A.B. made her allegations. The case was referred to the Illinois Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, which often handles appeals but also fills in for local state's attorneys when there is a perceived conflict of interest.
Representatives of the agency declined to discuss the case with Illinois Times. But the newspaper obtained the agency's internal emails regarding the missing recordings. The emails indicate that the disk which purportedly contained the forensic interview with A.B. not only was blank but is believed to have never had anything recorded on it.
Merreighn is now in the Sangamon County Jail awaiting trial on multiple counts of sexual abuse and sexual assault involving A.B. as well as two other girls who were 14 and 15 at the times of the alleged crimes. He told Illinois Times he has never had sex with anyone underage.
The Illinois State Police is conducting the investigation. The Springfield Police recused themselves because the case involves the son of one of their officers. Initially, the city police asked the sheriff's department to conduct the investigation. But Campbell said his department declined the request, saying his investigators have worked too closely with Oglesby Mack for them to do it. She has not responded to repeated requests for comment from Illinois Times.
In a jailhouse interview with Illinois Times, Merreighn said he never had sex with A.B. He added she "wasn't his type."
According to her, "My biggest regret is not having a DNA swab done when I was in the emergency room."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].