Great News Town is a work of fiction and none of the characters depict actual people, living or dead. Nevertheless, parts of the story were inspired by events that happened during the summer of 1983 while Sue Merrell was working as assistant news editor at The Joliet Herald-News.
Milton Johnson, 33, was paroled on March 3, 1983, after serving 13 years in the Pontiac (Il.) Correctional Center for a 1970 rape conviction. Less than four months later a two-month murder spree gripped Will County, Illinois.
Here’s a list of some of the murders that summer:
June 25— Sisters Zita Blum, 66, and Honora Lahmann, 67, were found shot and burned in their Joliet Township home.
July 2 — Kenneth Chancellor, 34, and Terri Lynn Johnson, 19, were found shot to death in a rural area.
July 16 — Six people were ambushed in a rural area. Dead include George Kiehl, 24; Cathleen Norwood, 25; Richard Paulin, 32 and safety patrol officer Steven Mayer, 22. Another safety patrol officer, Denis Foley, 50, was hospitalized with gunshot wounds and died a month later. Laura Troutman, 21, survived.
July 17 — Anthony Hackett, 18, was shot to death in his car parked along Interstate 55 south of Joliet. His female companion was raped and stabbed.
August 20 — Four women were killed in a ceramic shop: Anna Ryan, 75, was shot; Barbara Dunbar, 38, Pamela Ryan, 29, and Marilyn Baers, 45, were stabbed.
In March of 1984, a year after he was paroled, Johnson was arrested for the murder of Anthony Hackett. Police said he was suspected in at least 10 of the previous summer’s murders. On August 3, 1984, Milton Johnson was found guilty of murdering Hackett. A few months later, he was convicted of the ceramic shop murders. Johnson was sentenced to death, but it was never carried out. Illinois later changed all death penalty convictions to life sentences. Johnson has filed some appeals, but remains an inmate at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois.
You can read more about how Johnson is now here:
This photograph of Milton Johnson comes from the Department of Corrections website.