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Appeals Court Allows Wife’s Killer to Retain Custody of Daughters

January 6, 1989

EAST DUBUQUE, Ill. (AP) _ A man convicted of strangling his wife during an argument while their daughters watched said Thursday he is a good parent, and is happy an appeals court has given him custody of the girls.

″I’m pretty pleased to have the girls back,″ said James Lutgen, 34, of East Dubuque. ″I don’t know what happens next. As far as I’m concerned, this is over and done with now.″

In a decision made public earlier this week, the Illinois Appellate Court in Elgin ruled that Lutgen could retain custody of his daughters, Tracy, 12, and Dana, 10.

Gene Tranel, of Eldridge, Iowa, the victim’s brother, was shocked at the ruling.

″It’s really hard to believe,″ Tranel said Thursday. ″It sends a sad message to society - that we live in a day and age where this kind of thing can happen.″

Lutgen said the ruling ends a four-year nightmare of prison and court battles that began the night of Dec. 21, 1984, when an argument with his wife Carol, 26, ended in her death as their daughters looked on.

Lutgen was charged with two counts of murder, but later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Prosecutors agreed to the reduced charge after a court ruling that the girls were too young to testify as witnesses.

″I know I’m a good parent,″ Lutgen said Thursday, adding that ″just because somebody does something wrong″ doesn’t mean he should lose custody of his children permanently.

″You have to learn to live and forget,″ he said.

The appeals court rejected Tranel’s appeal of a decision by Jo Daviess County Judge Eric DeMar of Galena on Dec. 29, 1987, giving Lutgen custody.

″Other than the tragic circumstances which resulted in the death of Carol, James had an unblemished record,″ the three-member appeals panel said in its ruling.

″Neither our Legislature nor our case law in Illinois has seen fit to set forth a rule that the killing of one parent by the other in the presence of the children, no matter what the circumstances, is sufficient to deprive that parent of his or her children on the basis of unfitness.″

Tranel and his wife Deb cared for the Lutgen girls while Lutgen was on trial and in prison.

He was released in October 1986, after serving a total 20 months of a four- year minimum sentence. He regained custody of his daughters 14 months later.

″This case is a family tragedy that is over and it’s best it be put to rest,″ said Lutgen’s attorney, William Schirger of Rockford.

He said the girls are not in any danger living with their father and noted they told the judge they wanted to live with him.

Tranel, who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Lutgen, said he did not know whether he and his wife would appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

″The court system and now even the appellate system has failed to protect battered women and innocent victims,″ Tranel said. ″It appears the courts are not willing to deal with domestic violence.″

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