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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: November 5, 1990 / February 25, 1992 / June 28, 1993
Date of arrest: September 8, 1993
Date of birth: 1963
Victims profile: Michael, 6-week-old / Amber, 22 days old / Cynthia, 5-month-old (her children)
Method of murder: Smothering with a blanket
Location: Waukonda, Lake County, Illinois, USA
Status: Sentenced to 20 years in prison on May 30, 1994

Mom Who Killed Her 3 Kids Gets 20 Years

By Louise Kiernan and John Gorman -

June 1, 1994

On Tuesday, the bizarre and sad case of Gail Savage came to an equally odd end.

On the morning that the Wauconda mother was supposed to be sentenced for involuntary manslaughter in the smothering of her 5-month-old daughter, Cynthia, she agreed to an arrangement that will send her to prison for 20 years for killing all three of her children.

However, in the legally complicated settlement, she did not plead guilty to killing Michael and Amber, who died in 1990 and 1992. But she did agree that there was enough evidence to convict her of involuntary manslaughter for their deaths and accepted the sentence issued by Lake County Circuit Judge Charles Scott.

While unusual, the arrangement isn't unheard of, legal experts said.

"It's virtually the same as a guilty plea," said Albert W. Alschuler, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Law. "But it's recorded as a trial, not a plea."

Because Savage also waived all rights to appeal, the agreement apparently concludes the notorious saga of the 31-year-old mother who grieved publicly and privately after each of her three children apparently died of sudden infant death syndrome, only to ultimately confess to suffocating them with a blanket.

Savage later recanted that confession but was convicted by a jury April 30 of killing Cynthia in June 1993. She was scheduled to stand trial in July for Amber's murder.

"She knew she wasn't guilty, and she wouldn't plead guilty," said Savage's husband, James, after Tuesday's hearing. "But she knew that emotionally, she can't withstand another trial."

The arrangement enabled each side to come away with a piece of what each wanted. Savage didn't have to say in court that she killed her children. Her attorney won a relatively light sentence for her, considering that she was charged with three murders. And prosecutors got convictions in what would have been difficult cases to try.

Lake County State's Atty. Michael Waller noted Tuesday that his office had not been able to win a murder verdict in its strongest case. "We had to take that into consideration," he said.

"We set out to prove that she killed her children, and we've done that," said Assistant State's Atty. Matthew Chancey, one of two prosecutors in the case.

"We're still a little baffled by the jury's determination in the first place, but given that they made that finding, we're satisfied with the outcome," he said.

The arrangement was first proposed more than three weeks ago, when attorneys met at Scott's request, said Savage's defense attorney, Robert Hauser.

In that meeting, according to several sources, the judge reportedly told both sides that he felt that a second trial would result in another involuntary manslaughter verdict and urged them to reach a settlement.

Savage acquiesced to the agreement after a second conference Tuesday, attorneys said.

"We left it up to her," said James Savage. "It wasn't a decision I wanted to make, but I said I would stand by her no matter what she decided to do."

Gail Savage agreed to stipulated bench trials in the deaths of Michael and Amber. In that proceeding, the defendant agrees to the summation made by the prosecutor about what evidence would be presented or testimony given if a trial were held.

But Savage also agreed in advance that there was enough evidence to find her guilty of involuntary manslaughter in such a trial and that she would accept the 20-year sentence for all three deaths.

Scott then convicted and sentenced her. Savage cried once during the proceeding but remained impassive through most of it, as she did during the trial. She will serve two 10-year terms for killing Cynthia and Amber. A 5-year sentence will run concurrently for Michael's death, which was considered the weakest of the three cases.

Because she has been jailed since September and could further reduce her sentence by earning "good time," Savage could be released from prison in less than nine years.

"Basically, we were able to give her back most of her life," Hauser said.

On Tuesday, Savage remained in Lake County Jail. She was scheduled to return to the courtroom Thursday to determine if she wanted protective custody and if she had a preference where to serve her sentence.

While similar to a no-contest plea, Chancey said, the agreement is different because "in a no contest, you're saying I'm not guilty, but I'm not fighting it. But in this she's going on to agree in advance that the evidence was sufficient for the judge to find her guilty."

Former Cook County Circuit Judge Louis Garippo said such settlements can happen in cases where there is pressure from victims or families not to conduct another trial or if prosecutors can't reduce the charges because of the publicity involved.

"In this particular case, it might be the ideal way to dispose of it," said Garippo, now a lawyer in private practice.

"It wasn't that she pleaded guilty. She went to trial and was convicted."


Savage Guilty Of Manslaughter

By Louise Kiernan - Chicago

May 1, 1994

In the end, the 12 people entrusted with Gail Savage's fate believe she killed her daughter. But they apparently weren't convinced she did it on purpose.

After more than 14 hours of deliberation, a Lake County jury Saturday night found the 31-year-old Wauconda woman innocent of murder but guilty of involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct in the 1993 smothering of her 5-month-old daughter, Cynthia.

Savage, who had remained composed through most of the nine days of testimony, collapsed sobbing onto the defendant's table when the verdict was read. Her husband, James, who was seated behind her, also wept.

Savage's attorney, Robert Hauser, said her sentence could range from probation to 14 years in prison.

Sentencing was set for May 31, but Savage will return to the courtroom Wednesday for a hearing on the trials she faces in the deaths of her two other children.

"I just don't understand how the jury could believe that she's guilty of this, with all the evidence that was presented," said Robert Altenbern, Savage's father. "But we'll stick behind her. We believe in her 100 percent."

Jurors declined to comment about the verdict, as did prosecutors, who cited a gag order issued by Judge Charles Scott.

Hauser, who had pushed for the lesser charges, said: "My deduction is that they ultimately threw up their hands and focused on the confession. They thought she did something wrong, but they didn't think she meant to harm the children."

The jury's decision focused on the halting words of Savage, an introverted, borderline mentally retarded woman with thick glasses.

There were the words she told detectives, when she described using a receiving blanket to suffocate her children because they wouldn't quiet down.

And there were the words she said last week on the witness stand, that she had been scared and bullied into a false confession by investigators who said "bad things" to her.

Jurors asked for transcripts of Savage's testimony Friday night, when they hadn't reached a verdict after four hours of deliberation.

The next morning, they requested copies of what the two detectives who interviewed her said on the stand. By 7 p.m. Saturday they knew whom they believed.

Savage's confession to police was the most damning evidence against her, because the children showed no physical signs of being suffocated, which is not uncommon among infants.

The death of 6-week-old Michael Savage on Nov. 5, 1990, originally was diagnosed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. When Amber died at 22 days old on Feb. 25, 1992, authorities were suspicious but ruled the cause of her death was undetermined.

They were convinced it was murder after the third panicked call came from the modest house at 400 Dunbar Rd. on June 28, 1993. Another Savage baby-Cynthia-had been found in her bed, not breathing, when Gail Savage was home with her.

On Sept. 8, Lake County Sheriff's Detective Portia Wallace and Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigator Mark Pleasant interviewed Savage alone for the first time. Within three hours, she allegedly confessed.

In her statement, Savage said she took a white receiving blanket decorated with animals from a dresser drawer and held it against Cynthia's face until she stopped breathing.

She said she remembered less about Amber and Michael's deaths, but that she also had covered their faces with blankets.

Assistant Lake County State's Attorneys Matthew Chancey and Claudia Kasten argued that the confession was enough to convict Savage.

Throughout the trial, Hauser depicted his client as a woman of limited intelligence who, because of the guilt and despair she felt about losing her children to SIDS, was convinced that she had killed them.

When she took the stand, Savage, who has an IQ of 75, said investigators threatened to show her autopsy photographs and exhume her children if she didn't confess-claims the two detectives denied.

Savage said they made her believe she had "a disease" that made her forget things she had done.

"I believed them even though I knew I hadn't done anything," she said, crying through much of her testimony.

"They kept saying I had a disease. They didn't believe me."

Jurors were asked to consider the possibility that the children's lives could have been taken by another killer: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Three prominent SIDS researchers testified-two for the defense and one for the prosecution. Their contradictory and often confusing testimony, however, said more about what isn't known about SIDS than what is.

The experts agreed that no one has determined what causes SIDS, that it is diagnosed only after deaths and that it often can be difficult to distinguish SIDS from murder.


Savage's Confession Blamed On Her 'Borderline' Iq

By Louise Kiernan -

April 27, 1994

In an effort to persuade jurors that Gail Savage falsely confessed to killing her three children, a psychologist testified Tuesday that Savage is intellectually limited and easily pressured into saying things she doesn't mean.

After interviewing Savage several times in jail and running a battery of tests on her, Chicago clinical psychologist Michael Gelbort said he diagnosed Savage as a "dependent personality" who feels uncomfortable around people and who avoids confrontations by deferring to others.

Savage's attorney, Robert Hauser, has argued that that's what happened in September, when the 31-year-old Wauconda woman allegedly admitted that she smothered all three infants with a blanket in separate incidents dating back to 1990. Hauser contends that Savage was coerced into making the confession because she was despondent and confused after losing her children to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

But prosecutors in the Lake County courtroom sharply questioned the psychologist's findings.

Savage is being tried on first-degree murder charges in the June 28, 1993, death of her third child, Cynthia. She faces separate trials on charges of killing 6-week-old Michael in 1990 and Amber, who was 22 days old when she died in 1992.

In a standard psychological test designed to measure Savage's susceptibility to suggestion, Gelbort said he read her stories and then asked her a series of questions about them.

When he asked if she was sure of her responses, Savage changed 13 of her 20 answers, he testified.

"I was impressed by how easily swayed she was by what was only subtle pressure," Gelbort said. "She was trying to appease the examiner."

The test results, however, did not impress Assistant State's Atty. Matthew Chancey. "Are you suggesting that if people initially deny committing a crime, police should just stop asking them questions?" he asked.

Tests determined Savage's IQ is 75, which would classify her intellectual abilities as "borderline," the psychologist testified. Mental retardation is generally considered to be an IQ of less than 70, he said.

Identical IQ tests run by a psychologist hired by the Lake County state's attorney's office set Savage's IQ at 76, according to testimony earlier in the day.

The other major element in Savage's trial-the question of whether three children in the same family can die of SIDS-came under renewed scrutiny Tuesday with the testimony of a leading national SIDS researcher.

Dorothy Kelly, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, is the third SIDS expert to testify.

In a 1986 study, Kelly found a high risk of SIDS among the siblings of children who died of SIDS. Of the 27 families who had two children die of SIDS, five subsequently lost their third child to the mysterious ailment. The likelihood of multiple SIDS deaths within the same family is one of many issues under debate among SIDS experts, and various studies set the risk at anywhere from as high as Kelly's findings of 18 percent to 0.5 percent or even lower.

"Most families who have a child die of SIDS do not have another child die of SIDS," Kelly said. "But there are families with multiple SIDS."

Of the five children in the study who died, only one was on a monitor at the time of death, Kelly said.

Gail Savage and her husband James removed Cynthia from a monitor against the advice of at least three pediatricians, according to earlier testimony. They told doctors they didn't believe it could save Cynthia from dying of SIDS.

Still, Kelly said she couldn't reach an absolute conclusion about what caused the Savage children's deaths.

"They showed signs of dying of SIDS," she said. "Yet we have the confession that has to be dealt with. They just don't come together as one verdict."


Savage Refused To Confess On Tape, Investigator Testifies

By Louise Kiernan -

April 23, 1994

The morning after she allegedly admitted smothering her three children, Gail Savage wouldn't allow authorities to tape her confession, according to testimony Friday.

The issue of the Wauconda woman's typewritten statement dominated the fourth day of her trial for first-degree murder in the death of her 5-month-old daughter, Cynthia.

Savage faces separate murder trials in the deaths of her son Michael in 1990 and her daughter Amber in 1992.

Savage's attorney, Robert Hauser, has claimed that she was coerced into making the statement and has questioned why the Lake County sheriff's office and the state's attorney's office failed to record it.

Investigators testified Friday that they did not ask to tape Savage's confession after she first admitted in a Sept. 8 interview that she put blankets over the children's faces until they stopped breathing.

But the next morning, prosecutors said, they visited Savage and asked to videotape, audiotape or have a court reporter record Savage's statements, and she said no.

Under cross-examination, however, Jeff Pavletic, supervisor of the state's attorney's felony review division, said they did not make the request until they had already talked to her for about three hours. By that time, she had been in custody for about 20 hours.

"I didn't think, using my common sense, that walking in with a tape recorder in my hand and sticking a video camera in her face, that it would be real conducive to what we were doing," Pavletic said. Savage did, however, agree to each sentence as investigators read the statement back to her, he said.

Pavletic testified that Savage said she was scared because she didn't know why she killed her children. At one point, she said she didn't think she had killed them because doctors had told her the children died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, the prosecutor testified.

Hauser has contended that the woman was so despondent over Michael's death that she attempted to commit suicide a month later by taking an overdose of the medication used to control her epilepsy.

But Pavletic testified that Savage told him she also tried to commit suicide in 1985, five years before she had children.

"She said she had moved into an apartment by herself for the first time and was feeling alone," Pavletic said.

When Hauser presents his case next week, he is expected to portray Savage as a devoted mother who joined SIDS support groups and tried to find out everything she could about why her children died.

That will include delving into the disputed issues of what causes SIDS and how frequently it occurs in families. Two forensic pathologists who determined the Savage children were suffocated testified this week that they reached their conclusions because they found it highly improbable that three children in the same family could die of SIDS.

The pathologists could find no evidence of physical trauma to the children, but infants can be suffocated without leaving any trace, experts say.

Hauser has also said he will call in an expert in police interrogations to show that Savage was coerced into confessing.


Mom, Not Sids, Killed 3 Babies, Police Says

By Robert Enstad and Andrew Martin -

September 10, 1993

For three years, Gail Savage has solemnly recounted to friends and strangers alike the pain of losing three babies in as many years to a mysterious malady that seemed to stalk her home.

Along with her husband, James, the 30-year-old Wauconda woman attended support groups and collected literature on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the little-understood ailment that she blamed for the deaths of her first two children in 1990 and 1992.

She has freely told the story of her babies' unexplained deaths on television and in newspaper articles.

But all that time, authorities say, Gail Savage has been engaging in a public charade.

On Thursday, 10 weeks after her third child, 5-month-old Cynthia, was buried, authorities said Savage admitted to killing all three of her children, smothering them with a blanket. She was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Even after Cynthia was found lifeless in her crib in June, Savage clung to what authorities say was a murderous lie, apparently even hiding the truth from her husband.

"We don't think about it constantly," she had said of her children's deaths during an interview at the time. "You really can't do that because you'll start blaming yourself."

Her alleged confession came Wednesday evening, after investigators ushered her into an interrogation room at the Lake County Sheriff's Office in Waukegan. She admitted to the slayings after being told that forensic tests proved the babies could not have died from natural causes, authorities said.

Authorities, however, publicly would not say what prompted the slayings, but privately top law enforcement sources said Savage suffocated the children because she was frustrated by their crying.

"I don't think you could ever come up with a motive for the murders of three small children like this," said Lake County State's Atty. Michael Waller.

Cynthia Savage was the 48th child under 15 to be murdered in the Chicago area this year. Her killing was the 10th in which crying allegedly precipitated the homicide.

In a brief court appearance Thursday, Savage appeared pale but otherwise showed little emotion while a judge ordered her held without bond. If convicted of murder, she faces a mandatory life sentence.

After the hearing, Savage's attorney, Robert Hauser, suggested his client's mental state would become an issue in the case. He said Savage had recently received psychiatric treatment.

James Savage was not involved in the killings, authorities said.

After his wife's arrest, the 36-year-old carpenter defended her, insisting that he was convinced the children died from SIDS, also commonly known as crib death.

"Because they can't explain these deaths, and there were three of them, they don't want to believe they were SIDS deaths," James Savage said in an interview. "This is tearing me apart because in my heart I believe they were SIDS deaths."

Yet Gail Savage's arrest concluded nearly two years of speculation by authorities about the fate of the children who briefly occupied the nursery of the Savage's modest ranch home.

They knew it was highly unlikely that two children in a family would die from SIDS. For three children from the same family to succumb to SIDS was extremely improbable, a likelihood that the coroner described Thursday "infinitesimal if not impossible."

While investigators suspected murder, they feared the crime might go unpunished because the suffocation of infants sometimes leaves little or no physical or medical evidence.

Confronted by a lack of evidence, investigators on Wednesday embarked on a bold gambit they hoped would resolve the questions surrounding the Savage children's deaths.

James Savage was subpoenaed at his workplace at 10 a.m. Wednesday. He then went home, changed his clothes, got his wife and they drove together to the Lake County Building in Waukegan.

Once there, James Savage was ushered behind the closed doors of a Lake County grand jury room, leaving his wife to sit alone outside in the hallway.

In what was apparently a planned strategy, investigators then approached Gail Savage and said they wanted to speak to her further about the deaths of her babies. She agreed to accompany them to the sheriff's office a block away.

There, sources close to the investigation said, Gail Savage was told the babies' deaths did not appear to be the result of SIDS or other natural causes and that investigators suspected she may have killed them.

Hours later, prosecutors said, she incriminated herself.

The couple's first child, Michael Andrew, died on Nov. 5, 1990 when he was six weeks old. At the time, Gail Savage told paramedics she discovered her son's lifeless body in his crib after putting him down for a nap. Lake County Coroner Barbara Richardson said the cause of death was SIDS.

It was only when Savage again summoned paramedics to her home 18 months later to report the death of her daughter, 22-day-old Amber Lynn, that officials became suspicious.

This time, too, Savage said she found the child dead in her crib. Yet officials knew that only once before had there been two cases of SIDS reported in the same Lake County family.

At the time, Richardson listed the cause of death as "undetermined," a euphemism pathologists say is often used when there are suspicions that the cause of death may be homicide.

"It is a kind of red flag; it says, `I'm not sure what happened here and something is not right,' " said Dr. Marie Valdes-Dapena, a pediatric forensic pathologist at the University of Miami.

The Savage's third child, Cynthia Gail, was born Jan. 23.

Richardson said that when she learned about Cynthia's birth in April, she was immediately concerned that something might happen to her.

Gail Savage's third call to Wauconda paramedics came June 28. When they arrived, she told them she had found Cynthia lying motionless in her crib, her skin chalky and cold.

"I was sick. I felt like this wasn't right," Richardson said. "I even told (an assistant) that this is not SIDS, to get the police involved right away."

Meanwhile, Richardson initiated what she said was the biggest investigation by the Lake County Coroner's Office in recent history. Investigators tested the water and air in the Savages' home and the emissions of their car, and they examined the baby's crib for defects.

Lake County authorities also sent tissue samples to labs across the country, searching for medical answers to Cynthia's death.

The Epilepsy Foundation was contacted because Gail Savage suffers from the disease. And investigators also checked for cystic fibrosis, because it runs in James Savage's family. Both inquiries brought negative results.

Valdes-Dapena, the pediatric pathologist in Miami, said she examined tissue samples from Cynthia Savage's body in July. While she found nothing to indicate the child was murdered, she nevertheless refused to accept SIDS as an explanation for the child's death.

"I was not ready to sign it out as SIDS," she said. "I didn't have any evidence that it wasn't except that this was the third child to die in that family while in the company of the mother. That was good enough."

Of the 295 confirmed SIDS cases in Illinois last year, 11 were reported in Lake County. The only case in which two babies from the same family died of SIDS were recorded by a Mundelein family whose children died in 1984 and 1987.

Attempting to determine the difference between SIDS and suffocation deaths can be extremely difficult, however, because they rarely leave tell-tale signs.

"It is not just difficult to tell the difference between a child who died from SIDS and one who is suffocated, it is impossible," said Valdes-Dapena.

With a possible answer to how the Savage children died, family members and neighbors were left to contemplate why.

Gail Savage, a secretary for her father's drywall company, grew up in the Wauconda area and was described as withdrawn by former work colleagues, acquaintances and neighbors.

She attended Wauconda High School in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The yearbook did not list her as being active in any extracurricular activities.

The Savages periodically attended the Evangelical Free Church in Wauconda, and parishioners there were particularly supportive following Cynthia's death.

"I can't hardly believe it," said Rev. Christopher Barnes. "I have no reason to suspect it is true.

"These are not savvy people," he said. "They're not sophisticated. . . . I just think maybe they could have boxed her into saying something."

The Savages' neighbors on Dunbar Road were surprised by Thursday's developments. They recalled the couple proudly strolling through the neighborhood with their newborns and said they often saw Gail and James holding hands.

Some of them had helped support the Savages through the deaths of their children.

Andrea Morris, 27, said her son died of a metabolic disorder just a week before Michael Savage's death, "so I had an extra amount of sympathy for them."

Shortly after learning of Gail Savage's arrest, however, Morris said, "I just picked up my daughter and squeezed her. . . . After losing one of your own, it's hard to believe someone would do that intentionally."



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