Former Spring Grove man serving life in prison for killing his girlfriend in 1992 cites new DNA testing in motion

John Cumbee

Attorneys are seeking to have DNA retested from evidence tied to a decades-old murder conviction of a former Spring Grove man who also is a former Lake County police officer and firefighter/paramedic.

John Cumbee, 63, who is serving a life sentence in the Sheridan Correctional Center, was convicted in two separate trials for the murder of his 21-year-old girlfriend Kathy Twarowski on May 5, 1992.

Her body was found at 6:45 a.m. the next day in the driver’s seat of her Geo Tracker on Rabine Drive in Spring Grove about 2 miles from her Fox Lake home, according to the motion and a Chicago Tribune story at the time.

She had left her parents’ home the night before about 8:30 p.m., according to the motion.

The area where she was found dead was a private driveway near Rabine Construction, where Cumbee had worked part time, according to a document filed as part of an appeal in 2006.

Larry Blum, a licensed medical doctor who specializes in forensic pathology, determined that Twarowski’s cause of death was brain injury resulting from multiple blows to her head caused by a “heavy metal rod-like instrument,” according to the motion.

Cumbee was accused of bludgeoning Twarowski with a fireplace poker in the Spring Grove home where the couple once lived together.

A forensic scientist testified at trial that black particles found in her skull did not match the fireplace poker found and tested by investigators at Cumbee’s home. Another witness testified that her injuries were not caused by a poker but “an unidentified long cylindrical object,” according to the motion.

Cumbee was found guilty by a McHenry County jury May 1, 1993. The verdict was overturned on appeal by the Appellate Court of the 2nd District. The appellate judges found that the trial judge failed to properly instruct jurors about the case’s venue, according to a Northwest Herald article and court documents.

Cumbee then faced a new jury who found him guilty Aug. 3, 2002, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2006, the appellate court affirmed Cumbee’s second conviction.

The motion filed in the McHenry County courthouse May 25 by lawyers from the Illinois Innocence Project indicates that the McHenry County state’s attorney does not oppose the motion.

Cumbee, who had worked as a police officer, firefighter and paramedic in Lake County, has maintained his innocence.

The couple began dating in September 1989. At the time of her death, Twarowski was living with her parents.

Numerous items were found and tested from her body and the vehicle, including fingernail scrapings, hairs, fibers and blood. A rape kit also was performed, according to the motion.

“Despite the ample amount of potential evidence that was collected and processed, none of the DNA associated with Ms. Twarowski’s body or her Geo Tracker was statistically consistent with Mr. Cumbee’s DNA,” lawyers wrote in the motion.

The motion further said that these items and others including Cumbee’s blood and saliva – as well as items found in the Spring Grove home including pieces of carpet, bathtub, a towel, sink, hand towel and wastebasket – were tested before “current advancements in DNA technology.”

Investigators performed luminol testing on Cumbee’s household items which, although they tested positive for blood, is described in the motion as a “presumptive test for blood and not a confirmatory test.”

“The test can also react to substances other than blood such as copper, copper alloys and some bleaches,” according to the motion.

Investigators added that the luminol and phenolphthalein tests used at the time “are screening tests that could not be conclusive.”

When towels, pieces of carpet and other household items were sent to a forensic science expert who tested them for a “confirmatory test,” they were negative for blood, according to the motion.

“Over 30 years have passed since the murder of Ms. Twarowski and the collection of DNA evidence,” lawyers said in the motion. “Mr. Cumbee seeks post-conviction forensic DNA testing on evidence where the technology for the testing requested was not available at the time of his trial.”

Attempts to reach the state’s attorney’s office Friday for comment were not successful.

The motion is set for a status hearing Tuesday in the McHenry County courthouse.