QUINCY, Ill. - Few in this former port city along the Mississippi River had more cachet than Curtis Lovelace: an all-Big Ten football player, longtime prosecutor, school board president, sports broadcaster and educator at the local university.
That sparkling image in the 40,000-strong western Illinois community of Quincy was shattered when he recently was charged with suffocating his first wife and mother of four on Valentine's Day in 2006, unsettling many followers of the case that had remained open because a pathologist and coroner's jury never pinpointed why the 38-year-old woman died so suddenly.
The scandal, cracked open last December when an investigator gave the case a fresh look, has all the makings of a made-for-TV flick: A community pillar is whisked away by police as he steps from his law office for lunch — eight years after his first wife's death.
Curtis Lovelace, 45, now faces a first-degree murder charge, to which he has pleaded not guilty. Unsurprisingly, as Lovelace remains jailed on $5 million bond, his situation is the continuing grist of gossip in tight-knit Quincy.
"He just seemed like an average fellow, a very active gentleman," Mike Cadwell, a barber for 40 years, said while giving an older client a trim. "I'm not sure what kind of a person does that kind of a crime, but he didn't seem to fit that mold."
In the 1980s, Lovelace was a star jock at Quincy High School in track, wrestling and football, earning six varsity letters and eventual enshrinement in the school's sports hall of fame. He went on to play football as a center at Illinois, where he was the team captain and a two-time all-Big Ten pick. The business major also was an academic all-American — a coup for Lovelace, who has said he got mostly B's in high school.
"I did not come to the University of Illinois as a star athlete or a star student," Lovelace told the (Bloomington) Pantagraph in 1990. "I think I've reached this point with hard work."
He married former high school classmate Cory Didriksen in 1991, got his law degree at Illinois, started a family and became an assistant prosecutor in Quincy, the once-thriving port that was a key point along the Underground Railroad and the site of one of Abraham Lincoln's storied 1858 debates against Stephen Douglas in a U.S. Senate race.
But what happened in the Lovelace home in 2006 became its own source of local debate.
According to Curtis Lovelace's account detailed in transcripts of a coroner's inquest, Cory Lovelace had been sick for days come Feb. 14, 2006, when he drove three of the couple's four children to school and returned to find his wife dead in bed. An investigator said Curtis Lovelace never summoned emergency responders or tried to resuscitate her.
An autopsy and the coroner's jury weeks later failed to determine the cause of death.
"At the time it happened, we just considered it a tragedy," Cadwell, 64, recalled. "I knew there was speculation, questions. But he never seemed to be at the center of it."
Curtis Lovelace married twice more, and Cory Lovelace's case languished until a newly promoted police detective dusted off the file and enlisted two pathologists to weigh in. Each concluded she was suffocated, and Curtis Lovelace was indicted in August.
Many around Quincy privately confide the scandal has been the talk of the town, even if they're reticent about publicly discussing it, citing the community's insular vibe. Each development has received prominent front-page play in the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper.
Lovelace's attorneys, Quincy school officials and prominent high school and Illini sports boosters are tight-lipped. Cory Lovelace's mother, Martha "Marty" Didriksen, told an Associated Press reporter on her doorstep that her thoughts had fragmented since her former son-in-law's arrest, but she politely declined to say more.
While insisting she's reserving judgment about Lovelace, antiques store owner Allison O'Donnell finds herself thinking of another former law enforcer: Drew Peterson, the former Chicago-area officer serving a 38-year sentence after being convicted in 2012 of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, eight years earlier.
"Everyone runs their mouth before anyone gets a fair chance" at trial, said O'Donnell, 73. "But I'm still from the old school — I don't believe it until I see it (play out in court)."