Was the execution-style slaying of a motorcycle gang leader a message to other drug dealers, or a crime so personal that whoever committed it couldn’t bear to see what happened to the victim?
More than a dozen years after George Armitage’s body was found — bound and shot multiple times, with a plastic bag and pillow over his head — that question persists.
A former detective who worked the case for the last five months of his career until his May 1999 retirement believes the murder hinges on people who knew the victim well — and that some crucial questions could now be answered and potentially solve the case.
“George wasn’t exactly what you’d call salt of the earth,” said Kim Sylvester, a homicide detective with Peoria County when Armitage’s body was found on New Year’s Eve in 1998. “Aside from that, he still deserves the right to have his case brought to a conclusion.”
Sylvester would like to see the case reopened and has lobbied Illinois State Police investigators to take up the inquiry. It’s not clear whether that will happen, and Sylvester contacted the Journal Star in the hope that any publicity on the case could prompt someone with information to step forward.
Armitage spent time in prison for murder — a death that resulted from a possible robbery and beating he participated in when he was a teenager in the Elgin area. He also was the one-time president of the local chapter of the Satan Brothers Motorcycle Club and an undisputed drug dealer.
But he was a friend and brother, too. Mike Armitage — the only immediate relative to still visit the Peoria area where he once came to hang out with his brother and “get crazy” so many years ago — knew a side of his brother not recorded in any of the official documents about his life or death.
“So many people down here came up to me at his funeral and said what a great guy he was,” Mike Armitage said.
While his world revolved around motorcycles (some stolen) and drugs (all illegal), traces of his character were visible even in underworld dealings. He gave away as much cocaine and marijuana as he sold, and didn’t resort to violence to settle debts.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy who held grudges.” Mike Armitage said. He added that his brother could peacefully walk into biker bars associated with rival gangs: “He was respected in the biker world.”
But the lifestyle caught up with him. Sometime after Christmas 1998 — the exact date isn’t known — George Armitage, 50, was accosted at his home at 13803 Edgewater Drive just south of Rome off Illinois Route 29.
Page 2 of 2 - The back door had been left open, and a friend who came to check on him found his body frozen in the living room on New Year’s Eve day. His hands and feet had been tied. A plastic bag was over his head, and a pillow had been placed over his skull, likely to muffle the sounds of the fatal shots. Evidence collected at the scene and from the body showed two guns were used, suggesting two killers.
At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighing more than 215 pounds, George Armitage wouldn’t have been an easy man to wrangle.
And as his brother noted, “He spent nine years in the joint — he knew how to take care of himself.”
The killers also left behind a large cache of marijuana and cocaine that would have been the target of anyone who knew of the victim’s illicit business.
“That always baffled me,” Mike Armitage said. “If it was over drugs, why would they have been left there?”
On these aspects of the case, former detective Sylvester and current investigators familiar with the case at the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office differ on interpretations.
Sylvester insists only a person close to George Armitage could have made it into the house to subdue the man, and that the way in which he was killed suggests an aversion to seeing an acquaintance expire in such a violent manner.
Others believe the extreme nature of the slaying was intended to set an example for others in the area involved in the drug trade — and police say leads developed after Sylvester retired suggest likewise. A request to review the case file was denied because the case technically remains open.
Still, Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy said he shares Sylvester’s desire to see the case resolved, even if the two don’t agree on how the known pieces of the case fit together.
“It’s still an open case, and we would follow up on any new leads,” McCoy said, urging those with information to call 697-8515 or leave an anonymous tip with CrimeStoppers at 673-9000.
Sylvester thinks enough time has passed that someone may finally be willing to tell the truth, whatever direction that may lead.
“I’m all for running it all the way to the end,” Sylvester said. “If not us, then who is going to represent this family in their quest to find an end to this?”