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Bring Nancy Rish Home

Nancy Rish has spent over 3 decades in prison for a crime her abusive partner committed. Help us bring Nancy home!

August 2, 2021

Bring Nancy Rish Home

Nancy Rish has been incarcerated for over 3 decades, for a crime she DID NOT commit.

Location: Kankakee, Illinois

Sentence: Natural Life W/O Parole (M) & 30 Years (AK)
Alleged Crime: First Degree Murder & Aggravated Kidnapping
Age at the Time: 24
Age Now: 59

No Evidence Pointed to Nancy
History of Domestic Violence was not Factored In
Inadequate Legal Council
The Jury was Provided with an Inaccurate Criteria of the Law
No Other Arrests or Criminal History

To the Family of Stephen Small,


We are deeply sorry for your loss and the incredible pain you have all experienced. We in no way, want to minimize the pain of losing a husband and father in such a traumatic and brutal way. We cannot imagine how difficult this is for you all to relive. We do not wish to bring you any more suffering. We only wish to bring justice and truth to light. Truth being, that Danny Edwards was the sole person who made the decisions that brought us to this point today, and that Nancy Rish is incredibly sorry that she enabled Danny to be able to carry out his plan, regardless of the lack of knowledge she had at the time.

Freebird Movement Team

What Happened

1961 - 1986: Early Life

  • December 26th, 1961 - Nancy Rish is born in Kankakee, Illinois.
  • 16 years old - Nancy Rish has a son with her now ex-husband, Terry Rish.
  • Nancy works multiple jobs, including at a bank, a department store, a grocery store and selling cosmetics to support herself and her son.
  • 21 years old - Nancy is diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome after experiencing unexplained weakness in her arms and legs.
  • 23 years old (1985) - Nancy was working 50-55 hours per week at a food store and at a bank.
  • 1985 - Nancy’s abusive father is murdered by another man, near her mothers home.

1986 - August 1987: Before the Kidnapping

  • 1986 - Nancy and Danny, who was newly divorced, begin dating. He worked for an electrical supply business and rented a house from Nancy’s sister and her husband.
  • Summer of 1986 - Danny tells Nancy to quit her jobs and take the summer off. Nancy and her son move into the house with Danny.
  • Shortly after, Danny is introduced to a man named Mitch Levitt, a drug dealer in Chicago. Danny wanted to use the money he made from selling his house after the divorce, to make more money and then get out of the drug business.
  • A few months later, he began selling drugs.
  • He began free-basing cocaine and taught Nancy. Although Nancy had only used cocaine one time prior to meeting Edwards, she became dependent on it. 
  • Their lives began to spiral. Danny was partying all night and cheating on Nancy. She became concerned over the many people using, who were going in and out of the house.
  • Danny moved Nancy and her son into a townhouse to keep her out of his business. She had not yet returned to work.
  • Late 1986 - Danny and Nancy are no longer a couple. Nancy and her son were still living in the townhouse and she was having difficulty finding work due to her association to Danny.
  • Nancy tries to leave, but she is financially dependent on Danny.
  • Danny’s house on the river is raided by police. He was facing 6-30 years in prison unless he cooperated. Danny took the plea, and named Mitch Levitt, his supplier in Chicago.
  • Danny moved into the townhome. Nancy had no choice because his name was on the lease and he was paying the rent.
  • Nancy begins selling Mary Kay cosmetics and cleaning houses. She was able to bring in some income, but not enough to support herself and her son.
  • Summer 1987 - Danny tells Nancy that he still owes Mitch Levitt a lot of money from when the police confiscated his drugs and cash and that Levitt was threatening his ex-wife and children. Danny’s abuse towards Nancy heightens.
  • Nancy tries to move in with friends, find work, and get away from Edwards. She was not successful and ended up back at the townhouse.
  • Danny continued to sell drugs on a smaller scale. To collect old debts, he would break into peoples homes and steal from them.
  • Danny begins to hatch a million dollar ransom plan, regarding a wealthy man in town, Stephen Small.
  • Danny begins building a wooden box. He tells Nancy and everyone else that it is for pool supplies or to hold lumber. He built the box in the garage, with the door open. The garage faced the police station and was in plain sight.
  • Late August, 1987 - Danny began acting strangely “even for him” and was leaving the house often. He steals a gun from his friend Jeff and handcuffs from another friend.
  • Danny tells Nancy he is being forced to do something dangerous. He does not tell her what, only that he is being threatened, as is his ex-wife and their children. He tells Nancy she must pick him up from a remote location in the middle of the night or he will kill Nancy and her son.
  • August 30th, 1987 - Nancy Receives frightening calls. Danny later admits at trial that he made the calls to scare her into driving him.
  • September 1st, 1987 - Nancy reschedules a hair appointment so Danny can show her where to pick him up. She then goes to a friend's house for a Mary Kay party. The host said she was acting completely normal. Nancy had also spoken to the host about cleaning her house for extra money.

September 1st - 4th, 1987: The Kidnapping

  • September 1st - 2nd, 1987, around midnight - Danny tells Nancy to get her keys and follow him in his van. She did so, thinking she and her son would be killed if she did not comply. Danny drove to a friend's house to park the van. Since this was the friend that turned Danny into the police, Nancy believed Danny was doing something drug related.
  • Danny got in Nancy’s car and told her to drive to the gas station. He got out, walked about 6 feet to a payphone and made a call with his back to the car. Nancy could not hear the call.
  • This was the first call to the Small Family home. Stephen Small’s teenaged son (14) picked up the call. Danny told him he was “Officer Thompson” and that someone had broken into a property his father had been rehabbing. He asked him to have his father come identify what had been stolen.
  • He got back in the car, and rushed Nancy to drive him to Cobb Park. When they got to the corner, Danny grabbed a duffle bag and told her to go straight home. This was about a block from the Small’s home.
  • Danny says he ran down the alley from the park to the small home and confronted Stephen Small as he was driving out of the garage. Danny was wearing a “darkened full-face motorcycle helmet” and he pointed the gun at Stephen and told him to drive to Aroma Park. Once there, Danny forced him into the trunk of his own car and drove to the Wichert Sands area, about 15 minutes outside of Kankakee, where he had previously buried the box.
  • Danny handcuffed Stephen, led him to the box, and had him read a note while he recorded it on a cassette tape. The note demanded that Mrs. Small pay a million dollar ransom in exchange for her husband.
  • Danny then closed the box and covered it with sand. Inside, was a milk jug filled with water, some candy bars, and a PVC pipe leading to the surface to provide him with air.
  • 2:30 AM - Nancy is at the townhouse in her car. Nancy, unaware of what was happening, left in her car to pick Danny up at the specified spot. She picked him up, took him back to his van, and they drove home separately.
  • Nancy went to sleep.
  • 3:30 AM - Danny left by himself for about 20 minutes. This was when he made the call to Mrs. Small telling her that he had her husband and requested a million dollar ransom. Nancy’s voice is not on the tape. It was played for the jury.
  • 7:30 AM - Nancy wakes up and takes her son to school. 
  • Afternoon - Danny suggests they take the dog to the groomers. They do. He then asks Nancy to take him to a “road near a ranch.” She does. He then tells her to go visit her sister. Danny walks from there to the burial site.
  • 4:30 PM - Nancy returns from her sister’s to pick up Danny from the ranch.
  • 5:00 PM - Danny tells Nancy to stop the car about 10 feet from a drive-up payphone at a gas station. He got out of the car and made the phone call with his back to Nancy. This is confirmed by eyewitnesses. This call was to Mrs. Small to ask if she had the money. Danny suspected she had the police at her home. She did.
  • They drove home. 
  • Danny left to make another call to Stephen’s sister. He threatened her and her late husband, and told her that he knew the police were at her brother's home.
  • 10:30 PM - Danny tells Nancy that they have to go take her bike to his friend, Jack, to get it fixed. Nancy questioned the time. Danny told her Jack worked late. 
  • 11:00 PM - Danny puts the bike in the trunk of Nancy’s car. On the way, he stopped to make a call. He told her he was calling Jack to make sure he was home. Instead, he called the Small home and played the tape recording of where he wanted the money dropped.
  • Danny see’s a police car, hangs up, gets back in the car and tells Nancy that Jack is not home. He told Nancy to pull over at another gas station. He got out of the car, called Mrs. Small back, and told her he knew the cops were there and that they were done. He hung up.
  • On the way home, he threw the tape recorder out of the car. Nancy told police he had thrown something out of the car, and they were able to recover it. Nancy’s voice was not on the recording.
  • At this point, the police had traced the calls and had Danny and Nancy under surveillance. 
  • September 3rd, 1987 - Danny leaves in his van. He knows he is being followed, and says he “lost the police.” He goes to check on Stephen and let him go. He called into the pipe and got no response. He believed he had died.
  • 7:30 AM - Nancy wakes up and takes her son to school. When she got home, Danny was not there. Nancy went back to bed.
  • Danny gets home and takes out the garbage. This was later intercepted by police. It contained a receipt in his name, for a cassette tape.
  • 10:30 AM - Nancy is awoken by noise downstairs. She wakes to a man in army fatigues with a pistol in her face. They were both arrested.
  • At the station, one of the officers threatened Nancy with the electric chair. The officer admitted to it on a “Top Cops” program, but denied this to the Judge.
  • Nancy was questioned 8 times over four days and nights, totaling 15 hours of questioning. Her attorney, an acquaintance of Stephen Small, had only spent 10 minutes with her and had not advised her to remain silent, prepared her, nor investigated what happened. He was not a criminal defense attorney and neglected to tell her about his ties to the Small Family.

1988 - Present: After the Kidnapping

  • They were tried separately. Both were convicted.
  • 1988 - After Danny’s conviction, he told one of Nancy’s trial lawyers, Sherry Carr, that Nancy was unaware of what he was doing.
  • 2006 - Danny met Jacalyn Wojtowicz, an inmate from Dwight (both were on medical writ) that he felt “terrible” that Nancy was convicted and that Nancy was unaware of the kidnapping. 
  • 2013 to Present - Danny has had numerous conversations with Kankakee investigative journalist, Jim Ridings. He has told Jim numerous times that he committed the crimes alone and used Nancy to drive him, without telling her why.
  • 2014 - Filed second Post Conviction Petition based on actual innocence.
  • 2014 - Commutation of Sentencing (Clemency) Denied.
  • 2015 - Danny Edward gave his first testimony under oath, providing heinous details of the offense.
  • 2016 - Petition based on mitigating evidence of domestic violence filed based on a new Illinois law, which allows a petitioner to ask for resentencing if domestic violence was not presented at sentencing.
  • April 16th, 2021 - Clemency Petition Filed.
  • July 2021 - Appeal for Resentencing based on Domestic Violence Granted.
Nancy and Elle, one of the dogs from the PAWS program.


Proof of Innocence

Issues with the case

  • Convicted based on accountability (accomplice liability) but Nancy’s past history as a victim of domestic violence was never presented at trial.
  • Nancy was inaccurately told by her attorney at the time of the original trial, that she was not allowed to testify about what Danny Edwards had told her while he was committing the crime, because it would be considered hearsay. 
  • Her own lawyer stopped her from telling the jury what Edwards had said and what she had tried to ask him about, at least 15 times during trial. She was stopped from telling the jury that Danny had put a gun to her head and threatened her and her sons lives, and that Danny said someone had been threatening his ex-wife and their children's lives.
  • Danny Edwards admitted that if Nancy would have known about his plan or had helped, he would not have needed the box to hold Stephen Small.
  • The ADA incorrectly told the jury during closing arguments, that they only had to prove Nancy “committed one act to aid or abet Danny”. Nancy’s Defense attorney did NOT object.
  • The Small family owned multiple media outlets in the area.
  • Nancy could not find an attorney to represent her at the time of the arrest, who did not have ties to The Small Family.

Proof of Innocence

  • Nancy has always maintained her innocence and has been consistent with her account of events.
  • There was no evidence against Nancy, despite ample evidence against Danny.
  • Danny built the box alone.
  • Only Danny’s prints were on the box and pipe.
  • Danny stole the gun and handcuffs alone.
  • Danny made the ransom calls by himself. Despite going to drive-up payphones, he got out of the car to make the calls so Nancy would not hear him.
  • Soil from the crime scene was found on Danny’s shoes. There was none on Nancy’s.
  • Danny could identify where the crime scene was. Nancy could only identify where she picked Edwards up. (Roughly 1 mile apart)
  • She cooperated with the police.
  • Danny stated he had to bury Stephen Small because he was alone and had no one to hold him while he sought the ransom money.
  • Nancy was at a Mary Kay party the night Danny kidnapped Stephen. The host said Nancy was acting normally and asked if she could clean her house to make extra money. Nancy would not have been trying to make extra side money, if she was expecting a large ransom.
  • Danny Edwards admitted to domestic violence against Nancy, lying to her about the box, and has consistently maintained that Nancy knew nothing about the kidnapping of Stephen Small. 
  • Nancy helped police recover the cassette tape with the recording on it.
  • Danny Edwards has always been consistent when it comes to Nancy and that she did not know about his plan. Even when telling the truth lost the support of his family and any relationships with them.

Nancy Rish is Supported By:

  • Former Wardens
  • Deputy Director of IDOC
  • Supervisors and Instructors
  • Former CO’s
  • Members of religious and prison advocacy organizations
  • Her entire family
  • Citizens of Kankakee
  • Dozens of former and current prisoners who have benefitted from her guidance and mentorship
  • Members of the community
  • William Gaines - Pulitzer Prize Winner, Award-Winning Investigative Journalist, Social Analyst, and Chicago Tribune Reporter
  • Paul Weingarten - Reporter, Investigative Journalist, Chicago Tribune Editorial Board Member
  • Michelle Gaines - Daughter of William Gaines
  • Margaret Byrne - Attorney, Advocate of the group who worked on the bill to help battered women, and Former Director of the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women, an organization she co-founded in 1993
  • Jim Ridings - Kankakee Investigative Journalist and Award-Winning Author
  • Melissa Mooney - Corrections Vocation Instructor, Dwight and Logan (2011 -2018) 
  • Debbie Denning - Former Deputy Director of Women and Family Services and Chief of Programs and Support Services for IDOC
  • Margaret Burke - Former Warden
  • Rich Mautino - Retired as Senior Public Service Administrator of Illinois Correctional Industries Division of IDOC. He started the Helping Paws program at Dwight and later supervised Nancy at Logan
  • Lori Wright - Former Dwight Correctional College Dog Grooming Instructor from Lake Land College. She taught Nancy from 2001 - 2013
  • Erin Burke - Former Correctional Officer. She was Nancy’s Officer over a 13 year period until she retired
  • Alexis Mansfield - The Women’s Justice Institute
  • Gail T. Smith - Founder of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM)
  • Rev. Karea Mooney - Executive Director, Unitarian Universalist Advocacy Network of Illinois, Former Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of Illinois
  • Sue Augustus - Former Assistant State Appellate Defender
  • Elizabeth Poetzing - Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • Grace Lagoudakis - MSW
  • Maddie Johnson - Founder of Freebird Movement, an Innocence Organization
  • Billy Stark - Detective with the Bourbonnais Police Department at the time of the arrests
  • Jim Thacker - Neighbor of the Small Family. His mother testified against Nancy. He notes the testimony she gave was different than what she told her family
  • Maxine Shores - Friend. Nancy was at her home the day Danny kidnapped Stephen Small
  • Sharon Beeler - Member of the Illinois Long Term Prisoner Study Committee

Nancy Rish's Accomplishments

  • No other arrests or criminal history
  • Exemplary disciplinary record in prison
  • Manager of the Tool Room (3 years)
  • Master Dog Groomer, Helping Paws Program (16+ Years)
  • Completion of Lewis University's curriculum in Culinary Arts I (1998)
  • Completion of Lewis University's curriculum in Computer Technology I (1999)
  • Certification as a dog grooming assistant from Lake Land College (2002)
  • Lake Land College Honors List (2002)
  • Lake Land College Presidential Scholar (2003)
  • Illinois Department of Public Health Food Service Sanitation License (2003)
  • AA Degree of Liberal Studies from Lake Land College, Summa Cum Laude (2005)
  • Certified Pet Care Technician with American Boarding and Kennels Association (2006)
  • Certificate of Completion from the “Be Transformed” program seminar by Daughters of Destiny, an organization providing spiritual ministry to incarcerated women (2010)
  • Completed studies of the book of Revelation (2012)
  • Completed a 1 year study of Hebrew Scriptures (2011)
  • Certifications for Completed Mental Health Groups hosted by Lake Land College, including Emotions Management and Seeking Safety, Healthy Relationships and Self Esteem (2018 & 2019)
  • Acknowledged Leader of the Helping Paws Program. Nancy has been in the program for 18+ years. She is the longest serving member in the program. (2003 - Present)
  • Developed and implemented an 8 week course to instruct new trainees in dog grooming. Certification for those completing the course has been approved by the IDOC in Springfield and the wardens at Logan.
  • Mentor and teacher to women incarcerated in Illinois.

Reasons to Bring Nancy Home

  • Nancy had a long history of being a victim of abuse, starting with her father, her ex-husband, her ex-boyfriend Mickey Andrews, and then Danny Edwards which made her more susceptible to Danny Edwards abuse, coercion, and deception.
  • Nancy was convicted based on accomplice liability. Under the law, that includes two components: one, that the person aided and abetted, and two, that the person intended to help them commit the crime. 
  • Nancy has Guillain-Barre Syndrome and caught Covid in December of 2021.
  • Her mom is 91 and suffers from polio and dementia. She visited Nancy nearly every month for over 25 years. She is no longer able to.
  • Nancy has housing and a job lined up pending her release.
  • Nancy and her family have experienced an immense generational trauma from her being wrongfully imprisoned for over 34 years. She has missed an unfathomable amount of holidays and birthdays that she should not have.
  • Nancy poses no risk to herself or to others. She has proven over the 3.5 decades she has spent wrongfully incarcerated, that she is not a threat to others, and that she is a willing and able asset to society. She has mentored and helped train countless women to help them secure jobs upon release and to be able to rejoin their families and society. It is long overdue that Nancy is given that chance as well.

Available at FreebirdMovement.org/Shop

How you can help

Purchase a "Justice for Nancy Rish" t-shirt or dog bandana. All proceeds go directly towards Nancy's case. 
Donate in honor of Nancy. All donations in her name will go directly towards her case.
Sign her Petition! Once we have enough signatures, it will be sent directly to government officials in Illinois, who have the power to help Nancy.
Share our posts about her case. You can follow us on Instagram @freebirdMVMT or on TikTok @FrankieFromFreebird for the quickest updates.
Purchase Jim Riding's book, detailing her case.
Submit a Tip if you know anything about the events that took place in Kankakee, Illinois which led to the tragic death of Stephen Small.

If you have any additional questions, please email them to us at maddie@freebirdmovement.org or use the contact page above.

Thank you for your advocacy,

Freebird Movement Team
#freebirdmvmt
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