By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
MOUNT STERLING, Ill. -- When Penny Taber first got the call, she held out hope that everything was OK.
When Taber last spoke to her younger sister, Kathy Blentlinger, on the night of Nov. 8, 2007, Blentlinger told her that she was going to stay at a friend's house. Blentlinger planned to go out and socialize with friends after another day of classes at Vatterott College in Quincy, where she was studying to becoming a medical assistant.
Around 3:30 the next morning, Taber got a call from another sister saying that Blentlinger's house was on fire and that they didn't know if she had made it out of the house.
"When I got the phone call in the morning, I'm telling my other sister that it was OK because she wasn't home," Taber said. "That was my very first thought. But then my sister told me her car was there.
"The thought crossed my mind that she might be home when they told me her car was there I wanted to hold on to every bit of hope that I could hold on."
By the time, Taber made the trip from her home in Kinderhook to Mount Sterling, the family's worst fears were realized. Blentlinger, a 34-year-old single mother, died in the fire. Eight months later, a coroner's jury ruled that Blentlinger's death was a homicide as a result of arson.
Six years after her death, Blentlinger's family, friends and those who have been investigating the case would like to see someone brought to justice for her death.
A sister's bond
Blentlinger grew up around the Mount Sterling area. She was the sixth of Marilyn and John Grover's eight children. After living in Mount Sterling, the family eventually moved to a farm in Hersman, just south of town. After three boys were born, Taber was the oldest of the family's four girls.
"I was the one who would take care of them if Mom and Dad were gone," she said. "That helped me to grow up very quickly and be mature."
She formed a special bond with Blentlinger, who was seven years younger. When Taber grew up and moved out of the house, Blentlinger wound up following her. She dropped out of high school in 1991 and asked Taber if she could live with her in Tallula, a tiny village north of Pleasant Plains in Menard County. Taber allowed her to move in with her under one condition -- that Blentlinger acquire a GED.
She did that.
The two were as tight as could be.
"I'm more shy and she is more outgoing," Taber said. "It was kind of a balance.
"She was the other half who completed me. I never realized how dependent she and I were for each other until she was gone."
Taber tried to talk Blentlinger into staying home on the night of the fire. Blentlinger had just gotten done with a bout with pneumonia. Her son, who was 8 at the time, was with his father that weekend.
Taber wasn't surprised that Blentlinger decided to go out that night.
"Kathy was a very outgoing, caring, loving individual," Taber said. "She would give anything to anyone if they were in need. She enjoyed life."
Blentlinger wound up going home to 202 E. South St. after seeing her friends. It wasn't long after she got home early Saturday morning that her house erupted in flames. Gasoline was spilled on a rear porch area, police said. Blentlinger was found in her bedroom. She died of smoke inhalation. The fire was so hot it melted the siding of houses that here next to hers.
"She told me that she was going to be staying with a friend," Taber said. "Somehow plans changed and she wasn't."
Taber still doesn't know why Blentlinger's plans changed that night. She said the family has a lot of unanswered questions about what happened.
She'll also never forget that last phone call with Blentlinger.
"I did get that final chance (to say goodbye)," she said. "It was the last thing we said to each other. She said ‘I love you.' And I said "I love you, too.' I told her to call me if she needed anything."
Figuring out what happened
The box filled with information about Blentlinger's case sits right next to the desk of Brown County State's Attorney Mark Vincent.
"Every other file comes and goes, but that has been there from the beginning," Vincent said.
He took over as state's attorney in 2008, a year after Blentlinger's death. He keeps the box close to him as a constant reminder that there is still work to be done on the case. He said he regularly looks through its contents.
"We need a break," Vincent said, "something that would give us more than what we have. If we had enough to file a charge, we would do so."
Vincent said investigators know what Blentlinger did the night before her death. They know who she was with that night.
"We have interviewed people from every angle," Vincent said. "We've talked to all of her associates and even friends of friends. We think someone in that circle or someone associated with them has more information. That's where it's at. That's who we are appealing to. The people who have knowledge are in that group."
A friend of Blentlinger's said getting someone to step forward won't be easy.
"There are some people who are scared," said Jesse Gilsdorf of Mount Sterling. "A lot of people are nervous about it. I'm not."
Gilsdorf and his wife, Patty, have put up a $3,000 reward for information about the case. Jesse Gilsdorf said the reward has generated some leads over the years. But the best lead he has was given to him by Blentlinger.
"Kathy flat out told me who would kill her," Gilsdorf said. "She said, ‘I want you to make sure people know who did this and who did that.' She was very concerned that she would die in a house fire. Her saying it, unfortunately, isn't much evidence."
Gilsdorf didn't elaborate on who Blentlinger feared or why she thought she would die in a fire.
Gilsdorf believes people in the tiny community of 2,000 people are afraid of retribution if they speak up about the case.
"They don't want to have their house burned down," he said. "The individual involved is clearly a pyromaniac."
Taber is hopeful someone overcomes the fear to speak up for her sister.
"I pray every day," she said. "I know there has been a lot of fear and a lot of anger in Mount Sterling because of what happened to Kathy. I would really like to urge people to speak up and tell them that anger and fear isn't what's going to get us to close this case and a conviction. It's going to be coming forward.
"I don't want Kathy's death to be in vain."
If you have information about Kathy Blentlinger's death, call Illinois State Police investigator Kevin Kaufmann at (217) 285-2034, ext. 218.