Two McLean County murder cases illustrate changes and challenges of no-cash bail
Melissa Ostrom's future was lined with dreams and demons when she was found dead in mid-April, three days after family members reported her missing.
Mariah Petracca's parents had faith that she would finish school and be a good mother for her young son, aspirations cut short by her death on a Bloomington sidewalk in January 2021.
Two different men are accused of killing Ostrom and Petracca.
Joshua Livingston has been indicted on — but pleaded not guilty to — three counts of first-degree murder and one count of homicidal death related to Ostrom's disappearance; Michael Bakana was sentenced to 110 years in prison after killing Petracca and injuring another woman.
Both men benefitted from the state's cash bail system that allowed them to leave jail after paying enough to do so. That will change come Sept. 18, when Illinois becomes the first state in the nation to eliminate money as a requirement for release from jail.
Their releases illustrate the potential consequences of releasing a person accused of domestic violence, and the uncertainties of opening the cell door of an accused murderer with enough money to post bond.
Under the provisions of the Pretrial Fairness Act passed by lawmakers as part of the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform package, Bakana would have likely stayed in jail while awaiting his trial, unable to flee the state as he did in May.
Livingston's release, however, with conditions on the misdemeanor domestic violence charge he faced before Ostrom was found dead, would be consistent with the new pretrial rules.
"The devil is in the details with this,” McLean County State's Attorney Erika Reynolds said in a recent interview with WGLT. "To say that it will be easier to just hold people that we have safety concerns about — I'm not certain that's true."
Fears that turned into loss
Before she became close with Melissa Ostrom, Tami Bicknell was friends with her mother for 20 years. Then, she married into the family. As Ostrom helped Bicknell raise her brother's children — four of them — in addition to her own two children, the women became even closer.
"She was my helper. We were in contact on a daily basis. That's how I knew so much about her," Bicknell told WGLT.
It's that closeness, Bicknell said, that led her to sense something was wrong when she didn't hear from Ostrom on April 17. A friend whom Ostrom planned to visit told Bicknell she also had not seen her.
“I just had this overwhelming feeling that something was wrong — and I was correct. I woke up at four in the morning with, basically, a panic attack,” said Bicknell.
Adding to Bicknell’s anxiety was a sense that “she was probably with him,” meaning Livingston. Bicknell and other family members had long had concerns about Ostrom’s relationship with Joshua Livingston, a man she eventually accused of domestic violence a month before he was charged with her murder.
"I actually had a conversation with her: I asked her to please stay away from him, because I couldn't stand losing her right now," Bicknell said. "I said, "All the things that he has done to you — I feel like something really bad could happen. I just want you to promise me you'll stay away from him.' She told me she would. That she would be OK. Don't worry about her."
For three days, she answered phone calls and shared information with police. The news came on a Thursday morning, Bicknell recalled.
“It was about 1:30 in the morning, a loud knock. And you just have this fear when you know something like this is going on,” she said.
When she opened the door, Bicknell saw police and the county coroner, a confirmation of her worst fears.
"Unfortunately, she just didn't stay away from him," she said.
A domestic battery complaint filed March 22 against Livingston points to the volatile relationship he had with his girlfriend. The 42-year-old was accused of grabbing and throwing his 39-year-old partner to the ground 10 days earlier, on March 12. Livingston was released March 27 after posting $200, the required 10% of his $2,000 bond.
As a condition of his release, Livingston was ordered to have no contact with Ostrom. Among the nine charges filed against Livingston after Ostrom’s death is an allegation of violating the terms of his bond in the domestic violence case.
As of publication, Livingston has not been able to post the $200,000 bond required for his release on the $2 million in his murder case.
'Brutal, vicious and cold-blooded'
Mariah Petracca, mother to a young son and a Heartland Community College student, was shot multiple times by Michael Bakana as she and her friend stood outside Daddio’s bar in 2021. Police public safety camera footage captured the Jan. 29 incident, where Bakana argued with Petracca and her friend, then walked to his car, retrieved a gun, and returned to shoot them both.
Prosecutors called Bakana's actions "brutal, vicious and cold-blooded." A judge agreed and sentenced Bakana to 110 years in prison. Petracca’s mother said his capture – and life-term sentence – provides the family a sense of closure.
Unlike Livingston, Bakana’s family was able — and willing — to post $200,000 for his release about 10 months after his arrest.
Out on bond, Bakana fled Illinois before his trial in May.
Five days later, U.S. Marshals found Bakana nearly 400 miles away from McLean County, outside of Lexington in Kentucky.
With no-cash bail laws set to take effect in Illinois on Sept. 18, McLean County State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds has concerns it will become harder for prosecutors to keep dangerous people in jail, since previous standards of probable cause have increased to “clear and convincing evidence.”
Assessing the risk
Reynolds declined to speak specifically about Bakana and Livingston’s cases, both of which are still pending. But her concerns extend to all cases.
“The problematic aspect of this is not only do we have this higher burden, but then we also have the requirement to prove that no set of mitigating conditions will mitigate that concern,” Reynolds said.
In other words, state’s attorneys must prove that it is unlikely that defendants, under any circumstances, will return to court and pose a threat to the community – or their victims if they are released.
As part of his pretrial release, Michael Bakana agreed to a judge’s order that he wear an ankle monitor while his case went through the court system: The morning of his trial, Bakana cut off the tracking device and fled the state.
Melissa Ostrom’s family recognized the red flags in Joshua Livingston: Even after a court ordered him to not have contact with Ostrom after the domestic violence charges, Livingston continued to call her, according to Bicknell.
Those close to Ostrom knew she used an exterior building on her grandmother's property as an art studio, where she made wind chimes and stained glass art. It had been called "The Thinking Spot," Bicknell said.
The night before Ostrom went missing, the building burned down in a fire that Bicknell believes was arson; the McLean County Sheriff's Department, which responded to the April 16 incident, said the fire is still under investigation.
"The day the Thinking Spot burned down ... I told her that she could come stay with me for awhile, if she couldn't stay away from him," Bicknell recalled. "And if she needed to go somewhere, I would help her go wherever she wanted to go if she couldn't stay away from him."
When Livingston was arrested on charges of domestic violence in March, the McLean County state’s attorney’s office did not recommend a risk assessment — a tool used to determine whether a person should be released on bond.
Court records indicate that the state and defense agreed that the bond conditions imposed in the domestic violence case were sufficient to “protect the alleged victim of this offense” and “no homicidal or suicidal threats were made by the defendant in connection with this offense.”
Such releases on bond in domestic violence cases are common when a defendant does not have a record of felonies, and meets other pretrial release criteria.
Prior to the domestic violence charges in March and the burglary, stolen car and murder charges in April, Livingston’s run-ins with the McLean County court system involved a wide range of traffic charges — several stemming from a misdemeanor DUI incident in 2017 — and a single felony forgery charge in 2021 for using a stolen credit card.
The closest he came to being deemed a "risk" based on that county's records was an order of protection in his 2017 divorce that barred him from contact with his then 8-year-old child, an order that said Livingston posed “a credible threat to the physical safety” of both his ex-wife and child.
Reynolds said she’s concerned about how interpretations of the new law will impact domestic violence situations.
"We may be in a scenario in which there will be no way to hold a misdemeanor defendant, which is typically your domestic violence cases – unless there’s some type of other circumstances that would make it a felony,” Reynolds said.
The way that the court system determines whether a person should be released from jail still includes a person’s potential flight risk and their risk to the safety of the victim and community.
Supporters of the Pretrial Fairness Act stressed those points Friday as they pushed back on Reynolds’ comments. They say domestic violence is, in fact, one of several misdemeanors eligible for detention – and that the new law could ultimately provide more latitude to hold defendants deemed to be a threat, not less. They also note support for the bill came, in part, from organizations like the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Reynolds on Friday doubled down on her interpretation of the law, saying in a statement that her comments are part of "my job to inform the public about what may or may not happen when the SAFE-T Act takes effect." Reynolds said her opinion stems from arguments made in favor of the SAFE-T Act before the Illinois Supreme Court by the bill's proponents.
"The proponents of the bill publicly made other suggestions but argued during the litigation that holding a defendant in pretrial detention on misdemeanor offenses, including domestic battery offenses, would violate a defendant’s rights," the statement read. "Consistent with that theory, as I have stated before, we may find ourselves in a situation in which we will be unable to hold anyone charged with a misdemeanor pretrial, including domestic battery defendants."
Several factors are used, and will continue to be used, to weigh the flight risk.
Reynolds outlined several of those considerations, including a person’s ties to the community, whether they have children, the potential penalties if they are convicted and their access to resources that could help them flee.
In Bakana’s case, he had access to his family’s financial resources, speaks multiple languages and has ties to other countries, as well as locations within the U.S. Under the previous law, Bakana was able to be released despite the red flags because he could pay to do so. No-cash bail would change that outcome in most serious felony cases, something Reynolds’ acknowledges she and most prosecutors support.
“The dirty little secret is that most prosecutors would prefer some type of no-cash bail system,” Reynolds said.
The new system eliminates the negotiation of an appropriate amount of money to be set for a person’s release on more serious charges, such as murder.
“If this system was set up in such a way to give us the ability to detain on any offense at any time based on safety concerns, most prosecutors would sign onto that,” she said.
While Reynolds said she has confidence in McLean County’s judges to detain high-risk individuals, the new law may be applied differently in the state’s other 101 counties as individual court systems adapt.
Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, judges will decide a person’s release based on a petition filed by the state that lays out why a person should be held. If prosecutors opt to not file a petition, the argument to detain is never made.
“If, theoretically, there’s a serial killer in some community who is politically connected, if that state’s attorney’s office makes a determination that they will not file a petition to detain, the judge can do nothing and the person walks,” Reynolds said.
In response to questions about the new law, McLean County Public Defender Ron Lewis avoided ”making general predictions or guesses” on the impact no-cash bail will have on public safety.
“I am encouraged that the Pretrial Fairness Act comes with a robust data collection component. Results will be monitored at the state and local level. Research has motivated the changes. I’m looking forward to evaluation of the changes based on measurements and not just anecdotal information,” said Lewis.
As for increased threats to victims in domestic violence cases, Lewis said arrestees in those cases are initially brought before the court where information from an additional risk assessment tool is discussed.
The public defender noted that “we are used to that, and risk assessment tools will continue to be used. We may have longer discussions at detention hearings with additional information gathered by both sides.”
Moving forward without cash bail
While Livingston’s case makes its way through the court system, Tami Bicknell said she plans to work on various initiatives that highlight who Melissa Ostrom was — beyond being a victim of violence.
Those who knew Melissa, Bicknell said, remember her free spirit, her strong will, her willingness to help anyone who needed it.
She hopes to open a center that will serve domestic violence victims and their families – a place that will also pay homage to Ostrom’s love of art.
“Women have a way of lifting each other up. It will be a good place for women to get together and lift each other up, tell their stories and know they are not alone in this,” Bicknell said.
She's also started an online petition aimed at changing domestic violence laws.
"I just want to turn something bad into something positive and keep her name and her story out there," Bicknell said. "Because she left us way too soon. And she had a lot to offer."
Ultimately, Reynolds said, the community will determine if changes to the new no-cash bail system are necessary. Reynolds was one of a majority of state’s attorneys in Illinois who filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the SAFE-T Act; the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling found the law constitutional.
“At the end of the day, society is going to control this. It will be up to the community to decide what they’re willing to accept, what level of risk they are willing to accept, because if we get into this and find this is not working well, the community is at risk,” Reynolds said.