After five years in federal prison on corruption charges, former Gov. George Ryan became a free man on Wednesday.
Since January, he has served in a halfway house and then under home confinement. His sentence was reduced from six-and-a-half years because of good behavior.
The 79-year-old Republican former governor was sentenced in 2006 for charges stemming from his time as the secretary of state for Illinois, where he was involved in a bribes-for-licenses operation. One of the men who received a driver's license from the scheme was driving a truck with loose metal flapping along a Wisconsin highway. The driver couldn't understand the warnings of passing vehicles, having never learned English — a requirement for licenses in Illinois.
When the metal fell off the semi-truck near Milwaukee, it hit the highway, flew under a minivan, and ruptured its gas tank, which exploded into flames. Six children were burned to death in the accident. It was Election Day 1994. The parents had just voted to reelect Ryan as secretary of state.
Ryan in 2001, per the Chicago Tribune:
There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about it, over what happened to the Willis family. The Willises don't want an apology. What I have done is said, this happened on my watch. I've taken responsibility for it. But I didn't kill the Willis children.
Ryan in 2008 gave a full apology from jail in 2008, while asking for a pardon from President George W. Bush. He was charged and convicted of 18 counts of corruption, tax fraud, and racketeering. While he was in jail, his wife and brother died.
Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald after Ryan's conviction in 2006, according to The New York Times:
Mr. Ryan steered contracts worth millions of dollars to friends and took payments and vacations in return. When he was a sitting governor, he lied to the FBI about this conduct, and then he went out and did it again.
Four of the past seven Illinois governors since 1968 have been convicted of federal crimes, including, most recently, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Former Govs. Dan Walker and Otto Kerner also served time in jail for corruption.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)