Odell Sheppard spent more than 10 years behind bars, insisting he knew nothing about the whereabouts of his 2-year-old daughter. The girl's mother had hoped jail would make Sheppard talk.

But now that the mother is dead, Sheppard is a free man and the mystery remains.

"I have to believe anxiety over not knowing where her daughter was contributed to her health problems," said attorney Joan Colen, who fought to keep Sheppard behind bars until he revealed the girl's whereabouts.

Sheppard's imprisonment may have been the longest jail term for civil contempt ever in the United States.

The case began in 1982, when Norell Sanders, who had worked in fast food restaurants and been on welfare, met Sheppard, a hotel janitor. They dated for awhile and had a daughter, Deborah. On Sept. 29, 1984, weeks before her second birthday, Sheppard abruptly took the child to Memphis.

Sheppard, now 50, said he returned Deborah to her mother after a family funeral in Tennessee. But Sanders swore she never saw the girl again.

She also said Sheppard phoned her at one point and said the only way she would see her daughter was in "a pine box" -- something Sheppard denies.

Sheppard was convicted of child abduction -- a lesser crime than kidnapping -- and served half of a three-year sentence.

He was released in 1987 but soon landed back in jail for contempt when a court refused to believe that he knew nothing of the girl's whereabouts. He was not charged with any crime, but remained behind bars for the next 10 years and three months.

Sanders hoped time in jail would make him crack. Sheppard insisted there was nothing more to tell. The Illinois Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court refused to let him out.

But on Saturday, Sanders died of a stroke. Her health had been deteriorating for years. Since the complainant was now dead, it was no longer possible to hold Sheppard in civil contempt and the court released him.

"He has not been released because he has convinced us of his assertions," Judge Marjan Staniec said. "Mrs. Sanders is deceased. She is the petitioner, and that ends the case."