Editor's note: See below for extended portions of Katie Kim's interview with Darlene Crosby and community members who aided the search for the missing toddler.
The grandmother of Semaj Crosby, the toddler who was found dead in her Joliet home, said she is still waiting for news about the investigation into the girl’s mysterious death just like everyone else.
Darlene Crosby is one of four women who was at the house on the day Semaj went missing. Will County Sheriff’s detectives said Crosby, Semaj’s mother Sheri Gordon, Semaj’s aunt and a family friend have all retained attorneys and are not cooperating in the ongoing criminal investigation.
“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that (Semaj) did not get under that couch by herself,” said lead detective R.J. Austin at a community meeting in early July. “One if not more of those four grown women know exactly what happened to Semaj.”
Attorneys for Crosby and Gordon said they are fully cooperating with law enforcement.
Crosby said she sat for an interview with detectives for over 16 hours early in the investigation and allowed law enforcement to search her car. She said the last time detectives contacted her or her attorney Cosmo Tedone was in early May.
“I have nothing to hide. I want to talk. I want to help,” said Crosby.
Semaj was reported missing on April 25. The 17-month-old had wandered off while playing in the yard, according to the girl’s mother. Her disappearance sparked an intense search by police and dozens of community members.
On April 27, Semaj’s body was found under the couch in her family’s home – a home police have said was in “deplorable” conditions, a home she lived in alongside “squatters.”
Three months after the girl’s death, there have been no arrests. An autopsy revealed no signs of trauma and no clear indication of how she died. Law enforcement officials said toxicology reports and other evidence tests are still pending.
“Semaj is my granddaughter,” said Crosby. “I want to know what happened to her. Semaj is a name to everyone else that didn’t know her, that never held her.”
Crosby said she and the other women had planned to take Semaj, her brothers and her cousins to get ice cream on a hot day. They were all playing in the yard and dancing to music while waiting to go to Dairy Queen, Crosby said.
“(Semaj) needed her diaper changed,” Crosby said. “I didn’t know she was never going to be seen again.”
Crosby said Semaj’s mother took the girl inside the home for a changing but came back. A short time later, Crosby said that Gordon reported Semaj was missing.
Gordon’s attorney Neil Patel said he could not comment on Crosby’s explanation of events or the ongoing investigation.
“We don’t want the community to speculate and promulgate rumors,” said Patel, who represents Gordon. “Give time to law enforcement to conduct a thorough investigation. We are cooperating with law enforcement the best we can.”
Detectives said they don’t know when or how Semaj’s body got under the family’s couch. Law enforcement initially searched the house, but since the first reports indicated she had wandered off or was taken, police dedicated the search to surrounding areas.
“It was only until we exhausted every resource we had – we had so many helicopters, hundreds of searchers looking for her – we said, ‘Time out, let’s start from square one,’” said Det. Austin.
The Will County Sheriff’s Office said it was Patel who helped authorities get consent to search the home again.
A day after Semaj’s funeral, the home where she was found burned to the ground. Investigators suspect arson.
NBC 5 Investigates has learned both the Crosby family and Gordon and the house they shared were well-known to Will County Sheriff’s detectives and the Department of Children and Family Services.
According to police call logs, detectives responded to the home on the 300 block of Louis Road more than 80 times in a span of two years. Calls included disturbances, domestic battery and probation checks.
A 22-page DCFS report released after Semaj’s death revealed caseworkers had responded to Gordon’s home 10 times before the girl went missing.
One tipster reported approximately 30 people were living in the home and “occupants openly sell drugs and they drink” while children are unsupervised, the report stated.
A caseworker noted that it appeared Gordon was “being taken advantage of by the Crosbys…that they refused to help Ms. Gordon with the household bills and help with transportation.”
Darlene Crosby said that statement is untrue. She said she never lived in the house, but her daughter Lakreisha Crosby, Semaj’s aunt, did live with Gordon.
The DCFS report contained several allegations of abuse, including one of sexual abuse, which was later deemed unfounded. Another incident involved a 7-year-old child in the home who expressed suicidal thoughts and wasn’t given medication.
In an April 2015 report, Gordon told a child protection investigator that she had “some type of mental health related diagnosis but didn’t know the name.” In later reports, caseworkers expressed concern about potential cognitive impairments observed in Gordon that contributed to her difficulties in caring for her children, according to the report.
The home the family lived in was often observed to be messy though not deplorable, according to DCFS. Subsequent law enforcement reports after Semaj’s death reveal the house was roach-infested and filthy. The house was deemed uninhabitable after the girl’s death.
Crosby admits the carpeting in the home was stained badly but said the widely-circulated photos of the filthy home were taken after a frantic search for Semaj.
Crosby said all the kids in the home were well cared for and loved.
DCFS’ handling of cases involving Semaj’s family has been criticized in the wake of the girl’s death. Former Director George Sheldon resigned, and the agency’s new leader is vowing changes to policies and procedures.
“Justice for Semaj:” A Community Mourns and Acts
Semaj’s death has touched those who never even knew her.
“A baby I never met had the biggest impact on my life,” said Dietra Jones.
Jones, along with other community members, helped create the Justice For Semaj Action Team, a group focused on supporting Semaj’s three older brothers and spreading light in the girl’s memory.
“We owe it to Semaj to make sure her brothers are okay,” said Leslie Jones. “She is a community baby.”
The group has solicited donations of clothes and school supplies for the other children. They are also petitioning to rename a nearby park in Semaj’s name and pleading with the landlord of the old home to donate the lot for a memorial.
“Her final resting place was where such evil existed. (We want it) to be a place of peace with beautiful wild bright-colored flowers,” said Amy Sanchez.
Darlene Crosby said not a day goes by that she doesn’t think about “Tink” – short for Tinkerbell – a nickname she gave her granddaughter.
Crosby said allegations from some community members that she knows what happened to Semaj, or worse, that she did something to Semaj, are untruthful and hurtful.
“She’s always going to be remembered as the little girl they found under the couch in her house, and that’s not who she was. She was more than that,” Crosby said.
For Crosby, Semaj will always be remembered as a beautiful, loving girl with a sassy personality.
“She loved hot chips,” Crosby said smiling through tears. “They were so hot for her, but she kept on eating them.”