One year after the body of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby was discovered under a couch, her memory and mysterious death haunt the girl’s family, the community, police and attorneys.
“Everything got really quiet and still,” said attorney Neil Patel. “Things just slowed down.”
Patel, who represents Semaj’s mother Sheri Gordon, sat down for his first television interview since Semaj’s death. He revealed he was in the room when Semaj’s body was found in her Joliet Township home, after an exhaustive 30-hour search.
“I don’t normally see that kind of stuff,” recalled Patel, his voice cracking. “I remember thinking how little she looked…I mean it was hard.”
Semaj was reported missing on April 25, 2017. The 17-month-old had wandered off while playing in the yard, according to Gordon. 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.”
Last fall, the Will County Coroner’s Office revealed Semaj died of asphyxia – a homicide.
“Based on the unusual circumstances surrounding her disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her decomposing body under the couch in her own home, the multiple previous contacts by the Department of Children and Family Services, the suspicious fire at the residence and lack of cooperation from the witnesses the manner of death of this 17 month old is currently classified as a homicide,” the coroner wrote.
Sheriff’s Office: Five Persons of Interest
The Will County Sheriff’s Office previously identified four women and a teenage minor at the home during Semaj’s disappearance as “persons of interest.”
“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 last July. “One if not more of those four grown women know exactly what happened to Semaj.”
Those four grown women include Gordon, Semaj’s paternal grandmother Darlene Crosby, Semaj’s paternal aunt Lakerisha Crosby and a family friend, according to detectives.
The sheriff’s office and Patel said Gordon has been cooperating with the investigation.
“We want a full and thorough investigation. If that means considering Sheri (as a person of interest) and clearing her, absolutely we are for that,” Patel said.
Darlene Crosby, who sat down for an exclusive interview with NBC 5 Investigates last summer, said she has been fully cooperative as well.
“I have nothing to hide. I want to talk. I want to help,” Darlene Crosby said.
At the time, 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.
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.
“I am not going to respond to the things people are saying about Sheri,” Patel said. “If these people are saying, ‘Sheri did this, Sheri did that,’ sit down with law enforcement to the point that police are so satisfied with what you have to say that they can take this case to the next steps.”
Darlene Crosby declined a second interview with NBC 5 Investigates. The Crosbys’ attorney Cosmo Tedone said any suggestion by police that his clients are not helping are “misleading and false.”
“There is no way that the Sheriff’s Office can say that my clients are uncooperative since the Sheriff’s Office has not contacted me in over a year to speak with my clients,” Tedone said in a statement. “My clients are deeply saddened as the one year approaches for the death of such an adorable young child who was taken too soon in life.”
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 allegations of 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.
One caseworker noted in the report 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.”
Crosby denied those allegations in an interview last year.
The DCFS document contained several allegations of abuse, including one of sexual abuse, which was later deemed unfounded, according to the report. Another alleged incident noted in the report 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.
Patel said while the home was not perfect, the widely-circulated photos of the filthy home were taken after a frantic search for Semaj.
“The baby was missing for about two days. I don’t think anyone in the household cared about cleaning up. They were focused on finding Semaj,” Patel said. “If the conditions were so bad, knowing that children were living there, (state agencies) had a mandatory obligation to report it to law enforcement and it didn’t happen.”
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 vowed changes to policies and procedures.
A Devastated Family
Patel said Gordon and the Crosbys have little communication today.
“Whatever their relationship was before this happened, it certainly is not what it is now,” Patel said.
Gordon does not have the closure she needs, Patel said, and she is desperately wanting to reunite with her three young sons, who are still in state custody.
“Being a mother was the most important thing to her. It was the only thing she ever wanted to do,” Patel said. “Her sons need a mother and they all need to come together for the grieving process. They can’t do it in foster care.”
Despite no new developments in this case, the Will County Sheriff’s Office said this case is not cold.
On Wednesday, members of the community group Freedom First International – frustrated by the case’s stalemate – issued a press release and urged the Will County Sheriff’s Department to recuse itself from the investigation, claiming the department “missed critical opportunities to push forward with this investigation.”
A look back at all of NBC 5's reporting on the case since it began one year ago:
5/31/17: Illinois DCFS head resigns