UPDATE: Authorities say they are investigating the case as a "suspicious death," pending the results of an autopsy. Read the latest updates here.
A 16-month-old girl who went missing from her home in a southwest suburb of Chicago was found dead early Thursday morning.
After 30 hours of searching, the body of Semaj Crosby was discovered by local authorities and FBI agents around 12 a.m. inside a home in the 300 block of Louis Road in Joliet Township, according to the Will County Sheriff's Office.
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An evidence van could be seen parked outside the home she was found in and yellow crime tape surrounded the area early Thursday.
The house is in the center of what had been a massive search area scoured by more than 100 officers, multiple teams of bloodhounds, divers and volunteers ever since the toddler was reported missing by her mother, Sheri Gordon, on Tuesday evening.
Gordon told authorities her daughter had been playing outside with other children before she wandered away. Semaj was last seen in the yard of the family’s Preston Heights neighborhood home with her cousins that afternoon, around 4 p.m., her mother said.
Early the next morning, Gordon came out of her home to speak to NBC 5's Lauren Petty and described what she said happened during a live interview:
“I just want her home with mommy. I just want her home with me,” Gordon said.
Just 40 minutes before Semaj's family said she was playing outside, investigators with the Department of Child and Family Services say they saw the little girl safe at the home. A spokesperson said the agency had visited the family that day and were investigating Gordon for an allegation of neglect.
DCFS investigators checked on the home at about 3:20 p.m., officials said, and all three of the Gordon’s children were there – including Semaj. About three hours later, at about 6:30 p.m., the family reported her missing.
"We have had prior contact with this family including four unfounded investigations for neglect and two prior pending investigation[s] for neglect opened in March 2017," said Veronica Resa, deputy director of communications for DCFS. “There were no obvious hazards or safety concerns at that time. DCFS has been working with the family, offering services since September 2016.”
NBC 5 learned Wednesday that Gordon had hired an attorney as authorities searched fields from helicopters in the air, divers submerged themselves into multiple nearby ponds, and dozens of local residents and volunteers held prayer circles in hopes of finding Semaj safe.
As the search efforts marched past the first full day and Semaj was still nowhere to be found, a tearful Gordon said she was still remaining hopeful for her return.
“That’s my baby girl, that’s my only girl,” she said.
The Will County Sheriff's Office said it was Gordon's attorney that helped authorities get consent to search the home on Louis Road around 11 p.m. Wednesday, before investigators found the body of the girl an hour later.
The discovery of the girl's body prompted more questions for neighbors reacting to the news of her death early Thursday morning, wondering how the girl could have been found in the same area she was reported missing.[[420616263, C]]
One man who helped with the search, Adrian Smith, told NBC 5 that he was not surprised she was so close all along.
“I didn’t think she would have gotten too far… for 16 months [old]?” Smith said. “She wouldn’t have gotten too far anyway, unless somebody came and picked her up. She was only 16 months old.”
On Wednesday, Semaj’s aunt told NBC 5 the toddler had only learned to walk a few weeks prior and was still wobbly on her feet.
“She just learned to walk, so she can’t get that far,” said Semaj’s aunt Lakershia Crosby. “She’s bow-legged, so every five steps she takes she’s tripping over her feet.”
Authorities have not confirmed that Semaj was found in her own home, but Gordon and other family members were seen walking in and out of the residence during the daylong search on Wednesday.
An autopsy has been scheduled for Thursday to determine the girl’s cause of death.