After 16-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead in a Joliet Township house last month, authorities in Will County said numerous squatters spent time in the 864-square-foot frame home.
Now the Chicago Sun-Times has learned Semaj’s mother was nearly thrown out of her previous apartment in 2015 because of similar overcrowding issues, as well as for not paying utility bills.
This new information about Sheri Gordon’s past adds to the mountain of questions regarding how thoroughly the Illinois Department of Children Family Services and a child-welfare contractor had investigated Gordon in the months before her daughter’s death.
DCFS had been in contact with Gordon and her family since September 2016 and had been investigating potential neglect of Semaj and her siblings when Will County sheriff’s police found Semaj’s body beneath a couch in the unkempt home in the 300 block of Louis Road shortly before midnight April 26.
On May 6, after county officials declared that home uninhabitable because of roaches, filth and other problems, it burned to the ground. Officials are still investigating the fire, but arson is “most likely” the cause, a fire official said.
Besides DCFS, Gordon also had been interacting with another government agency, the Housing Authority of Joliet, according to Will County court records and interviews. The authority had been overseeing the federal Section 8 rent subsidies that helped Gordon live in both the house on Louis and the apartment she inhabited before that.
Before she moved to Joliet Township, Gordon and at least 12 men, women and children were living in a three-bedroom unit within the Joliet city limits, according to her former landlord, Walter Beckley. Beckley said the other 12 people included Gordon’s three children and other family members.
Semaj, Gordon’s fourth child, was not yet born.
In October 2015, Beckley tried to evict her from the apartment in the 200 block of North Eastern Avenue after Gordon didn’t make timely rent and utilities payments, court records show. Her attorney at the time disclosed that Gordon “is disabled and her sole source of income is $773 per month” in disability payments.
“It was just overran,” Beckley said. He said he charged between $1,100 and $1,200 per month for the three-bedroom apartment — and that Gordon’s Section 8 subsidy covered “more than half” of her rent.
“She was supposed to pay the utilities and water, but she wouldn’t,” Beckley said.
A Will County judge initially found that Gordon should be evicted after she didn’t appear in court — she said she was pregnant at the time — but that decision was later vacated after it was disclosed that Gordon and James Crosby, Semaj’s father, paid Beckley the nearly $900 he was owed.
Gordon’s current attorney declined to comment on the eviction efforts but pointed to the fact that Gordon’s leaving was mutually agreed upon.
Court records show that Gordon and Beckley agreed she would move out of the apartment in February 2016, owing him nothing.
Beckley said the apartment he rented to the family for about a year was left with $2,800 worth of damage, “which I’ll never get paid for.” Among the problems, Beckley said, were holes in doors, “destroyed” closets and a broken toilet. That dollar amount also includes $200 he spent to clean up all the garbage left strewn about, Beckley said.
After leaving Joliet, Gordon and her family moved to the house on Louis, which she also rented with Section 8 assistance, housing authority officials said. The family had been living there for about a year at the time Semaj was found dead.
The day before that, DCFS had been at the home investigating a child-neglect allegation, but saw “no obvious hazards or safety concerns” for Semaj or her two brothers, state officials have said.
DCFS has declined to comment since then.
The Will County coroner’s office is awaiting the results of lab testing and toxicology reports to make a final determination on the cause of Semaj’s death. But coroner’s officials have said there were “no visible signs of blunt force trauma or physical injury to the body of Semaj Crosby to indicate the exact cause of death.”
After Semaj’s death, the house was condemned. A notice of the violations was sent to the building’s owner, JJB Rentals.
Efforts by the Sun-Times to reach the company both before and after the house burned down have been unsuccessful. Jason Briscoe, a manager of JJB and former Minooka mayor, told the Joliet Herald-News that under no terms should squatters have been staying there.
“The rental agreement was for Sheri Gordon and her minor children to live in the unit,” Briscoe told the newspaper. “Other adults [staying there] would not be allowed [and would be] in violation of our lease and Section 8 regulations.”