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Remembering Semaj: Funeral for toddler ‘just heartbreaking’

Semaj Crosby's tiny casket is ushered in for the toddler's funeral earlier this month at Prayer Tower Ministries in Joliet. | Maria Cardona / Sun-Times

Four men in long black coats carried the white-and-pink casket that bore Semaj Crosby to her funeral.

The casket was so small that one of them would have been able to carry it alone.

Shortly thereafter, dozens of mourners came to Prayer Tower Ministries in Joliet Friday, filing past Semaj, wearing a pink dress and a silver tiara. The word “Princess” was written on the inside of the casket lid in purple letters.

“We have a child that has gone away,” Pastor Warren C. Dorris Jr. told reporters Friday before the service. “We want justice, but we’re here today to give comfort to this family.”

Friday, the Will County sheriff’s office issued a statement saying the Sun-Times mischaracterized information disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request. Despite the sheriff’s office denying the Sun-Times records under the “criminal investigation” exemption, the office said Friday that “the case is still considered a ‘suspicious death’ investigation” that has always been considered “criminal.”

The sheriff’s office also said in records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times that its officers visited the Joliet Township house where the toddler was found dead April 26 nearly 60 times in little more than a year. Of those, the sheriff’s office said 40 were probation visits were carried out by the Will County Probation Office, a separate entity.

“When a Probation officer visits a residence, for whatever reason, they are required to call the Sheriff’s 911 dispatch center,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “Sheriff’s deputies do not respond to these visits unless requested to do so from Probation personnel.”

Semaj’s mother attended the service, clutching a bouquet of pink flowers and facing the tiny, open casket. People stopped by and bent low to hug her. The little girl’s father was there too, sitting in the front pew, but not next to Semaj’s mother.

Family and supporters wore white sweatshirts that bore the words “Justice for Semaj Crosby” on the back.

In his eulogy, Dorris railed against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, saying the agency didn’t do enough to help Semaj and her family.

“DCFS in my opinion failed this family …,” he said, to applause. “They should be held accountable for what has happened here!”

Irma Williams, 68, a lifelong Joliet resident, didn’t know Semaj’s family but came to the funeral having dealt with loss herself: that of her 15-year-old grandson to an asthma attack five years ago.

Williams said Joliet is unaccustomed to dealing with this sort of child death.

“We have gangs and shootings and things,” she said. “It affects you. But a child affects you more. It’s just heartbreaking.”

As Semaj’s casket was gently rolled into the back of a white hearse to be borne to the cemetery for burial, her mother clutched a tiny pink bunny and silently looked on before climbing into the limousine, eyes forward, her face betraying no obvious emotion.

From left, Semaj Crosby’s grandmother Charlene Gordon, mother Sheri Gordon, and aunt Tarra Sanders in the front row of the church for the toddler’s memorial service Friday. | Maria Cardona / Sun-Times
From left, Semaj Crosby’s grandmother Charlene Gordon, mother Sheri Gordon, and aunt Tarra Sanders in the front row of the church for the toddler’s memorial service Friday. | Maria Cardona / Sun-Times

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Photos show inside of home where Semaj Crosby found dead

Semaj and her family moved into the home in the 300 block of Louis about one year ago, according to the sheriff’s office, but — since her biological parents did not live together — it wasn’t clear exactly how much time Semaj spent in the home.

An autopsy didn’t rule on the cause of death, pending lab and toxicology tests. There were no obvious signs of trauma or injury, according to the sheriff’s office.

No one has been charged with any crime in Semaj’s death.

Officials have said DCFS had been working with the family since September 2016.

Photos released earlier this week by the Will County Department of Land Use appeared to support the characterization that the home was in “deplorable” conditions when the child was found dead inside.

The inside of the Joliet Township home where 1-year-old Semaj Crosby was found dead on April 26. | Photo provided by Will County Land Use Department.
The inside of the Joliet Township home where 1-year-old Semaj Crosby was found dead on April 26. | Photo provided by Will County Land Use Department.

“The entire structure appeared unsanitary because of the heavily soiled carpets, walls, garbage and [it] contains a serious degree of filth,” an inspector noted, describing a back door and electrical panel blocked by “strollers, black garbage bags, toys, clothing and containers” and deeming the home “unfit for human occupancy.”

During a Legislative hearing Wednesday in Springfield, DCFS Director George Sheldon said his department is conducting a review to determine what it missed — if anything — about the case. He said he expects the agency to complete its investigation within several days.

Sheldon told lawmakers he would release records if police investigations determine the girl died at the hands of a caregiver. If the cause of death is ruled otherwise, Sheldon said, he would not have the authority to order the release. But he told news reporters later that he would “join the media” in asking for such records to be unsealed.

During the Senate panel’s hearing, Sheldon questioned the circumstances of Semaj’s body being found beneath the couch, which had no legs.

“Obviously, something was going on and apparently an individual or individuals attempted to hide that fact,” he said.

It’s not clear who was in the home when the girl disappeared, authorities have said. The Will County Sheriff’s Office said last week that numerous squatters frequented the property.

Sheldon said dirty conditions inside the house were not reason enough to remove Semaj and her brothers from their mother’s care.