A year after 16-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead under a couch in a squalid home in Joliet Township, no arrests have been made in her death.
Will County authorities say the toddler’s death — ruled a homicide by asphyxiation — remains a high priority, though little progress has been made in recent months.
That’s because the five persons of interest in the case — the child’s mother, grandmother, aunt and two other people — all retained attorneys before the toddler’s body was even found, according to police.
“Once she was located, when the hard questions started coming, people started not wanting to talk to us,” said Will County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Dan Jungles. “When we started asking the more difficult questions, they basically ended the conversation.”
Neil Patel, the attorney for Semaj’s mother, Sheri Gordon, previously told the Chicago Sun-Times: “Our concern right now is bringing to justice the people that did this horrible thing.”
Semaj lived in an 864-square-foot home in the 300 block of Louis Road in Joliet Township with her mother, three siblings, paternal grandmother, paternal aunt, her aunt’s two young children and her aunt’s parolee boyfriend. Gordon’s Section 8 housing voucher was allotted for only her and her four children, Joliet housing officials previously said.
Gordon was nearly evicted from her previous home for overcrowding.
The sheriff’s office said the home was in “very deplorable” condition when the child was found dead under a couch shortly before midnight on April 26, 2017.
The day before, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had been at the home investigating a child-neglect allegation but saw “no obvious hazards or safety concerns” for Semaj or her siblings, state officials said. Semaj, her three siblings and mother all slept in the same bedroom.
About two-and-a-half hours after the visit from DCFS, the toddler was reported missing, prompting a massive search of her subdivision near Joliet.
Jungles said investigators first believed that the child had wandered off or was abducted.
Eventually, police sought to search the home, but police said a lawyer for Gordon wouldn’t let them do so until they obtained a search warrant, which they did.
Jungles said the couch Semaj was found under weighed more than 100 pounds and sat only a few inches off the ground.
“There is no physical way that that child got under that couch without someone putting her there,” he said. “When we found her, it was a punch in the gut to everybody.”
On May 6, after county officials declared that home uninhabitable because of roaches, filth and other problems, it burned to the ground.
“There’s no doubt this is an arson case,” Jungles said.
Last September, the Will County Coroner’s Office announced the child died of asphyxia and her death was ruled a homicide. The coroner’s office denied several Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by the Chicago Sun-Times that sought the full autopsy report. The Sun-Times is suing the coroner’s office for the release of those records.
The case is still front of mind for the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office, too.
“The prosecutors in our office, who have been reviewing the work of the sheriff’s department, are committed to finding out specifically what happened to that poor little girl,” said state’s attorney’s office spokesman Chuck Pelkie. “It’s still a case that’s on the front burner right now for all the agencies involved in it.”
Jungles said that he hopes the anniversary of the child’s death will renew public interest in the case “and that someone who has information with regard to the case will come forward.”
Semaj’s death rocked DCFS and led to changes in leadership after intense scrutiny of the agency’s methods.
Weeks after Semaj was found dead, DCFS released a report detailing the agency’s previous interactions with the family. DCFS also laid bare its own shortcomings, listing several ways the agency sought to improve after its handling of the case.
Shortly after, George Sheldon, the head of DCFS, resigned to accept a job in his home state of Florida.
“Obviously I have very mixed emotions,” Sheldon told the Sun-Times after submitting his resignation letter. “The hardest part of my decision was leaving a job unfinished, and quite frankly the recent events behind child deaths really were the things pushing me to stay.”
“But clearly mistakes were made,” he added, noting that in Semaj’s case the mistakes appear to be systemic.
In June 2017, Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Beverly Walker to be the new DCFS chief.