The investigation into the death of Semaj Crosby is older than the child ever lived to be.
The 17-month-old girl from unincorporated Joliet Township was found dead under a couch in her family’s filthy home on April 26, 2017. Her death was ruled a homicide by asphyxia.
Semaj’s family had frequent contact with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and an agency contractor was at the home just hours before she was reported missing by her family. The fallout from her case led to a shakeup within DCFS, with the former director conceding that “clearly mistakes were made.”
In the two years since her death, there have been no arrests. However, investigators in Will County have repeatedly said the toddler’s mother, Sheri Gordon, and other relatives — who were living in the 864-square-foot home in violation of Gordon’s public housing voucher — are considered suspects.
“This isn’t the case of the boogeyman,” said Dan Jungles, deputy chief of the Will County Sheriff’s Office. “This isn’t the case of a stranger. This is the case of someone who was supposed to love this child that is ultimately responsible for her death.”
The home burned down less than two weeks after Semaj was found, and authorities believe the fire was set intentionally. Two years later, a tree on the patchy lawn near where the home once stood was adorned with ribbons, pinwheels and stuffed animals.
James Crosby, her father, filed a lawsuit last year against Gordon and the DCFS contractor assigned to the family, alleging negligence by both led to his daughter’s death.
Other relatives of Semaj — also considered suspects — have refused to speak with investigators, according to police.
A spokeswoman for DCFS said the agency is also still investigating Semaj’s death. She would not say if Gordon’s three other children are still in the care of the agency.
Authorities in Will County have been tight-lipped about the exact nature of Semaj’s death, aside from disclosing the cause and manner of death. The Sun-Times sued the Will County Coroner’s Office to unseal those records; that case is pending.
“I cannot find her”
“My daughter is missing,” Gordon told a 911 dispatcher on April 25, 2017. “I cannot find her. She was outside playing with the kids and she’s missing.”
After a search of the area surrounding the home at 309 Louis Road, the Will County Sheriff’s Office wanted to take a look inside. According to the sheriff’s office, a lawyer for Gordon insisted they get a warrant.
Donning HazMat suits because of the “filthy, unsafe and unsanitary conditions” in the home, investigators found Semaj dead under a couch that was flush to the floor.
An employee of Children’s Home + Aid — a DCFS contractor — had visited the family just hours before she was reported missing.
Photos of the home’s interior, obtained by the Sun-Times, show squalid conditions, with debris, trash bags, bug spray and mattresses strewn about.
Semaj was one of Gordon’s four children, all of whom lived with her in the home. Up to 15 people — “squatters,” according to police — were living in the tiny home at any given time.
Gordon’s Section 8 housing voucher was intended to be used only by her and her four children, Joliet housing officials previously said. Records show she was nearly evicted from her previous apartment in 2015 because of similar overcrowding issues, as well as for not paying utility bills.
Within days of investigators finding Semaj’s body, the home was deemed uninhabitable by Will County authorities. On May 6, 2017 — less than two weeks after Semaj’s death — the home burned to the ground.
“There’s no doubt this is an arson case,” Jungles previously told the Sun-Times.
Semaj’s father, James Crosby, was arrested in early February 2017 on charges of theft and domestic battery. The domestic battery case involved another woman with whom Crosby fathered a child. The charge was dropped after she didn’t show up to court, records show.
However, James Crosby was still being held in the Will County Jail on the theft charge when Semaj died.
In August 2018, he filed a lawsuit against Gordon and Children’s Home + Aid, alleging negligence by both the contractor and the child’s mother led to her death.
James Crosby alleged Gordon was the person who “placed Semaj Crosby under the couch where she died.”
The lawsuit says the caseworker “observed or should have observed the home in an unsafe, unsanitary condition with bedbugs, roaches, vermin.” Those conditions, the suit states, “presented a clear safety hazard for any child within the home.”
Semaj’s mother, the suit states, “had cognitive limitations, and this interfered with coordinating the children’s medical appointments and care.”
The lawsuit is pending. In her answer, Gordon invoked her right against self-incrimination but rejected several of James Crosby’s charges against her.
Court records show Gordon denied:
• Having squatters in the home;
• That Children’s Home + Aid visited the home shortly before Semaj was reported missing;
• That the house was filthy;
• That she was the one to report Semaj was missing.
In a statement, Megan O’Connor, one of James Crosby’s attorneys, said the goal of his lawsuit “is to seek the truth, compensate Semaj’s family for this tragic loss, and bring reform to the child welfare system through impact litigation such as this case. James Crosby maintains that he wants justice for his daughter, and the truth.”
James Crosby also is suing Gordon in Will County for custody of the other three children he has with Gordon; one of them turned 8 on the day Semaj was found. That case also is pending and Gordon’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
Will County court records show that in November, James Crosby petitioned for joint custody of a child he fathered with the woman he was accused of battering. That case was voluntarily dismissed in February.
Gordon has not been James Crosby’s only target in litigation related to his daughter’s death. Will County court records show that on Oct. 2, 2017, he sought a restraining order against a woman claiming to be Semaj’s godmother.
Her frequent social media postings related to Semaj had made him concerned for his own safety, he wrote.
“The people that are following her posts and lies are threatening me that they are going to get me,” he said. “I am afraid that she is going to be the reason that people are steady coming after me. … I am worried that all those people that she has been sparking up will attack me because of her false allegations.”
The restraining order application was denied the same day it was submitted.
Semaj’s death sent shockwaves through the state’s child welfare agency.
A month after she died, DCFS released a report detailing a host of shortcomings and the agency’s plans to improve.
The report showed 23 different allegations of child endangerment were made in 11 investigations that DCFS opened on the family in the year before Semaj died.
In some investigations, allegations were made against more than one person. Gordon was a subject of 11 allegations, while Semaj’s father was a subject of two. Three allegations were brought against Semaj’s aunt and five against her boyfriend; two were against her maternal grandmother. Of those 23, two were declared founded, records show. DCFS ruled that 11 were unfounded.
DCFS noted in the report that information about the family was not efficiently shared within the agency and its contractors.
“It is not clear that all pertinent information regarding the children’s mother and caregivers residing in the family home was clarified and processed between the investigation teams and the intact family team,” the report stated.
A common topic in the report is Gordon’s mental state and financial hardships. In prior court filings, her attorney disclosed she is disabled and that “her sole source of income is $773 per month” in disability payments.
On several occasions, she told caseworkers about difficulty securing transportation to take her children to the doctor.
The report stated that Gordon was upfront about having developmental delays and “was reported to be nurturing to the children but appeared to have cognitive limitations.”
The former director of DCFS, George Sheldon, resigned about a month after Semaj’s death to take a job in his home state of Florida. He died in August 2018 at age 71.
The investigation continues
Two years after Semaj’s death, the investigation remains front-of-mind for the Will County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is a case that’s worked on every day,” Jungles said, adding that the primary detective “has never stopped or wavered in his quest to seek the ultimate truth as to what happened.”
Jungles conceded, though, that the very nature of the crime — the murder of a toddler in her home — weighs heavily on investigators.
“This is one of the worst kinds of crimes that we could investigate,” Jungles said. “Anyone who snuffs out the life of a child is a monster.”