JOLIET TOWNSHIP – It’s been a year since Preston Heights toddler Sema’j Crosby was found dead under a couch in her house after she was reported missing.
It began on a Tuesday afternoon, April 25. Sema’j and her brothers were seen at their home in the 300 block of Louis Road by Department of Children and Family Services personnel. Neighbors said they saw Sema’j playing with other children in the front yard.
Shortly after, her family members could not find Sema’j. Her mother, Sheri Gordon, called 911 to report her missing about 5:45 p.m. Will County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house and began searching the neighborhood for her. More emergency personnel joined the search that night, including tracking dogs and a helicopter.
When the search turned up no sign of Sema’j by the next day, the FBI joined the effort. Authorities began interviewing the family Tuesday night, but by Wednesday, Gordon stopped talking after consulting with an attorney.
Sheriff’s deputies later described the family as “cooperative” and said that it appeared Sema’j wandered away, although at least one neighbor said she could barely walk. Dozens of volunteers joined the search in nearby fields. Divers were sent to examine retention ponds.
About 11 p.m. Wednesday, police were allowed to search the house after discussion with Gordon’s attorney. About midnight, Sema’j’s body was discovered inside the house under a couch.
After an autopsy was conducted Thursday morning, Sema’j’s death was listed as “suspicious,” and the Will County Coroner’s Office said further investigation was needed to determine her cause of death.
It would not be until September that Sema’j’s death would be ruled a homicide and classified as asphyxia, or suffocation.
The coroner’s office based the determination on the “unusual circumstances surrounding her disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her decomposing body under the couch in her home.”
Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Rick Ackerson said at the time that there was no indication she choked, and that it “could be anything.”
During a community meeting in July, the lead detective on the case, R.J. Austin of the Will County Sheriff’s Office, identified four people at the house the day Sema’j went missing: Darlene Crosby, Sema’j’s grandmother; Lakerisha Crosby, Sema’j’s aunt; Tamika Robinson, a friend of Darlene’s; and Gordon.
“There was four women at that house the day Sema’j went missing,” Austin said. “One if not more of those four grown women know exactly what happened to Sema’j and know how she got under that couch.”
Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Dan Jungles said a minor is a fifth person of interest, but he could not go into detail about that person’s identity.
Austin said it was not true that all four women were cooperating with police, and they all had attorneys whom investigators had to go through. He also said that he knew “with 100 percent certainty” that Sema’j did not get under the couch by herself.
At a November news conference in Chicago, Darlene Crosby and Robinson told their side of the story.
Darlene Crosby said she believed Gordon had something to do with Sema’j’s death and claimed she was the last person to see the toddler. Crosby said she believed that Gordon might have harmed Sema’j out of spite for James Crosby, Sema’j’s father and Darlene’s son, who was in a relationship with another woman.
About a month after Sema’j was found, DCFS released a 22-page report that detailed the findings of child protection investigations involving the household from April 2015 until April 2017. The investigations found allegations of inadequate supervision and physical and sexual abuse of the children living in the house, drug use and the need for psychiatric hospitalization of one of the children.
A key assertion in the report was that DCFS investigators and intact caseworkers who were part of a contracted agency completed the preliminary communication and assessments, but it was “not clear” whether all of the relevant information about the children’s mother and caregivers residing in the home was shared.
This helped lead to the resignation of the then-director of DCFS, George Sheldon. Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Beverly “B.J.” Walker to fill the position, and she began to implement new procedures in data collection, communicating with contractor agency workers and hiring practices. The Joliet DCFS office significantly was understaffed during the time Sema’j died, but Walker’s reforms have led to full staffing since.
One year later, there still are no answers as to who killed Sema’j. Investigators continue to work on the case and maintain their desire to get results. But loved ones and other community members continue to call for justice.
“We are still actively investigating the case,” Jungles said. “It is of the utmost importance to the sheriff’s office to make an arrest on this case.”