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Preston Heights toddler's body was found under couch in family home

JOLIET TOWNSHIP – The discovery of a 1-year-old girl’s body under a couch inside her residence after an intensive search for her in the Preston Heights neighborhood has shocked and saddened investigators and the community.

“This has been a very emotional situation for family members, friends and first responders,” Will County Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Rick Ackerson said. “The entire community has been deeply concerned about the safety of Semaj.”

The girl was reported missing Tuesday afternoon from her home in the 300 block of Louis Road. Police, firefighters and volunteers searched throughout Wednesday but did not find the girl. While Semaj’s mother, Sheri Gordon, was being questioned for a second time Wednesday morning, she decided to stop the interview and speak with an attorney, Ackerson said. A woman who accompanied Gordon was outside banging on the door of the police trailer and telling Gordon not to answer questions, he said.

After negotiations with the attorney Wednesday evening, Gordon gave police consent to search her residence. Gordon is being represented by Chuck Bretz & Associates.

“We had sought a search warrant [throughout the day], but the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office noted witnesses had reported seeing [Semaj] walking down the street,” Ackerson said.

Police entered the house at 11 p.m. Wednesday and found the girl’s body inside after about an hour into the search, Ackerson said.

A source with knowledge of the investigation who is not authorized to speak on the matter confirmed the body was found under a couch that did not have legs and could not be crawled under.

The Will County Coroner’s Office confirmed the girl was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:27 a.m. Thursday. An autopsy was conducted Thursday morning but will “require further study” to determine the cause of death, according to the coroner’s office.

“There was garbage strewn in the house. The house was in deplorable condition,” Ackerson said.

A source said there were obvious signs of cockroach infestation.

The home was deemed uninhabitable Thursday by officials.

Including Gordon, her two sons and Semaj, five to 15 people were regularly living in the house as “squatters,” Ackerson said.

“We aren’t sure if they’re all friends or relatives. But there were different people there off and on,” Ackerson said.

“There are a lot of people from Chicago in that house,” said one neighbor, who wanted to remain anonymous. “They’re [regularly] louder than the average neighbor around here. Lot of people out in the yard throughout the day.”

No arrests have been made, but the investigation is “ongoing and active,” Ackerson said.

The Department of Children and Family Services opened two investigations of Gordon for allegations of neglect last month. DCFS spokeswoman Veronica Resa said in an email that DCFS personnel had been at the home about 3:20 p.m. Tuesday “and had seen all three of the mother’s children, including Semaj. There were no obvious hazards or safety concerns at that time.”

Resa said DCFS has been offering services to the family since September. Deputies responded to a 911 hang-up from the residence on Easter Sunday. There was no reported disturbance, but deputies provided some candy and toys for the children at the house, Ackerson said.

On Thursday, Semaj’s father, James Crosby, appeared in court before being released from the Will County jail, where he has been locked up for two months on theft and domestic battery charges. Defense attorney Cosmo Tedone said James Crosby has been “in a state of shock” since learning of his daughter’s disappearance and death. According to a source, one of Semaj’s brothers has been hospitalized.

Gordon’s attorneys released a statement Thursday evening.

“During the search, Ms. Gordon and law enforcement engaged in a high level of communication and cooperation,” the statement said. “Ms. Gordon, [through] her attorneys, continues to contact and communicate with the Will County Sheriff’s investigation team and other agencies. Ms. Gordon is extremely distraught over the death of her only daughter. ... She prays for her daughter and appreciates the community’s support in this matter. We look forward to when we can put this tragic incident behind us and allow the healing to begin.”

Louis Road remained blocked by crime scene tape until Thursday evening. A memorial to the 17-month-old girl was set up in the area Thursday.

Markesha Walter came Thursday morning from Chicago to place a stuffed giraffe near the street as “a show of respect.”

“I’ve got a baby of my own about the same age. It’s very sad. [Her death] just seems so senseless,” Walter said. “To have everybody out here searching when [someone] knew she was in the house. That’s crazy.”

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