CHICAGO (CBS) — A 16-month-old girl who was the focus of a frantic search in Will County was found dead amid “very deplorable” conditions inside her home early Thursday, nearly 30 hours after she was reported missing.
Will County Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Richard Ackerson said police consider Semaj Crosby’s death “suspicious.”
The Will County coroner completed the autopsy on Thursday and said the cause of Semaj Crosby’s death is pending further studies. The final cause and manner will be determined by toxicology and police investigation reports.
Investigators do not yet know where Semaj died. Sources said her body was found under a couch in the home her family rents at 309 Louis Drive in Joliet Township, but it’s unclear if she died inside or outside the home.
Ackerson choked up when asked how difficult it is to investigate the death of a child so young.
“Having kids of my own, it’s tough,” he said.
Ackerson said, according to an attorney hired by Semaj’s mother, 5 to 15 people lived in their home, including Semaj, her mother, and her two brothers. The rest apparently were squatters.
“The attorney for the family described most of the people living in the residence, other than the three kids and the mother, as squatters,” Ackerson said. “They come and go as they please. They may be there for a week. They might be there overnight.”
Ackerson said the home was in “very deplorable condition.”
Investigators with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had visited the home a few hours before Semaj was reported missing, but said Semaj and the other children were safe at that time.
“We have had prior contact with this family including four unfounded investigations for neglect and two prior pending investigation for neglect opened in March 2017. DCFS had been at the home on April 25 at approximately 3:20 p.m. and had seen all three of the mother’s children including Semaj. There were no obvious hazards or safety concerns at that time. DCFS has been working with the family, offering services since September 2016,” DCFS spokeswoman Veronica Resa said in an email.
The DCFS inspector general was investigating Semaj’s death.
“The DCFS Office of the Inspector General investigates child deaths and serious injuries where the family has had contact with the Illinois Child Welfare system within the past twelve months,” the inspector general’s office said in an email.
Semaj was reported missing Tuesday evening, and police conducted an extensive search of the neighborhood, but didn’t find her until a second search of her home more than 24 hours later.
Ackerson said deputies conducted a “cursory” search of Semaj’s home shortly after she was reported missing, but because witnesses said she was last seen walking down the road after playing with other children in her yard, police wanted to begin a search outside as soon as possible.
“All indications at that time pointed that the child was outside and wandered off. We actually had witnesses that described Semaj walking down the street, and actually described the clothing she was in. At that point, we thought she wandered off and we really didn’t know what we had at that point,” Ackerson said.
When Tuesday night’s search came up empty, authorities decided to restart the investigation from scratch, starting at Semaj’s home, but were not allowed to search the home again, according to Ackerson.
While continuing their search outside, police worked with the Will County State’s Attorney to try and get a search warrant.
“They pretty much told us that, because all indications from witnesses indicated the child had walked away, we could not get a search warrant at that point.”
Investigators also tried to question Semaj’s mother on Wednesday, but an attorney she hired cut off the interview, Ackerson said. Even before that, a woman who claimed to be a relative was interrupting the interview, trying to convince Semaj’s mother to stop talking to police. Ackerson said that woman was pounding on the trailer where Semaj’s mother was talking to police, telling her to stop talking.
Around 11 p.m. Thursday, the family’s attorney convinced Semaj’s mother to consent to a search of the home, according to Ackerson. About an hour later, police found Semaj’s body inside.
No one was in custody Thursday morning, and Ackerson said Semaj’s two brothers were still with their mother, but they were being kept out of the home. He said it would be up to DCFS to determine custody issues.