Body of missing toddler found under couch in family's home, death deemed 'suspicious'
Semaj Crosby had been playing with other children in an Illinois yard, not far from her home, when she mysteriously vanished.
More than 100 authorities and volunteers deeply concerned about the 16-month-old child's safety searched high and low, but police found no sign of the little girl inside her Joliet Township home.
But that's exactly where her body was discovered just after midnight Thursday after her family allowed police to search once again, officials said.
"Having kids of my own, it's tough," said Rick Ackerson, deputy chief of the Will County Sheriff's Office, choking up as he spoke at a news conference Thursday.
The little girl's body was found under a couch that did not have legs and was flush to the ground, a source told The Chicago Tribune.
Officials said she was still wearing the clothes she had last been seen in — dark blue jeans and a gray shirt with a cat on the front — when her body was discovered.
The conditions she had been living in were deplorable, as police declared the family home "uninhabitable" after investigating.
It was also a haven for squatters, with as many as 15 people living in the home at any given time, Ackerson said.
Just hours before she disappeared, Semaj was found to be facing no immediate threat to her safety by officials with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, who were investigating the girl's mother for neglect, the Tribune wrote.
DCFS visited the home about 3:20 p.m., where they saw Semaj and two siblings with "no obvious hazards or safety concerns at the time," a spokeswoman for the agency told the newspaper.
The agency had visited 16 times since they began working with the little girl's family in September, having had two pending investigations for neglect opened in March and four prior unfounded investigations for neglect, according to reports.
Chuck Bretz & Associates have been retained to represent Semaj's mother, Sheri Gordon, and will advise and coordinate communications with the various agencies involved in the case, the law firm said in a statement.
"Ms. Gordon is extremely grateful for the efforts of the various law enforcement officers, first responders, and volunteers who participated in the search for Semaj. During the search, Ms. Gordon and law enforcement engaged in a high level of communication and cooperation," the firm's statement said. "Following the discovery of Semaj's body, the search transitioned from a missing child to a death investigation. Ms. Gordon, though 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 will continue to support the investigation in this matter to the best of her abilities. She prays for her daughter and appreciates the community's support in this matter," the statement continued. "We look forward to when we can put this tragic incident behind us and allow the healing to begin."
The cause of Semaj's death is "pending further studies," the Will County Coroner's Office said after completing an autopsy. Officials are still waiting on toxicology results, which could take several weeks, authorities said.
Investigators consider Semaj's death "suspicious," Ackerson told reporters.