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Authorities urge patience as they investigate Joliet-area toddler’s mysterious death

Semaj Crosby Semaj Crosby, 1, was found dead in her family’s Joliet home in April. Authorities are urging patience as the investigation into her death continues. (Will County Sheriff’s Office)

Authorities are asking for patience as they continue to investigate the mysterious death of a 17-month-old Joliet Township girl found dead under a couch in her family’s home more than two months ago.

Will County sheriff’s investigators have no suspects in custody and the Will County coroner’s office has yet to rule on a cause of death.

Sheriff Lt. Dan Jungles called it "one of the hardest cases I’ve ever been a part of," and he offered some advice to those eager for answers.

"Be patient," he said. "We are trying to be as thorough as possible."

One thing is certain: Someone in the home on that late April night "knows exactly what happened to Semaj," Jungles said.

Semaj’s death prompted a critical look at the Department of Children and Family Services and its handling of complaints of abuse and neglect against various family members living in the home. A DCFS caseworker was at the home just hours before Semaj was reported missing. The caseworker took note of what police later described as "deplorable" conditions inside the home.

Sheriff’s investigators have previously identified four people — all relatives — as "persons of interest." The four include the toddler’s mother, Sheri Gordon; grandmother, Darlene Crosby; an aunt, Lakerisha Crosby; and a minor child who was staying at the home at the time.

"Unfortunately, all the family members that we wish to talk to have retained attorneys and have exercised their rights not to speak with us," Jungles said.

Attorneys representing the four have denied suggestions that their clients have refused to talk to police and said they have cooperated and will continue to do so.

Investigators are awaiting a ruling from the Will County coroner on the cause of the girl’s death. The coroner’s office has said it is awaiting further studies — including toxicology — before it can determine what killed Semaj. Jungles said it is not unusual for it to take weeks before having a cause of death

Semaj was reported missing by her mother April 25. Initial statements from family members and witnesses indicated the toddler was last seen down the block from her home in the 300 block of Louis Road, and investigators believed she had wandered off. A massive search, involving hundreds of volunteers, followed. Semaj’s body, however, was found some 30 hours later in her home, under a couch that was flush to the ground.

Based on the condition of her body, Semaj was placed under the couch within three hours of her death, Jungles said. However, investigators have not been able to provide a time of death.

Though answers are slow in coming, Jungles and others have said the case remains a priority.

"We want justice for Semaj just as much as anyone, because what happened to her was wrong," Jungles said. "Every level of it just rips us apart.

"The ultimate end game is to make sure someone is held accountable."

Jungles noted investigators were able to retrieve the evidence they needed before what has been called a "suspicious" fire burned the home to the ground one day after Semaj’s funeral. Jungles said accelerants were detected, but the fire remains under investigation.

State and local leaders and a Will County judge criticized DCFS in the days after Semaj’s death and questioned its handling of the case. Will County Judge Paula Gomora, who presides over DCFS-related cases, even suggested all of the state agency’s cases in Will County should be brought to her courtroom for review.

Semaj’s other siblings have since been placed into DCFS custody. The children of Semaj’s aunt and her grandmother also have been placed into DCFS custody.

A community group calling itself Justice for Semaj has helped provide clothing and other items for Semaj’s siblings. The group also is lobbying to rename a neighborhood park in Semaj’s honor.

Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter.