Illinois (NBC) (08/17/20)— The man who murdered a young mother in central Illinois eluded investigators for nearly a decade.
When they finally caught him in August 2018, they discovered he’d repeatedly dodged attempts to put his DNA into a criminal database.
The killer, Michael Henslick, had grown up in the same neighborhood and attended high school with the 22-year-old victim, Holly Cassano.
He’d been arrested several times since the November 2009 attack, and twice a judge ordered him to provide a DNA sample. Henslick blew the orders off.
“If he’d given his DNA, we wouldn’t have had to wait nine years,” said Champaign County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Dwayne Roelfs, who worked the case from day one.
The break finally came when Roelfs and his colleagues turned to genetic genealogy, a technique that allowed them to expand their search to direct-to-consumer DNA websites.
When they found Henslick, who was later convicted of murder, they also exposed a weakness in the government’s vaunted national system of criminal DNA databases.
Similar revelations of missed opportunities to solve crimes sooner have occurred across the country, as new investigative methods have led authorities to suspects who should have had their DNA collected and uploaded years ago.
The national DNA database, known as CODIS, is arguably the most powerful crime-fighting tool in modern history.
It holds more than 18 million people’s profiles and has produced more than 500,000 hits since it went fully online in 1998, according to the FBI.
The database has also been used to reveal the true suspects in cases of wrongful conviction, but the system lacks thousands of profiles from convicted offenders and suspects — information that could hold answers to innumerable unsolved crimes, researchers and law enforcement officials say.
Authorities in several states are now trying to go back and collect this missing DNA, a lengthy and expensive undertaking that has already led to arrests in dozens of cold cases.
But expanding criminal DNA databases, many of which include people arrested but not necessarily convicted of crimes, also comes with risks.
Black people are far more likely than white people to have their DNA profiles collected and stored in government databases — a reflection of a justice system that disproportionately targets people of color, researchers say.
Rather than amplify those disparities by expanding the databases, they say, the government should spend more money on providing support to victims and improving police investigations.
Holly Cassano’s mother, Toni Cassano, doesn’t blame anyone in particular for failing to collect Henslick’s DNA, but she wants federal law changed to prevent convicted offenders from dodging similar orders in the future.
“I don’t believe anyone messed up,” she said. “I believe the system sucks. If I had to put the blame on something, I would put blame on the system.”
On the morning of Nov. 2, 2009, Toni Cassano was expecting an early visit from her daughter, who lived three streets away in a Mahomet, Illinois, mobile home park.
Toni had been babysitting Holly’s 17-month-old daughter since the night before, and Toni needed to leave for work. But Holly didn’t show up or answer her phone. Assuming she’d overslept, Toni went to get her.
“I wanted to get her out of bed,” Toni recalled. “So I went to her house. And that’s when I found her.”
Holly had been stabbed to death on the bedroom floor. Toni sat beside her and put a hand on her leg. Then she said a brief prayer and called 911.
There was blood all over. Some of it was the killer’s. Investigators obtained a DNA profile that went into the state’s criminal database, but there were no matches, nor were there any for the dozens of potential suspects police questioned in the months and years that followed. Leads dried up. The case went cold.
Toni became an outspoken voice on her daughter’s behalf, staying in regular contact with detectives, handing out bumper stickers with Holly’s name and doing media interviews. She adopted Holly’s daughter.
Henslick lived with his parents in the same mobile home park and had gone to high school with Holly. They did not know each other well, but had common friends, Toni said. He avoided suspicion, even after getting charged with other crimes.
In 2015, Henslick was caught during a traffic stop with pot and cocaine, according to court records. If convicted, he’d have to provide his DNA, but Henslick failed to show up for court hearings.
Eventually he pleaded guilty and was put on probation, a sentence that required him to give a DNA sample. But he never went to the probation office to provide it.
He continued to miss court dates, and was arrested again, sentenced to more probation and ordered to give his DNA. Again, he ignored the order.
A request to revoke his probation, along with domestic violence charges related to an alleged 2017 attack on a woman, were pending in court when detectives working the Cassano murder caught a break.
Police in early 2018 turned to a Virginia company, Parabon NanoLabs, which specialized in a newly available investigative technique that was used to crack the Golden State Killer case.
The method, combining consumer DNA databases and traditional genealogy research, allows investigators to find relatives of a suspect, then build family trees to identify the person.
Parabon’s chief genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, tried the technique with the Cassano murder and identified Henslick as a likely suspect.
Investigators followed Henslick, picked up a cigarette he discarded and sent it in for testing. The DNA from the cigarette matched the profile from the murder scene. Detectives took him in for questioning, and he confessed, according to authorities.
Henslick went to trial anyway, arguing that the confession had been coerced. He was convicted in February, and at sentencing, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz cited Henslick’s skipping DNA collection, saying it had allowed him to hide “in plain sight here in our community.”
A judge sentenced him in June to life without parole.
Rietz considers the case a lesson in how easy it is for offenders to avoid giving their DNA. Now, when people in Champaign County are sentenced to probation, they are ordered to go straight to the office to give their DNA, she said.
“This was definitely a wake-up call as to how we need to be on top of whether we are collecting DNA or not,” Rietz said.
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