Nearly five years after her daughter's brutal murder, Toni Cassano still wants answers
The fall — especially the week of Halloween — is the worst time for Toni Cassano.
Her daughter's birthday, Oct. 28.
Her daughter's favorite holiday, Oct. 31.
And Nov. 2, her daughter's "death day," when 22-year-old Holly Cassano was stabbed to death in her Mahomet home.
Each year Toni Cassano braces herself to get through that week and the Christmas holidays; it's all just too much.
"Come Jan. 1, it's a new year, a new beginning. I can start over. I can leave what happened last year behind and I can start fresh."
It's been almost five years since Cassano walked into her daughter's mobile home at Candlewood Estates and found her covered in blood on the bedroom floor. After calling for help, she sank to her knees and prayed.
Police recovered plenty of DNA and other evidence that could help convict Holly's killer. But so far, despite an exhaustive investigation, it hasn't led to the right suspect.
The unsolved case is always on her mother's mind. Always.
"Every minute of every day. Every day of every week. Every week of every month. Everything I do I think about her before I do it."
Investigation never stopped
Detectives who continue to work the case may not feel the same daily emptiness that haunts Toni Cassano, but they are still clearly affected.
"Nov. 2, 2009." Dave Sherrick spits out the day of the murder without hesitation. "That's just something you don't forget."
Dwayne Roelfs, the current lead case agent, has Holly's picture in his office.
Bumper stickers with her picture remain on the sheriff's squad cars. Another is posted on the electronic eye that people pass through as they enter the courthouse in Urbana.
"It's a visual to say here's this girl that didn't deserve to suffer through this. As a parent, it makes you think," said Roelfs, who recently became a father for the first time.
The crime scene photos show Holly Cassano lying flat on her back, arms spread wide on her bedroom floor. Stabbed 60 times, she and the home were covered in blood. She'd also been sexually assaulted.
"It was the worst case I've worked so far, made all the more difficult by the fact it's not solved," said Sherrick, a deputy for 14 years, eight of them as a detective.
Roelfs and Sherrick were there from the beginning. Lt. Curt Apperson was in a different assignment at the time but helped with interviews; he now supervises the detectives.
While the passage of time is often the enemy of solving crimes, Apperson said the detectives still work the case on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Just last week, they checked yet another person for a possible DNA match. It didn't pan out.
In the early days, Toni Cassano would call the investigators several times a week, then every other week, then once a month or so. Now, she calls whenever she has information to pass along, and they do the same.
The detectives aren't bothered by hearing the same tips again and again, many filtered through Cassano.
"Every time she calls, I stop what I'm doing to take her calls. That's the least I can do. We haven't found the person who killed her daughter," said Sherrick, who's also a parent.
Cassano is frustrated but remains determined.
What would it mean for her, to find her daughter's killer after so long?
Not peace. Not by a long shot.
"It will not bring her back. It won't change what I have to live with every day. The only peace of mind that I'll have is that I know he won't be able to do this to another family.
"I just hope that when the person is found, it's not somebody I've talked to and somebody I know, who's come to me face-to-face and said 'I know nothing about what's happened.' "
'An angel with God'
Her granddaughter, Alexis, has been her salvation. She was just 17 months old when her mother died. Holly Cassano, a 2006 Mahomet-Seymour High School graduate, was a single mom who had worked two jobs for a while and was struggling in a relationship with the child's father. Toni Cassano now has custody.
Holly's life revolved around her daughter. In many ways, the 6-year-old is the image of her mother — same shape of her face, same blond-streaked hair Holly had when she was young.
"She acts like her mom, she'll be a smart-aleck just like her mom was, only she's doing it seven years earlier than her mom did," Toni Cassano said.
The other day, shopping for clothes together, they found a little zebra-print shirt.
"Holly would have bought this for her, so I grabbed it," Toni Cassano said. "Alexis saw it, and it had Holly's name all over it."
Alexis calls her "mommy," but she knows she had another mom. Toni Cassano talks about her daughter freely so Alexis won't think it's something to be embarrassed about or afraid of.
Alexis doesn't know exactly what happened, but "she knows that her mommy is in heaven, and she's an angel with God."
Sometimes Alexis asks about what happened. Usually when they're driving, as kids are prone to do.
One day, as they drove on Interstate 74, she asked, "Did my mommy smoke? Is that why she died?"
Toni Cassano said they could talk about it at home. Luckily, it didn't come up again.
She's torn between a desire to keep her daughter's case alive and the fear that, with publicity, someone might let something slip in front of Alexis. A parent might talk about it in front of their child, who then might innocently pass something on to Alexis.
"I'm not going to lie to her, and she's not old enough to know the truth about everything. I'm just dreading the fact that I have to say something."
On the living room mantel of Cassano's home is a shrine to her daughter. The pink urn with her ashes. Part of her Teddy bear collection. Flowers from the memorial service. Artwork made by Alexis featuring the butterflies that represent her mother, with "I love you," or at least the toddler version, scrawled on the back.
At the center is a photo collage of Holly Cassano and her daughter, taken around Alexis' first birthday in May 2009 by a friend who managed the photo studio at Meijer, where Holly worked as a cashier.
The half-dozen shots include two where she's looking down at her daughter playing on the floor. They were the inspiration for an oil portrait that also sits on the mantel, of Holly gazing down at an older Alexis, around age 3. The words "Forever My Angel" are painted in the top corner.
The painting was a gift to Toni Cassano from one of Holly's co-workers on the first Mother's Day after her daughter's death. Nearby hangs a framed black-and-white print of Holly and Alexis with a poem entitled "My Guardian Angel."
"For the most part, it's been OK. We've had a rough road," said Cassano, wearing a white T-shirt with the words, "Hope for Holly" written in black letters. "With God's help I will get through it."
'Somebody knows something'
Cassano keeps going. Even on Halloween, when she buys decorations with Alexis. She tries to make it "the best holiday ever for Alexis, because I know that's what Holly would do."
On Holly's birthday, they buy cupcakes and balloons, which they release into the sky.
And on Nov. 2, well, "I sit and cry," Cassano said.
Overall, she tries to stay positive.
People often tell her that she's strong, that she's "amazing," that they could not do what she's done. She doesn't buy it.
"I don't feel that I've done anything out of the ordinary," she said. "If you were put into that position, you would have to be as strong as I am. There is no option. I'm just living my life day by day, minute by minute, trying to get through it."
"I believe that positive attracts positive. If I stay positive, things around me will stay positive. People around me will stay positive, and this will be solved. If I get negative, I can see a lot of people become negative. And with that negativity is going to come disaster, instead of an answer."
Her overall message: If anyone knows anything about the case, please come forward.
Her sister, Cristina Nakashian, thinks it might be time to call in more outside help. With this much evidence, authorities should be able to solve it, she said.
"Somebody knows something. This person didn't do it as a one-time offense, never having done anything in the past or since then," she said. "Somebody knows this person and somebody knows what they did. He needs help and he needs to be off the streets."
Nakashian lived in Candlewood Estates and had just returned home from the grocery store that awful morning when she saw the police cars fly by. She assumed Holly and her boyfriend had had another fight. Then the ambulances came, and she just knew. Seconds later, she got the anguished call from her sister.
Holly Cassano, she said, was a young, outgoing girl who adored her daughter, loved her family and friends and "would do anything to help anybody." She made everyone feel like her best friend.
"She had a full life ahead of her, and it was stolen from her. It was stolen from her daughter. It was stolen from all of us," Nakashian said.
"We just want to get closure. We know that finding out who did it isn't going to answer all the questions. We'll probably never know why they did it. But we need to at least know who did it. From that, we can start moving forward."
Staff writer Mary Schenk contributed to this report.