URBANA — For the first time ever, Toni Cassano was in the same room as the man accused of brutally murdering her daughter.
The mother of the late Holly Cassano didn't initially realize he was actually in the crowded courtroom Thursday afternoon, expecting to see him on a video screen instead.
"I saw the back of his head. I'm over a lot of this now," she said of her reaction to seeing the diminutive Michael Henslick from two rows behind him. "It's just a process now."
Thursday's preliminary hearing for the 30-year-old Henslick was the second step in the legal process that follows Henslick being criminally charged on Aug. 28 with the first-degree murder of Holly Cassano, 22, on Nov. 1 or 2, 2009, in her home in the Candlewood Estates Mobile Home Park in Mahomet.
Champaign County Judge John Kennedy found there was ample evidence for Henslick's case to proceed to trial before Judge Heidi Ladd.
The next court hearing in the case is set for Oct. 23, but volumes of police reports still have to be relayed to Henslick's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Lindsey Yanchus, so it's unlikely the case will be resolved quickly.
However, given the overwhelming amount of evidence the state has against the suspect, including his own admission that he killed his former high school classmate, there is a distinct possibility that Henslick might consider a guilty plea.
Henslick's admission to sheriff's investigators was part of the evidence presented to Kennedy during a hearing that lasted 11 minutes and 40 seconds.
Champaign County sheriff's Sgt. Dave Sherrick, under questioning by State's Attorney Julia Rietz, laid out some of the details of the nine-year investigation into Cassano's murder.
He said it was Toni Cassano who found her daughter dead on the floor of her bedroom inside her mobile home on DuPage Street on Nov. 2, 2009.
Sherrick said an autopsy revealed she had been stabbed 55 to 60 times.
There was blood in the bedroom, hallway, bathroom, living room, kitchen, kitchen sink, and even the outside of the door to the home, he said.
At the time, Henslick lived with his parents a few blocks away in the same mobile home park.
Shortly after the killing, vaginal and rectal swabs — as well as swabs of blood stains on the victim's legs — were sent to the Illinois State Police crime lab, where scientists developed a DNA profile from an unknown man. Sherrick said the scientists concluded the semen and the blood came from the same person, leading them to believe the killer was injured during the attack.
Over the years, about 100 samples from potential suspects were sent to the lab, but none matched the unknown DNA profile, Sherrick said.
Work done this summer by a private genetic genealogy company hired by the sheriff's office revealed that the DNA found inside Cassano's home possibly came from Henslick, who still lived in the same mobile home park with a girlfriend.
Despite having been ordered by the courts to provide a DNA sample because of a conviction in a 2015 drug case, Henslick never did so. In response, the state took steps to revoke his probation.
In late August, after sheriff's detectives learned Henslick was a possible match, Sherrick said they followed Henslick and picked up discarded cigarette butts to use for comparison samples.
"It was a full match," Sherrick said of the comparison between the DNA on the cigarettes and the evidence from the murder scene.
Sherrick said detectives learned that Henslick was friends with Cassano's cousin and that he and Cassano were about the same age and in the same class at Mahomet-Seymour High School.
Sherrick was one of three detectives who interviewed Henslick on Aug. 28 after his arrest. Henslick waived his Miranda rights and agreed to talk to them without an attorney.
Asked by Rietz if Henslick admitted his role in the crime, Sherrick replied, "He did. He said he stabbed her. He said all over."
Sherrick said Henslick also said that scars he still has on the inside of both forearms came from the attack on Cassano.
Sherrick said detectives took DNA samples from Henslick after his arrest and learned on Wednesday from the state crime lab that they indeed matched the blood and semen samples collected at the mobile home in 2009.
For Toni Cassano, nothing she heard in court Thursday was new. However, there were gasps from some of the about 50 family and friends who crowded into the pews when Sherrick revealed she had been stabbed 55 to 60 times.
While investigators had parsed out certain evidence through the media over the years in an attempt to find her killer, many of the details were kept under wraps.
Toni Cassano came to court wearing a new T-shirt that she said she had ordered last year but only picked up Wednesday.
On the front were the words: "Hope for Holly. I miss my Daughter." The word "hope" was scratched out and "Justice" written in above it.
Likewise, on the back of the shirt, the words "five" and "eight" next to "years later" were crossed out and a "9" written in above them.