The purpose of longtime C-U news reporter Carol Vorel's new podcast series — "Cold Cases" — is to shed light on unsolved crimes.
Anyone with information about the 2001 murder of LINDA SMITH in a neighborhood just north of Champaign can contact Champaign County sheriff's investigators at 217-384-1213 or, if wishing to remain anonymous, Crime Stoppers of Champaign County at 217-373-8477 or 373tips.com or via the free "P3 Tips" mobile app.
Do you have a Cold Case you'd like Vorel to chase? Email her at email@example.com or call 217-351-5345.
Teresa Dilley of Urbana can’t wait until her family can say "We got him, Mom."
It was 17 years ago Saturday — Sept. 22, 2001 — when Eastern Prairie firefighters found her mother, Linda Smith, 59, dead in her bed in her longtime home in the Wilbur Heights neighborhood just north of Champaign. A neighbor had called 911 with report of a fire at the residence at 302 Paul Ave. that morning.
"She was a good mom, crazy about her grandkids, and was expecting her first great-grandchild," Dilley said. "She just loved being around people."
Mrs. Smith (left), who had worked at the Kmart in Champaign for almost 30 years, was living with heart problems and recovering from bypass surgery at the time of her death.
But an autopsy would show more than the cause of her death — a heart attack. She had also been sexually assaulted.
"She was a hard worker, she had a big heart and she didn’t deserve to die this way," an emotional Dilley said.
According to Lt. Curt Apperson, head of the Champaign County Sheiff’s Office’s Investigations Division, Mrs. Smith had the heart attack "during the course of sexual assault. (Her attacker) may have seen a can of gasoline outside of the house and decided the best way to conceal the crime was to set fire to the residence."
The house (below) has since been demolished.
Investigators were able to recover a DNA sample, which was sent to the Illinois State Police crime lab for a profile.
"In November of 2002, we learned it was linked to an aggravated criminal sexual assault in Carbondale on Aug. 8, 2001, and another in Silver Spring, Md., in Montgomery County on July 5, 1995," he said. "Obviously, he meets the definition of a serial rapist."
The women in Carbondale and Silver Spring survived the attacks.
Dilley said she’d tell the man who attacked her mother: "I hope you get what’s coming to you, and I’m sure you will. And I’ll be there to make sure you sit in prison for a long time, hopefully until you die."
Even though investigators from all three jurisdictions know the assaults were committed by the same man, his identity is still unknown. His name does not show up in the DNA database.
Apperson declined to say if the sheriff’s office is turning to Parabon NanoLabs in Virginia for help in identifying the man whose DNA matches the assaults. The company’s use of advances in DNA technology combined with genetic analysis recently led to the arrest of Michael Henslick in the 2009 fatal stabbing of Holly Cassano of Mahomet.
"This is an open and active investigation", Apperson said. "And I think it would be ill advised if I sit there and broadcast what we will do. But, every option is on the table when it comes to DNA."
Apperson (left) said investigators are working with the other two jurisdictions — mainly with Carbondale police — to solve the crimes. He said there are common threads among the three attacks: all occurred in college towns, and the victims lived near railroad tracks.
Apperson said the description provided by the two other victims is similar: "He used the threat of force or force; he’s black; 25 to 27; 5 feet, 10 inches tall; thin build; and weighs 150 to 160 pounds."
Apperson also said the suspect sexually assaulted the woman in Maryland for three hours while armed with a knife and smelling of alcohol and cigarettes.
"I just think that we’re going to have to get lucky," Apperson said. "And I think just like on the Holly Cassano case, when you put in a lot of hard work, you generate luck."
Those with information about Mrs. Smith’s murder — which happened a week and half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — are urged to call Champaign County sheriff’s investigators at 217-384-1213 or, if wishing to remain anonymous, Crime Stoppers at 217-373-8477.
"Even if you think we already know, call us, because maybe we don’t know," Apperson said. "If anyone out there knows of a black male who had ties with Silver Spring, Md.; Carbondale; and Champaign, we need to know.
"I still believe we’re going to find this person and find out who he is."
Meanwhile, Dilley and her family turn to each other to get through their anger and grief.
"We always think she’s with us in spirit," she said. "We just hold onto the good times and just pray that something comes up and this guy gets caught. There’s no greater loss than your mother; she’s like the rock."