Henslick trial Pitchford1

Illinois State Crime Laboratory scientist Dana Pitchford testifies about DNA on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, during the murder trial of Michael Henslick, 31, of Mahomet at the Champaign County Courthouse in Urbana.

Listen to this article

URBANA — The verdict is in: A Champaign County jury on Friday found Michael Henslick guilty of the 2009 murder of Mahomet's Holly Cassano.

Jurors found that the crime was committed in "an exceptionally brutal and heinous manner, indicative of wanton cruelty," which means Henslick could  spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Toni Cassano, the victim's mother, put her face in her hands and sobbed upon hearing the verdict, which came one hour after the jury began deliberating.

She then went to the back of the courtroom and gave hugs to Dave Sherrick, Dwayne Roelfs and Chris Darr, three of several detectives who worked her daughter's case for years.

Henslick remained stoic, staring ahead as Judge Heidi Ladd individually polled the jurors on whether that was their verdict, which she did at the request of defense attorney Lindsey Yanchus.

Henslick's sentencing was set for March 20 at 1:30 p.m.

More to come from the Champaign County Courthouse from Mary Schenk.

***

Earlier story

URBANA — Attorneys for Holly Cassano’s accused murderer rested their case Thursday without calling any witnesses on Michael Henslick’s behalf after prosecutors delivered their final blows — his recorded confession and DNA tying him to the crime.

Asked by Judge Heidi Ladd if he understood that the decision of whether to testify was his alone, Henslick said he did and that he chose not to.

The case will go to the jury late this morning after closing arguments.

Jurors must determine guilt or innocence, and if they find him guilty, must then decide if the acts were performed in a “brutal and heinous” manner “indicative of wanton cruelty.”

Should they make that finding, Henslick, 31, will spend the rest of his life behind bars for a crime he could not explain.

Astronomical odds

The final witness for the prosecution was Illinois State Crime Laboratory scientist Dana Pitchford, a 23-year employee who has worked on the fatal stabbing of the 22-year-old woman since it happened in 2009.

A forensic biologist with a specialty in DNA, Pitchford testified that she obtained DNA profiles from eight of the many pieces of evidence collected after Miss Cassano’s slain body was found Nov. 2, 2009, in the bedroom of her Mahomet mobile home.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Scott Denton concluded that Miss Cassano died from internal bleeding caused by several of the estimated 55 to 60 stab wounds that he said were likely inflicted by a kitchen steak knife.

Graphic crime-scene photos shown to the jury revealed a lot of blood on her, in her bedroom and throughout her home, the latter suggesting that the assailant was also injured and left a trail of blood behind.

Pitchford extracted DNA from several pieces of that collected evidence: a bloody light switch cover from her bathroom, dried blood from the floor at the opposite end of her home, blood on the wall and door handle of the spare bedroom, blood on the knob of the front door, blood on the storm door and semen recovered from her.

The DNA from all of those, she said, came from one man.

From 2009 to 2018, when Henslick was arrested, Pitchford said she compared the DNA developed from the evidence to the DNA deputies had collected from 190 other men — all of whom were excluded as contributors.

“Michael Henslick is included as a contributor,” Pitchford said, reciting the statistical value that the chances that the semen in Miss Cassano and the blood on the evidence came from someone else are 1 in 150 octillion. (That’s 150 plus 27 zeroes.)

Likewise, two other samples of blood from her thigh and her knee were linked to Henslick, Pitchford testified.

Denton said Miss Cassano had no stab wounds on her legs but he found blood on her lower body that was likely deposited by her killer when he cut himself while stabbing her.

Henslick: Sex 'consensual'

After his arrest about 6:15 p.m. Aug. 28, 2018, Henslick was driven to the sheriff’s office on East Main Street in Urbana, where he was questioned by two detectives for about five hours in an 8-by-10-foot room that had a 3-by-3-foot table.

About 3½ hours into what was initially an unproductive interview, he admitted he killed Miss Cassano by stabbing her “all over” in a “fit of rage.”

But he never gave the frustrated investigators a reason that made any sense to them.

Investigator Dwayne Roelfs, involved in the case from the day of the killing, was with Henslick for the entire interview, portions of which were played for the jury.

After Judge Heidi Ladd declined to suppress the statement in its entirety, rejecting the defense suggestion that it was coerced, the lawyers edited it into sections that they agreed the jury should hear. Those seven excerpts ranged in length from about a minute to 70 minutes.

It was the 70-minute portion of his statement, for which jurors had a transcript, in which an often unintelligible Henslick eventually admitted to Roelfs and fellow detective Chris Darr he stabbed Miss Cassano “all over,” pointing to his torso.

Henslick told the detectives he went to her house about 3:30 or 4 a.m. on Nov. 2, 2009. He said he had been there about two weeks earlier with Amber Nakashian, Miss Cassano’s cousin.

“I just walked in,” he said, adding Miss Cassano was in her kitchen, startled when he entered through the unlocked front door. He told her he wanted to talk about Amber, with whom he “had a thing” but also admitted he had “a little interest with Holly, too. I mean, it was just a whole ... love-triangle thing that was all messed up.”

While talking about Amber, Henslick said he and Miss Cassano “did have sex.”

“And that just, kind of, made things seem crazier with the whole, being interested in Amber, and Amber having a boyfriend,” he said, maintaining that the sex was “consensual.”

'An unconscious decision'

Henslick said they both fell asleep, she in her bed and he on the floor. When he woke, he went to the kitchen and got a steak knife from the counter.

“I was like in a funny weird place in my head. Still kind of drunk. And, well, just the whole Amber thing. Just life, and what not. You know, I had potentially thought of hurting myself. And the next thing you know, I just, I don’t know. Like, it was an unconscious decision. Unconscious thing, like, taking over me.”

Pressed by Darr for details, Henslick said Miss Cassano was sleeping when he began stabbing her.

“I think she might have said something like, ‘What?’ and ‘Help,’” he said, adding he didn’t know how many times he stabbed her.

And when she had died, he had sex with her on the floor, something he later admitted was “disgusting to think about.”

“I left her there. I know she was there on her back. She was ... sprawled out. That’s what I remember.”

Henslick said he cut his left inside forearm while stabbing her and went through the house looking for something to clean himself with, eventually finding a piece of clothing.

He drove away and said he tossed the knife out the window “just down the road.” Roelfs said investigators never found it.

Pressed by the investigators for why he killed a woman who had just willingly had sex with him, Henslick said he had asked himself that.

He denied being angry with her despite Darr’s suggestion that 67 stab wounds smacked of rage.

“Like I said, something was just coming over me, you know,” Henslick said. “I think I was just angry about it all. The whole Amber and I thing ... and just being scared, hurt, afraid, and then just — just raged and blinded by a multitude of emotion,” adding he was more emotional than drunk despite having consumed hard liquor and beer earlier.

In answer to other questions, Henslick said he never killed anyone else, didn’t ever tell anyone about killing Miss Cassano, and was remorseful for what he had done but unwilling to turn himself in.

“I was afraid. I wanted to have a life. ... Like growing up and, you know, having my house, being financially stable, having a family.”

'There was no reason'

Darr and Roelfs asked Henslick repeatedly why he killed Miss Cassano, saying that what he had told them did not make sense and appealing to him to give answers to her grieving mother.

After Henslick’s admissions, Darr left the interview room briefly for fresh air. Henslick had smoked at least six cigarettes during the 70 minutes jurors saw of his interview and drank only one bottle of water in the five hours he was in the room.

Roelfs continued to press him for a reason.

“There was no reason. ... I don’t even know myself, really,” Henslick said.

Darr came back a couple minutes later and he and Roelfs tried one last time to get Henslick to say why he would have violently killed a woman who had just had sex with him.

“This is the way Michael wants the public to hear it? Is that you killed Holly because you were jealous, you were enraged, you were emotional? And she took the brunt of all that?” Darr asked.

“And you had consensual sex. Right? That’s really what you want people to believe,” Roelfs asked.

“That’s the way it went down?” Darr said.

“That is the way it went down,” Henslick replied.

“Yeah. Good luck with that,” Roelfs replied.

“It doesn’t make sense at all. It’s never made sense to me,” Henslick said.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).