URBANA — A Champaign County jury will be allowed to hear what Michael Henslick told Champaign County sheriff’s investigators about his alleged role in the rape and murder of his former high school classmate and mobile-home park neighbor.
Exactly how much the jury hears of his 5½-hour interaction with police on Aug. 28, 2018, remains to be determined as attorneys slog through pretrial motions in an attempt to refine their respective cases.
Henslick, 31, of Mahomet is set to be tried by a jury before Judge Heidi Ladd on Feb. 10 for the first-degree murder of Holly Cassano, 22.
Judge Heidi Ladd said the trial of Michael Henslick, 31, charged with murder in the brutal slaying of 22-year-old Holly Cassano, would begin with jury selection on Feb. 10.
The single working mother was discovered on Nov. 2, 2009, by her mother, repeatedly stabbed to death in her own home on DuPage Street in the Candlewood Estates Mobile Home Park in Mahomet. Authorities later determined she had also been sexually assaulted.
Despite an intensive, ongoing investigation by Champaign County sheriff’s detectives, the killer went undetected for nine years, until a relatively new investigative technique using the combination of DNA and genealogy led police to Henslick.
His defense team, First Assistant Public Defender Lindsey Yanchus and Assistant Public Defender Andrea Bergstrom, had sought to keep his statement from the jury, arguing that he had not voluntarily given it.
In a three-hour hearing Wednesday, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz and First Assistant State’s Attorney Troy Lozar sought to prove otherwise by having the men involved in Henslick’s arrest and subsequent interrogation on Aug. 28, 2018, testify about the circumstances surrounding both.
Lozar stepped in at the 11th hour to assist Rietz after their colleague, Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Banach, broke his ankle over the weekend. Banach had done the majority of the state’s preparation for the suppression hearing but Lozar handled the questioning of the witnesses Wednesday.
Ladd came down on the side of the state, finding that nothing that happened during the lengthy interview smacked of pressure, coercion or trickery by the seasoned detectives.
“It was a cordial exchange, a knowing waiver,” she said.
Both the prosecutors and the defense attorneys had earlier agreed that Ladd should watch the videotaped statement prior to the hearing for the sake of judicial economy.
On Wednesday, sheriff’s Capt. Shane Cook testified that he made the initial contact with Henslick at Market Place Mall about 6:15 p.m. on that Tuesday, explaining to him that he was being arrested for violating a no-contact order with his girlfriend, an alleged victim of domestic violence at Henslick’s hands in April 2018.
Cook said they made small talk while waiting outside the mall for Deputy Robert Hubbard to arrive in a regular squad car to drive Henslick to the sheriff’s office.
Detectives: No threats
At a probable-cause hearing Thursday for Michael Henslick, Champaign County sheriff's Sgt. Dave Sherrick laid out details of the nine-year investigation, including Henslick admitting to detectives that he carried out the brutal killing.
Although told he was arrested in connection with the domestic-violence case, Henslick was about to be questioned as a suspect in the Cassano murder, the probable cause for which came together only days before his arrest.
Hubbard described Henslick as “perfectly fine” when he got in the car.
“He was wondering about what was going on and I told him I didn’t know much,” Hubbard testified, adding there was no force, threat or coercion by him to get Henslick to say anything.
Once at the East Main Street sheriff’s office, Sgt. Chris Darr, one of the detectives who had worked the murder investigation for several years, met Henslick at Hubbard’s squad car, then walked the handcuffed suspect to an 8-by-10-foot interview room where he would remain for the next several hours, with the exception of a bathroom break.
There, detectives David Sherrick and Dwayne Roelfs began questioning Henslick after Sherrick read Henslick his Miranda rights, which Henslick said he understood. He was given water, was allowed to smoke and was never left alone in the room.
The detectives described how they sought to build a rapport with Henslick and maintained they never threatened, touched or coerced him.
‘He was fairly stoic’
After 90 minutes, Sherrick said he decided to leave the room and let Darr come in.
“I felt we weren’t getting anywhere with me asking the questions. Sgt. Darr is a good interviewer,” Sherrick said.
Darr and Roelfs then continued on, making little headway, until about 10:30 p.m. — some three hours and 45 minutes into the interview — when Roelfs said he “decided to change my approach.”
Of particular concern to Yanchus was Roelfs raising his voice and dropping a portfolio from about a foot above the table on the table, which made a loud noise on the body-camera recording the interview.
“I didn’t see a whole lot of reaction,” Roelfs said of Henslick’s response to his more aggressive stance. “He’s leaning back in his chair with a cigarette in his hand. He was fairly stoic.”
“I’m pleading with him to be open — to share with us details of what happened that night,” he said, adding that he asked Henslick “a series of direct intentional questions if he had killed her.”
‘Now do big-boy things’
After a few moments, Henslick responded, “I’m sorry.”
On cross-examination by Yanchus, Roelfs admitted he told Henslick that his denials were “wearing on me.”
He also admitted telling Henslick, “You’re a big boy. You’re a 30-year-old man. Now do big-boy things. Stand up and be a man. I’m sick of sitting here listing to a bunch of bull---- coming out of your mouth.”
Lozar argued that Roelfs raising his voice and dropping a notebook on a table was “absolutely insignificant when you look at it in comparison to everything else” and that Henslick was still “clearly in control of his decision” to talk to police.
Yanchus disagreed, saying Henslick was “boxed in” by the detectives and that after Henslick said, ‘I’m sorry’ and Roelfs continued to yell at him, that his “will was overcome.”
“He was going to say whatever it took ... to get that person out of his face,” Yanchus argued.