Henslick trial Roelfs2

Champaign County sheriff's investigator Dwayne Roelfs introduces a video of murder suspect Michael Henslick's interview with authorities during the second day of his trial Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2020, at the Champaign County Courthouse in Urbana.

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URBANA — Holly Cassano bled to death internally from stabbing injuries that pierced her heart, deflated her lungs and damaged other internal organs, a forensic pathologist testified Wednesday.

“My best estimate, adding them up and counting some of the small wounds, was between 55 and 60,” Dr. Scott Denton said of the number of wounds she sustained.

The pathologist at the McLean County morgue, who estimated he’s conducted 11,000 autopsies in 23 years, opined that Miss Cassano died in anywhere from three to seven minutes following a mighty struggle with her attacker, evidenced by cuts to her forearms and fingers.

The pathologist’s grim description of what the 22-year-old single mother went through in the last minutes of her life came in the second full day of testimony in the murder trial of Michael Henslick.

The 31-year-old Mahomet man, who lived within blocks of Miss Cassano and was at large for nine years, has sat stoically taking notes as 15 witnesses for the state have testified.

As Wednesday’s session was winding down, jurors heard the first words from Henslick that were recorded by Champaign County sheriff’s investigators who arrested him Aug. 28, 2018.

Before getting too far into the five-hour statement taken by three different detectives, Judge Heidi Ladd excused the jurors for the day. They will hear more of that today.

‘Severe’ force

Denton’s autopsy was conducted Nov. 3, 2009, a day after Toni Cassano found her deceased daughter almost naked, obviously stabbed and covered in blood on the floor of her bedroom at her home on DuPage Street in the Candlewood Estates Mobile Home Park in Mahomet.

Toni Cassano, who also has an adult son, went to her daughter’s home because Holly had failed to show up at her mom’s earlier that day, as promised.

Denton’s exam revealed that Miss Cassano was stabbed while on her back and on her stomach. Her forearms had several defensive wounds, suggesting she tried to protect herself from the rain of blows that appeared to have been caused by a steak knife, Denton said.

Denton said one of three stab wounds to her chest penetrated her sternum and heart, causing major internal bleeding. It would have required “severe force” to accomplish that, he said. She also had wounds below her ribs that damaged her liver, and multiple wounds on her back that caused her lungs to collapse.

Denton said he found 27 stab wounds on her back, including a cluster of “gaping” wounds on her lower right back “consistent with a person straddling or sitting on her buttocks” using a right hand to repeatedly stab her. Many of the wounds were different sizes, Denton said, suggesting that she would have been moving in reaction to pain during the contact.

However, given the number and position of the wounds on her lower right back, Denton said she likely wasn’t moving much at that point, leading him to believe they came near the end of the attack.

He also found drops of blood on her legs and foot, although there were no corresponding stab wounds.

“Either her blood was deposited there or someone else’s,” he said.

Denton also found that she had been sexually assaulted but was unable to say whether the sex happened before or after she died.

Bloodstain expert

Earlier Wednesday, the jury heard from an expert in bloodstain pattern analysis that Miss Cassano was stabbed in the room where her body was found.

Illinois State Police analyst Sgt. Dwayne Morris also testified that her assailant was likely injured above the waist and left a trail of blood throughout her home.

Morris’ opinions as an expert came over the objection of Henslick’s public defenders, Lindsey Yanchus and Andrea Bergstrom.

State’s Attorney Julia Rietz led the veteran crime-scene investigator and bloodstain expert through several pictures taken at the murder scene on Nov. 2 and 3, 2009, asking for his interpretation of what the pools, trails and droplets of blood meant.

Starting in the bedroom where her body was found, Morris said the bloodstains on her bed, the walls, the ceiling and the floor indicated she was likely stabbed on both the bed and the floor, but he could not say with certainty where the attack began.

A trail of blood outside the hallway from her bedroom leading to the kitchen indicated a “replenishing” source as opposed to blood dripping from an object.

“An injured person was standing above the sink,” Morris opined.

There was also a trail of blood leading to the opposite end of the mobile home into a second bathroom near the front door, where blood droplets were also found on the vanity and in the sink.

However, crime-scene investigators found no blood outside the home.

“No blood outside suggests something stopped the blood-letting before this person left this scene,” Morris testified.

Keeping watch

In other testimony Wednesday:

— Champaign County sheriff’s deputies Ed Moody and Norman “J.R.” Meeker both testified about watching Henslick in August 2018 after he had been developed as a suspect in Miss Cassano’s killing.

The investigators said they were among a team tailing him in order to obtain DNA.

Moody said he picked up a cigarette that Henslick tossed outside a nail salon in Champaign on Aug. 26, 2018. Meeker said the next day, he picked up a butt that Henslick discarded in the parking lot of a grain elevator on Rising Road west of Champaign, where he pulled in to check a low tire on his car.

After obtaining the second butt, Meeker said he logged it into evidence at the office, then drove it directly to the Illinois State Crime Lab in Springfield, where he gave it to DNA analyst Dana Pitchford, who went right to work on it, extracting DNA from saliva on the cigarette butt.

Pitchford’s testimony linking Henslick’s DNA to that found at the crime scene is still to come.

— Champaign County sheriff’s evidence officer Thad Trimble testified about maintaining a chain of custody on the many pieces of evidence collected at Miss Cassano’s home, which are stored in a “big vault” at the sheriff’s office.

Trimble said over the years of the open investigation, he took about 150 DNA samples collected from people who knew Miss Cassano or who lived near her to the state crime lab to rule them out.


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).