JOLIET TOWNSHIP (Sun-Times Media Wire) - The Joliet Township house where 16-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead last month burned down Saturday morning, and arson is "most likely" the cause, a fire official said.
The fire comes just days after authorities announced they are conducting a criminal investigation into the toddler's death. The Will County sheriff's office said it "had released control of the house late last week" but the statement issued Saturday morning did not explicitly address how the destruction of the house might affect the ongoing probe.
Authorities were called for reports of a fire about 6 a.m. at the home in the 300 block of Louis Road, according to a statement from the Will County sheriff's office. Crews from the East Joliet and New Lenox fire departments arrived to find the house "fully engulfed in flames."
Due to the extent of the blaze, the East Joliet Fire Department "advised they would allow the house to burn out while maintaining control," the sheriff's office said.
JJB Rentals LLC, based in Channahon, owns the property. The company could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
The sheriff's office on Thursday also disclosed that its officers visited the house where the toddler was found dead nearly 60 times in a little more than a year's time, according to records obtained by the Sun-Times.
Previously, authorities had characterized the toddler's death as "suspicious" -- but not "criminal."
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Chicago Sun-Times, the sheriff's office withheld some records, citing "an ongoing criminal investigation." But the sheriff's office did disclose that officers came to Semaj's Joliet Township house 59 times between February 2016 and April 2017.
Forty of those calls were for probation checks. And two of those calls were for "welfare checks," one of them in October 2016 and one on March 4, 2017, records show.
East Joliet Fire Chief Robert Scholtes said arson was "most likely" the cause of the fire, although it remained under investigation, and that an arson investigator from the department was on the scene Saturday morning.
The Illinois Fire Marshal's office is also investigating, the sheriff's office said.
State Sen. Pat McGuire (D-Crest Hill) and Will County Board members Denise Winfrey and Herbert Brooks held a press conference on near the property late Saturday morning, offering support to Semaj's family and the nearby community.
"This is a ghastly turn of events for a community that was already wounded by the death of a 16-month-old who lived here," McGuire said. "The wound is even deeper."
McGuire said he and DCFS Director George Sheldon toured the home for about 20 minutes Friday afternoon. Sheldon told McGuire about the fire Saturday morning, he said.
During the Saturday morning press conference, an East Joliet fire truck arrived to extinguish remaining hotspots. Shortly after noon, Will County sheriff's officers arrived and cordoned off the area with police tape.
White smoke wafted through the subdivision as children across the street played four-square and some neighbors briefly came out of their homes to take pictures.
Semaj was found dead under a couch in the house about midnight on April 26. The day before, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had been at the home investigating a child-neglect allegation, but saw "no obvious hazards or safety concerns" for Semaj or her two brothers, state officials said.
About two-and-a-half hours after the DCFS visit, the toddler disappeared, prompting a massive search of the subdivision near Joliet. A top police official said that house was in "very deplorable" condition, adding that a lawyer for the girl's mother made them get a search warrant before they entered it and found the girl.
The Will County coroner's office is awaiting the results of lab testing and toxicology reports to make a final determination on the cause of her death, the sheriff's office said in a statement. However, there were "no visible signs of blunt force trauma or physical injury to the body of Semaj Crosby to indicate the exact cause of death."
A funeral for her was held Friday in Joliet.
Sheriff's police requested the Will County Office of Land Use inspect the home a day after Semaj was found dead - and they "red-tagged" the home after finding a non-functioning stove.
"The entire structure appeared unsanitary because of the heavily soiled carpets, walls, garbage and [it] contains a serious degree of filth," an inspector noted in her report.
The house was condemned as unfit for habitation. A notice of the violations was sent to JJB Rentals.
Anyone who saw anything suspicious leading up to the fire is asked to call the sheriff's office Investigation Division at (815) 727-8574 or leave tips online at willcosheriff.org.