Mother seeks answers in daughter’s mysterious death — (Chicago Tribune)

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Chicago Tribune

Ted Gregory, Contact Reporter

November 27, 2015,  6:25 AM

About 14 months ago, a man walking his dog found the body of Jenna Crandall in a DuPage County forest preserve. Authorities investigated. The coroner’s forensic pathologist performed an autopsy. Their conclusion: The cause of Crandall’s death cannot be determined.

That’s a heart-wrenching mystery for Crandall’s mother, Donna Gerhartz, who refuses to accept it. She believes her 24-year-old daughter was killed.

 “There’s somebody out there who murdered my daughter,” a shaken Gerhartz said one afternoon at her kitchen table.

Aided by a neighbor whom she met at a garage sale, Gerhartz continues to search for answers. The two women have obtained more than 100 pages of official documents, spoken with law enforcement investigators and DuPage County’s chief deputy coroner, opened Crandall’s social media accounts and enlisted a forensic pathologist — all of which lead the pair to believe that foul play was involved in the young woman’s death.

“I feel really bad for her,” DuPage County Forest Preserve District police Lt. Howard Oller said of Gerhartz. “But I can only deal with what the facts show. We dug as deep as we could … and there was nothing more we could do with the information we had.”

The top of her blue yoga pants had been pulled to the middle of her thighs. Her left foot was bare; her right was in a multicolored, striped sock. Crandall wasn’t wearing glasses, which, given her poor vision, seemed curious to Gerhartz. Later, a police officer found those glasses in two pieces a few feet from the body.

Investigators also found a green camisole near her body and a black camisole about 70 feet from Crandall, close to a fence between the forest preserve and Grace Church. A blue and white bra was found on a grass trail south of the body. All of the items are believed to have belonged to Crandall, who stayed sporadically with her boyfriend in a tent he’d pitched on church property, Gerhartz and authorities said.

Also troubling to Gerhartz and Messenger is the autopsy report by Dr. Hilary S. McElligott, the coroner’s chief forensic pathologist. In it, McElligott referred to “multiple dried red/brown abrasions” across the torso, upper arms and on the lower left leg, some as long as 5 inches; “an apparent gray/red bruise” that measured 11 inches in diameter on the lower right side of Crandall’s chest; and a 3-inch “linear red abrasion” on the left thigh.

But DuPage County Chief Deputy Coroner Charlie Dastych said those external injuries fail to lead to a definitive conclusion of foul play. They could have been incurred by walking through dense brush or climbing the fence between the forest preserve and church land, Dastych said.

“Some of these things,” he said in an interview, “you cannot determine how they came about.”

And although the body was mostly unclothed, Dastych and Oller said no evidence suggests Crandall had a violent sexual encounter — or a violent encounter of any kind.

“There was just nothing there that medically would support anything criminal or anything unnatural about why she passed away,” Dastych said.

Oller acknowledged that the death scene photos are “extremely strange,” which prompted him to call for extensive testing on the body. In addition to finding no definitive signs of foul play, Oller said, the analysis of matter under Crandall’s fingernails, including blood, showed no foreign DNA.

“It appeared to be one thing,” said Oller, the forest preserve police’s lead investigator who was at the scene the night Crandall’s body was found. “But the facts — physical or otherwise — don’t support that at all. You can’t assume, based on the scene, what it is. You have to be thorough and detailed.”

‘Unsafe lifestyle’

Gerhartz lives about a half-mile from Messenger, and the two started working together after striking up a conversation at Messenger’s garage sale last spring. St. James Farm stands between the two women’s houses. Messenger, who frequently walks the preserve, said she got involved in helping as an extension of her faith.

“It feels like if somebody comes across my path and I’m able to help them without investing a lot of money to do it,” Messenger said, “then we have an obligation to help others.”

She added that she “just likes to get questions answered.”

Although Crandall did not have a criminal record, she led a troubled life, particularly in the year before she died, Gerhartz said. An easygoing little girl who loved country music, she struggled academically in elementary and middle school, became severely overweight at times and “was kind of a loner,” Gerhartz recalled. Crandall left public school in eighth grade, then was home-schooled and never earned a high school diploma, her mother said.

She’d been married twice and had twin boys, although the children reside with her ex-husband out of state, Gerhartz said. Their absence led a distraught Crandall to use drugs more frequently, Gerhartz said. Police documents showed that Crandall — while being interviewed after recanting a report that she’d been raped — told an officer that she’d once attempted suicide by using heroin.

Gerhartz reported Crandall missing Sept. 15, 2014, four days after she walked out of the house, telling her mother she was walking to the library. Toxicology reports showed she had an array of drugs in her system at the time of her death, including amphetamines, antidepressants, hallucinogens and muscle relaxants, although the amounts of those substances were below overdose levels.

Oller said his best guess is that Crandall was the victim of a “synergistic” reaction to the substances, in which drugs combine to debilitate an individual. Asked why she was largely unclothed, Oller said Crandall could have removed her clothes in an “exothermic” reaction, which occurs when a person’s body overheats from taking drugs.

“She lived a very unsafe lifestyle,” Oller added. “I think her body just gave out.”

He said he reviewed his work in January with the DuPage County sheriff’s director of investigations before closing the case in February. Oller would reopen the investigation if new evidence surfaces, he added.

 Gerhartz and Messenger dispute Oller’s conclusion. They note autopsy results showing that Crandall had mild brain swelling — which medical research suggests could result from suffocation — indicate she might have been smothered.

The two women also point to a pair of Crandall’s drug-using acquaintances as possible suspects, but Oller said the lack of physical evidence of a struggle and the absence of suspicious DNA left him with nothing to indicate that either man was involved. Had Crandall been suffocated or smothered, Oller added, investigators probably would have seen signs on the body that she had fought to stay alive. No such signs exist, Oller said.

Another theory

Gerhartz and Messenger’s last tangible hope may rest with Dr. James Jacobi, a forensic pathologist who is deputy coroner of Lawrence County in southern Indiana. Messenger contacted him through a mutual acquaintance, and Jacobi agreed to review at no cost the documents the women had gathered.

In an interview, Jacobi said his conclusion is that Crandall died somewhere other than the forest preserve.

“Just the overall pattern I’m seeing” suggests Crandall’s body was moved to St. James Farm, Jacobi said. He declined to elaborate, saying he would need more detail and was concerned he might jeopardize whatever prospects exist for an investigation.

Jacobi did say that he doubts Crandall was smothered or suffocated and believes her death is drug-related. It is possible she suffered synergistic and exothermic reactions to the drugs, he added. But several days of decomposition “muddles” the details of toxicology results, he said.

Oller dismissed Jacobi’s determination, saying the pooling of blood in Crandall’s body indicated she was in the preserve at the time of her death.

Messenger said she has requested a meeting with the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office to discuss the case. Crandall had to have seen people between the date she left home Sept. 11 and Sept. 22, when her body was found, Messenger said.

“Someone out there knows something, she added.

But Messenger is planning to move out of state early next year, which would leave Gerhartz on her own.

That’s a daunting prospect for Gerhartz. She said she is unsure whether she is physically and emotionally strong enough to continue without her neighbor’s help.

“I live not a minute without Jenna in my head,” said Gerhartz, who had to pause to regain her composure. “I have days when I think I’m going crazy. … I’m just a wreck.”

Twitter @tgregoryreports

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