GALESBURG, Illinois -- A new investigation leads the family of a drowning victim to believe their son may not have died by drowning after all. The parents of Tyler Smith are now asking for a new autopsy by a higher authority.
But Tyler's parents, Sandra Halsne and Keith Smith, had many questions and said they are seeking answers the Galesburg Police Department hasn’t been able to provide.
The family is from Rochelle, Illinois, and the parents have returned to Galesburg often to visit their son's memorial with fresh flowers, and to retrace his last hours. The Illinois Army National Guardsman was in Galesburg for National Guard Drill Week and barhopping that night with some friends, before he split off and went missing.
The parents eventually contacted Gia Wright with the Missing Persons Awareness Network to help them make sense of their son's death.
"July 12, 2019 myself with members of my organization came to Galesburg on July 12, 2019, and did a Facebook Live, recreating the steps Tyler took that night," Wright told news reporters.
She said Tyler Smith was last seen on video and heard from on text message at about 11:30 P.M., September 14, 2018. She and the family went through credit card receipts and surveillance video from a Casey's General Store on Main and West Streets captured him walking past, in the direction of the canal.
The nonprofit enlisted the help of a retired homicide investigator with the state of Illinois, Mitchell Drake, who spent hundreds of hours doing his own investigation.
The network also hired an accident reconstructionist who corroborated Drake conclusions.
On Friday, the investigator, with Wright and the family at his side, spoke of his findings at a press conference near the site where Tyler was found.
"The Galesburg Police Department did not follow established police practices on handling a death investigation, both from the discovery of the body and throughout the investigative process. In addition, the actions and inaction of its members severely hampers collection and analysis of vital evidence," he said.
Drake cited a list of instances to support his opinion:
- The crime scene analysis by the Galesburg Police Department was incomplete, contaminated and did not follow established protocol
- A member or members of the Galesburg Police Department were intentionally deceptive to the family on what investigative inquiries had been completed
- Leads and tips were not properly vetted or followed up
- The autopsy conducted was routine, with no in depth examination of visible wounds that would not be consistent with a battery victim was done.
The veteran police detective said he believed that Tyler "likely suffered a battery by person(s) not yet known that directly led to his death."
He added: "The pathologist was not supplied with enough accurate information to warrant a more detailed and accurate autopsy. The pathologist conducted a routine autopsy with a pre-conceived idea that it was an accidental drowning. Due to this, the opinion of the Galesburg police of drowning by accident is not accurate."
"We are asking that Illinois State Police take a further look into our son’s death. We would be able to accept what is said, and would have, had this been done properly the first time," Halsne, the mother, told news reporters.
"We all want to believe that a thorough and complete investigation of the scene is being done, that our children are treated with respect and care, and that their bodies are thoroughly examined and that the entire process is being done for real answers. Then we can begin to grieve and say our goodbyes."
"We miss our son and as hard as it would be for us to allow his body exhumed, for a second autopsy, we are to the point that we understand it's important for answers, for finding the truth," she wept.The family said Illinois State Police would take the case if it was referred to them by the Galesburg Police Department, but despite assurances by the city's police, the case has not been referred to the state thus far. The Galesburg Police Department has not responded to News 8's request for comment.