Unsolved: Woman's toilet-bowl death ruled homicide
06/09/2016 12:52 pm PDT
UPDATE December 13, 2019:
A LaSalle County jury deliberated and acquitted Kenneth Cusick, 52, of murder after prosecutors alleged he drowned his wife Tracy in 2006, the Ottawa Times reports. Prosecutors had produced a series of witnesses who either testified Tracy could not have accidentally drowned in 2006 and that an overdose (her blood came back positive for methadone) was not the cause of death.
It's the only unsolved homicide in the city of Ottawa, Illinois. A mother married to a respected firefighter is found dead face down in one of the toilets in their home on January 17, 2006. Was it just a tragic accident -- or was it something a lot more sinister?
Aggravated battery, criminal trespass, retail theft: These are the types of crimes Ottawa, Illinois police are used to dealing with, typical offenses that get shut down fast and filed away. But the city's low crime rate is not the focus of this investigation.
Many of the people we spoke to believe that what happened to Tracy Cusick, may just be one of the most shocking cases in the history of crime.
"The most unusual thing about it is that it's a case where a person was found deceased, the cause of death was drowning, and they had drowned in a toilet," said Ottawa Police Captain Dave Gualandri.
Tracy Cusick was only 32. From all outward appearances, the young mother seemed to be living a happy life, married to her husband Kenny.
Kenny was the owner of a local bar and a member of the Ottawa Fire Department.
But it seems, things might not have been so picture perfect between Kenny and Tracy behind closed doors. According to some reports, one source of strife between the two was Tracy's rumored substance abuse.
"My sister Tracy had taken methadone," said Katrina Gibbons, Tracy's sister.
Only available from specialized pharmacies, methadone is a strong painkiller most often prescribed to help people get over heroin. But Katrina says her sister had a valid reason for the drug, and it had everything to do with Kenny.
"They'd had an argument at one time in the past and he shoved her down the stairs and she hurt her back and was seeing a chiropractor, which wasn't helping her, so she got a hold of methadone and she took it because she was in so much pain," said Katrina.
It's an unverified allegation. As are other rumors that Kenny may have been having an affair at the time. Katrina says her sister was ready to leave.
"She had told me that she was waiting on a new position for employment and once that came through that was it, she was outta there, she was gone," said Katrina.
But for reasons still being debated, Tracy Cusick never got out.
Just hours before the discovery that would change so many lives Katrina's phone began to ring. It was her sister. Apparently Tracy and Kenny had been fighting, mostly about the usual. Katrina says Tracy made that final call downstairs, not far from the bathroom.
Several hours later, Katrina got another call, this time from Kenny's mom.
"It was real early in the morning and she said, 'Katrina,' she said, 'You need to get to the hospital,' she said, 'Tracy's in bad shape,'" said Katrina.
Kenny Cusick told police he found Tracy dead when he woke up that morning and walked into the downstairs bathroom.
"My understanding from documented police reports is that officers respond there, Tracy Cusick had already been removed from the residence, transported to a local hospital by EMS," said Gualandri.
An autopsy would later determine her cause of death as drowning. In addition, a small amount of methadone was reportedly found in Tracy's system. The narcotic in her bloodstream, the drinking the night before: Could a highly intoxicated Tracy have quite literally stumbled to her own bizarre demise?
"She loved her children so much that she would never, ever commit suicide with her children in her home," said Katrina. "Never. I'll stake my life on that."
The coroner couldn't say either way, so even though they knew Tracy drowned, there was never really a conclusion of the case.
"In our county the coroner has to issue a death certificate and has to have a manner of ,death and that hadn't been completed," said Gualandri.
The death certificate said "undetermined." Because of that, the case was never technically closed, leaving the door open for sneaking suspicions to become something more.
Nearly two years after Tracy's death:
"I was reassigned as sergeant of investigations, and this case always sort of bothered me in the sense that it was so unusual, and so I reviewed the case file and on reviewing the case file it seemed like there was more to it," said Gualandri. "I don't buy that it was accidental. I've never heard of someone accidentally drowning in a toilet bowl from being intoxicated on a substance, it just doesn't happen."
And Captain Gualandri became even more suspicious when he took a closer look at Tracy's autopsy photos: A small abrasion under her chin; tiny diamond-shaped cuts on her forehead.
"There were also some marks on her ankles that were unusual," said Gualandri. "They couldn't be readily explained there was no obvious cause of these injuries to me."
As it turns out, the answers to at least some of those mysteries would come from more than 300 miles away in northern Wisconsin.
Oddly enough, it was there, roughly 10 years before, where another man claimed his wife had drowned herself in their toilet. And what investigators found in that case was about to raise a whole lot of eyebrows in Ottawa.
"That case was found to be a homicide," said Gualandri. "We felt like we needed to exhume the body and examine these injuries more closely."
Roughly 10 years before, in northern Wisconsin, a woman named Genell Plude was also found drowned in her toilet. Her husband Douglas Plude was ultimately convicted of murder.
The story was later covered by a true crime show, which LaSalle County Coroner Jody Bernard just happened to be watching around the time Gualandri came calling.
Ottawa authorities began reaching out to experts who appeared on the show: Special consultants, a veteran pathologist, even a forensic plumbing engineer.
Before long, Gualandri and his team had everything they needed to work Tracy's case.
"One of the things that we did was we purchased the same type of toilet that was documented in the photographs of the scene," said Gualandri.
"What we did is sort of recreated the scene of the bathroom where she was found deceased," said Gualandri.
One of the mysteries the team hoped to solve was how a series of unusual bruises got on Tracy's head and neck. But before they even got that far...
"We tried to duplicate first the situation where a person could on their own submerge their nose and mouth in the water of a toilet bowl, and we were not able to duplicate a circumstance where that was possible at all," said Gualandri.
So then how did Tracy's face end up submerged? Investigators believed the bruises on her body explained that. Of particular concern was a small abrasion under Tracy's chin.
"The injury to her chin was interesting, the forensic plumbing engineer had described that when an individual's in that position and they cannot raise their head, their instinct is to back up and what happens when you back up, your chin gets caught under the rim, and there's an abrasion," said Bernard.
And that wasn't Tracy's only telltale mark.
"From that injury is indicative from the rim of the toilet and pressure. Forcing her neck onto that rim," said Bernard. "That says somebody was holding her head down."
And Bernard was even able to show Crime Watch Daily how easy that would've been.
It was all painting a very grim picture. But there were still some marks that couldn't be explained: those tiny diamond-shaped cuts on Tracy's forehead.
"After that recreation we actually got into a position where we felt like we needed to exhume the body and examine these injuries more closely," said Gualandri.
It was drastic move, but Tracy's family needed answers.
"She had the exact print of her wedding rings on her forehead," said Katrina, Tracy's sister.
To investigators, it was the final piece to the puzzle.
"If someone was forcing her into the bowl of the toilet, if she put her hand in front of her face, then she would've been forced to have contact against that wedding ring, and the pathologist matched that ring with the mark on her forehead," said Gualandri.
"She was definitely trying to get herself out of that situation," said Bernard.
But to really prove it, they would have to make their case to a special jury of coroners charged with making the final determination as to the manner of death.
"When we held the coroners inquest, I was the one that testified to all of the compiled facts we found through the investigation," said Gualandri. "I testified to a nutshell version of this investigation."
After that, the jury deliberated, but with a case so complicated, everyone knew it could be hours, even days before they got a ruling. The ruling came back about 15 minutes later: Homicide.
Who does Katrina think murdered Tracy?
"Kenny Cusick, Ken Cusick," said Katrina. Tracy's own husband.
It's an allegation as serious as they come. While police won't say whether or not they agree, Katrina says her suspicions began almost the moment she saw Tracy's husband at the hospital. And she says there was more suspicious behavior.
"He did go home and he ripped out the toilet in the downstairs bathroom where he found her and threw it outside and sealed off the downstairs bathroom," said Katrina, reportedly hours after she was pronounced dead.
"I believe he did it to cover up any kind of evidence any evidence whatsoever that they could find," said Katrina.
And the facts of the night Tracy died only seem to bolster Katrina's suspicions.
While investigators won't comment, Katrina also says her sister thought Kenny might be having an affair, and that she may have even threatened to leave him.
Whatever the case, Tracy's family felt they had enough to bring a civil suit against Kenny. But when Kenny's young son refused to testify, prosecutors dropped the case.
Even though Captain Gualandri can't officially say who police think killed Tracy, he says that as far as his investigation goes, there's little left to be done.
"All of our files have been forwarded to the state's attorney's office and it's ultimately their decision whether there's a case to be made," said Gualandri. "I certainly believe that it deserves consideration, yes."
Kenny refused to talk to Crime Watch Daily. He has never been charged in connection with anything related to Tracy's death, and has made no official statement about the case at all. We will continue to reach out for comment.
"There's no statute of limitations on homicide cases so I always hope and I will hope to the end of my career and even beyond that that there will be a successful prosecution in this case," said Gualandri.
A hope shared by Tracy's loved ones, and a fight for justice they vow to continue.
UPDATE December 13, 2019:
A La Salle County jury deliberated and acquitted Kenneth Cusick, 52, of murder after prosecutors alleged he drowned his wife Tracy in 2006, the Ottawa Times reports. Prosecutors had produced a series of witnesses who either testified Tracy could not have accidentally drowned in 2006 and that an overdose (her blood came back positive for methadone) was not the cause of death.