URBANA — Toni Cassano sat on the steps of her daughter’s Mahomet home alone Nov. 2, 2009, waiting for help moments after finding Holly Cassano murdered.
Holly was supposed to have been at her mother’s home two streets away at 9 a.m. that day but didn’t show up.
When Toni Cassano couldn’t reach her by phone, she went to the trailer on DuPage.
“I found her lying on the floor on her back face up. I saw her naked with blood all over her and stab wounds. She had some clothing on but it had been moved around,” Cassano said.
“I sat down beside her and put my hand on her leg,” she said.
Asked by State’s Attorney Julia Rietz how Holly Cassano felt, her mother replied “very cold, very stiff.”
“I said a prayer to God, then called 911. I stayed inside just a few more minutes, then forced myself to go outside because I did not want to contaminate anything,” Cassano said.
Jurors and observers sniffled and wept quietly during the powerful testimony Tuesday morning, Feb. 11, the opening of the murder trial of Michael Henslick.
Cassano was the fourth of 19 anticipated witnesses.
In opening statements to the eight women and four men, Rietz said Miss Cassano suffered from upwards of 60 stab wounds, some of them defensive.
Trails of blood throughout her home suggested that the killer had also been injured.
Rietz said the DNA from that blood was ultimately linked to Henslick.
“You will hear him in his own words initially deny, then ultimately admit” that he killed her.
Rietz said Henslick knew Miss Cassano and went to her house to visit on Nov. 1 or 2.
“She was kind to him. They talked. He fell asleep. At some point, he got a knife from the kitchen and with rage and jealousy stabbed her repeatedly and sexually assaulted her on the floor.”
Henslick’s attorney, first assistant public defender Lindsey Yanchus, denied that her client killed Miss Cassano.
“This case is not simple. Pay attention to the leads not followed. Pay attention to the evidence not tested. Pay attention to assumptions made by law enforcement,” Yanchus said.
On Monday, Feb. 10, Henslick turned down an offer to plead guilty to the murder of Holly Cassano for 55 years in prison, the county’s chief prosecutor told a judge.
In response to questions from Judge Heidi Ladd at a final pretrial hearing, Rietz said the state made two offers to Henslick to resolve his case short of trial — one for 55 years behind bars made in March and another for 50 years made in November. Both would have to have been served at 100 percent.
The 31-year-old Mahomet man, dressed in a blue suit, maroon shirt and cream-colored tie, told the judge his attorneys had discussed the offers with him and that he declined them.
The judge reminded Henslick that the state planned to seek a sentence of natural life behind bars if he’s convicted based on the “brutal and heinous” nature of the crime, “indicative of wanton cruelty.”
Following Holly Cassano’s death, after nine years of investigation without an arrest, Champaign County sheriff’s investigators employed outside experts in the relatively new field of genetic genealogy to assist them. That resulted in the killer’s DNA left at the scene in blood being compared with genetic profiles available in databases used in ancestry searches.
In the summer of 2018, that method led police to narrow the search to Henslick, who had failed to give a court-ordered sample of his DNA to the Illinois State Police following a 2017 conviction for possession of a controlled substance.
The jury is not going to hear about that narrowing process or Henslick’s failure to give his DNA sample as a result of pretrial rulings to exclude that information.
Rietz gave the judge a witness list that had 19 names, most of them police and crime lab experts. Yanchus gave the judge no witness names for her case.
The trial was expected to take most of the week.