Calls for new investigation, examinations in Tyler Smith case; experts grill officials over handling of case

GALESBURG, Ill. (NEWS3) — The Missing Persons Awareness Network held a news conference on Friday where 23-year-old Tyler Smith is last believed to be alive before being found dead in Galesburg’s Cedar Fork canal in Sept. 2018.

The press conference took place near the Casey’s at the end of N. West Street by the fence in Galesburg. Smith’s parents believe Tyler was last alive at the fence because they timed how long it would take Tyler to get from the Casey’s to the end of the street and it took four minutes. The family said that’s where Tyler’s health app showed he stopped moving.

The network along with Tyler’s parents, Sandra Halsne and Keith Smith, called on the Illinois State Police to take over the death investigation of Tyler Smith, which is currently an open but not active case by the Galesburg Police Department. They also called for a second autopsy and x-rays.

Halsne said the Knox County coroner told her on the day of Tyler’s autopsy that he would be x-rayed, but Halsne later found out he was not.

Officials ruled Smith’s death accidental from a drowning with an undetermined cause.

Gia Wright, founder and president of the Missing Persons Awareness Network, said her organization hired Michael Cowsert, an accident reconstructionist and detective with up to 23 years of experience, to determine how Tyler could have ended up where he was found. Cowsert was not able to be at the press conference but Wright read off his report. Wright also said Mitch Drake, a retired police officer with the East Hazel Police Department with more than 35 years of law enforcement experience and 14 years of investigative experience, volunteered to look into the case without pay. Drake said he never met Tyler before. This was also the first time Smith’s family had heard of Drake’s report.

Cowsert said he looked at the area where Tyler was found, including the canal and the canal wall, the railing above the canal, the railroad tracks and the access points to the railroad tracks, and the gate entrance to the canal.

The coroner’s report said Smith’s death was similar to a fall, however Cowsert said he does not believe Tyler fell on his own.

“It is my opinion Tyler was not conscious at the time he traveled over the railing as his final rest wasn’t indicative of any defensive act to prevent his fall,” Cowsert said. “Tyler’s final rest position appeared a result of a defenseless position prior to his final rest.”

According to Halsne, the pathologist said Tyler was mostly unconscious when he drowned since in two inches of water his blood alcohol content would have woken him up. The family believes he would have to have been knocked unconscious.

“It is my opinion Tyler was involved in a physical altercation prior to his death. I base this opinion on the injuries he sustained which are not indicative from a fall, but instead a physical altercation between others,” Cowsert said.

Tyler was found facedown in two inches of water with his legs spread out and feet up against the canal wall and his arms were inward in a bent position. Tyler’s watch and a beer can laid next to his body. One of Smith’s shoes had scuff marks on them and the other appeared clean.

Halsne said she believes Tyler was restrained and brought down into the canal due to the position of his body, his injuries, and marks on his wrists. Halsne said the marks look similar to handcuff markings.

“I found the watch removed from his wrist as unusual, as a watch will not be undone in the way it was found next to Tyler’s body. I believe this watch was removed from Tyler’s wrist either during the altercation, or just before he was placed, or thrown to his rest spot,” Cowsert said.

Drake said his investigation led him to four conclusions following a look into the case. Drake said his findings showed incomplete and violations of Galesburg Police Department protocols, false information given to Smith’s family, and lack of thoroughly investigating leads and tips. Drake also said officials failed to do an in-depth examination of the marks and wounds found on Tyler’s body.

“Tyler Smith likely suffered a battery by person(s) not yet known that directly led to his death,” Drake said.

The Galesburg Police Department told NEWS3 in previous reports that Smith’s death looks accidental due to the pathologist’s report.

David Christensen, former Galesburg Police chief, said there is usually evidence of stab marks, a fight, severe facial injuries, or broken bones to suggest a case that was homicidal. However, Christensen said he did not look at all of the crime scene or autopsy photos. Halsne said detectives would not look at the photos.

“The pathologist was not supplied with enough accurate information to warrant a more detailed and accurate autopsy,” Drake said. “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.”

Russ Idle, Galesburg Police Department chief, said items, such as Tyler’s belongings, are not kept when they are no longer needed for evidence in a case.

“It is my opinion that the Galesburg Police Departments conducted a haphazard investigation, came to a snap conclusion and spent valuable time defending that conclusion instead of conducting a detailed and thorough investigation,” Drake said.

Idle said if any new leads are brought to the department, then investigators will look into them.

“It is my opinion that intentional deceptive statements to the family regarding the investigation, the unwillingness to discuss or follow legitimate leads in this case, and the failure to request another agency to investigate this case, casts a serious doubt on the credibility, ability and professionalism of the Galesburg Police,” Drake said.

Christensen told NEWS3 last month that he reached out to Illinois State Police but they declined to pursue the case. However, Halsne said the state police told her they were never contacted by the police department.

NEWS3 reached out to the state police last month to see if they had been contacted by the Galesburg Police Department.

“The short answer is no, we were not asked to handle the case and we typically would not enter into a case after the fact,” Illinois State Police Division of Criminal Investigations Captain Christopher M. Endress said. “You only have one chance to process a crime scene, photograph, and collect evidence.  The Illinois State Police Division of Criminal Investigation works all death cases as if it were a homicide and as the case unfolds the evidence will tell us if it was an accidental death, a natural death, a suicide, or a homicide. The Tyler Smith death investigation remains with the Galesburg Police Department.”

Halsne and her private investigator for Tyler’s case said a crime scene technician with the state police has an office in the same building as the Galesburg Police Department who investigates cases like the death of Tyler Smith but was not called in per protocol.

“In the Tyler Smith case the Galesburg detective chose not to use our ISP Crime Scene Services,” Captain Endress said.

Smith’s parents said they will not give up on fighting for justice into how their son died.

“We miss our son and as hard as it will be for us to allow his body to be exhumed for a second autopsy done, we are to the point that we understand it’s important for answers for finding the truth,” Halsne said at the press conference. “Our hearts are shattered, and we miss him. The thought of him having him exhumed is heart breaking but I know the truth lies with Tyler and we need to find out the truth whatever it should be. To have a higher authority such as the Illinois State Police to look in to this case in depth, with the entire file, a second autopsy and a full look at the initial crime scene, we would be willing to accept whatever their results will be.”

Wright said any rumors or information circulating about an officer being responsible for Tyler’s death is not true and should not be believed. However, Wright said she understands why some speculation could be made to blame law enforcement because there is not any other information of who was around when Tyler was seen walking by the Casey’s on surveillance video other than a police car passing by approximately two minutes after Tyler walked down the street.

Drake said one of his associates reached out to speak with the Galesburg Police Department, but Chief Idle declined to comment.

NEWS3 has aired a series of reports looking into the death investigation of Tyler Smith. Below you can find all of our stories.

In part 1, NEWS3 reported on the timeline Smith’s family created from the times Tyler arrived in Galesburg to the time of him being found dead. That report can be found here.

In part 2, you hear from police and see surveillance video of Tyler and reports from the pathologist and coroner. That report can be found here.

In part 3, Tyler Smith’s parents explain why they are not happy with the conduct and treatment from officials since the start of the death investigation. That report can be found here.

In part 4, the current and former Galesburg Police chiefs respond to claims from Smith’s parents and their handling of the investigation. That report can be found here.

Gia Wright’s statement: http://www.news3wiu.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/My-Statement.pdf

Michael Clowsert’s statement: http://www.news3wiu.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Michael-Clowsert-Report.pdf

Sandra Halsne’s statement: http://www.news3wiu.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Sandys-statement-4.pdf

Mitchell Drake’s statement: http://www.news3wiu.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Mitchs-Statement-1.pdf