Six years after Missouri police ruled Elizabeth “Libby” Caswell’s 2017 death a suicide, her family and a nonprofit organization that conducted an investigation into the case say she died by strangulation.
The Justice Project at Alliance for HOPE International, a nonprofit combating domestic violence and other forms of abuse, conducted the investigation that concluded, “without question, Libby Caswell was murdered six years ago” in a motel room in Independence, Missouri, on Dec. 11, 2017.
“The Independence Police Department failed her, and their investigation was zero on this case, and they just continued to try to prove suicide instead of trying to open their minds and doing the actual, proper investigation,” Cindy Caswell, Libby’s mother, said during a Dec. 11 press conference with Alliance for HOPE International.
Libby, 21, was found dead in a motel bathroom with her body positioned so that her face was turned toward a wall, according to Dr. William “Bill” Smock of the Louisville Metro Police Department, the only police surgeon in the United States and the co-founder of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. He oversaw the independent investigation into Caswell’s death.
Her boyfriend at the time called 911 around 8 p.m. that day to report that Caswell had died by suicide after hanging herself with a belt in the bathroom while he was sleeping. When police arrived at the Sports Stadium Motel in Independence, where they were staying, her boyfriend was not present.
Police ruled her death a suicide within hours of arriving, according to the Alliance for HOPE. The nonprofit’s investigation revealed that a belt had been tied around Caswell’s neck twice and she had belt marks on her chest.
Gerald Fineman, a retired prosecutor working for the Justice Project, said there was also a footprint on Caswell’s back, according to FOX 4 Kansas City.
“I have been investigating for almost 40 years. … This is the most horrible case I have seen in my entire career where a law enforcement agency totally missed the boat,” Smock said.
Smock said he has presented Caswell’s case to more than 1,000 prosecutors and law enforcement personnel across the country who believe her death was “homicidal.” He also alleged that Independence Police “ignored” evidence at the scene, including blood in the motel room where Caswell died, her broken fingernails and marks on her neck.
“The Independence Police Department did not do basic homicide investigations [sic]. They did not get the video surveillance tape that was there and available to them. They did not … collect the cell phones of the individuals who were present at the time. They did not follow up on inconsistencies in witness statements,” Smock said.
The Alliance for HOPE also says it identified three men who were in the motel room where Caswell was staying on Dec. 10, 2017.
“An eyewitness and caring person had paid for [Libby and her boyfriend] to stay at a different motel, and yet at 6:30 in the morning on Dec. 11, there was Libby in a motel room with at least two, and we believe three, men,” said Casey Gwinn, president and co-founder of the alliance.
Independence Police said in a statement Monday that authorities held the crime scene at the Sports Stadium Motel on Dec. 11, 2017, “until detectives could interview witnesses and/or persons that may have been in the room at the time.”
“Once Investigators determined there was no need to hold the scene and no arrests were appropriate at the time, the scene was released, however the investigation continued,” police said. “During the course of the investigation, the case was reviewed by multiple detectives within the Criminal Investigations Unit. At one time, the case was reopened at the request of Elizabeth’s family and Alliance For HOPE International. The FBI assisted IPD during that investigation.”
The case was also presented to the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office “to determine if there were any criminal charges to be filed,” police said. But the police department maintains that “detectives believe that given the evidence that was available, Elizabeth Caswell’s death was most likely a suicide.”
“The Independence Police Department welcomes any witness statements that have not already been given to investigators. We also welcome an investigation by an independent party regarding this case,” police said in their statement.
Michael Mansur, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office’s director of communications, said the office “reassigned a second veteran prosecutor to review the case a second time but determined that the evidence was insufficient to justify criminal charges for multiple reasons.”
“That prosecutor’s determination and findings were communicated to a family member earlier this year. We are grateful for the investigation by members of the IPD and the work of the FBI,” Mansur said in a statement. “The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office has worked diligently to determine how Libby’s life ended and whether criminal charges were supported. We will continue to look at any new evidence.”
Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention CEO Gael Strack encouraged other victims whose cases have not been properly investigated by the Independence Police Department to come forward.
The Alliance for HOPE is asking Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey and the FBI to pursue independent investigations into Caswell’s death.