Karen Fitzgerald, a freelance writer living in Pleasant Plains, made substantial contributions to this report.
Jade Ostermeier was barely grown up – a hippie at heart, she wrote on her Facebook page:
Im a pretty out there kinda girl.
Taking life as it comes.
Music gets me through the day.
Marc Fagan, Ostermeier’s boyfriend, was wild – Springfield police recognize him on sight, according to police reports memorializing investigations for such crimes as assault and gun possession. Marc’s three brothers also have extensive criminal records – one is serving 25 years in Iowa for robbery – and his mother and father have also been in trouble with the law. Marc, who turned 21 in July, doesn’t shy from the bad-boy rep: His Facebook page includes photos of bongs, pit bulls, liquor bottles, people with middle fingers in the air and plenty of four-letter words.
“All the time,” Rowden says. “But she was an adult, emancipated.”
Rowden says her daughter was never in trouble, save one time when she was 15 and police found her walking a friend home after curfew in Buffalo. Still in high school when she got pregnant by Fagan, Ostermeier on her Facebook page comes across as a proud mother, tough and vulnerable all at the same time. One week before giving birth a year ago, she poured a can of soda over the head of a girl at Tri-City High School who had called her a slut. A brief fight ensued.
I wasnt defending myself. I was defending who she called a mistake. That was a mistake on her part.
“I told Jade I was proud of her for standing up for herself, but it wasn’t the smartest move in the world,” Rowden recalls. “It was just high school bullshit.”
Ostermeier can’t speak for herself anymore. She was found dead in the aftermath of a Springfield-area house fire last Dec. 2, along with her daughter, Alexis, who was three weeks old. They are buried together in Mechanicsburg Cemetery, beneath a green-granite headstone specially imported from India that matches both Ostermeier’s name and her eyes.
The case has been tough from the start, both for those who loved Ostermeier and for detectives who suspect a crime but haven’t been able to prove it. The sheriff’s office long ago said investigators have identified a person of interest, but there have been no arrests. Detectives are looking at Eric Fagan, Marc’s older brother, but the sheriff’s office won’t confirm that.
Rowden said investigators told her last month they wanted to re-examine Ostermeier’s body, which was laid to rest in the same casket as Alexis.
“It’s not something that I want to do,” Rowden said. “By the same token, if it’s something that could lead to putting a clincher on the case, then I have to do it.”
Sources say the work of former Sangamon County Coroner Susan Boone, forced out of office last spring by county officials who didn’t trust her to perform adequate death investigations, has complicated the case.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, two sources with knowledge of the investigation say that Boone failed to x-ray Ostermeier’s body, despite requests from a sheriff’s detective and the Springfield Fire Department.
Boone couldn’t be reached for comment. Dr. Jessica Bowman, who performed autopsies on Ostermeier and Alexis, declined comment.
“It’s my policy not to discuss these cases so they can be handled appropriately in court,” Bowman said.
Rowden confirms that the former coroner didn’t perform x-rays.
“I could have sworn Susan Boone told me that she was going to do an x-ray,” Rowden says. “But then I found out she didn’t, and that made me mad. So I called her back and she said that she could examine the internal organs more thoroughly by hand than by doing it with x-ray.”
Besides x-raying Ostermeier’s body, investigators also want to know how and when her skull was damaged.
After the coroner took custody of Ostermeier’s body, which was found in a bedroom, Springfield Fire Department records show that remains, possibly skull fragments, were found on the bed where Ostermeier was found, near where her head had been, and the coroner was recalled to collect additional evidence.
Rowden says that Boone told her that Ostermeier’s body was found without a skull. But Chief Deputy Jack Campbell of the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office says that’s not the case.
“I saw the photos,” Campbell says. “The skull was heavily damaged.”
Campbell says that investigators don’t know when the damage occurred. Heat could have fragmented the skull, it could have been damaged before the fire started or firefighters might have accidentally damaged it, he said.
Bowman did not describe the skull’s appearance in her autopsy report, which is less than two pages long.
Speaking generically, Dr. John Ralston of Springfield, a forensic pathologist, says that fire alone can damage a skull, and a close examination of damaged bone generally settles questions about timing.
“You can usually get an idea as to whether the damage was pre-mortem or post-mortem,” Ralston said.
Although Ostermeier’s nude body was charred, investigators collected swab evidence to help determine whether she might have been sexually assaulted. Authorities won’t disclose test results.
“I don’t want to talk about specific evidence,” says Sangamon County state’s attorney John Milhiser. “We’ve been in discussions with pathologists, and the investigation continues. It is by no means over.”
Campbell said that detectives are reviewing files.
“We’re going back to make sure we don’t miss anything,” Campbell said. “We were handed a difficult scene, and we’ve made the best of it. Obviously, every day that goes by makes it more difficult. It’s certainly solvable.”
Although the deaths have not been officially labeled homicides, Milhiser sounds like a prosecutor in pursuit.
“This is a tragic case, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure those responsible are brought to justice,” the state’s attorney said.
Investigators have leads
Springfield Fire Department records show that smoke was so thick that a pedestrian guided fire engines to the burning rental home at 710 W. Maple Ave. in a pocket of unincorporated territory just outside Springfield.
Firefighters searched the home upon arrival and found nothing but smoke and fire. About 20 minutes after arriving, firefighters searched again. This time they discovered tragedy, with Ostermeier dead in a bedroom where the blaze began and Alexis in another room, lying in a bassinet.
The fire started in the bedroom where Ostermeier was found, but investigators could not determine how. Fire investigators in a draft report say it probably began with a flame applied to “an ordinary combustible,” but stopped short of calling it arson. Rather, the fire was ruled incendiary.
An incendiary fire, as opposed to an arson, could start accidentally – an unattended candle would qualify, says Springfield Fire Chief Ken Fustin.
Citing the pending sheriff’s investigation, Fustin declined comment on any aspect of the fire that killed Ostermeier and her baby.
Despite challenges, authorities have identified Eric A. Fagan, Marc’s 23-year-old brother, as a possible suspect. Officials with the sheriff’s office refuse to name the person of interest they identified months ago. However, Eric himself has told Springfield police that detectives are looking at him, and files show that his brother thinks Eric is guilty.
Marc attacked Eric near Shop ’n Save on North Grand Avenue last May, striking him with a flashlight and spraying him with pepper spray before displaying a handgun, according to a police report taken after a passerby called 911. Eric, who refused to press charges, told officers that his brother had tried shooting him at least once since the fire.
Marc declined comment.
Eric is now out of Marc’s reach. When city police responded to the beating last May, they found that Eric was wanted for a parole violation, and so he was arrested and remains in Graham Correctional Center at Hillsboro. Prison officials say that he violated a parole condition by traveling outside Illinois.
Due for release next May, Eric could not be reached for comment. Sharyn Elman, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman, refused to arrange an interview – it would take more than a week, she said, and there were no guarantees. Brenda Fagan, Eric’s mother, said that she could not help.
“He doesn’t have anyone on his visiting list,” said Brenda Fagan, who declined a request for an interview about the case.
On Dec. 2, while yellow tape was going up, Eric showed up at the house and approached a sheriff’s deputy, according to a sheriff’s report. He said that he lived nearby and had come by to wash dishes, as was his custom.
But Marc told investigators that his brother was supposed to stop by the house to deliver a nickel bag of pot to Ostermeier, who lived with her mother in Buffalo but was staying in the Springfield house that Marc rented while her boyfriend did a stint in the Sangamon County Jail for failing to appear in court after being caught driving on a suspended license.
A sheriff’s report shows that Marc took the news hard when investigators visited the jail hours after the tragedy, slumping forward in a chair when Boone told him that his daughter and girlfriend had died.
“Marc became very upset and began to cry and repeated several times ‘They are dead?’” a deputy wrote in a report.
Marc told investigators that his dog would not allow a stranger in the house. Rowden says that her daughter took security seriously.
“She always kept the door locked over there,” Rowden said.
The front door was locked when firefighters arrived after receiving the 911 call shortly before 2 p.m., but the back door was open, according to a fire department report. Marc told investigators that he and Jade never used the back door and kept it locked.
With investigators listening to his side of the conversation, Marc called his brother from jail hours after learning the news. According to a police report, Eric told his brother that he had visited the house at 12:30 p.m. or noon and found no one home. Ostermeier’s 1994 Oldsmobile was gone when firefighters arrived, and Marc told investigators that Eric said the car was missing when he stopped by.
Marc told investigators that Ostermeier had the only keys and would not loan her car to anyone. Rowden also said that her daughter wouldn’t loan her car, and so it was reported stolen. Investigators found it five days later, parked nine blocks away.
Investigators have shown an interest in Eric since at least April 7, when a detective assigned to the investigation pulled him over a half-mile from his home on North Hill Street for driving on a suspended license and having no insurance. The car was impounded while Eric was taken to jail, but he bonded out within hours and retrieved the vehicle, prompting another citation for driving on a suspended license that day by another detective assigned to the investigation. The second detective didn’t pull Eric over, but witnessed him driving away from the impound yard, Campbell said.
“We did want to talk to him, as we talk to a lot of people,” Campbell said. “Eric was on the (fire) scene – he was in the back yard holding Marc’s dog. We would want to talk to anyone who was that close to the scene.”
Sheriff’s detectives have cleared Marc, Campbell said. Eric has been deemed uncooperative by detectives.
“They feel that he’s not being forthcoming with all that he knows,” Campbell said.
Although Campbell wouldn’t reveal the name of the person of interest identified by detectives, he said that the person is in state prison on unrelated charges.
Police and court files show that Eric is hardly a criminal genius. He dropped out of Southeast High School in the 10th grade after earning a 1.03 GPA his freshman year. His record goes back to age 14, when he received counseling and a warning for obstructing police and possessing burglary tools.
In 2005, Eric was arrested for slashing tires randomly as he walked along 10th Street with a friend near his home. At the time, he was free on bond with two felony cases pending, including one for possessing a loaded handgun and another for obstructing justice, a charge that stemmed from allegedly releasing pit bulls on sheriff’s deputies who served a search warrant at a home where he lived with his mother and at least one brother, who were also arrested. Deputies tasered Eric and a dog. Investigators suspected a drug-dealing operation and burglary ring; they found marijuana, stereo equipment and a bulletproof vest.
“This was a wild one,” Capt. Jeff Berkler of the sheriff’s office told the State Journal-Register after the raid.
Eric pleaded guilty to unlawful use of a weapon, obstructing justice and vandalism. He went to prison, but he didn’t change his ways. He was out the following year and charged with armed robbery – police files show that two sisters fingered him as a suspect in a series of 2007 drugstore holdups. He pleaded guilty and received a six-year sentence.
A wild boyfriend, a young mother
Eric’s brother, Marc, isn’t the sort most parents would want their daughter dating.
Besides a long list of traffic offenses, Marc has been convicted of shoplifting and misdemeanor assault. The assault conviction came in 2010, after prosecutors reduced the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. According to Springfield police reports, Marc had thrown a jar of peanut butter at a stranger outside a convenience store after the stranger pointed out that Marc had just run a red light.
Marc has had plenty of other encounters with Springfield police. In a 2009 report on a suspected domestic battery that resulted in no charges, an officer reported that Marc threatened to kill him after he was arrested. He banged his head against the window of the patrol car, and he struggled as he was taken to the booking area, yelling and screaming at officers, police reported. He calmed down, but only somewhat, when a nurse bandaged a cut he received during the melee at the jail.
“He continued yelling at officers and yelling to me that he was going to get me fired,” the arresting officer wrote. “He winked at me and blew me a kiss.”
That was about six months before Marc and Ostermeier became a couple. Four months after Ostermeier died, Springfield police in March released Marc after catching him in a pickup truck that also contained more than an ounce of pot and a suspected cocaine dealer. Marc told police his comrade sold in quantities as high as an ounce; the dealer said that he had possessed as much as a quarter-pound of cocaine at one time. Police released both Marc and the suspected dealer but seized the 2011 Dodge pickup, which had been purchased with a cashier’s check for more than $17,000.
Two weeks after police let Marc go after finding him with the suspected dealer, Springfield police officers arrested him after he reportedly ran from officers investigating a cab robbery. He was never a suspect, given that the robber was black, but police found a Halloween mask under his shirt, spent shell casings in his pocket, a bag of pot at his feet and a gun nearby, according to a “Police Beat” item in the State Journal-Register.
There is no indication in the public record of Ostermeier attracting the attention of law enforcement, and her mother says that she was never in trouble – just a typical teenager who loved peace symbols and Bob Marley.
“She named her dog Miley after Miley Cyrus,” Rowden says.
Rowden says her daughter hooked up with Marc, who was three years older, through a mutual friend. By late 2009, the romance had begun. Rowden says she met Marc when Ostermeier brought him to Thanksgiving dinner that year.
“I didn’t know Marc very well, but every time I was around him, he drove me nuts,” Rowden says. “He was so hyper and obnoxious. Since (the tragedy), he has totally changed his attitude with my husband and I. He’s straightened up his act.”
Rowden, who is in frequent contact with Marc, said she doesn’t know much about his history with police.
“He doesn’t talk to me about anything I would consider wrong,” Rowden says.
Ostermeier dropped out of school after getting pregnant early last year, much to her mother’s consternation.
“I found out that since she was 17 and pregnant, she was legally emancipated – I couldn’t do anything about it,” Rowden says. “We were getting along, but of course, we were fighting over the whole school issue. … She was 17, wanted to run all the time.”
Once pregnant, Ostermeier told her mother that she would get a GED, but Rowden insisted on a diploma, and so her daughter moved in with relatives in Springfield and began attending Lawrence Education Center. That didn’t work out, but Ostermeier eventually came around and moved back with her mother in the fall of 2010 so that she could re-enroll at Tri-City.
Back at her mother’s house, Ostermeier’s grades improved. When she visited Tri-City shortly after giving birth a year ago to show off Alexis, she also picked up her homework, Rowden says. She was awarded a posthumous diploma when her class graduated last year, and the 2010 yearbook is dedicated to her.
“She did so much better than we ever expected,” Rowden says.
At first, Rowden said that she had to show her daughter how to burp Alexis, and she initially needed help changing diapers, but she was a quick study.
“I would just lay in bed, thinking ‘She’s got to learn to do this on her own – I’ve already raised my child,’” Rowden recalls. “And she did. She grew up a lot, real quick.”
Rowden doesn’t doubt that her daughter and granddaughter were victims of foul play. She says she has faith in detectives.
“I know how hard they’ve worked on it,” Rowden says.
Alexis would have celebrated her first birthday tomorrow, on Veterans Day. Rowden is taking the day off, along with her best friend. She says they will go to the cemetery.
“It’s not going to be a very easy day for me,” Rowden said.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.