DNA, Genealogy Research Aids In Finding Cassano Murder Suspect

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh, and Chief Deputy Allen Jones.

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, left, Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh, and Chief Deputy Allen Jones, right, speak about the arrest of a suspect in the 2009 murder of Holly Cassano.

Anna Casey/Illinois Public Media

The Champaign County Sherriff’s Office has been working to solve the murder of Holly Marie Cassano, ever since the 22-year-old woman was stabbed to death in her home near Mahomet in November of 2009. On Friday, investigators received a lead on the unresolved case through the help of a genetic genealogy company which then led to the arrest of Michael F.A. Henslick, 30, on Tuesday evening. 

Chief Deputy Allen Jones said investigators sought the services of Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based DNA technology company that works with law enforcement agencies to help identify an unknown victim or offender when traditional methods fail to produce a match. Using a combination of genetic analysis from DNA at the crime scene and traditional genealogical research methods, the company generated a trail to Henslick, a resident of Mahomet who lived in the same mobile home park as Cassano at the time of the murder.

“In our case, this was accomplished through diligent and detailed analysis by using online genealogy databases, newspaper archives, public family trees … and other public records,” Jones said.

While Henslick did have a criminal history, he had managed to evade having his DNA sample added to the Illinois State Police database. Champaign County States Attorney Julia Rietz said there were no charges that would have required Henslick to submit DNA to law enforcement until 2015, when he was pulled over for a traffic violation that led to a second charge of possession of controlled substances.

“As a term of that probation, he was ordered to submit that DNA sample," Rietz said during a press conference on Wednesday. "However, he never appeared at the probation office and was considered an absconder.” 

After numerous failures to appear in court, and warrants being issued, Henslick appeared in court Monday for those charges as well as felony domestic violence charges.

Meanwhile, Parabon NanoLabs had worked backwards, tracing Henslick’s ancestry to the 1800s using DNA from the 2009 crime scene. The company sent a detailed analysis to the Champaign County Sherriff's office on Friday. Investigators then collected discarded cigarette butts from Henslick in the days following, which confirmed him as a suspect in the case. 

"The arrestee was a smoker, and also a litterer," Champaign County Sherriff Dan Walsh said. 

The suspect attended Mahomet-Seymour High School at the same time as Cassano for a few years, and the two had mutual friends and acquaintances, but that was the extent of their relationship, according to investigators. 

“This case has troubled the Sherriff’s Office for years,” Walsh said. “Many investigators have worked on it since it occurred and treated it like Holly was a member of their own family.”

Story source: WILL