“They killed the wrong person’s kid this time.”
Chris Keel, 44, of State Park talked Tuesday about her young daughter Jennifer Herling who died eight months ago in the basement of a drug house in Fairview Heights. Cause of death: asphyxiation, a common terminal condition for overdosing drug addicts.
“The coroner said he had never seen lungs so full of vomit,” Keel said.
The house where Jennifer was found, at 20 Kassing Drive, was owned by Deborah Perkins, 65, and also occupied by her son, Douglas Oliver, II, 47.
Perkins, who along with Oliver is in federal custody awaiting a July 1 trial on heroin-related charges and maintaining drug involved premises, forfeited the property in federal court in March.
Perkins and Oliver were also charged in St. Clair County in September with concealing the death of Jessica M. Williams of Collinsville - who died of a heroin overdose - and other drug charges. Investigators say her body was moved from Fairview Heights and dumped in Washington Park.
Perkins and Oliver are also alleged co-conspirators of Sean D. McGilvery of Belleville who was charged last week with running large quantities of heroin from Chicago.
McGilvery’s home was the site of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook’s arrest on May 22 on heroin and gun charges. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorneys also announced that he would be stepping down from the bench and that he is in a treatment program.
Perkins and Oliver have pleaded not guilty. McGilvery has not yet entered a plea. His preliminary hearing is at 2 p.m. on May 30.
”We aren’t going away,” Keel said. She said she “will not rest” until charges are brought against the person she says is responsible for Jennifer’s death.
From the time she was 16, Jennifer used heroin, Keel said. She died at age 20.
“At 18 years old she let it be known she was using heroin for two years,” she said. “That’s when the long sleeve shirts came off that hid the marks.”
Keel believes that her daughter’s death was a revenge killing for videotaped statements Herling made during an April arrest in which she implicated Oliver in the death of Jessica Williams.
According to Keel, her daughter knew Williams because “she hung out” in State Park. “Everybody knew everybody in State Park,” she said.
Herling’s arrest record in St. Clair County includes five charges between 2007 and last year.
Her last arrest was for residential burglary in State Park and it put her behind bars for five months. During that time, Herling sobered up from heroin use and fattened up – she weighed 90 pounds at the onset of incarceration on April 25, and weighed 200 pounds on her release date of Sept. 26, 2012, Keel said.
Keel said that after her daughter was released she said she was feeling good and that she did not want to die from heroin. She said, “I like the way I feel, even though I am fat,” according to Keel.
Keel said her daughter “ate better than we did” in county jail because Oliver was “putting money on her books.” Inmates can buy extra food and goods at the jail’s commissary with money that anyone can put on their accounts. Keel said that Oliver regularly added money to her account.
Keel said that Oliver found out about Jennifer's statements to police through a discovery motion, however that information is not contained in Oliver's case file.
Upon her release from jail on Sept. 26, Herling was ordered into an inpatient drug rehab program at Gateway in Caseyville. Instead of staying put, she escaped and went to the home of a friend who was not a drug user, Keel said. But two days later at a barbecue at that friend’s house, a drug user showed up and provided Herling with the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Later that night Herling went to a Caseyville bar, met Oliver, then went back to his Fairview Heights house, Keel said.
Keel said that her daughter used heroin supplied by Oliver. She began to vomit, and died. Authorities were called by Oliver at 6 a.m. and Herling was pronounced dead at 6:26 a.m.
She said that Oliver “took advantage” of a provision in the state's Good Samaritan law - the Emergency Medical Services Access Law - which went into effect June 1, 2012, providing immunity from prosecution in certain situations for someone who seeks emergency medical assistance for a person experiencing a drug-related overdose. While the new provision was intended to curb drug overdose deaths - the second leading cause of accidental death in the nation - it does not provide absolute immunity, according to a law enforcement official.
After she learned of her daughter's death, Keel said she viewed the body at a Collinsville funeral home and noted a bruise on her chin. She suspects her daughter was held upright while in the process of vomiting, ensuring her asphyxiation.
Oliver has not been charged in connection with Herling's death.
State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said he could not comment since there is already a pending case against Oliver.
Pretrial conferences are scheduled July 15 for Oliver and June 27 for Perkins.
The investigation of Cook came to light May 23 when Kelly filed close to 500 motions for the substitution of judge in pending criminal cases before Cook, saying the judge was prejudiced.
Cook did not initially preside over the Williams' death-related cases brought against Perkins and Oliver in September, but did so months later, court records show.
Cook also presided over heroin possession charges against Herling in March 2012. Herling pleaded guilty and was released on probation.
Keel said she was surprised that Cook did not give her jail time.
“I pleaded to have her confined,” she said.
About six weeks after Cook released her on drug possession charges, Herling was arrested again and jailed on the burglary charges.
A handwritten letter from Herling's grandmother, Jackie Keel, to Cook on March 6 of this year, pleaded for justice for her granddaughter.
She laid out connections between Jennifer Herling and Jessica Williams and their ties to Oliver and Perkins.
Jackie Keel wrote a graphic description of Jessica Williams' fate - that her body, with various parts cut out, was discarded beneath old tires on 62nd Street in Washington Park.
She wrote that Oliver and Perkins should also be charged with her granddaughter's death.
"Please do all you can to bring justice for Jennifer Herling and Jessica Williams to help us have some decent closer (sic) in their death (sic)," she wrote. "I know I'm doing all I can to get the truth out there. We have been through so much sorrow we need to have hope again for justice."