The recent death of Illinois four-year-old Tate Thurman has been compared by many to the death of AJ Freund, who I have covered extensively on the blog as well as featuring in the first episode of my podcast.
Like AJ, precious little blond-haired angel baby Tate died bearing a laundry list of horrific injuries that could not have been inflicted during a single incident of abuse, according to East Peoria Police Chief Steve Roegge.
Fair warning: this story is going to hurt, you guys.
At approximately 9:10 AM on February 18, 2020, emergency medical personnel responded to a call reporting a child in cardiac arrest at 109 Jefferson Court in East Peoria. At the scene, they discovered four-year-old Tate Thurman unresponsive with “serious injuries,” including bruises “from head to toe,” according to Chief Roegge. Due to the suspicious nature of the injuries, the medics contacted police.
Meanwhile, Tate was rushed to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, where he was placed on a ventilator.
Investigators questioned the only adult present at the time of the incident, 33-year-old Lesli Ann Jett, the live-in girlfriend of Tate’s father, Jeremy Thurman, who was at work in Urbana when his son was fatally injured. Lesli told police that Tate slipped in some water on the floor, fell, and immediately became unresponsive.
Only Lesli, Tate, and Lesli’s sleeping two-year-old were in the home at the time of the incident. The two-year-old and Tate’s older brother, who I’ll call “J.T.,” have been placed into protective custody.
Two days after the 911 call, at 9:05 PM on Thursday, February 20, Tate was declared brain dead. The decision was made to keep him on a life-supporting ventilator, according to Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood, until his organs were donated.
“I went up to the hospital the night he was pronounced brain dead and did an initial examination on Tate,” Harwood later said, “and shot over 100 photographs looking at the injuries. And I knew what was reported to us was not consistent to that. But what was consistent was abuse.”
An autopsy was conducted on February 24 by the Peoria County Coroner’s Office. Harwood said, “The case remains under investigation; however, due to the nature of the injuries, is being ruled a homicide.”
Tate’s autopsy showed that the little boy had suffered a horrendous amount of pain caused by various injuries, including tears to his intestines that appeared to be the result of “high-velocity blunt-force trauma.” He was also covered from head to toe in bruises and suffered from a pancreatic hematoma that caused internal bleeding. Court documents state even more graphic descriptions of Tate’s injuries: “Deep muscular bruising of the abdominal wall and back, an acute fracture of [the] right collarbone, and extensive contusions and abrasions to [his] scalp, face, neck, chest, [genital area], buttocks, upper back, shoulder, and limbs, including deep muscular bruising of the scalp, neck, [and] torso.”
Tate likely slipped into a coma within 30 minutes of the injury that caused his internal bleeding. I cannot imagine how painful and terrifying those 30 minutes were for that little boy.
On Wednesday, February 26, East Peoria police executed a search warrant on the home. At 4:34 PM the same day, they found Lesli in the passenger seat of a vehicle in Creve Couer and arrested her without incident at a gas station. She was booked into Tazewell County Jail and assigned a public defender, named in court documents as Sam Snyder.
At a press conference held on February 27 in East Peoria City Hall, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz condemned individuals who had illegally posted confidential juvenile records pertaining to the case on social media, warning the posters that they are not necessarily anonymous and that they may face consequences for their actions. He asked that others refrain from spreading confidential information of this nature, as it may impede the investigation and prosecution of the case. The information has since been removed.
“Make no mistake about it,” Umholtz said. “This is an abuse case.”
Umholtz added that, while he doesn’t often lose sleep over the kind of criminal activity he deals with on a daily basis, “when a child is murdered, it gets my attention and it keeps me up at night.”
Tate’s private funeral was held on Thursday, February 27.
Lesli is currently being held on a $3 million bond. She has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder and a felony charge of aggravated battery to a child under the age of 13. If convicted, she could be sentenced to up to 100 years in prison on one of the murder charges alone.
At the February 27 press conference, a reporter asked Chief Roegge if Tate’s father, Jeremy Thurman, is a suspect in the case. Chief Roegge responded that the abuse was “not a one time thing” and that police are still investigating.
Umholtz stressed that the goal of his office is successful prosecution, and he hopes they can find jurors who will be honest, fair, and unbiased despite news reports and false information being spread on social media.
On Thursday, March 19, Lesli appeared in court via closed-circuit video monitor. Tazewell County Judge Katherine Gorman read the charges against her, to which Lesli pleaded not guilty. Looking gaunt and wearing a ponytail, Lesli nodded in agreement when public defender Luke Taylor said she planned to hire a private attorney.
Court records indicate that Lesli has retained attorney Bridget E. Bourke.
Most of Lesli’s future court appearances, at least for the foreseeable future, will take place via closed-circuit video due to public restrictions intended to protect against the current coronavirus threat.
Her next court date has been scheduled for April 9.
To add to the disturbing nature of the case, here’s the part where news organizations and the public alike are comparing Tate’s death to the murder of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake: DCFS first became involved with the family in 2011, four years before Tate was born, and the agency would investigate the family several times before Tate’s death.
After pressure by the public and the media to provide more information about the agency’s involvement with the family, DCFS released a statement and a timeline of events.
“Director Smith and DCFS staff at every level are completely devastated by the sudden loss of Tate Thurman, who was just 4 years old when he died two weeks ago. The tragic incident that led to his death is heartbreaking and DCFS is fully cooperating with law enforcement as we investigate what took place. Our department is committed to being as transparent as possible as this investigation moves forward, while also protecting the privacy of Tate’s siblings and family. We serve families in times of extreme crisis and our top priority will always be protecting them and ensuring they have the support they need to recover.”
The timeline of the agency’s involvement is as follows, including additional information I was able to find via public online sources.
On October 1, 2011, Jessalyn Alora Thurman was born to then-26-year-old Tara Foley and 25-year-old Jeremy Thurman. Tara also had a son, who I’ll call “T.F.,” from a previous relationship. On October 13, 2011, Tara and Jeremy awoke to discover Jessalyn unresponsive in their bed. The baby was rushed to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 8:47 AM. Her death, according to then-Peoria County Coroner Johanna Ingersoll, was caused by positional asphyxia related to co-sleeping. DCFS determined that the infant died due to an unsafe sleep environment. Jessalyn was buried in Roberts Cemetery in Morton.
Over the following six years, there were seven more DCFS investigations. Tara and Jeremy had two more children, first “J.T.” in 2013, and then Tate, who was born on December 3, 2015. Tara reportedly lost guardianship of her children several times, although the reason for this is unknown, as are the reasons for each of the seven investigations from 2011 through 2017.
In December of 2017, another tragedy befell the family. Tara underwent surgery on December 11 to correct a previous hernia surgery and address a second hernia. During the two days following her surgery, she was in severe pain, which is documented in several posts on her Facebook page. On December 13, at age 32, Tara died in her home of an accidental drug overdose, leaving behind her three sons and Jeremy, who was described in her obituary as her “soulmate.”
After Tara’s death, “J.T.” and Tate were returned to their father’s care. When that case was closed, DCFS had no further involvement with the family until Tate’s death on February 18, 2020.
There is no history of DCFS involvement with Leslie Jett or her two-year-old child.
Child advocates say problems with the system caused DCFS to fail both Tate and AJ. Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert told CBS Chicago, “DCFS let Tate down, and now, he’s dead.”
Golbert said, “If we have transparency and compare what went wrong in Tate’s case to what went wrong in AJ’s case, we can hopefully move forward to that reform.”
Time will tell if DCFS will shoulder any of the blame for Tate’s death or if any further details will be released.
A GoFundMe was created to help pay for Tate’s headstone. Any additional donated funds will be held in accounts for Tate’s older brothers to access when they are older and managed in the meantime by their maternal grandparents.
In the meantime, Lesli will celebrate her 34th birthday in jail on Tuesday, March 24. Here’s hoping she gets everything she deserves! (Go ahead; let your imaginations run wild on that one.)
Finally, below are a few videos of Tate when he was about three years old. What a sweet little guy. May he rest peacefully along with his big sister in their beautiful mommy’s arms.
Click here for my future/ongoing coverage of Tate’s case.
Sources: Peoria Public Radio, Central Illinois Proud, Pekin Times, Tazewell Chronicle, Heart of Illinois ABC, Journal Star, Week.com, CBS Chicago, Facebook