Julius Ballanco: Another water closet murder?
A not so mysterious who-done-it.
I received a phone call in November 2006 from the deputy coroner of LaSalle County, Illinois, stating that it thinks it may have a similar case to the one I dealt with in Wisconsin.
My first question to him was, “How did you get my name?”
He said that he saw me in an episode of “Forensic Files.” He Googled me and noticed how close I was to LaSalle County, so he gave me a call. LaSalle County is due west of where I live, about 80 miles away. In Midwest terms, close by.
The “Forensic Files” episode was propagated by a two-part column I wrote in pme that was published in February and March 2003. The case involved a husband accused of murdering his wife by drowning her in the water closet bowl. The husband was eventually convicted and sentenced to prison.
The deputy coroner explained that LaSalle County may have a similar case; however, the facts are different than what appeared on “Forensic Files.” He explained that the woman died in January 2006, some 11 months earlier than the phone call. They think the husband murdered his wife by drowning her in the water closet bowl.
I asked what details he could provide me. The deputy coroner explained that the husband stated he’d found his wife in the early morning with her head in the toilet bowl with her mouth and nose submerged. I asked if the water closet had a backup, thus causing a rise in the water in the bowl. The answer was no, it worked fine.
My next question was, “What did the autopsy report list as the cause of death?” The simple answer was, “drowning.” My response was that you have him. Someone drowned the woman in the water closet.
He asked me to explain. I went into details about the standard regulating water closets. At the time, it was identified as ASME A112.19.2. The standard has since been harmonized and is identified as ASME A112.19.2/CSA B45.1. However, based on the age of the home, the older edition of the standard would apply.
I explained how far the water level has to be below the rim of the bowl. Because of the depth, it is not possible for an adult to accidentally drown in a water closet. The only possibility would be for someone to hold the woman’s head under the water.
When asked how sure I was, I responded, “100%.” Then I explained that the other problem with the comments from the husband was that if a person is dead, they will fall away from the water closet bowl, not into the bowl. This included a discussion of the inability of the body’s muscles to control one’s position if dead or passed out.
After the short conversation, the deputy coroner asked me to send a copy of my curriculum vitae (CV) so that they can consider retaining me as an expert witness. He also said that this is becoming political so it may be a while before he got back to me.
After sending him my CV, curiosity got the best of me, and I immediately Googled the subject matter. It came up right away, identifying the victim as Tracy Cusick. In just about every news article, it identified her husband as Kenneth Cusick, an Ottawa, Illinois, fireman. Now, I knew the politics. It is never good to have a local fireman accused of anything, no less a murder. All of the information provided by the deputy coroner was public information and part of the news reports.
I never heard much following the initial phone call until sometime after 2011. Sgt. David Gualandri, now a captain in the Ottawa Police Department, would call and ask questions. He would review as much as had been made public, but nothing more. Again, standard procedures until you are retained in a case.
In 2013, he sent me the first set of photos of a water closet. There were four photos and all that was shown was the bowl. Looking at the photos, the water closet appeared to be a Mansfield 1.6-gpf water closet.
In three of the photos, a ruler had been placed in the bowl. Apparently, the first ruler picture was how they found the bowl when the crime scene investigators arrived at the house. The second and third were after they flushed the water closet. The difference in the water depth was approximately 1 1/2 inches. Meaning that 1 1/2 inches of water had been displaced in the bowl at some point in time, possibly Tracy’s head being placed under water.
When Gualandri spoke to me after reviewing the photos, I explained that the displaced water is an indication that something, presumably a woman’s head, was forced under the water, causing the water to rise and run over the weir of the trap. Once the object is removed, the water level is lowered in the bowl.
It wasn’t until 2016, following the election of new State’s Attorney Karen Donnelly that the charges were finally filed against Kenneth Cusick for the murder of his wife, Tracy. In December 2016, I was retained by Deputy State’s Attorney George Mueller. I laughed when I heard his name because it is the same name as my father-in-law.
Once retained, Capt. David Gualandri sent me all of the electronic files for the case. He explained that the initial police investigation was less than stellar. When I watched the two interviews of Kenneth Cusick, I thought Capt. Gualandri was being kind. The interrogation was awful, and I’m not in law enforcement.
At least the investigating officers asked Mr. Cusick how he found his wife. Three times in two different interviews, he explained how he found her kneeling over the toilet like she was vomiting. Then he explained that her head was under water, both her mouth and her nose were submerged.
What the officers failed to realize is that Cusick had incriminated himself by describing something that was physically impossible to happen. An adult woman cannot accidentally drown in a water closet.
It took until December of 2019 for the case to come to trial. Next month, I’ll cover the trial and the verdict.