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(March 17) -- On the evening of Dec. 7, Lacey Claire Gaines
, a 20-year-old mother of one, was found slain inside her Justice, Ill., apartment. Evidence found at the scene suggests that Gaines knew her assailant, but so far no arrests have been made.
Ever since, Gaines' aunt, Cherry Simpson, has devoted every waking hour to her niece's case in an effort to ensure that justice is served.
"I miss her," Simpson told AOL News. "I liked hearing her sweet voice say, 'Hi, Aunt Cherry. It's me. Lacey.' I wish I could hear that voice again."
According to Simpson, Gaines was a sweet and polite girl who grew up in a lavish country home. During her teen years, her parents enrolled her in a private Lutheran day school. Through an exchange program at the school, Gaines was one of a select few students allowed to travel to France to help teach students there. According to Simpson, the following year, at the age of 15, Gaines made a return trip to France, after which she began to exhibit some semirebellious traits.
"She had come home with a tattoo of a large cross on her back," Simpson said, "Not long after that, she began dating a man who was 10 years her senior. Her new boyfriend had spiked hair, plugs in his ears that you could put quarters through and tattoos on his neck. They were a bizarre match for each other."
In 2007, Simpson's father died. When she saw Gaines at the funeral, she saw that she was pregnant.
"We felt my brother should have thrown [her boyfriend's] ass in jail for statutory rape, but her parents said they could not pick who she loved," Simpson said. "From there, it went from bad to worse. I sensed something was wrong, and not two months later, she called me up and told me that she was being abused. I asked her to talk to a pastor, which she did, and then she sought an order of protection."
Simpson said the ups and downs in the relationship continued. In 2008, Gaines transferred from the Lutheran school to suburban Grant Park High School. Then, on Jan. 2, 2008, she gave birth to a baby boy. Not long thereafter, she started to date a new boyfriend.
"He was a Hispanic guy, so he spoke little English," Simpson said. "She would put him on the phone to talk and would translate for me. She said they were in love."
In March 2009, the father of Gaines' child petitioned the court for parentage
and took a DNA test to determine whether he was the father. It was during this time period that Gaines moved into a Hickory Trace apartment.
"After she moved, I would only hear from her sporadically," Simpson said. "I was hopeful things were better for her."
On Dec. 1, Gaines celebrated her 20th birthday. Six days later, she was found brutally slain inside her apartment.
"My mother called and told me she was murdered," Simpson said. "Her current boyfriend found her covered in blood, with an electrical cord around her neck and a 4-inch gash across her throat."
At the time of the killing, family members were baby-sitting Gaines' son. Simpson said Gaines last spoke to her grandmother at about 3:30 that afternoon.
"She was supposed to go to the doctor and have an appointment," Simpson said. "She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital at 7:19 p.m., so she was murdered sometime between 3:30 and 7."
Calls for comment to the Justice Police Department were not returned; however, Chief Robert Gedville has told Desplaines Valley News
that there was no sign of forced entry into the apartment, no evidence of sexual assault and no evidence of robbery, suggesting that Gaines knew her attacker. Gedville said it was an "isolated incident
" and that neighbors should not be concerned.
"We have interviewed everyone we can and our (Southwest Major Crimes) task force has 30 to 40 detectives working around the clock to get this solved," Gedville said.
In an effort to bring in new leads, Simpson has taken it upon herself to run a campaign for justice in Gaines' case. She has set up a Web site
and a Facebook page
devoted to the case, given national media interviews and reached out to several television shows, including "America's Most Wanted" and MSNBC's "The Squeeze," a true-crime reality show.
"The investigators told the producers of 'America's Most Wanted' that they are waiting on DNA test results," Simpson said. "The detectives told me the same thing when I spoke to them in February. They also said that they have a strong suspect, but they were waiting on evidence because the DA said they didn't have enough to prosecute."
It remains unclear on whom the police are focusing. Investigators are not talking, and family members have their own theories. Gaines' parents have not commented on the case to the media; however, detectives have allegedly told them that they are "as sure as they could possibly be" that the father of Gaines' child had "nothing to do with this crime."
Regardless of who is responsible, Simpson remains dedicated to her niece's case and will continue her search for justice.
"I love my niece very much," Simpson said. "I feel I am speaking for Lacey. She would want the killer found and the truth to come out. She would want her baby and family to be safe and to have peace. I may be the only one who is capable and not afraid to speak out and ask for help in solving Lacey's murder."
Cook County Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward
for information about Lacey Gaines' killing. To report information, call the Crime Stoppers' hot line at 800-535-7867.