NIU on edge: No ID yet on human remains

October 26, 2010 2:59:33 PM PDT
Authorities are working to determine if human remains found in a DeKalb, Ill., park are those of missing NIU student Antinette "Toni" Keller.Keller, an 18-year-old art student, Plainfield native, and graduate of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, was last seen on October 14.

Police said Saturday that the missing persons case has been reclassified as a death investigation.

Police established a hotline --(815) 753-4NIU/ (815) 753-4648 -- in the case, and they are asking anyone who may have seen anything around the time of her disappearance to call.

The remains have not yet been identified, pending an autopsy. However, police say the remains would be consistent with the Keller case, and that they appear to have been in Prairie Park for some time.

Although the remains have not been identified as Keller's, her cousin, Mary Tarling, said Sunday that the family is assuming the worst.

"There is nothing that will bring Toni back to us, so the most we can really hope for is answers at some point," said Tarling. "If anyone knows anything, we're hoping perhaps people saw something and didn't think it was critical when she was missing, and now that we have a different perspective, that maybe people will say, 'you know, that was odd, I should report that.'"

Tarling says the family has been given no estimate as to how long it will take authorities to identify the remains.

"Investigators are actively pursuing leads in the case and are seeking information about any suspicious activity or persons in Prairie Park on or about the time of Keller's disappearance," said Bill Feithen of the DeKalb County Major Case Squad.

Keller's parents were notified of the reclassification of the case on Saturday evening after items that may belong to Keller were found in the area.

"We continue to build on the information that we developed through the course of the investigation," said Feithen.

Officials said 40 investigators from different jurisdictions have been searching Prairie Park since Keller's disappearance. NIU students also organized an effort to get the word out by taking flyers door-to-door.

NIU campus waits and hopes

With a sketch pad and camera in hand, Keller reportedly told friends on October 14th she was going to the nearby park to do some sketching and photographing, which she is said to have done often.

Keller's close friend Ben Yamamoto was one of the last people to see her. He was holding vigil Sunday outside of the Neptune North residence hall they both called home.

"She had her stuff she said she was gonna go on an art adventure out into the woods and none of us thought it was abnormal of her to do that," said Yamamoto.

Yamamoto says he had gone to Prairie Park with Keller and others in the past. He says he knew something was wrong when he still had not heard from her hours after she left the dorm on October 14th.

"She told me to call her after I got out of class, which was at about 3 o'clock. I gave her a ring and she didn't answer, and I thought she was just busy, and I just waited a few hours for her to call me back, and when she didn't call me back I got a little worried," said Yamamoto.

Grief counselors are on campus trying to help the community, especially students who live in Keller's dorm.

"I was devastated because we don't want nothing to happen to anybody on campus," said NIU freshman Malcolm Nix.

Classmates still hold out hope that the vivacious freshman will be found unharmed.

"There is a lot of talk in the dorm... I haven't really heard much of it, but a lot of them thinking that it wasn't Toni doing this to herself but maybe someone had done this to her," said NIU freshman Samantha Lanphier.

"She was really nice," said NIU freshman Jenny Jungman. "She seemed really outgoing."

NIU Police increased their presence around campus and extended their normal "late night ride service" to a 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. schedule. Students are encouraged to use the service, especially if they are unable to find a group of three or more to travel with.

"Our students will see more police officers on campus," said NIU Student Affairs Vice President Dr. Brian Hemphill. "We've also gone, if you will, into a 24-hour lockdown within our residence halls, so only residents will be allowed to enter the halls and using their card access."

Some students still expressed concerns over safety, and seemed concerned that foul play could have been involved in Keller's disappearance.

"It's scary because we have to walk around and we have to live out here and we don't know who it is - it could be anybody, and it's like thousands of people around us every day, so it's kind of scary," said NIU student Kiara Reeves.

"I'm worried about this, in the sense that, could it happen again?" said NIU student Thomas Weis. "Will these efforts that they're trying to make the university safer actually work?"

On Sunday afternoon, people in the area said Toni's disappearance has hit the campus community and DeKalb hard, especially following the campus shootings a few years ago.

"It hits everybody around here. I mean, this is NIU," said DeKalb resident Brian Laws. "Hopefully everything turns out good."

The campus is preparing for a regular Monday class schedule.


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