Nick Steward, missing Lake Villa man, body positively ID'd, preliminary cause of death released

October 7, 2013

A report from the Lake County Major Crime Task Force confirmed the body found in Vernon Hills was that of Nick Steward, Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd said Monday.

The 33-year-old Lake Villa man, formerly of Vernon Hills, had been missing since Sept. 20 and his disappearance launched a search joined by hundreds of family and friends.

Although the final cause of death won't be known for about two more weeks, the preliminary cause is apparently self-inflicted wounds from a "sharp instrument," possibly a knife or a razor blade, Rudd said.

The coroner conducted a DNA test last Friday to confirm the body's identity, since it was badly decomposed due to exposure to wildlife.

Steward suffered two cut wounds to his right wrist and a single cut wound to his left wrist, Rudd said, adding he also had a cut to his left upper arm.

The coroner said there also appeared to be a cut to his neck, but it could have been made by prolonged exposure to wildlife.

Concerned onlookers witnessed an intense search Thursday night in the cornfield adjacent to a Vernon Hills apartment parking lot where police found Steward's 2008 Saturn, in good condition, in the evening. By about 10:30 a body believed to be Steward's was found -- alongside many of his personal items.

"Right now it appears to be a suicide, but we don't do a final designation of the manner of death until we confer with the law enforcement reports. But right now, the preliminary impression is a suicide," said Dr. Rudd.

"We have sharp cuts in the extremities around the wrists and arms that indicate some sort of knife or razor blade, or something to that effect," said Dr. Rudd.

After mounting a massive search last weekend, on Friday his family chose not to speak publicly as sources said they were coming to grips with the news. A former neighbor spoke of a young man with a good job and young family who had reason to be happy.

"We've known the whole family for all those years, you know, you come out in the morning and get the paper and say hi, you have a drink every so often. You just never think this is going to happen to somebody who you've known for so many years," said Barb Spigner, neighbor.

There will be toxicology tests done on the body as well, but the results of those will not be known for two weeks.

The body was badly decomposed due to exposure to wildlife, making DNA tests necessary, Coroner Thomas Rudd said. But the man suffered two cut wounds to his right wrist and a single cut wound to his left wrist, Rudd said, adding he also had a cut to his left upper arm.

Steward's relatives say his I-Pass shows he went through the Touhy Avenue toll booth on I-294 around 5:30 p.m. Sept. 20.

A Vernon Hills police officer in the neighborhood recognized the car in a parking lot at 955 Westmoreland Drive while on an unrelated call. Vernon Hills police and the Lake County State's Attorney's Office searched a large wooded area behind the parking lot, and friends and neighbors came there looking for news.

"I've just been praying this whole week. I heard the news at church and I'm just in shock. He was a great man and I'm hopeful that he's here with us," said Genevieve Reznicek, friend.

The car was removed and searched for any evidence. The 33-year-old man was last seen as he left his job in Wood Dale. Steward previously lived in Vernon Hills and graduated from Libertyville High School.

Both police and fire officials focused their search on a massive cornfield, which is adjacent to the apartment on the complex's south end. Approximately half a dozen K9 units searched the field for roughly three hours Thursday, then were called off at about 9:45 p.m. and left the scene completely 45 minutes later.

By 10:45, police brought an eight-wheel ATV into the field — which is separated from the apartment complex by a roughly 5-foot wire fence — and the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force returned to the site for a second time Thursday. Both left the scene just before midnight.

Numerous law enforcement agencies also descended on the area throughout the evening Thursday, including the Lake County sheriff's office, Lake County Forest Preserve Police, McHenry police, Linconshire police, the Countryside Fire Protection District and the Vernon Hills, Mundelein and Gurnee police departments.

Traffic on Westmoreland was funneled down to one lane in certain areas to accommodate the investigation.

Resident Stacy Schwager, 26, said the car looked "totally pristine and normal" from the exterior. She also said Steward's car was parked abutting the cornfield.

Schwager and her roommate, Brian Kestin, 30, share an apartment overlooking the lot where the car was found. They said their neighborhood is not a high-crime area.

Kestin was listening to a police scanner when he heard of the investigation. He opened the apartment window to see officers cordoning off the parking lot.

"This is our tiny, little, quiet section," Schwager said. "Stuff like this doesn't happen here. This is insane."

The Illinois Tollway Authority told police Steward's car did go through the northbound Touhy Avenue Toll Plaza northbound on I-294 at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, and he also had a telephone conversation with his employer at about the same time.

Steward's cellphone signal was tracked to the area of the 2700 block of South River Road near Des Plaines. But the phone was turned off the night he disappeared.

The 33-year-old's disappearance sparked a massive, volunteer-run search designed to cover 225 square miles that stretched from Lake Forest to Wood Dale Sunday, Sept. 29.

A Facebook page, "Find Nick Steward," also was set up with family photos of the married father of a young son.

His wife, Megan Steward, reported him missing after he didn't return home from work. Earlier this week, she thanked the more than 100 volunteers that gathered for the search.

"From the bottom of my heart, I am just so stunned by the outreach and the support from the community and just everyone who has been just so wonderful to us," she said. "Hopefully, we'll find something that will help us today and bring Nick home to us."

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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