NewsKansas City Public Safety


What happened in Room 319? Family questions cause of death of young mother

Posted: 2:02 PM, Apr 29, 2021
Updated: 2021-04-30 00:26:12-04
Libby Zave 2.jpeg

Young mom's life ends too soon

Libby Caswell was 21 years-old when she died.

Her death would light a fire under her mother, Cindy Caswell, and a team of experts to shine a light on what they think really happened.

"There's not a picture I have where she's not smiling big and laughing," Caswell said. "She'd walk in a room and light up the room. She had so many friends that just loved her."

Her family said Libby was a fun, bright girl. A cheerleader in high school, she loved dance and modeling.
Libby was also a young mother who was crazy about her son.

Caswell says she was a good mom.

"She was just the light of all our lives, and her son," Caswell said.

This is the way Caswell chooses to remember Libby, not the way Libby was found three years ago - dead and alone in a seedy Independence motel room.

The Independence Police Department determined her death to be a suicide and closed the case.

Libby's family and friends see it differently.

"I know better. I know different because I knew Elizabeth," Caswell said.

Libby's last day

The police report from the night she died states Libby's on-and-off again boyfriend told investigators he woke up to find Libby had hanged herself in the motel room bathroom.

41 Action News is not identifying Libby's boyfriend because he has not been charged with a crime.

"The whole thing raised a flag," Independence Police Capt. Mike Onka said after agreeing to discuss the case with 41 Action News."That's why I kept reopening it."

Documents show police arrived just after 8 p.m. on Dec. 11, 2017 at the Sports Stadium Motel on U.S. 40 Highway.

The outside door into room 319 was locked and officers had to break it open.The bathroom door was also closed and the light was off.

Clothing and other personal items were strewn all over the small room.
An officer found Libby, lifeless, laying on her left side, wedged between the toilet and the bathtub with a camouflage belt around her neck.

The officer noted her feet were propped up, as if to make sure the bathroom door would shut.

Rigor mortis had set in, an indication to the officers that Libby had been dead for at least several hours.

At autopsy, Libby's legs and feet were in the same position as they'd been found resting on the bathroom wall.

Blood was coming from Libby's nose, though investigators never officially determined what caused it.

Onka said they initially considered her death a homicide but that others on scene had different opinions.

"We were working it as a strangulation, and the medical examiner's investigator on the scene said, 'No, it's a suicide,'" Onka said.

The Jackson County Medical Examiner determined Libby died from asphyxiation. Due to the circumstances surrounding her death, the manner of death is listed as undetermined.

When officers came to her mother's door to tell her Libby had ended her own life, she didn't believe it was possible.

"I said, okay, this fight is on," Caswell said. "I am not going to give up."

What happened in Room 319?

Libby's boyfriend told police he and Libby checked into the motel around 6:30 a.m. earlier in the day, though the check-in sheet at the motel showed they'd actually checked in at 7:10 a.m.

The boyfriend told police he laid down to take a nap after he and Libby argued about his drug use, and that Libby was going to get in the shower.

Caswell is incredulous when she recalls what she found out.

"He tells the detectives that he fell asleep around 11 a.m. He woke up around 8 p.m. and didn't find her in the room, and then he turned around and noticed the belt on the outside of the bathroom door," Caswell said, re-telling the information stated in the police report.

Libby's boyfriend told police he saw his camouflage belt coming out of the top of the bathroom door. When he opened it, he said Libby fell to the floor, his belt still around her neck.Investigators noted they found what appeared to be fresh damage at the top of the bathroom door.

Libby's boyfriend told police he loosened the belt but when he couldn't find a pulse, he "freaked out" and left the motel to drive to his dad's house.He called 911 on the way out, just after 8 p.m.

"He was a person of interest that night," Onka said. "We were actually looking for him."

Police say the boyfriend later showed up at the police station at around 10:45 p.m. and a detective interviewed him shortly after 11 p.m.

In his interview, he told police Libby had been depressed and was making suicidal threats.He told police he was exhausted from being up the whole night prior and slept from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

He denied any involvement in her death.

The boyfriend was interviewed a second time a year later when he was in jail on an unrelated crime and still denied any involvement.

Investigators also interviewed the friend who said he'd left the room earlier that morning. He also echoed the boyfriend's statements, that Libby was suicidal and drinking vodka all morning. However, her toxicology report indicated there was no alcohol in her system.

Motel surveillance cameras could have helped detectives piece together the timeline on Dec. 11, but Onka said there was an issue finding and collecting the footage, leaving investigators without a key piece of evidence.

As of April 2021, Libby's estranged boyfriend is currently in jail serving time in an unrelated case.

41 Action News reached out to his public defender, who did not return our calls.

Caswell told 41 Action News Libby did have issues with drug addiction in the past but at the time of her death, she was getting her life back on track.

"It's very frustrating," Caswell said. "You just want to shake them and scream at them and tell them we know she wouldn't have done this."

Police talked with a man who was staying in motel room 320, next door to the room where Libby was found dead.

The witness told police he was awakened to what sounded like banging, like a man and a woman fighting in the room next door. He said this happened about 20 minutes prior to police showing up at the motel.

The witness told police he heard a female in room 319 say, "Please stop hurting me."

He said he did not know how long the banging went on for but that when it stopped, he didn't hear anything after that.

The officer who spoke to this witness on-scene said it appeared he was impaired and that his story was inconsistent.

Onka said he wasn't a credible witness and for that reason, they did not bring him into the station for a recorded interview.

History of domestic violence

After Libby died, a witness came forward to police. He said Libby and the boyfriend had been staying at his house in Kansas City, Kansas.

On Dec. 4, one week before Libby's death, the witness told police a commotion woke him up. He said he walked into the room the couple was staying in and saw Libby's boyfriend on top of her, his hands around her neck, choking her.

He kicked them both out and told police he hadn't seen them since.

His account is similar to what Libby's caseworker documented the same day, Dec. 4.

Libby was working with an agency to be fully reunified with her young son.

The caseworkers told 41 Action News Libby had earned many hours a week with her son, was testing clean during the fall into the winter, and was making plans to get her own apartment again. They said Libby loved her son more than anything.

The caseworkers agreed with Caswell and said they never heard Libby talk about suicide or act suicidal.

On Dec. 4, Libby's caseworker was conducting a parent visit with Libby and her son. The caseworker noted "Libby was upset and appeared shaky and unkempt." Libby told the caseworker her boyfriend had just tried to choke her.

The caseworker immediately started calling women's homes for domestic violence but Libby was unsure about going.

The caseworker told 41 Action News she believes if Libby had gone to to the domestic violence home, she would be here today.

Both caseworkers said it was devastating to learn about Libby's death because they knew about her turbulent relationship with the boyfriend.

Libby's friends spoke with 41 Action News, who also said Libby's boyfriend had a history of being verbally, mentally, and physically abusive to her. They said Libby told them she was scared for her life.

Libby and her boyfriend had been together on and off since high school.

They often stayed at her parents house but it never ended well, Caswell said.

Incident reports show Caswell called the police numerous times over the course of their relationship for domestic disturbances between the pair.

She'd called 911 so many times that in 2013, the police tagged the home as a nuisance property. Caswell said she had to pay a fine.

Caswell said she tried to stress this history to the police.

The police were aware of the domestic violence, they said, but Caswell still felt the case was going nowhere.

Caswell's team of experts

Desperate for support and answers, Caswell contacted Alliance for Hope International, a California-based organization that provides training on several issues including sexual assault and domestic violence.

"I took a look, and I was very concerned with what I saw," Dr. Bill Smock said.

Smock is the medical director for Alliance for Hope's Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, which trains police and other family violence professionals about strangulation crimes.

Smock is the police surgeon for the Louisville Police Department and directs its Clinical Forensic Medicine Program.

He also testified for the prosecution in the Derek Chauvin trial.

"There are multiple reasons why this case should be opened," Smock said about Libby's case. "There is clear evidence that this was a murder. The scene was staged based upon the injuries I could see on Libby's body."

Smock examined Libby's entire case file. He revealed to 41 Action News why he believes forensic evidence in the motel room validates his theory.

He doesn't want to publicly detail every piece of the forensic evidence to maintain the integrity of the case going forward.

Smock recently came to Kansas City and met with 41 Action News reporter Sarah Plake.

The most glaring evidence, Smock said, were the markings on Libby's neck.

He demonstrated the pattern found on Libby's neck at autopsy on a mannequin head.

"This demonstrates the mark that goes circumferentially around the neck, not consistent with a hanging," Smock said in his demonstration.

Smock explains that when someone dies hanging, you will see an inverted "V" pattern on the back of the neck with a space nearing the base of the skull. He said the circumferential pattern on Libby's neck tells him she was strangled.

Smock also pointed to bruises and scratches on Libby's body.

Others at Alliance for Hope also looked through Libby's case file and agree with Smock's theory.

"Libby Caswell could not have possibly gotten that belt around her neck and then reached up and leveraged herself up into the air to get the belt over the top of the door," Casey Guinn, president of Alliance for Hope, said.

Guinn said it's highly unlikely that she could have hanged herself in the way her boyfriend claimed and remained there until she died.

Guinn and his team held a Facebook live conference in December 2020, on the three year anniversary of Libby's death. They urged the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office or any outside agency to take control of the case from Independence police.

Pushing for answers

Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker says her office is aware of the case.

"To file a criminal case requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt and we're just quite not there yet, so that investigation is ongoing," Peters Baker told 41 Action News. "We hope we can get there but until the evidence supports that, we're not there yet."

Capt. Onka, the prosecutor's office, Dr. Smock, and the medical examiner's office met in person to discuss the case.

"We can form our own opinions on what we think happened but our opinions aren't going to win us a court case," Onka said.

Libby's case has been presented to hundreds of attendees - including police officers, prosecutors, judges, advocates, defense attorneys, and medical experts - at Alliance for Hope's advanced strangulation conferences. Guinn said an overwhelming majority of the attendees agreed Libby's case should be reopened.

Smock also presented his findings in Libby's case at the 27th annual Medicolegal Death & Homicide Investigation conference in August 2020 to demonstrate how to recognize a staged scene.

Caswell remains focused on fighting for her daughter, who would have celebrated her 25th birthday on March 25.

"It just kills me," Caswell said. "I lay awake, and she's the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing when I go to sleep. And sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I just think, I tell her I'm sorry I couldn't save her and that I'm fighting for her."

Caswell has full custody of Libby's son, now seven, and says he's doing great.

Libby's friends and family advocate for her on their Facebook group, Justice For Libby.