Former Romeoville resident Sheila Henson said that if the roles were reversed, her mother would have been searching for her daughter until the day she died.
That mindset kept Henson going for more than 43 years.
Henson’s mother, Delores Griffin, lived at 744 Hillcrest Drive with her three children and her husband in October 1975. She was 34 at the time.
She went missing Oct. 24, 1975. Her remains were identified Jan. 18, 2019.
“I always knew somehow I would find her,” Henson said. “I wanted justice for my mom.”
Henson was 13 years old when she came home from school with her 10-year-old sister and 7-year-old brother on Oct. 24, 1975. When the three came home, the house was empty, the curtains were closed and her mother’s car was gone.
“We lived in an abusive situation,” Henson said.
The children stayed with a relative that night, according to information Romeoville Detective Mike Ryan and Will County Deputy Coroner Gene Sullivan have gathered through the years. Their father, Frank E. Griffin, returned the next day, covered in mud.
He showered, burned his clothes and shoes and walked the children to the Romeoville Police Department to report their mother missing.
That same day, a body was found in a lagoon in Monroe County, Michigan, which is about 300 miles from Romeoville. An autopsy showed the woman was stabbed in the chest and strangled. Her death was ruled a homicide.
Henson would later say she thought her father contacted police and told them his wife was in Chicago and was filing for divorce. Henson also said Frank Griffin refused to sleep in his bedroom and “would cry and howl like an animal at night.”
The children later moved to Kentucky to live with their grandparents.
Romeoville police said Frank Griffin was found dead in his car in his garage on April 16, 1976. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, and documents showed his wife had not been reached to be notified.
“In 1975, we used a system that’s completely different from what we use now,” Ryan said.
The 18-year veteran said he learned about the case when Henson called the Romeoville Police Department in June 2012, asking if any unidentified women’s remains had been found in the village.
Ryan then added Henson’s new recollections to her mother’s missing person’s report and got in touch with Sullivan, who also had never heard of the case. He had been a Romeoville detective since 1988.
“It didn’t come across my desk; no one ever spoke of it,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan encouraged Henson to visit the Paducah Police Department in Kentucky and provide her DNA. Her mother’s sister also provided DNA. Sullivan said two samples were better than one.
In August 2012, Sullivan opened a file on a U.S. Department of Justice-funded database called the National Missing and Unidentified Missing Persons System, or NamUs, for Delores Griffin. A little over a year later, in November 2013, an unidentified person case was entered into NamUs from Wayne County, Michigan.
“NamUs is taking the two halves of a needle, one’s in one haystack and one’s in another and every haystack is a police department or coroner’s office, so to speak,” Sullivan said. “Without the database and without the oversight, this would probably not have happened when it did.”
Lori Bruski, an administrator from NamUs, pushed investigators in Michigan and Will County throughout the next four years, suggesting the two cases might be linked.
Henson also pushed for answers in her own way, checking in with Sullivan and Ryan and other missing persons organizations.
“The real story here is the woman (Henson) — she didn’t give up for 40 years, she kept going, and she kept reminding us to help her,” Ryan said. “It was a bunch of officers just doing their jobs.”
Sullivan agreed Henson helped investigators chug along.
“That’s all you need. You don’t need to ask and demand; in fact, it’s sometimes better when you grab somebody by the heart instead of by the neck, right?” he said.
As authorities gathered more evidence, a connection did seem to appear.
Ryan said photos of the unidentified Michigan woman looked similar to Delores Griffin. She also was wearing what appeared to be a silver wedding band. After Michigan State Police developed a DNA profile for the unidentified woman from hair and fingernail scrapings, the information from all three women was sent to the University of Northern Texas Center for Human Identification in December 2018.
“I kind of told (Henson) there was a chance, but I didn’t want to build her hopes up,” Ryan said.
Specialists at UNT performed a manual comparison of the DNA, and it matched on Jan. 18. Sullivan said he frequently sends DNA to the lab to be compared manually, but this was the first time there was a successful match.
Henson’s mother’s body will be exhumed and brought to Kentucky, where a service will be held March 16.
“We’re going to try to make it a celebration of life,” Henson said.
As for Ryan and Sullivan, there’s not much left to do with the 40-year-old case. Frank Griffin was the believed suspect, Ryan said.
Officials checked the evidence surrounding Delores Griffin’s death for any foreign DNA, and the tests came back negative.
“There’s never full closure, especially in this case, where it’s most likely the dad that killed her,” Sullivan said. “Sheila and I, we share something, just faith in God. She was very faithful and prayerful, and she felt that one day her prayers would be answered, and they were.”