CROWN POINT — A Gary man faces a murder charge in the high-profile disappearance of an Illinois woman who was reported missing late last month.
Drew “Tiny” Carter III, 41, of Gary, is charged with murder in the Feb. 25 disappearance of Jessica Flores, 36, of South Chicago Heights.
A second woman, Melina Cottrell, 26, of Gary, who reportedly was last seen with Flores in late February and also was considered missing, has been located, police said Friday.
The case became somewhat confused Friday when Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's office issued a plea for public help in locating Cottrell, even indicating that police would lead a search party for her Sunday.
Detective Ed Gonzalez confirmed Cottrell is safe and no longer missing.
Meanwhile, Flores’ body still has not been found, Lake Criminal Court records state.
Flores's sister, Maddy Perez, said she still has faith her sister may be still alive. At noon on Sunday, Perez said, she is organizing a search party that will start from the Gary Police Department at 555 Polk Street.
“We are going to find her,” Perez said. “They don't have DNA results as proof or a body. I have faith she is still alive.”
Flores is a mother of six children, including a son as young as 8 years old.
“It's hard, but I have to be strong,” Perez said. “I have to be strong for the family. It's been horrible. We've not been able to sleep. We are just running on nerves.”
The case against Carter was unsealed Wednesday, after his arrest.
Also, a potential witness in the case, George Heath, was found dead from a gunshot to the back of his head Monday at his home in the 3100 block of West 22nd Avenue, court records allege. Heath’s homicide remained under investigation Friday.
A single gunshot
Police say a female witness in the case met up with Flores on Feb. 24 in Gary, went with Flores to her home in South Chicago Heights and then returned to Paradise Lounge in Gary to meet up with a friend of Flores.
At the request of police, The Times is not identifying the witness for the witness’s protection.
The friend never showed up, so Flores and the witness went to Heath’s home, where Flores introduced the witness to Carter.
At one point, Carter and Flores began to argue about another woman, court records allege.
At one point, Flores decided to leave, police said, but Carter followed her out and persuaded Flores to allow him to enter her vehicle.
Carter then promised to get Flores and the witness cocaine and drove them to a residence off 10th Avenue and Clark Road.
The three drove back to Heath’s residence, but Heath, who was later found dead, did not open the door, court records allege.
At that point, Carter drove around the neighborhood several times while arguing with Flores. Carter asked if he could have sex with the witness, and Flores told him no, court records allege.
The witness told police Carter stopped the vehicle, turned around and shot Flores — who was in the backseat — one time with a revolver, court records state.
Flores slumped to one side.
The female witnesses bolted from the car and attempted to run, but Carter tackled her, according to court records.
Carter then drove the witness back to the home near 10th Avenue and Clark Road, leaving Flores’ body in the car as they went inside, court records state.
Carter allegedly provided crack cocaine to the witness and asked her to have sex, police allege.
But the witness refused and instead listened to him talk until he fell asleep. At that point, the witness escaped from the home, police said.
The witness told police she did not immediately report Flores’ killing because the witness is a drug user, did not want to get in trouble and feared for the safety of family members.
Flores’ boyfriend filed a missing persons report with South Chicago Heights police Feb. 25. That same day, police found the boyfriend’s white 2010 Nissan Altima on Chicago’s South Side.
The vehicle had been set ablaze, and police found a large amount of blood in the rear passenger area, court records state. Some of Flores’ belongings also were in the car.
Police conducted a search of Gary on March 7 but did not locate Flores’ body.
A forensic pathologist with the Lake County coroner’s office reviewed photos of the car and concluded the blood spray pattern was consistent with an injury to an artery. Such a wound would be fatal without immediate medical attention, the coroner's report concluded.
Perez said she has disputes with the story reflected in the police report, saying people have told her contradicting information that does not match what the witness told police.
She said she believes further evidence, aside from the witness's testimony, allegedly tells a different story of her the events surrounding her sister's disappearance.
She said she fears human trafficking could be a factor, thinking her sister could be being confined against her will.
Anyone with information about the location of Flores' body or Heath’s homicide is asked to call Detective Ed Gonzalez of the Lake County/Gary Metro Homicide Unit at 219-755-3855. To remain anonymous, call 866-CRIME-GP.
LOWELL — Thursday's storm damage here was caused by a weak tornado, the National Weather Service confirmed Friday.
It was the first tornado since 2015 to hit Lake County.
An EF-0 tornado with estimated peak winds of 80-85 mph hit the outskirts of Lowell on Thursday afternoon, traveling about 1½ miles over two minutes with an estimated maximum width of 75 yards, according to the National Weather Service.
David Brock said his 19-year-old son was at home shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday when heavy hail outside his window suddenly transitioned to strong winds that sent items flying around the yard.
"He thought something was going to come busting through the window," said Brock, who serves as pastor at the Lowell Church of the Nazarene.
When the short storm passed, Brock's son stepped outside and discovered part of the nearby Nazarene church room's roof had been torn off by the wind.
Lowell's trees took the brunt of the damage, though property damage was also reported, with a tree reportedly falling on a house.
In the church's case, the building was damaged in multiple areas.
"It folded off and is laying on top of the (rest of the) roof right now," Brock said Friday morning.
The short burst of wind also damaged the foundation and door of a nearby garage, Brock said. A wooden fence along the north end of the property blew down and a vinyl fence to the south also was damaged.
"All the slats got yanked out of it," he said.
Brock said his son thought he saw some rotation in the storm clouds overhead when the damage occurred.
The National Weather Service in Romeoville, Illinois, reported that a funnel cloud had been spotted shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday in Lowell.
There also were reports of downed trees, damaged power lines and other property damage, labeled by the NWS as "possible tornado damage," and was later confirmed.
While the hole in the roof of the church was quickly covered Thursday with a tarp, a more thorough fix was being sought Friday because water was finding its way into the building, Brock said.
The NWS posted nothing about a funnel cloud Thursday afternoon in Porter County, but Pleasant Township resident Charlie Douthett is among those who said they saw and photographed what appeared to be just that.
Douthett said he was outside his home at 2:21 p.m. when the rain suddenly stopped and he heard a noise he described as continuous thunder. He looked off in the distance and snapped a photo of what appears to be a funnel cloud.
"I'm not sure what was going on in that cloud," he said.
Kandyce Kimble, of Kouts, was driving her 4-month-old son in his car seat for his nap Thursday afternoon when she saw what appeared to be a funnel cloud and quickly went home. Her son slept through it all, she said.
The Porter County Highway Department reported Friday that it had received no reports of storm-related damage.
CROWN POINT — A Merrillville man was dragged by a vehicle, bitten, cut and bruised when a Valparaiso couple robbed him of a handgun he had planned to sell, court records allege.
Kevin A. Jackson, 19, and Desiree C. Staples, 19, each were charged Wednesday in connection with the robbery Sunday outside the Hampton Inn in the 2800 block of Carlson Drive in Hammond.
The 20-year-old Merrillville man told police he recently was convicted of misdemeanor domestic battery and decided to sell a Glock handgun, which he could no longer legally possess.
He advertised the gun for sale on social media, and connected with Jackson through an acquaintance, Lake Criminal Court records say.
The man arranged to meet Jackson at a Walmart, but changed the location to the Hampton Inn because he knew the hotel has surveillance cameras. Video from those cameras corroborated the victim's account of what happened, records say.
The Merrillville man told police he was sitting in his vehicle with Jackson and his friend when Jackson pointed a gun at him, records say.
The two struggled over the gun in the car, and the fight spilled into the parking lot. A man who arrived with Jackson in a blue Chrysler Pacifica began fighting a man who had accompanied the victim, records say.
Jackson and his friend forced the victim into the Pacifica, and Staples began to drive away while the victim's legs dragged on the ground. Staples drove several hundred feet before the Merrillville man broke free, records say.
The Merrillville man had cuts and bruising to his face and elbow and a "significant bite mark on his right shoulder." He also required five stitches to his right thumb, records say.
Hammond police used the city's Blue Net license plate reader system to trace the Pacifica back to the home of Staples' relative in Valparaiso, records say. Police staked out her home and pulled her over as she drove the Pacifica.
Staples admitted to the robbery and told police she grabbed the Glock from the Merrillville man's vehicle as Jackson and his friend struggled with the Merrillville man, records say.
Jackson and Staples were each charged with robbery resulting in serious bodily injury, armed robbery, two counts of kidnapping and theft of a firearm.
Staples was arrested in Porter County. Jackson was wanted on a warrant Thursday, records show.
VALPARAISO — The Porter County coroner's office is seeking the public's help in locating relatives of Cindy L. Bell Russell, a 62-year-old white female, who had resided at 510 Willow Drive in the Westville area of LaPorte County.
Russell was pronounced dead on Monday at Porter Regional Hospital, which is the reason Porter County is handling the case, according to Porter County Coroner Cyndi Dykes.
Anyone with information is encouraged to call the coroner's office at 219-548-0208 or email the office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Murphy knows her daughter doesn’t worry about being a girl and has never felt like an outsider on the wrestling mat.
13-year-old Rianne Murphy is simply able to have fun and compete, and Jennifer acknowledged her daughter’s blissfulness wouldn’t be possible without Sen. Birch Bayh, who died of pneumonia Thursday at age 91. During his career, Bayh championed women’s rights and authored Title IX —a federal law that helped create equal opportunity for girls and women in sports and education — which has given Rianne a chance to enjoy a budding and successful career.
“I guess the good side of this is that we’ve never really had to give equal opportunity much thought because the people in her club — the coaches, the families — they’ve always accepted her as an equal,” Jennifer said. “They’ve never really treated her differently, so I guess that is a testament to the work Sen. Bayh has done. It wasn’t a big challenge to be accepted.”
Rianne, a seventh-grader at St. Paul Catholic School in Valparaiso, has been wrestling since she was 6 and continues to excel. She won both the boys and girls 14U 87-pound championships Sunday at the Indiana State Wrestling Association Folkstyle State Finals. Her strenuous achievement featured 11 matches throughout the day, but it surprisingly it wasn’t her first time pulling it off. She won both titles in her weight class in 2017 as well.
One thing that Joe Escobedo believes sets Rianne apart from her peers, besides her gender, is her ability to learn and adapt. Escobedo coaches Rianne at the Region Wrestling Academy and said that a lot of people used to praise her for going toe-to-toe with the boys on the mat, but they often overlooked her strategy and technique which has come from countless hours of training and practicing.
As she and fellow female teammate Devin Moore continue to win, Escobedo said the narrative around both wrestlers has shifted.
“It brings me a lot of joy, especially seeing the looks on their faces after,” Escobedo said. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God. I lost to a girl.’ And it’s funny because that was the old mindset, ‘Oh, she’s a girl.’ Now it’s just, ‘I lost to a hardworking athlete. I lost to somebody tough.’ So it’s good to see them starting to get the respect they deserve.”
Jennifer is an obstetrician-gynecologist and anticipates that her daughter won’t be able to compete against the opposite sex once everyone’s hormones start to kick in. But even at this age, Jennifer never expected for Rianne to stand atop the podium for both girls and boys and wouldn’t be surprised if her daughter continues to prove her and many others wrong.
“It’s mindboggling to me,” Jennifer said. “You know, you love your child and you just want them to be happy and healthy, and of course you have expectations for them. But she surpasses my expectations regularly. I probably don’t tell her that enough.”