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Home / Articles / In the News / Did Domestic Violence Victim Libby Caswell Really Take Her Own Life?

Did Domestic Violence Victim Libby Caswell Really Take Her Own Life?

Police say it was suicide but Alliance for HOPE investigated and determined she was murdered

Libby Caswell suicide case

On Dec. 11, 2017, Cindy Caswell was informed by the Independence, Missouri Police Department that her 21-year-old daughter, Libby Caswell, had died by suicide in a local hotel room. Cindy knew immediately that they were wrong. Her daughter wasn’t suicidal. She was, however, trying to leave her abusive boyfriend Devon, the father of their young son, Alexavier. That, Cindy knew for certain. 

So it raised a red flag for Cindy when officers from the Independence Police Department (IPD) told her Devon was the one who found Libby’s body around 8 p.m. that evening in the hotel room they were sharing. Devon had called 911 before fleeing the scene. 

It was even more suspicious when they concluded Libby had strangled herself to death using Devon’s belt, only a week after a witness saw him sitting on top of Libby with his hands around her neck, strangling her during an argument. 

“But that’s their story and they’re sticking to it,” Cindy tells of the IPD.

Alliance for HOPE Concludes Homicide After 4-Year Investigation 

Cindy isn’t the only one who disagrees with her local police department’s findings. After a 4-year investigation by the Alliance for HOPE International, conducted by the Alliance’s forensic team known as the Justice Project, they determined the opposite was true.

“We have reviewed that case … with several hundred other law enforcement officers, prosecutors and forensic experts, and they all conclude the same thing: Libby Caswell was murdered,” announced retired prosecutor Gerald Fineman during a press conference last December in Independence, six years after Libby was found dead. Unfortunately, his words seemed to fall on deaf ears. 

Alliance CEO Gael Strack told “We need a comprehensive, independent investigation of this entire case. To date, that has not happened.” 

Despite the Justice Project’s best efforts to urge the IPD to reopen Libby’s case and investigate it as a homicide, the department refused. This is, after all, a police department that never once interviewed Libby’s mother about her daughter. 

“The reason they didn’t have a case was nobody collected enough stuff to have a case,” says Cindy. “They worked hard to prove it was a suicide.” 

Strack has her own theory: “We believe that the district attorney is supportive of the police department. She’s not going to rock the boat and push them or hold them accountable,” she says of Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who released this statement, in part, last December:

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office has worked closely with the Independence Police Department and other law enforcement partners to review the death of Libby Caswell on Dec. 11, 2017. Our sympathies go out to her family, who wish to know what happened to their loved one. The prosecutor’s office reassigned another prosecutor to review the case a second time but she determined that the evidence was insufficient to justify criminal charges for multiple reasons. 

However, those at the Alliance say that it’s clear suicide is not the definitive cause of death. Even the medical examiner’s report lists the manner of death as “undetermined.”

“The DA’s office says they don’t have enough information to charge anyone….but they’re not saying it’s a suicide,” says Fineman.

What Happened to Libby?

Libby and Devon’s relationship was mired with ups and downs since they met in high school. Though they may have started as two teenagers in love, things quickly took a dangerous and controlling turn. Libby disclosed to her mom that Devon was possessive and threatening. They were often at Libby’s house and, on more than one occasion, Cindy could hear them fighting in Libby’s room. She suspected physical abuse, though Libby wasn’t quite as forthcoming about that and made up excuses for bruises or other injuries she endured. Cindy noticed changes in Libby too—her once bubbly daughter became quieter, more reserved. It was almost as though she was scared. 

At 17, her daughter had a child with Devon, a son. Devon’s abuse continued, and so did drug use. Both Devon and Libby began to use, says Cindy, who then took over raising her grandson. 

Libby tried to end the relationship multiple times, but Devon would stalk her, driving erratically down the street in front of her house at all hours of the day. In one instance, he came to the front door wielding a hammer, yelling at Libby to come outside.

Eventually, Cindy  secured an order of protection against Devon in order to protect herself, her daughter and her grandson. Still, she says, he violated the order time and time again. Each time, Cindy would call 911 on Libby’s behalf, assuming they would stop him. Except something else happened instead—IPD ruled that Cindy’s house a “nuisance property” and issued her a citation for $400. If Cindy called 911 again, she would be fined further. 

“A lot of cities have nuisance property laws, meant to be enforced when someone is calling 911 over and over for unknown reasons. But the ordinance is not meant for people calling police to report actual crimes, especially when a restraining order is on file,” says former San Diego Police Department detective Joe Bianco, now the Law Enforcement Support Coordinator for the Alliance.

Libby lost hope that Devon could be stopped, or police would protect her. It eventually drove her back to him. Together, the two bounced from place to place, staying temporarily with friends or in a hotel. 

“I think that the nuisance law caused Libby to leave, believing if she did go back [to her mom’s house] it would put her family in danger. I think that that nuisance violation triggered her death,” says Strack.

Cindy struggled to understand why Libby continued to give Devon chances.

“I didn’t understand the type of hold he had on her until I started to learn about the different types of domestic violence,” Cindy says. “She’d say she hated him, hated her life with him. And the next thing you know, she’d be with him. I didn’t understand it, even though I was experiencing verbal abuse myself.”

Libby grew up in a home where her father verbally abused her mother. Cindy admits it took a while for her to recognize it as abuse—"I was trying to be the peacemaker and trying to make our family stay together,” she says—and it was Libby’s death that propelled her mother to leave her marriage for good.  

Devon grew up in domestic violence as well—his mother told Journalist Melissa Jeltsen in the eight-part podcast she did on Libby’s case for iHeart Radio called “What Happened to Libby Caswell” that both she and Devon’s father struggled with drug addiction and abuse. 

“I know that he experienced seeing some things that he probably shouldn't have seen, or I know that he shouldn't have seen, and probably heard some heard things that he should not have heard,” she says. “I guess that would be trauma.”

But Libby did eventually turn a corner—a few months before her death, her caseworkers attested that Libby was, in fact, sober and making plans to get her own apartment in hopes she might get her son back. They said she did not seem suicidal.

Which makes Devon’s story of finding Libby’s body that December morning all that more perplexing. 

Local news station KSHB reported that a witness in the room next to Libby and Devon’s at the Sports Stadium Motel told police he was awakened to what sounded like a man and a woman fighting next door. He said he heard a woman’s voice say, “Please stop hurting me.” Only 20 minutes later police showed up to find Libby dead. 

However, the officer on scene reportedly dismissed the man’s account because it appeared he was impaired. 

Only a week before Libby’s death, Gary Stevens says he walked in on Devon strangling Libby. Stevens once dated Devon’s mother after his parents’ divorce. Devon looked up to Stevens as a father figure and when the couple asked if they could stay with him while they saved for an apartment, Stevens let them. 

As he told Jeltsen on her podcast, one afternoon, he heard the two in an argument. Concerned, he felt like he had to intervene. He knocked on the door first, but there was no answer.

“When I opened up the door, I seen Devon was on [Libby] and he was choking her….he was sitting on top of her. And I mean it surprised him when I opened up the door, you know….she raised up, and that's when I kind of lost it. I said, ‘Look, you guys….You're not going to do this here.’”

Stevens asked them to leave his house. A week later, he heard that Libby had been found dead. 

“I feel bad because maybe I shouldn't have made them leave. I don't, you know… There could be a thousand ‘maybe I shouldn't.’” 

Strangulation is one of the leading indicators for future domestic violence homicide. In a study published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine it was shown that women who survive strangulation by their partners are seven times more likely to be the victim of an attempted homicide, and seven and half times more likely to be a victim of homicide.

To the confusion of many, Libby’s case was quickly closed without further investigation. Her cause of death: asphyxia. Her manner of death: Undetermined. 

“All along I’ve thought there was some corruption,” says Cindy. “The hotel is a known drug- and sex-trafficking place. And it’s kind of allowed to happen. They [IPD] know it goes on and they allow it to happen. I believe there’s some kind of corruption with the police and this hotel. I know it sounds like an out-there conspiracy theory. It used to sound crazier to me.”

Educating Law Enforcement on Staged Crime Scenes

Since starting the Justice Project, Alliance for HOPE International  has been inundated with cases that mirror Libby’s. Victims of domestic violence found dead with their cause of death ruled as suicide—and plenty of evidence pointing to the contrary. 

They looked into Terry Schiavo’s case first, then Stacy Feldman’s. 

“Feldman was a success. It was reopened after three years, prosecuted and [the husband] convicted,” says Strack. The Alliance’s work on the Feldman case was featured on Dateline.

The Justice Project currently has 20 cases they’re looking at, all across the U.S., most of which are intimate partner violence related. Almost all of the Alliance’s work comes pro bono, or free of charge to the families. 

“We’re overwhelmed with cases,” says Strack. “Our goal is for law enforcement to come to us before the case is mishandled.”

Strack says the most likely cases of staged crime scenes happen within a domestic violence context. 

“Stranger homicide perpetrators don’t need to do that. They’re just going to take off. It’s more likely that a domestic violence defendant is going to stage a crime scene because they know they’re going to be the main suspect.”

The Alliance also conducts a yearly training called Hidden Homicides: The Challenges of Overcoming Stage Crime Scenes where they educate law enforcement, detectives, advocates, medical examiners, journalists and others in identifying when a crime scene has been staged. There are 10 red flag factors that can identify a suspicious death in the case of domestic violence:

  1. Victim dies prematurely
  2. It looks like a suicide or accident scene
  3. One partner wanted to end the relationship
  4. There is a prior history of domestic violence
  5. Victim is found dead in home or place of residence
  6. Victim is found by current or previous partner
  7. There is a prior history of strangulation/suffocation against the same partner 
  8. The partner is the last to see the victim alive
  9. Partner has control of the crime scene
  10. The crime scene altered in some way 

What’s Next for Libby’s Case?

“One of the common mistakes we see in staged crime scenes is to see if all facts make sense together,” says Fineman. And in Libby’s case, advocates say it was clear they didn’t. But the question remains: Could it be a cover-up or was it just bad investigating?

“I think part of it is confirmation bias,” says Fineman. “Early on, law enforcement is told this is a suicide. They have this confirmation bias that everything looks like a suicide and then they sort of compound that. Everything they do is designed to confirm instead of looking at it like it’s a blank slate.”

Even though her case is still technically closed, the Alliance says they have one simple strategy going forward: “We’re going to continue to apply not-so-gentle relentless pressure,” says Strack. 

As for Cindy, she says she’ll never stop fighting for justice for her daughter.


“I feel like I see her alone and scared and calling out to me. And I want to fight for her. I hear her voice. She still called me mommy at 21. I hear her calling for me. They can’t just do this to her.”

But she won’t be fighting from Independence. She wants to get out of town. She says she no longer feels safe there.

“I want the heck out of here. Everywhere I go, it’s memories. And I’m a little worried about standing up against this police department. I’m never going to call them. So I don’t feel like I have a police department. I feel like I’m in danger.”

Devon, meanwhile, has refused to talk to the media. He doesn’t see his son and, as far as Cindy knows, doesn’t want to. 

“Devon was given the opportunity to do a DNA test and be added to the birth certificate. He never showed up for it,” says Cindy.  

Originally, she didn’t want to tell Xavier, as they call him, now 10, about his father, but kids get curious. 

“He started asking questions, so we got into family therapy because I didn’t know what to say. He knows who his dad is now.”

But there’s another question that’s even harder for Cindy to answer.

“He asks, ‘How did my mom die?’ I say, ‘Someday we’ll all know.’ It’s the truth, because, really, we don’t know the truth.”