The 2008 disappearance of 15-year-old Yasmin Acree sparked a massive police investigation that sent detectives on hundreds of leads, including false sightings that stretched from her tough West Side neighborhood to Michigan and New York City.
But Tribune reporters recently uncovered a piece of potential evidence that hadn't been turned up by police: a diary Yasmin hid in her bedroom.
In it, Yasmin twice mentioned a 35-year-old man who had lived for several months in a separate second-floor apartment at her two-flat.
"I miss Tyrell …," Yasmin wrote.
Yasmin was referring to Jimmie Terrell Smith, who had moved into her building after serving more than 10 years for attempted murder.
Described in court records as a brutal predator, Smith is now in Cook County Jail awaiting trial on charges of raping five females, including two 14-year-olds he is alleged to have kidnapped. Smith had shown an interest in Yasmin and had contact with her after he moved out of her two-flat, including at a family friend's house shortly before she vanished, according to Tribune interviews.
In three recent jailhouse interviews, Smith told the Tribune he had vital information about Yasmin's disappearance.
"I know what happened to her," Smith said, although he did not admit any direct involvement in Yasmin's vanishing.
Smith claimed he also was responsible for four uncharged homicides. But for now, Smith said, he wasn't going to say what he knew. "I'd be putting my head in a noose."
Smith's statements may be the fabrications of a career criminal facing the possibility of years behind bars, and Yasmin's diary entries may simply reflect her private teenage fantasies.
But over the last 18 months, detectives have twice brought Smith from jail to question him about Yasmin, including once for more than 30 hours. And earlier this month, based on information uncovered by the Tribune, police obtained a warrant to search a now-empty South Side home where Smith had lived on and off with a girlfriend in 2008 and 2009.
For 90 minutes eight officers moved in and out of the frame house in the rain on the evening of March 4. An evidence photographer's strobe lit the home from within and officers' flashlight beams swept the backyard as they combed slowly for evidence amid the downpour. Police left with four evidence bags.
The Tribune's reporting on Yasmin's disappearance not only sheds light on Smith's contacts with her, but adds new dimension to her life and the often-criticized police investigation into the case.
Police failed to uncover potential leads, even beyond the diary discovered by reporters. It took nearly a year and a half for detectives to learn that Smith had lived in the building's second-floor apartment.
Yasmin's diary, as well as Tribune interviews with more than a dozen relatives and renters in Yasmin's two-flat and hundreds of pages of government records, shows the fragile girl was in many ways left unprotected by the adults in her life, including child welfare authorities.
A caseworker made monthly visits to Yasmin's home until May 2006 but apparently wasn't aware that Smith or his father, who also had a criminal record, lived in the building owned by her adoptive mother, Rose Mae Starnes.
And Yasmin wasn't getting effective help to address the dominant feature of her life: a history of childhood sex abuse that left her with low self-esteem and little sense of boundaries. She repeatedly sought out inappropriate contact with others, opened herself to advances and engaged in behavior that made her a high risk for exploitation and flight, records and interviews show.
"My sister was a troubled child. You have to tell the whole truth or people can't understand the story," said her 20-year-old brother, Damarcus Acree, who spoke at length with the Tribune.
Starnes said she loved Yasmin and did everything she could to keep her safe. But in a futile effort to rein in Yasmin's troubling behavior, Starnes said she sometimes whipped the girl with a belt, or confined her to the home's dank basement because "I didn't want people finding out about Yasmin, and I didn't want Yasmin doing things to other kids."
Yasmin disappeared while Starnes was in Elgin for two days spending time with an older daughter and playing the slots at the Grand Victoria Casino. Starnes left Yasmin alone in the house with a live-in boyfriend against whom Starnes had recently obtained an order of protection because he allegedly struck her, records and interviews show.
Police declined to comment on any aspect of the case, other than to say they have not publicly identified any suspect and are considering numerous possible scenarios for Yasmin's disappearance.
Smith told the Tribune he has offered authorities preliminary details about the clothing and jewelry Yasmin supposedly wore when she disappeared, and he quoted words he said were scrawled on a notebook in a backpack that vanished the night Yasmin disappeared.
Words like the ones Smith quoted — expressions of love for a rap music star — were scribbled on school binders Tribune reporters recently discovered in Yasmin's basement bedroom under piles of discarded clothes and personal belongings.
Portions of Yasmin's diary reveal moments of teenage normalcy. She mentioned writing a Black History Month essay, rooting for a favorite singer in the BET Awards and being "tagged" by five new friends on a social networking site. "Everybody in love with me," she wrote in one entry. In another: "I need to lose like 10 pounds. But even if I don't, I still look good."
But interspersed are disturbing passages about a relative's alleged cocaine use, schoolyard brawls and a young teenage cousin who boasted of her sexual exploits — as well as Yasmin's struggle to control her own urges. When she twice refers to Smith, for example, it's to say she misses his "sexy ass."
While Yasmin spelled his name "Tyrell," Smith's identity is clear from the context of diary passages about his family.
"Today is unpredictable," began an October 2006 entry. "I was going to the Y going on trips until I touched my cousin ... inappropriately."
In that entry, Yasmin wrote: "I have so many worries and so little time. I don't think there's anyone who understands how I feel."
'We didn't get no sunlight'
Assigned to craft her own memoir, the Austin Polytechnical Academy freshman looked back to Kentucky, where she was born.
"When I was young in Kentucky, my mom brought us a dog and he would sleep with me and my brother. I felt safe because I knew he would protect us," Yasmin wrote.
The mom Yasmin described may or may not have been her birth mother. Kentucky child welfare authorities had removed Yasmin and Damarcus, her older brother, from their home as toddlers, citing serious neglect by their drug-addicted biological mother, records show.
As Yasmin and Damarcus were trundled between their mother's house, group homes and other foster arrangements in Kentucky, both children suffered profound abuse, government records show.
When Yasmin was 6, she and Damarcus settled for three years with Rick and Debi Keathley, who raised horses and livestock in Junction City, Ky. Yasmin arrived in a frenetic, angry whirl, Rick Keathley recalled: "It was F this and F that."
Still, she delighted in feeding the calves while Damarcus learned to help Keathley pound nails into barns.
"They called us Mom and Dad, and we looked at them like biological kids," Keathley said. "We wish we could have adopted the two. They would have been safer here."
But the children's now-deceased biological mother, Joyce Acree, was determined that Yasmin and Damarcus be raised by family.
In 2001, Kentucky authorities turned the children over to Starnes — a relative by marriage who lived in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. A night-shift assistant at a group home for disabled adults, Starnes said she was reluctant to take the siblings but relented for the sake of the family.
"They'd fuss and fight," Starnes recalled. "They were so hyper. They talked back."
Therapists in Chicago cautioned Starnes to never leave Yasmin alone with other children, records and interviews show. In reports prepared for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which took over supervision of the case until Starnes officially adopted Yasmin and Damarcus in 2006, a Kentucky case manager wrote that 9-year-old Yasmin needed a "safety plan" to protect her from being abused and to safeguard other kids, as well as intensive therapy and mental health services.
A Chicago caseworker described Starnes as a loving guardian to the children, but apparently wasn't aware that the two were subjected to corporal punishment. DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said he could not comment on any specific child's case but added that it is never acceptable for a youth to be struck, and he said a caseworker should know when adults on the premises have criminal backgrounds. Marlowe added that foster children from out of state do not always receive as intensive scrutiny as those whose cases begin in the Illinois courts.
Damarcus told the Tribune that Starnes' efforts to protect and discipline them crossed the line. "I was beat all the time, locked in the basement," Damarcus said. "Nobody in the family had heart enough to speak up for me or my sister."
Damarcus "was a real mischievous child," Starnes responded. "I whipped him. Damarcus was just a hard head. ... I used an extension cord."
Yasmin decorated her partitioned basement space with school certificates and cutout magazine photos of pop stars. But the few windows were fashioned from thick block glass, with only small slots to let in fresh air, Tribune reporters found. "We didn't get no sunlight," Damarcus said.
Starnes put 16-year-old Damarcus out of the house in 2007, leaving Yasmin alone in the months before she vanished.
"It wasn't a good situation," said their grandfather John Lewis, who said he tried to take the kids into his South Side home on weekends, whenever Starnes would let him. "I imagine it was pretty lonesome down there, being down in that basement by yourself."
Yasmin had been a standout spelling bee contestant and salutatorian at her middle school, but by the fall of 2007, the Austin freshman's grades were faltering. "I have 3 d's," Yasmin wrote to her teachers in October 2007. "I can improve them by doing more work, and paying attention. But I got the grades I deserve."
In December 2007, a month before Yasmin disappeared, her last diary entry began with a cheery greeting: "Dear diary: What it do? Today was a good day."
Yasmin expressed her love for Damarcus, but as she wrote she let loose an angry passage about not expecting Christmas presents: "I don't give a flying ----. I got my own money even if it's only a hundred dollars. If I could have one thing for Christmas, it would be my mom."
The ex-convict upstairs
Sometime after September 2005, when he completed a 10-year prison stint for attempted murder, Jimmie Terrell Smith moved into Yasmin's two-flat.
Smith's father, ex-convict Jimmie Lee Hawkins, 51, was a longtime friend of Starnes', and their families were closely meshed. Hawkins had been living in a rented basement room alongside Yasmin and Damarcus. When Smith moved into the building, Starnes said she had him and Hawkins move to the second-floor apartment because she didn't want Smith so close to the children.
Standing just over 6 feet tall and weighing about 180 pounds, Smith had been raised by a grandmother after his drug-addicted mother abandoned him, court records show. He was locked up repeatedly as a juvenile for burglary, car theft and other crimes, and "gave the impression that he had to fight his way through everything," a 1994 probation report said.
"He was bad as hell," Hawkins told the Tribune.
During the three years he was on parole starting in 2005, Smith told the Tribune, he was selling drugs — sometimes on the streets near Yasmin's home — and "always" carried a gun. He would be arrested six times for various offenses and later charged with the rapes of five females, including two allegedly kidnapped teens.
While Smith lived in Yasmin's building for only a short time, he showed a persistent interest in the girl even after he left.
At one Hawkins family gathering, Smith gave Yasmin a beer and stroked her hair, according to family members who were there or heard about it immediately afterward. Damarcus recalled another time when Smith said Yasmin looked "like Stacey Dash," the actress and Playboy model.
And about two weeks before Yasmin disappeared, Starnes said, she let Yasmin attend a gathering of young people at a family friend's house, and Smith again took notice of Yasmin.
"When Yasmin came up missing, Terrell was one of the first things that came to my mind," Starnes said.
But Starnes did not let police know Smith lived in their house until 2009, when she saw on TV that Smith had been arrested in the series of kidnappings and rapes. "You don't really want to put a finger" on someone and risk falsely accusing them, Starnes said.
Starnes' belated mention of Smith and the fact that police did not figure out earlier that Smith had lived in the building represent just one of several missed opportunities that, in hindsight, hampered the investigation.
Another problem for police was that Yasmin likely was missing for hours before they were notified.
The last person who claims to have seen Yasmin the evening before she disappeared was Starnes' then-boyfriend Charles Burt.
The 58-year-old carwash worker, who rented a room in the house, told the Tribune he was taking out the garbage the next morning, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008, when he noticed that the basement door had been "forced open."
The padlock that sealed the scissors gate in front of the door was cut and the door jamb was "busted out," Burt said. Burt said he looked for Yasmin in the basement but couldn't find her.
He said he assumed Yasmin had gone to school early and then telephoned Starnes in Elgin, where she would spend the morning at the casino gambling. "I told Mae, 'Hey, the basement door — somebody cut the lock. The door is wide-open.'"
With that, Burt said, he left for work.
Starnes said she never received Burt's phone call. She said her cell phones were not working properly that day.
At the casino that morning, Starnes said she won more than $6,000. She said she headed back to Chicago but first stopped to buy a cell phone, went to a T.J. Maxx store and had lunch at an Olive Garden restaurant. When she got home that afternoon, Starnes said, a niece told her the house apparently had been burglarized.
Starnes said she asked Burt to fix the broken door — a repair that could have destroyed potential evidence.
Shortly after 5 p.m., Starnes said, she remembered Yasmin had a half-day at school on Wednesdays and should have been home hours earlier. Starnes called 911 at 5:31, then called several more times before police arrived about 90 minutes later at 7:04, city records show.
When police first questioned Yasmin's schoolmates, several girls said Yasmin had run away — even asserting that she had contacted them via cell phone. Police reviewed phone records that showed the story was false, and two of the girls later acknowledged that they misled authorities, law enforcement sources said.
Over the next three years, as Yasmin's birthdays were marked by prayer vigils while the case dragged on with few productive leads, a public narrative took hold in which racial bias accounted for authorities' failure to find the missing girl or resolve the case.
Starnes — backed by a group of West Side ministers that included her relative the Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church — told the Tribune in 2009 that police initially presumed Yasmin had run away because of "our color and race."
Police officials bristled privately but sustained Starnes' complaint to the Internal Affairs Division, punishing a sergeant and two officers without publicly specifying what they did wrong or what discipline they received.
Today, police will say only that the initial handling of evidence had "no impact" on the investigation, and they would not comment on any evidence they have gathered on Smith.
On a recent visitors day at the Cook County Jail's maximum-security Division 9, Smith leaned toward the grimy partition that separates inmates from visitors and described some details of the man he said he shot in the 1990s as well as the three women he claimed to have killed after he was paroled in 2005.
Smith said none of the crimes was premeditated. Sometimes when he got angry at people he would "bug up" and lose awareness as he attacked them, he said.
Cocky and desperate by turns, Smith spoke in a fast-paced staccato, balling a tissue paper in one cuffed hand. "I left three bodies behind," he said.
Taking a life, he added, is "the easiest thing in the world."