One year later: Timeline of slain DeKalb teen’s death; where does murder case stand now?

‘I want people to remember her kindness,’ says Gracie Sasso-Cleveland’s grandmother

A display remembering Gracie Sasso-Cleveland is set up Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, at the Sycamore Community Sports Complex during a celebration of her life on what would have been her sweet 16 birthday. Sasso-Cleveland, 15, was found dead May 7, 2023, in DeKalb. Timothy M. Doll, 29, of DeKalb, is charged with first-degree murder in her death.

DeKALB – For some time after her granddaughter, Gracie Sasso-Cleveland, of DeKalb, was found slain a year ago, Linda Nelson said she didn’t want to live in a world where “people could murder our children and beloved family members.”

In the 365 days since, Nelson said she’s come to realize that she wants to “do better” by her granddaughter.

“I want to make this world just a little kinder. I want people to remember her, to not forget her. To remember how she loved animals and that she had been looking forward to the milestones of becoming a young woman,” Nelson said. “She had been looking forward to her prom and to working at a clothing shop when she turned 16. I want people to remember she was a self-taught artist and did beautiful work. I want people to remember she had a family who loved her. And I want justice for her.”

Gracie never got to go to prom, or celebrate her Sweet 16.

“I want people to remember that she loved the earth and her family and friends, and I want people to remember her kindness.”

—  Linda Nelson
Flowers, balloons, pictures and message adorn a growing memorial for slain teen Gracie Sasso-Cleveland Friday, May 12, 2023, behind a building in the 500 block of College Avenue in DeKalb.

Sasso-Cleveland’s body was found strewn in a dumpster next to an apartment building in the 500 block of College Avenue on May 7, 2023. That was one day after her mother, Ericka Sasso, reported her missing to the police.

Authorities believe, however, the DeKalb High School freshman was suffocated to death the night of May 4, according to court records.

Police allege registered sex offender Timothy Doll, 30 – a man twice Gracie’s age who just a month before her death had pleaded guilty to 2020 charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a minor – is the one who killed her. The 2020 victim also was a girl, not Gracie, however, court records show.

In exchange for the plea in Doll’s 2020 case, Circuit Court Judge Marcy Buick in April 2023 sentenced Doll to 2½ years in prison and 30 months of probation. Doll also was ordered to register as a child sex offender under the Illinois Sex Offender Registry. At the time of his April 12 plea for the 2020 charges, however, he’d already served his time under electronic home monitoring so was released, records show.

Doll faces first-degree murder charges in the Sasso-Cleveland’s slaying and has been held without bond at DeKalb County Jail in Sycamore since. Doll previously pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face a life sentence.

Saturday marks one year since Gracie’s death, and her family is still reeling, Nelson said. Loved ones celebrated her Sweet 16 birthday Sept. 14 without her, dubbing it “Gracie’s Day.”

Nelson – who lives in Washington state – has attended every one Doll’s court hearings via Zoom. Sometimes, she’ll wait for more than an hour until the case is called if proceedings are delayed. She doesn’t want to miss a moment, she told Shaw Local News Network in a statement Thursday.

“This week is really going to be difficult for our family. We are all feeling it in our own way. Our world was shattered that day. It is still difficult to comprehend that she won’t be able to visit us or that we can no longer visit her,” Nelson said.

“I want people to remember that she loved the earth and her family and friends, and I want people to remember her kindness.”

Ericka Sasso, of DeKalb, mother of slain teen Gracie Sasso-Cleveland, drops by a protest Wednesday, June 14, 2023, in front of the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. The protesters are asking for harsher sentences for those convicted of domestic or sexual abuse. They began shortly after the arraignment hearing of Timothy M. Doll, a registered sex offender charged with murder in DeKalb teen’s death.

Timeline of events

*The following was compiled with DeKalb County court records and hearings, police reports and interviews with Ericka Sasso, Gracie’s mother.

Thursday, May 4, 2023:

Ericka Sasso, Gracie Sasso-Cleveland’s mother, told Shaw Local News Network that she and Juan Sandoval, who helped raise Gracie, dropped the teenager off at Timothy Doll’s home in the 500 block of College Avenue the night of May 4.

Sasso said she was aware Gracie was spending time with Doll, but was not aware that Doll was a registered sex offender or that he was 29 at the time.

In an interview after Gracie’s death, Sasso said she thought Doll was 17, and described Doll as a “dorky, chubby, video-game playing teenager.”

Thursday, May 4, 2023 nighttime:

DeKalb police have alleged in court records that Doll told investigators he was in a “dating and sexual relationship” with the teenager, and knew she was 15. The claimed relationship would be illegal, however, and in violation of his sex offender registration, prosecutors have argued.

Authorities allege Doll and the girl got into a verbal argument the night of May 4 at his apartment, according to court records. A witness and neighbor of Doll’s alleged they heard commotion from Doll’s apartment that night.

The witness told police they allegedly heard a female yell, “Just give me my phone back, I want to leave,” and, “I can’t breathe,” according to a DeKalb Police Department incident report filed in DeKalb County Court on May 9.

Police allege Doll confessed, telling them he held a pillow over Gracie’s face for three minutes until she stopped breathing, according to court records. Doll said he placed Gracie’s body in a laundry basket before discarding it in a nearby dumpster, and then called paramedics for help after he injured his back lifting the girl’s body, authorities allege in court records.

DeKalb paramedics arrived at his home that night to assist him, not knowing Gracie’s body lay nearby.

Police allege while at the hospital, Doll threw Gracie’s cellphone in the trash in an attempt to cover up the crime.

Saturday, May 6, 2023:

Sasso reported her daughter missing to DeKalb police after the teen’s employer called the mother to say Gracie had not shown up for work Friday or Saturday.

Police and Sasso both said Gracie Sasso-Cleveland’s phone records show the teenager had last been at Doll’s apartment May 4.

Sasso said she began to search for her daughter Saturday. She spoke with Doll on the phone at least three times, she said. Sasso said she called Doll’s phone after his neighbors told her he was at the hospital. None of Gracie’s friends could find her, and the teenager hadn’t posted to her social media in days.

DeKalb police interviewed Doll at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, where he was being treated “for an injury,” according to court records. During that interview, Doll told police he hadn’t seen Gracie since May 3 after she left his apartment following an argument. Doll initially refused a consensual search of his apartment, police said.

Sunday, May 7, 2023:

DeKalb police obtained a warrant to search Doll’s home. Inside the building’s basement, they found female clothing that matched the description of clothes Gracie was last seen wearing, police wrote in court records.

Sasso said she returned to the apartment building and searched around the bushes outside but did not think to look in the dumpster.

That afternoon, Gracie Sasso-Cleveland’s body was found by DeKalb police inside a dumpster adjacent to Doll’s apartment building. The DeKalb Police Department released information confirming the girl’s death. Police announced they’d opened a homicide investigation and said a suspect was in custody but did not identify Doll.

Monday, May 8, 2023 around 4 p.m.:

DeKalb police announced charges for Timothy M. Doll, then 29, in connection to Gracie’s killing. Police also announced an autopsy was completed by the DeKalb County Coroner’s Office, confirming Gracie’s cause of death to be asphyxiation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2023:

Prosecutors with the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office filed a petition to deny bail to Doll.

Doll appeared in court for the first time for a bond hearing. He appeared to be wearing a back brace. He was appointed a special public defender, Andrew Nickel, as his defense. His bond hearing was delayed to May 15.

Thursday, May 12, 2023:

Mourners set up a makeshift memorial near a tree by where she was found.

May 16, 2023:

Doll’s defense lawyer filed a petition to substitute the judge in his case.

May 17, 2023:

Doll’s case was reassigned to Circuit Court Judge Phillip Montgomery at his lawyer’s request. Montgomery denied Doll bond, saying Doll “has a history of preying on minors, most especially minor females.”

June 14, 2023:

Doll pleaded not guilty to his charges.

In the year since, Sasso-Cleveland’s loved ones have protested multiple times outside the DeKalb County Courthouse, calling for stricter punishments for people convicted or who plead guilty to sex crimes where minors are victims. Montgomery has ordered multiple DNA tests of Doll at prosecutors’ requests as they seek to build their case for an expected jury trial.

May 1, 2023:

Prosecutors with the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office said they believe evidence collection is almost complete ahead of an expected murder trial for Doll in connection to the girl’s killing. No trial date has been set as of Friday.

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