Family continues to plead for answers in 2018 death of son Tyler Smith as Illinois State Police launch investigation

Tyler Smith worked hard to achieve his goals.

Even as a child, he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up. He wanted to be in the military and be in law enforcement.

His mission? To capture the bad guy.

In a book saved by his mother, scrawled in a child’s handwriting is, “Someday I will be an army man.” And on another page, “Someday I will be a policeman. I’ll capture a bad guy.”

“He worked so hard for his goals,” Tyler’s mother, Sandra Halsne told Dateline. “And I believe he chose those professions because he wanted to help others. That’s just who he was. He wanted to make a difference in this world.”

Tyler enlisted in the Army National Guard in December 2013. He graduated from Rochelle High School and went on to Western Illinois University where he graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a minor in homeland security.

But he wasn’t done yet. After graduation, Tyler applied to the San Jose Police Academy in California. He was one of 50 selected out of roughly 5,000 candidates, his mother said. He eventually planned to be a canine officer and then a DEA agent.

“He set that goal, and he worked hard to accomplish it,” Sandra told Dateline. “He was always so motivated and followed through with his plans. He did a lot in just 23 years.”

After spending the summer of 2018 in California preparing to enter the police academy, the 23-year-old returned to Rochelle, Illinois to finish up details of his transfer to San Jose.

“He fell in love with California and couldn’t wait to start his life there,” Sandra said. “He was an outdoorsy guy. He loved hiking, scuba diving and snowboarding. He had even been skydiving. And his next adventure was going to be surfing.”

Just before Tyler and his mother were to embark on their two-week journey to California, Tyler decided to visit some friends from his National Guard unit in Galesburg, Illinois.

On the evening of September 14, 2018, Tyler called his mom and his father, Keith Smith, to let them know he had arrived safely at a friend’s place.

It was the last time they spoke to their son.

The next day, Tyler was supposed to report to his monthly National Guard training drill in nearby Macomb, Illinois. He never showed up.

Later that day, one of Tyler’s friends who had been out with him the night before, called Tyler’s parents and asked if they had heard from him. He explained that they had gotten separated the night before and that Tyler never showed up for drill.

“I knew right away that something was wrong,” Tyler’s mother Sandra told Dateline. “Tyler would not have missed drill. This was an important one for him. Especially right before his transfer.”

Tyler’s parents jumped in the car and drove the two hours from their home in Rochelle to the house in Galesburg where Tyler had said he would be staying. The car Tyler had been driving was still in the friend’s driveway. There was no sign of Tyler.

“We went to the police department and were waiting for someone to talk to us when a pizza delivery guy walked in and started chatting with us,” Sandra said. “Then he asked, ‘Is this related to that body that was found in a creek?’”

Sandra told Dateline that in that moment, her world came crashing down.

“I knew in my heart it was Tyler,” Sandra said. “And my heart just shattered into a million pieces.”

According to initial reports by the Galesburg Police Department, Tyler’s body was found by a passerby around 7 p.m. on September 15, 2018, lying face down in about two inches of water in a drainage canal, which is called the Cedar Fork Creek. He was only 23 years old.

The canal is approximately a block and a half north of Casey’s general store in Galesburg, directly behind Hansen Lumber Company.

It was just hours earlier that Tyler was last seen in Galesburg with his friends. According to a timeline pieced together by his parents, Tyler went out bar hopping with his friends that night until they got separated for unknown reasons in the Corner Connection area.

According to the timeline, Tyler was captured on the Wells Fargo ATM camera at 10:42 p.m. where he withdrew $100. His mother thought it was odd that he withdrew cash after he had been using his debit card at previous restaurants and bars all evening.

Then around 11:05 p.m., Tyler attempted to call one of the friends he had been out with. But there was no answer. Sandra said she believed this is when they became separated.

For the next 40 minutes, there were several calls and texts exchanged between Tyler and various friends while he was walking around downtown Galesburg.

“He had never been to Galesburg before,” Sandra told Dateline. “So after he got separated from his friends, he didn’t know where to go.”

At 11:46 p.m., Tyler sent a Snapchat message to another friend, stating, “I don’t know where I am.”

“While going through Tyler’s phone, we noticed the health monitor,” Sandra said. “The monitor noted that Tyler stopped moving at 11:52 p.m. on that Friday. He never moved again.”

Tyler’s phones continued to receive calls into the early morning hours of Saturday, September 15. At 6:21 a.m., one of Tyler’s friends, who had been with him the previous night called to see if he was coming to drill. The phone did not ring and went straight to voicemail.

Within 24 hours of Tyler’s body being found, an autopsy indicated the manner of death to be accidental drowning and that no foul play was suspected, according to initial reports by the Knox County Coroner and the Galesburg Police Department. It was reported that his injuries were consistent with a fall and that Tyler’s blood alcohol level was 0.246 percent, which is three times the legal limit. The cause of death was ruled undetermined.

However, Tyler’s family believes otherwise.

“When I was finally able to see my son, I knew that this wasn’t an accident,” Sandra told Dateline. “There were multiple injuries to his face. Something more happened to him. He didn’t just accidentally drown in a few inches of water.”

Sandra told Dateline that that surveillance video from an ATM appeared to show Tyler in a good state. She said she and her husband also spoke to people who were with Tyler who said they didn’t notice that he was stumbling or incoherent.

“We understand he was drinking that night, but we don’t believe he would have even been in that area,” Sandra said. She added that there was a steep concrete incline into the drainage canal where Tyler’s body was located and said she doesn’t believe it would be possible for him to get into that area easily.

Tyler’s parents said they suspect foul play in Tyler’s death and believe he was restrained and brought down into the canal due to the position of his body, his injuries, and the marks they say were on his wrists.

“What doesn’t make sense is why someone would do this to our son,” Tyler’s father, Keith Smith, told Dateline. “He was such a good kid. Had so many friends, from all different walks of life. He did everything he could to help others. He made us so proud.”

As Tyler’s parents mourned their son and planned his funeral, they continued to push for answers. They conducted their own investigation. They spoke to people in the community. They hired a private investigator for a short time. But it wasn’t until 2019 that they started getting some answers.

Mitchell Drake, a retired police officer with 14 years of investigative experience, specifically homicide, in Cook County, Illinois, agreed to look at Tyler’s case.

“At first I thought this would be a ‘bad things happen to good people’ case and that there wasn’t much to be done,” Drake told Dateline. “But after seeing the report, I knew something was very wrong. This wasn’t just an accidental drowning.”

Drake concluded that the crime scene analysis by the Galesburg Police Department was incomplete, contaminated and did not follow established protocol to thoroughly investigate Tyler’s death, “No crime scene technician was contacted or responded to the scene.”

Drake told Dateline that according to the autopsy report, Tyler’s body was found face down in two to three inches of water with his feet close to the canal wall. He believes the way the body was found is suspicious. He also said that, “There was no examination of his hands for foreign DNA or scrapings taken from underneath the nails and no instruction was given to the pathologist to conduct those scrapings.”

Drake continued to say that “there are wounds on both sides of the victim’s face and head and marks around the wrist, back of his hand, and back that are not adequately explained.”

His conclusion is that, “Tyler Smith likely suffered a battery by persons not yet known that directly led to his death. He was likely unconscious prior to his final placement in Cedar Fork Creek.

Tyler’s parents told Dateline they were emotional when they received the news of Mitchell Drake’s findings. They added that they hoped this would be the push needed for the Illinois State Police to launch an investigation.

And it worked.

Thanks to Mitchell Drake’s findings, the Illinois State Police decided to take over the case.

In July 2020, Tyler’s body was exhumed and a second autopsy was performed. Tyler’s parents and Mitchell Drake would not release details of the findings to Dateline this time, but told Dateline they feel like they’re on the right track of finding out what happened to Tyler that night.

Two days before the 2-year anniversary of Tyler’s death, the Illinois State Police Division of Criminal Investigation officials announced that they have launched an investigation into his death.

According to a press release, the Illinois State Police is requesting assistance from the public and asks that anyone with any information regarding Tyler’s death call Illinois State Police Zone 2 Investigations.

After two years of frustration, Tyler’s parents are finally feeling like there might be some hope.

“We just want to know what happened to our son,” Tyler’s father Keith told Dateline. “It’s been so frustrating these past two years, without answers, but now we just need to move forward. Get justice for our boy.”

In the meantime, Tyler’s family and friends continue to keep his memory alive. Facebook pages “Justice for Tyler Smith” and “Pledges for Tyler Smith Information Reward” keep the public up-to-date on the case.

Each September since Tyler’s death, a 5K run/walk has been held to give back to the community.

“He loved being active and running and competing in races,” Sandra said. “And most of all, he loved giving back to the community.

Sandra added that Tyler, who was biracial, had hoped to get involved with the community when he moved to San Jose, to work with diversity organizations.

Tyler’s parents told Dateline that without the support of their own community, they’d be lost. Through fundraisers and donations, the family has collected $25,000 for a reward to anyone who has information regarding Tyler’s death.

Sandra told Dateline that she believes if Tyler had achieved his goal and become the police officer he dreamed of being, he would’ve done whatever he could to solve a case like this.

“That was his dream since he was a kid, he wanted to capture a bad guy,” Sandra said. “And now I hope we’re able to do that for him. We need to catch the bad guy who did this to our son.”