April 15, 2002


 Years later, veterinary student's death remains a mystery

Posted April 1, 2002

Maria Caleel

A little more than 14 years ago, Maria Caleel, a first-year student at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois, was stabbed to death during the early morning hours of March 6, 1988, inside her Urbana, Ill., apartment.

Prosecutors have yet to charge anyone with Maria's murder, and with each grim anniversary of her death comes mounting desire to bring the killer to justice. Police are convinced that someone—perhaps a classmate—could provide authorities with the lead that at last breaks the case. In addition, there is a $50,000 reward for anyone offering information leading to an arrest.

"Somebody that knew her knows something," said Sgt. Sylvia Griffet of the Urbana Police Department. "They've either been able to keep their mouth shut about it, or maybe they have told someone."

Griffet was assigned the Caleel case in 1997 when she was a detective on the force. Griffet has since been promoted but continues working on the case, assisting Sgt. Patrick Connolly in the department's Investigations Section. Griffet explained that she knows it better than most, since many of the original investigators have moved on.

"This is probably [our] most important case that is unsolved at this point," Griffet said.

Maria Caleel grew up in Hinsdale, Ill., and attended Brown University in Rhode Island, where she majored in premed. The bright, promising student and horse enthusiast arrived at Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine in the fall of 1987 with plans for a career in equine research. "She got into horses at a very young age," Maria's mother, Annette Caleel, said. "[Maria] loved large animals and she knew she wanted to be a vet."

The 21-year-old first-year student shared an apartment with two college roommates, but both were away the weekend of the attack. What transpired that March morning is a mystery. What little is known is that Maria suffered a single stab wound to her right lower abdomen that cut her abdominal aorta. She managed to crawl out of her apartment where neighbors found her, then notified police at 3:28 a.m. When the responding police officer asked Maria who attacked her, she replied she didn't want to talk about it, according to Caleel.

Maria died during surgery a couple of hours later without having revealed her killer's identity. Incidentally, the Caleel family later sued the hospital for negligence, claiming the hospital failed to quickly operate on Maria to stop the internal bleeding. The hospital settled with the Caleels for $1 million, according to published reports.

Experts say the likelihood of dying from a single stab wound is remote. Most stabbing fatalities result from multiple injuries, Griffet explained. That, coupled with Maria's cryptic refusal to identify her attacker, has given rise to the theory that Maria's attacker may not have intended to kill her, after all; Maria's death may have actually been a terrible accident.

The investigation was hampered from the start. There were no signs the apartment had been broken into; nothing was stolen. A lack of evidence—including the murder weapon—and witnesses, left police with scant leads to follow. DNA testing was not available at the time, but some items from the crime scene are awaiting analysis presently at the Illinois State Police Crime Laboratory in Springfield, Ill. But due to a backlog at the laboratory, it is uncertain when the items will be tested, Griffet added.

Over the years, a ponderous case file of more than a thousand documents has been amassed. Furthermore, in the past two years, police have traveled to central Illinois and Chicago, even to Michigan, reinterviewing some of Maria's classmates.

Late last year, a forensic psychologist with the Vidocq Society in Philadelphia, a private organization of prosecutors and investigators who assist with unsolved cases, provided police with a profile of Maria's killer. The analysis described the offender as being very angry with Maria, perhaps harboring feelings of having been betrayed by her.

This person may have been waiting for Maria in her apartment the night of the attack. Consistent with the police theory, the offender may not have intended to kill her, but instead wanted to cause her "great bodily harm." What's more, there might have been a second offender in the apartment that morning. This individual may have been drawn into a plan to hurt Maria. But when she died, they became afraid, and have remained silent about the incident these many years.

Under no circumstances would Maria's killer agree to cooperate with authorities, according to the analysis. The person would be hostile toward police, even threatening legal action if asked to cooperate with the investigation. Griffet would not comment about whether a suspect fits the profile, only that it has "directed" the police investigation.

Annette Caleel hopes someone will soon be charged with her daughter's murder. The family seeks resolution for their peace of mind, she said, and added she cannot understand how the killer can go on with life without suffering guilt for what they did. "I just wish we had the answers to the puzzles that remain," she said.

Anyone with information about Maria Caleel's death is encouraged to contact Urbana Police at (217) 384-2320.