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updated: 10/27/2010 6:15 AM

Cops now looking for NIU student's killer

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  • Antinette Keller

      Antinette Keller

  • Emergency vehicles sit Tuesday just off the nature path at Prairie Park in DeKalb where Antinette "Toni" Keller was last seen.

       Emergency vehicles sit Tuesday just off the nature path at Prairie Park in DeKalb where Antinette "Toni" Keller was last seen.
    MARCO SANTANA | Staff Photographer

  • Antinette "Toni" Keller

      Antinette "Toni" Keller

 
 

Now it's a murder investigation.

DeKalb authorities made that grim announcement Tuesday as they continue to try to confirm the remains found in a wooded area near the Northern Illinois University campus are that of Antinette "Toni" Keller of Plainfield, who graduated this year from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.

The 18-year-old student was reported missing Oct. 14, and remains were found two days later in Prairie Park. But those remains were so badly burned they had to be sent to an out-of-state forensics expert to confirm they were human, DeKalb Police Chief Bill Feithen said at a Tuesday news conference.

He also said roughly 50 people have been interviewed and police have received several leads, but investigators do not yet know if the crime was committed by someone who knew Keller.

Feithen said he is not certain if the killer remains in the area, but students and community members should travel in groups and increase their safety awareness.

"This is a homicide investigation that has not been solved," Feithen said. "There is somebody that committed this. We can't say whether they are in DeKalb or not."

"The remains were found in close proximity to items found that are consistent with personal items Toni owned," Feithen said. The missing persons report cited an art portfolio.

Feithen said it could take several more days to positively identify the remains. An autopsy will not be conducted.

Meanwhile, campus security has been increased, and the police department has offered security escorts to students. The DeKalb Park District temporarily has closed Prairie Park, and Feithen said officials will look into security at the park, where bonfires and campfires occur regularly despite a park district ban on them.

Friends and relatives say Keller took a walk in the park Oct. 14 looking for ideas for an art project.

Her cousin, Mary Tarling, said that was typical of Keller, a freshman art major.

"She was always excited to try new things," Tarling said. "She was young, artsy, hopeful, very accepting and free in her thinking in all the right ways. She was very caring about others and in touch with other people's needs. Every promise of something good in this world was in Toni."

Some members of the NIU community have complained of not being fully informed of the progress and details of the investigation.

But Tarling said police have kept family members updated and that phone calls seeking information have been returned on a regular basis.

Also, she said, any information released to the public is first told to the family.

Although she says she has remained hopeful throughout the search, Tarling said Saturday's reclassification of the missing person's search to a death investigation was a crushing blow. Now, family members await word as the probe continues.

"Obviously, we are anxious and trying to be patient," she said. "We can't get answers fast enough."

Kathy Buettner, vice president for university relations, said the school will grieve with the family, and crisis counselors will be available 24 hours a day for community members.

Residence halls have been placed under restricted access, but classes continue as scheduled.

"This is a very sad day for all of us at NIU," Buettner said. "The news we received is devastating and very grim. We are a community that has been tested before and we will pull together and get through this."

When Keller did not return after her walk, a neighbor called police the following evening. Several student and police searches were conducted since she was reported missing.

The park is just south of a Union Pacific railroad line, whose investigators are working on the case, as are Illinois State Police and the FBI.

Even as officials held their news briefing Tuesday, investigators continued to search the park. Fire and police vehicles sat behind a taped off section near where the body was found.

The school has established an information hotline at (815) 753-4648 and is available from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Hours for an overnight shuttle service have been extended and now run from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. until further notice.

Police ask that anyone with information call police at (815) 748-8407 or (815) 753-8477.

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