Friends and family ‘grieving the loss’ of missing Lake Villa man
BY KATLYN SMITH AND ELISABETH MISTRETTA firstname.lastname@example.org | @Katlyn_eSmith October 4, 2013 9:46AM
A memorial was erected Friday, Oct. 4, near the apartments on the 900 block of Westermoreland Drive in Vernon Hills, where the body of missing Lake Villa man Nick Steward, 33, was found Thursday. One mourner, signed Greg, wrote "Thanks to everybody's help searching for Nick. Shows how much love is out there." | Katlyn Smith/Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 6, 2013 6:06AM
The Lake County Coroner said Friday he must conduct DNA tests to confirm whether a body found in a Vernon Hills field is missing Lake Villa man Nick Steward. But officials said they believe the remains are those of the man who disappeared Sept. 20 and that Steward, 33, killed himself.
The body was badly decomposed due to exposure to wildlife, making DNA tests necessary, Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd said. But the man suffered two cut wounds to his right wrist and a single cut wound to his left wrist, Rudd said, adding that he also had a cut to his left upper arm.
The coroner said there also appeared to be a cut to his neck, but it could have been made by prolonged exposure to wildlife.
DNA results should be available on Monday, Rudd said.
After nearly five hours searching a densely-wooded area Thursday, Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office officials said they believe they found Steward’s remains.
“We have reason to believe that these are the remains of Nicholas Steward based on a number of personal items that were discovered on or near the body,” officials said in a prepared statement Friday.
Steward, 33, a former Vernon Hills resident, had been missing for nearly two weeks.
While on another police call, a Vernon Hills officer noticed Steward’s white, 2008 Saturn Aura in a nearby parking lot of an apartment complex on the 900 block of Westmoreland Drive based on missing person information provided by the Lake Villa police department and Steward’s family and friends.
That launched a search of the grounds, which drew roughly a dozen police and fire departments. In addition, several K9 units spent about three hours scouring the massive wooded land adjacent to the lot where the car was discovered.
Officials said Steward’s wife and family were immediately notified by police and the State’s Attorney’s Office, and the investigation is ongoing.
The vehicle was found in good condition, a Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman said. Authorities took it to a secure location to search for evidence, and said its initial appearance did not indicate foul play.
Police combed the area until just before midnight Thursday, drawing a crowd of onlookers that remained for much of the evening.
Both police and fire officials focused their search on a massive wooded area, which abuts the apartment complex’s south end and sits north of Abbot Laboratories. K9 units were called off at about 9:45 p.m. and left the scene completely 45 minutes later.
By 10:45, 15 minutes after discovering the body, police brought an eight-wheel ATV into the field — which is separated from the apartment complex by a roughly 5-foot wire fence — and the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force returned to the site for a second time Thursday.
Both left the scene just before midnight.
Numerous law enforcement agencies also descended on the area throughout the evening Thursday, including the Lake County sheriff’s office, Lake County Forest Preserve Police, McHenry police, Linconshire police, the Countryside Fire Protection District and the Vernon Hills, Mundelein and Gurnee police departments.
Traffic on Westmoreland was funneled down to one lane in certain areas to accommodate the investigation.
Resident Stacy Schwager, 26, said police questioned neighbors for clues, including her and her roommate, Brian Kestin, 30.
“They asked us if we had seen or heard anything unusual and questions like that,” she said Thursday.
Schwager also said the car, which was parked next to the field, looked “totally pristine and normal” from the exterior.
Schwager and Kestin share an apartment overlooking the lot where the car was found. They said their neighborhood is typically a quiet area.
Kestin was listening to a police scanner when he heard of the investigation. He opened the apartment window to see officers cordoning off the parking lot.
“This is our tiny, little, quiet section,” Schwager said. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen here. This is insane.”
Steward was last seen Sept. 20 as he left his job at MC Machinery Systems Inc. in Wood Dale, where he works as a mechanic, and he was driving the Saturn Aura.
The Illinois Tollway Authority told police Steward’s car did go through the northbound Touhy Avenue Toll Plaza northbound on I-294 at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, and he also had a telephone conversation with his employer at about the same time.
The disappearance of the Libertyville High School alum sparked a massive, volunteer-run search designed to cover 225 square miles that stretched from Lake Forest to Wood Dale Sunday, Sept. 29.
A Facebook page, “Find Nick Steward,” also was set up with family photos of the married father of a young son.
His wife, Megan Steward, reported him missing after he didn’t return home from work. Earlier this week, she thanked the more than 100 volunteers that gathered for the search.
“From the bottom of my heart, I am just so stunned by the outreach and the support from the community and just everyone who has been just so wonderful to us,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll find something that will help us today and bring Nick home to us.”
•Contributing: Ruth Fuller