A simple high school yearbook inscription from one honor student to another became a promise for justice that stretched across decades.
Tandi Stephens Schroeder's Cahokia High School yearbook was signed by her friend and schoolmate, Nicole Willis: "FF (Friends Forever). RMA (Remember Me Always). 2 cute + 2 be = 4 gotten. Nicole."
Just a few months later, Willis, 16, was walking home from a bus stop at the intersection of 68th and State streets in Centreville. The next morning, Oct. 4, 1989, Willis' grandfather found her partially nude body in an empty lot at 215 N. 69th St. -- about a block from her home. She had been beaten and sexually assaulted.
That day at school, Willis' cousin was called to the principal's office. Schroeder remembers hearing the screams, then hearing about what happened to Nicole.
"It didn't seem real," Schroeder said. "I didn't know anyone who had been murdered."
For a time, the prime suspect in Willis' murder was Lorenzo Fayne, a serial killer who targeted children in East St. Louis. Schroeder was initially comforted by the fact that the man who so many thought killed her friend was in prison for five murders committed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But Fayne consistently denied he murdered Willis. And police said there was no physical evidence connecting Fayne to Willis.
In 2001, police said they didn't have a good suspect for Willis' murder.
Marva Willis didn't know who left her daughter's body in the vacant lot. She turned to God to handle Nicole's murder and not knowing who did it.
"I am a strong Christian. I rely on my faith," Willis said. "I trusted in God to get me through this and a lot of things that will come."
As years passed without an arrest, Schroeder wanted answers. She couldn't forget Nicole, couldn't forget that no one had been caught and made to pay for the murder of her friend, couldn't forget that inscription.
"I became obsessed," she said. "My goal was to get justice for Nicole."
Around 2009, Schroeder was a financial adviser in Arkansas and called the Illinois State Police to ask for a detective who worked cold cases. She got connected with Illinois State Police Special Agent Dave Wasmuth. She kept calling.
"He was a godsend. He never got impatient with me calling all the time," Schroeder said. "He would say, 'I've got her file right here.'"
Wasmuth could not be reached for comment.
At Wasmuth's request, Schroeder said then Centreville Assistant Police Chief James Mister found the evidence in Willis' case and it was sent to the lab to check for DNA.
A DNA profile was recovered and loaded into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, in June 2010, Schroeder said. There wasn't immediately a match.
On June 30, 2010, Carlos P. Garrett, 51, began serving a six-year prison sentence on a drug distribution charge out of Montgomery County. As part of his sentence, Garrett was required to submit his DNA for testing. It was then entered into CODIS where the DNA profile from the Willis murder was already waiting.
After the match, police went to work building a case against Garrett.
On Monday, Garrett was scheduled for release from state prison. He discovered that day he faced first-degree murder charges for Willis' death in St. Clair County. He was picked up and transferred to the St. Clair County Jail, where he was being held in lieu of $1 million bail on Wednesday.
Garrett, who would have been 28 on Oct. 3, 1989, wasn't on the radar for Willis' murder, Schroeder said.
"I didn't know who it was going to be. If they knew her, they would know what a great person he took from us. And that bothered me," Schroeder said. "If they didn't know her, he should hear what he took away and hopefully he will feel remorse for it."
In the 1980s, Garrett was a boxer who trained at Pop Miles Athletic Club in East St. Louis. Garrett has no previous felony convictions in St. Clair County, but around the time of Willis' death, he was charged with public indecency and patronizing prostitutes. Two months before Willis was killed, Garrett was convicted in St. Clair County of contributing to the delinquency of a child.
"Our focus on cold cases is showing results and there will be more to come," said St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. "Going above and beyond is important for unsolved murders because the lack of closure hurts family and undermines public trust in the justice system."
Garrett's arrest means closure for Marva Willis, who said she intends to attend the trial.
"I'm prepared for what may come," Willis said.
For Schroeder, Garrett's arrest is the culmination of a schoolgirl's promise she didn't know she made -- to be a friend forever, to remember Nicole, always.
"I will take delayed justice to no justice any day."
Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at email@example.com or 618-239-2570.