NOVA STRONG: Pekin father mourns death of 11 month daughter, wants her story remembered

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An autopsy reveals 11-month-old Nova Tucker died of suffocation. Her mother faces involunatary manslaughter charges.

PEKIN, Ill. (WMBD) — Austin Tucker wants his daughter’s story to help others, and for at least four people, it already has.

“She liked to laugh. She liked music, and she loved Baby Shark,” said Tucker, 21, about his 11-month old daughter, Nova Melody Marie Tucker.

Nova died on September 24 following three days on life support at OSF St. Francis Media Center in Peoria. Tucker says she was a ‘daddy’s girl’ with the personality to light up any room.

“She’s just the light of my life,” said Tucker, of Pekin. “She knew she had me wrapped around her finger.”

The family said their final goodbyes during a funeral service Wednesday at Preston Hanley Funeral Home in Pekin.

The child’s mother, Angel VanDuker, 19, faces involuntary manslaughter charges in Tazewell County. Tucker married VanDuker earlier this year, and the couple gave birth to a baby boy two weeks before Nova’s death.

Austin Tucker pictured with his 11-month-old daughter, Nova. (Courtesy: Austin Tucker)

On September 21, police responded to their Pekin home and found the child unresponsive. Paramedics admitted the 11-month-old girl to UnityPoint Pekin Hospital and then transferred to OSF, where she was placed on life support and later died. An autopsy revealed Nova died of suffocation.

According to court records, police claim VanDuker told conflicting stories about what happened. Police say she originally said the child choked on a waffle, but medical personnel did not find any food or other obstructions in her airway.

The affidavit then states VanDuker eventually told an officer she was “frustrated and tired and had attempted to get Nova to lay down with her on the couch.” When the child did not cooperate, the document states VanDuker admitted she wrapped Nova in a blanket and “held the child tightly to her chest with her hand behind the baby’s head for a number of minutes until the child stopped squirming.” VanDuker allegedly fell asleep and found the child unresponsive upon waking up.

An autopsy revealed 11-month old Nova Tucker died of suffocation in late September 2020. (Courtesy: Austin Tucker)

“It’s definitely heartbreaking to me to consider that it is a possibility that it may not have been an accident,” said Tucker. “But I can’t say if it was or wasn’t because I don’t have that proof or knowledge at this time.”

Tucker says he wasn’t home when the alleged incident happened. He says he’d finished running errands and was ordering food for the family at a restaurant when his wife called him. The paramedics beat him to the home, and he drove to the hospital. When he arrived, doctors informed him Nova was not breathing and her heart had stopped, according to Tucker.

“It is really heartbreaking to be put through a situation like that as a parent,” said Tucker. “And I can’t express how hard it is because that is my little girl. She was only 11 months old, and now she is gone.”

Tucker says he wants his daughter’s legacy to impact the lives of others. Family members partnered with the Gift Of Hope, a not-for-profit organization providing organ & tissue donation service, and donated Nova’s organs to four other children.

The family is also considering reaching out to local advocacy agencies that focus on child abuse awareness.

Nova’s story has already spread across Central Illinois, with many sharing her picture with the hashtag #NOVAStrong or #JusticeforNova. Family members wore shirts with the former print at the baby girl’s funeral. Tucker says a person in the community volunteered to make the shirts to help with any expenses for the child and family.

“She truly made me a better person and I will never be able to thank her enough,” he said. “The circumstances are unfortunate but the benefit of the outcome is more important in her story being shared.”

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