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Pastimes : Murder Mystery: Who Killed Yale Student Suzanne Jovin?

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From: Jeffrey S. Mitchell7/20/2008 1:11:06 AM
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Suzanne Jovin case

Suzanne Nahuela Jovin (b. January 26, 1977, Göttingen, Germany - d. December 4, 1998, New Haven, Connecticut) was a senior at Yale University in New Haven, CT when she was brutally stabbed to death off campus. The city of New Haven and Yale University have offered a combined $150,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of Jovin’s killer [ ct.gov  ]. The crime remains unsolved.

Jovin was born and raised in Göettingen, Germany, the third of four daughters, to scientists Donna and Thomas Jovin. Fluent in German, English, French, and Spanish, and a visitor of four continents, Jovin chose to expand on her passion for international diplomacy and public service in college, majoring in political science and international studies. It was this love of public service – of doing good for others – that motivated Jovin to join the New Haven chapter of Best Buddies. Jovin also volunteered as a tutor through the Yale Tutoring in Elementary Schools program, sang in both the Freshman Chorus and the Bach Society Orchestra, co-founded the German Club, and worked for three years in the Davenport dining hall. [ web.archive.org  ]

The murder

After dropping off the penultimate draft of her senior essay on the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, at approximately 4:15pm on December 4, 1998, Suzanne Jovin began preparations for a pizza-making party she had organized at the Trinity Lutheran Church on 292 Orange St. for the local chapter of Best Buddies, an international organization that brings together students and mentally disabled adults. By 8:30pm, after staying late to help clean up, she was driving another volunteer home in a borrowed university station wagon. At about 8:45 she returned the car to the Yale owned lot on the corner of Edgewood Ave and Howe St and proceeded to walk two blocks to her second floor apartment at 258 Park Street, upstairs from a Yale police substation.

Sometime prior to 8:50, a few friends passed by Jovin's window and asked her if she wanted to join them at the movies. Jovin said no-- that she was planning to do school work that night. At 9:02, she logged onto her Yale e-mail account and told a friend to she was going to leave a GRE study book and CD-ROM for her in her (Jovin’s) lobby. At 9:10 she logged off. It is uncertain if she made or received any calls; calls within Yale's telephone system were not traceable. She wore the same soft, low-cut hiking boots, jeans, and maroon fleece pullover she had worn at the pizza party. [ web.archive.org  ]

Very shortly thereafter, Jovin headed out on foot to the Yale police communications center under the arch at Phelps Gate on Yale’s Old Campus to return the keys to the car she had borrowed. Shortly before reaching her destination, at about 9:22, Jovin encountered classmate Peter Stein who was out for a walk. Stein is quoted by the Yale Daily News as saying "She did not mention plans to go anywhere or do anything else afterward. She just said that she was very, very tired and that she was looking forward to getting a lot of sleep." [ Message 12186579 ] Stein also said Jovin was not wearing a backpack, was holding one or more sheets of white 8 ½ x 11 inch paper in her right hand, that she was walking at a "normal" pace and did not look nervous or excited, and that their encounter lasted only two to three minutes [ Message 12314024 ].

Based on the timeline, it is presumed Jovin returned the keys to the borrowed car at about 9:25. She was reportedly last seen alive at between 9:25-9:30pm walking northeast on College Street, but not yet past Elm Street, by another Yale student who was returning from a Yale hockey game. The two never spoke. [ web.archive.org  ]

At 9:55, a passerby dialed 911 to report a woman bleeding at the corner of Edgehill Rd and East Rock Rd, a posh neighborhood 1.9 miles from the Yale campus where Jovin was last seen alive. When police arrived at 9:58, they found Jovin fatally stabbed 17 times in the back of her head and neck and her throat slit. She was lying on her stomach, feet in the road, body on the grassy area between the road and the sidewalk. She was fully clothed and still wearing her watch and earrings, with a crumpled up dollar bill in her pocket; her wallet later found to be still in her room. Suzanne Jovin was officially pronounced dead at 10:26 at Yale New Haven Hospital [ Message 13108310 ].

The Evidence

Many items and observations have been reported by the police and media as possible evidence over the nine plus years of the investigation, much of which has either been discredited, deemed hearsay, unreliable, or been explained. The most reliable physical evidence appears to be: 1) DNA found in scrapings taken from under the fingernails of Jovin’s left hand [ wtnh.com  ], 2) Jovin’s fingerprints and an unknown person’s partial palmprint found on a Fresca bottle in the bushes in front of where her body was found [ Message 15594543 ], and 3) the tip of an estimated 4-5 inch non-serrated carbon steel blade lodged in her skull [ Message 13108310 ]. The most reliable observation appears to be the sighting by more than one individual of a tan or brown van at the precise location where Jovin’s body was found.

The existence of the tan/brown van was not made public by the New Haven Police (NHPD) until March 27, 2001, when they wrote: “witnesses have said that as they approached the corner of East Rock and Edgehill Roads, they saw a tan or brown van stopped in the roadway facing east, immediately adjacent to where Suzanne was found.”[ cityofnewhaven.com  ] Although members of the Yale faculty had reported the police were asking privately about the van at the inception of the investigation, no explanation has ever been given why it took more than two years to release the information to the public. Although the New Haven Register reported on November 8, 2001, that the NHPD had impounded a brown van as part of the Jovin investigation, no link has ever been confirmed [ Message 16626772 ]. There have been no reports of anyone witnessing Jovin enter or exit any vehicle nor has the observed van apparently been found.

The existence of the Fresca bottle came to light on April 1, 2001, by Hartford Courant reporter Les Gura [ Message 15594543 ] The only store in the vicinity of campus that sold Fresca open at the hour Jovin was last seen alive was Krauszers market on York St near Elm St – precisely one block south of Jovin’s apartment. Although Krauszers maintained a video recording of its customers for security purposes, the police never asked to view their tape and have never reported seeking assistance from store employees or customers about whether they had seen anything unusual that night. The foreign palmprint has yet to be identified.

The first mention of the existence of the DNA was on October 26, 2001, following a solicitation by the New Haven police for colleagues, friends and acquaintances of Jovin to come forward and give DNA samples voluntarily[ Message 16567899 ]. No explanation has ever been given why it took nearly three years for the fingernail scrapings to be tested for DNA. No match has yet been found.

The investigation

A mere four days after the murder, the name of Jovin’s thesis advisor, James Van de Velde, was leaked to the New Haven Register as the prime suspect in the case. Fifteen months later, criminologist John Pleckaitis, then a sergeant at the New Haven Police Department, admitted to Hartford Courant reporter Les Gura: "From a physical evidence point of view, we had nothing to tie him to the case ... I had nothing to link him to the crime." [ Message 15594543 ] Famed criminologist Henry Lee’s offer to reconstruct the crime scene was accepted by the police but for reasons unknown never acted upon [ Message 13020588 ].

Based on subsequent questioning of the Yale community, and based on Van de Velde’s name being released prior to the completion of his police interrogation, it became apparent the NHPD had for reasons unknown convinced itself that Van de Velde and Jovin must have been having an illicit or unrequited affair-- a notion that friends of Jovin, especially her boyfriend, found offensive, false and wholly unlikely [ Message 12231664 ]. Nevertheless, with no physical evidence nor a motive, the NHPD continued to maintain that their naming of Van de Velde was not presumptuous. An apparently unquestioning Yale, under the guidance of Dean Richard Brodhead, then chose to cancel Van de Velde’s spring 1999 classes citing his presence as a “major distraction” for students, thus destroying his reputation and academic career [ Message 12231664 ]. Brodhead would later become the President of Duke University where he became best known for his rush to judgment in disbanding their lacrosse team based on equally dubious accusations that were later proven to be false and malicious. [ article.nationalreview.com  ]

In 2000, Van de Velde and colleagues strongly and eventually publicly encouraged Yale to hire their own private investigators to study the case. In December, 2000, under additional pressure from the Jovin family, Yale relented and hired the team of Andrew Rosenzweig, former chief investigator with the New York district attorney's office, and Bill Harnett, a former homicide detective from the Bronx, NY [ Message 18869513 ]. It was at their insistence that the NHPD finally allowed the state forensics lab to analyze Jovin’s fingernail scrapings for DNA. Neither the resulting DNA nor Fresca bottle fingerprint was a match to Van de Velde, prompting Harnett to label Van de Velde “Richard Jewell with a Ph.D” [ yaledailynews.com  ] [ Jewell was a hero security guard falsely accused by the FBI of the Centennial Park bombing during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA ]. No explanation has ever been given why Yale has chosen to keep the results of their investigation a secret.

The NHPD responded by contacting the US Navy, Van de Velde’s primary employer at the time, urging them to reconsider their contract work with him-- going so far as to travel to Washington DC to offer their “assistance.” A thorough review was conducted that resulted in Van de Velde being allowed to keep his job and his security clearance [ Message 19563441 ]. Sensing the investigation had dead-ended on him, Van de Velde undertook a letter writing campaign urging the Connecticut State cold case unit to take over the case[ Message 19797309 ]. When the Chief State’s Attorney refused, Van de Velde began pressing the police to undertake additional state-of-the-art forensic tests on the evidence [ Message 19757665 ].

On September 1, 2006, nearly eight years after the murder, the Jovin investigation was officially classified a cold case and moved to the Connecticut’s Cold Case Unit [ Message 24102344 ]. However, the case was never added to the Cold Case Unit web site nor was there any mention of the reward being offered—prompting Van de Velde once again to write letters of complaint. On November 29, 2007, Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark admitted that the case had been secretly reassigned back to New Haven in June of that year, this time under the auspices of a handpicked team of four retired detectives. According to Clark: “no person is a suspect in the crime, and everyone is a suspect in the crime.” [ ct.gov  ]

Litigation

On January 12, 2001, Van de Velde sued Quinnipiac University for wrongfully dismissing him from a graduate program he was enrolled in there [ Message 15253819 ]. Van de Velde agreed to drop the lawsuit on January 26, 2004, in exchange for $80,000. [ Message 19737648 ]

In December 7, 2001, Van de Velde sued the NHPD claiming they violated his civil rights by naming only him publicly as a suspect while claiming that other suspects existed as well [ Message 16764579 ]. Van de Velde added Yale as a defendant on April 15, 2003. [ yaledailynews.com  ] Both suits were dismissed on March 29, 2004 [ Message 19965859 ]. Van de Velde appealed, but in April 2006 Connecticut District Court Chief Judge Robert Chatigny ruled against him. Van de Velde asked Chatigny to reconsider in May of 2006, resulting in the judge reinstating just the state claims on December 11, 2007. [ Message 24130059 ]

Theories

Google satellite maps of Jovin’s most probable route on the night of her murder may be viewed at: Message 24166152

Jovin’s route across Yale’s gated Old Campus, which is off-limits to cars, makes it quite unlikely she was trailed by someone in a vehicle. The timeline, distance to where she was found dead (1.9 miles), her clothing, what she said to friends, etc. strongly indicate a vehicle was used to transport her off campus, making it also quite unlikely Jovin was followed on foot. Combined, this significantly lowers the chances Jovin was stalked.

The witness who saw her on the Old Campus said she wasn’t holding a Fresca, which means she most likely bought one (note: Jovin was known to like Fresca, making it less likely someone had offered her one randomly) at Krauszers market on the corner of York St and Elm St. on her way back home. The only place for a car to be introduced here would be in front of the store or, more likely, on the secluded stretch of Elm between York and Park next to, or in front of, the boarded up Daily Café.

To establish a “she knew her killer” scenario would require, after just telling people how very tired she was and looking forward to being home to rest, in the one-block area between Krauszers and her apartment: a) she ran into someone she knew well enough to get into their car, b) she had a compelling reason to get into their car, c) whatever conversation that took place got heated enough in a matter of minutes to lead to a vicious murder, *and* d) this unscheduled encounter involved someone who just happened to have a knife on them. Possible, yes, but not probable.

The Fresca bottle containing both Jovin’s fingerprints and an unknown person’s palmprint was found in the bushes in front of where her body was found. People who flee from a car driven by an attacker likely do not take their soda bottles with them. People who are run down outside and stabbed 17 times would likely scream loudly and consistently for help, put up a fight, and leave a trail of a massive amount of blood. There is no evidence any of the above happened, let alone all of it. The most likely scenario is Jovin was attacked in the tan/brown van observed by several witnesses and then dumped, along with the Fresca bottle, which would account for her proximity to the road. That Jovin a) did not drop her Fresca prior to entering the vehicle, b) was not able to flee the vehicle, and c) had no defensive wounds, likely implies overwhelming force, suggesting perhaps more than one person was involved in her abduction.

While multiple stab wounds often indicates a crime of passion, it can indicate rage or drug use as well. As foreign DNA does not ordinarily transfer to underneath one’s fingernails with merely “routine” contact, it is reasonable to conclude that Jovin scratching her attacker might have precipitated his rage. However, given a) the reported 4-5 inch size of the knife used to stab Jovin, b) that the tip of the knife broke off in her skull, c) that the killer saw fit to slit her throat, likely after stabbing her 17 times, and d) that she was found barely alive, one has to consider the possibility that perhaps the flimsy nature of the murder weapon necessitated inflicting the high number of wounds.

As Jovin was fully clothed with no reported tears in her outfit and no defensive wounds, while an attempted sexual assault can not be ruled out, there is no basis to assume this was the motive. As Jovin was found in a residential area that was void of ATMs, was still wearing her jewelry, and still had a dollar bill in her pocket, it is hard to assume that her abduction was a robbery gone bad… unless the killer became enraged that she had left her wallet in her apartment or unless the killers were looking for quick cash en route down East Rock Rd to East Rock Park to buy drugs, a known druggie hangout. Some have speculated Jovin’s thesis on Osama bin Laden may have made her a terrorist target, but given she used no live sources, given this was nearly three years prior to 9-11, and given Al-Qaeda has no history of such attacks, this notion seems quite improbable.

External links

* [ Message 15594543 Are You Wrong About James Van de Velde? ] [ [ Hartford Courant ] ] April 1, 2001

* [ cityofnewhaven.com  New Haven Police Department Summary of the Case ] March 27, 2001

* [ web.archive.org  Murder Most Yale ] [ [ Vanity Fair ] ] August, 1999

* [ Subject 32074 Public message board on Silicon Investor discussing the case ]

* [ Message 24199622 Avenues to Investigate in the Jovin Cold Case Homicide ]

- Jeff
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