Re: 9/12/99 - His Life as a Murder Suspect |
From the New York Times Magazine
September 12, 1999, Sunday
His Life as a Murder Suspect
By James Bennet
This is what James R. Van de Velde -- high-school student council president, cold-war diplomat, popular Yale political science lecturer -- did after night fell last Dec. 4, according to James Van de Velde: he worked late in his Yale office; he went home and watched an episode of 'Friends' that he had taped; he reheated a month-old burrito, and he surfed the channels, lingering on Discovery to watch the big cats.
This is what James Van de Velde -- itinerant academic, bachelor, mysterious military man -- did last Dec. 4, according to the suspicions of the New Haven Police and of many members of what they call the Yale community: under the full moon, he brought one of his most promising students to New Haven's most elegant neighborhood, where he threw her to the curbside grass beneath a small oak tree and stabbed her in her back and neck, 17 times.
Van de Velde, who is 39, has been a named suspect -- the only named suspect -- in the murder of Suzanne Jovin, a Yale senior, for going on nine months. He has never been charged. But layer by layer, his life has been whittled down. He has no job now and few prospects, just a growing pile of rejections. His casual friends and colleagues have dropped away, leaving a small, hard core of loyalists. He cannot, of course, date. His savings are dwindling, and his legal bills are rising. His upbringing, his career and his social life have been publicly fly-specked by journalists searching backward, through the darkest of lenses, for signs of a murderer in the making.
There is no hint that Van de Velde will escape this no man's land soon, if ever, by being officially declared either an indictable O.J. Simpson or a grievously wronged Richard Jewell. As he waits, he is, of course, presumed innocent -- everyone says so. His problem is that he can't prove he is not guilty. His problem is that it is not impossible that he did it.
For all the damage it has done Van de Velde, his branding as a suspect has calmed his former neighbors and especially Yale, where the murder of a student on campus eight years ago heightened fears about the university's proximity to city streets. As long as others have accepted what the police have said -- that Suzanne Jovin knew her killer, that Van de Velde is suspected -- they have not been afraid.
For a city of so many trained skeptics, this is strangely docile behavior, since the police have disclosed no evidence to support either contention. The only two certain, central facts about this dark and sorrowful case are these: a young woman is dead, and unless her killer has been hit by a truck or jailed for another crime, he is on the loose. The case has tested the media's standards and Yale's principles, and it has ruined one man's life. Or else not ruined it enough.
I should say right away that I did not go looking for this story. Earlier this summer, Van de Velde decided to go on offense by speaking publicly about his predicament for the first time. He retained a public-relations adviser in New York named John Kim, and Kim offered me access to Van de Velde because Kim and I had known each other distantly in our own undergraduate days at Yale, in the mid-80's. Van de Velde was baffled by his situation and he was tired of waiting for the police to clear him, he said when we met in June for the first time in a rent-by-the-hour New York office. 'I want the life I had completely back,' he said evenly. 'And I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to get it.'
By then, I had read the stories about his case in the Connecticut papers, the Yale papers and elsewhere. I knew that he had graduated from Yale in 1982, that he had earned a doctorate in international security studies from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts and that he had joined the Naval Reserves, where he was an intelligence officer. I knew that after working for the Bush Administration at arms-control talks in Geneva he had become a Yale lecturer and dean of one of its residential colleges, the raucous cloisters where most undergraduates live.
From the clips I also knew less appealing facts: that his career had taken perplexing swerves in the previous year, as he abruptly left a new job at Stanford, returned to teaching at Yale and became an intern with a local television station; that he lived about half a mile down St. Ronan Street from the crime scene; that Jovin was said to be upset with him in her final days over his treatment of her thesis; that there were troubling if vague stories that he was a persistent wooer of uninterested women. I knew Yale had not let him teach second semester and had not renewed his contract when it expired after that. And so, as I shook his hand and felt his firm grip, I had a brutal thought -- the first of many such thoughts -- that people may have on meeting him for the rest of his life: could this hand have held the knife?
Jim Van de Velde is just shy of six feet, with a medium build gone slightly soft since his days as a high-school tennis and soccer player. He has thick blond hair parted on the left and pale blue eyes that he likes to complement with navy shirts -- part of a preppy uniform that, in my meetings with him, usually included white chinos and faded black loafers. His one unusual accouterment is a metal band on his right wrist, an M.I.A. bracelet commemorating a pilot lost on Van de Velde's 10th birthday.
His clothes, combined with his chubby cheeks, red Jeep Wrangler and taste for Janet Jackson and the Spice Girls, can make Van de Velde seem almost boyish. But there is little boyishness in his manner. He sits straight up and he speaks in crisp paragraphs. He is methodical and earnest; although he recently discovered Gabriel Garcia M1/3rquez and his novel of consuming love, 'Love in the Time of Cholera,' on his desk at home this summer he also had a copy of 'Use Both Sides of Your Brain.'
Van de Velde has an appealing dry wit that he sometimes turns on himself. ('See?' he said, when I noted that a recent article called him 'brilliant and well liked.' 'They even got that wrong.') Over the hours that we discussed his being a murder suspect, he would sometimes yield to a slow lopsided smile as he described what he considers a through-the-looking-glass experience. But at other times, as he spoke of living steeped in suspicion, his eyes would blur and his expression would go slack.
'I would much rather have been killed in a car accident than to go through what I'm going through,' he told me one night in New Haven after dinner at a Malaysian restaurant, where no one appeared to recognize him. For all his unmistakable sadness, the most striking aspect of Van de Velde's demeanor was a lack of displayed outrage. He had trusted authority and hewed to the rules all his life -- in the Catholic Church, where he served as an altar boy, and then at Yale and in the military reserves -- and now he was suspected of murdering a student under his supervision. Yet he seemed so calm. 'Well, I'd like to think that that's because there isn't a single thing that I have done in my life that I am ashamed of,' he told me later. 'And there's a difference between suffering from shame and suffering from a false accusation.'
The observation evidently gnawed at him, because he followed up in a lengthy E-mail message a few days later. 'I can see how others who have been wrongly accused have become sullen, depressed and even suicidal,' he wrote. 'I do live with this pain every moment of my life; I think of it 24 hours of every day and likely will continue to do so unless and until the crime is solved or the police withdraw their label of me as a 'suspect.' But I am determined to maintain my dignity, not to drag my friends and family too much into my situation and to continue to be as productive and as good a person as I can be.'
By every account, Suzanne Jovin was a rare person. Raised in Germany by American parents, she arrived at Yale fluent in English and German, competent in French and Spanish and skilled at the piano and cello. She loved dancing and going to the theater, and she was serious about her studies. She also ran the Yale chapter of Best Buddies, which puts students together with mentally disabled adults, and on the last night of her life, a Friday, she threw a pizza party for the group in a New Haven church. Before she was found stabbed just before 10 P.M., she was last seen about 30 minutes earlier, more than a mile and a half away.
The police suspected Van de Velde within four days, a time of media furor and boiling fear that a maniac was on the prowl. Jovin was not sexually assaulted, the police said. They concluded that the murder was a crime of passion committed by someone she knew. Van de Velde, who saw Jovin that afternoon, had no alibi. His Panasonic television could not vouch for him.
After briefly interviewing him on Monday, detectives asked Van de Velde to the station Tuesday evening for what, after an hour of softballs, turned into an interrogation, by his account. They showed him grisly pictures of Jovin's body, he said. 'They would say things like: 'We know it wasn't the thesis, we know it wasn't the thesis. Just tell us what it was.'
Van de Velde did not summon a lawyer. When the detectives asked to search his Jeep, he gave them his keys. He said he offered to let them search his apartment, but they apparently never did. He said he offered to take a polygraph test and a blood test, but neither was performed.
To him, his patient cooperation was powerful proof of a clear conscience; but to at least one experienced homicide detective, it is suggestive of a cloudy one. 'How many innocent people do you know who will sit there and answer questions for four hours?' asked Nicholas Pastore, a former New Haven Police Chief. By this logic, an innocent man will slam his fists to the table and stalk out; a guilty one will try to appear unswervingly reasonable, incapable of violence.
On Wednesday morning, The Yale Daily News published remembrances of Jovin. One of them was by Van de Velde. 'She inspired me with her enthusiasm and her interest in making a difference in the world,' he wrote. 'She is someone I will always remember.' The New Haven Register published a related story that day, but Van de Velde did not notice it until he was leaving his office for the dentist. The newspaper was lying on a lounge table in the political science department. Marching across the front page, the banner headline read: 'Yale Teacher Grilled in Killing/Prime suspect lives near where slain student found, sources say.'
Van de Velde said he stopped breathing as he sat down to read. Then the prime suspect left for the dentist. He did not walk far before being hailed by a local television reporter. With the camera rolling, Van de Velde looked down, shook his head and said no when asked if he would 'ever harm her.' Then he went on to the dentist. ('It was insane,' he told me.) Back at his office, Van de Velde finally called a lawyer, David Grudberg. Grudberg, a friend of his from high school and Yale, practices with his father, Ira, who is considered one of the region's best criminal-defense attorneys. At his apartment that evening, Van de Velde adopted a practice he has kept up to this day. He answered neither the door nor the telephone.
Publicly, the police insisted they had no suspects, and that helped douse the media blaze. But they were focused on Van de Velde. James Van Pelt, who lives near the murder scene, said he saw a small red four-door sedan racing away from it. 'They kind of tried to tilt me a couple of times,' he said of the police, 'by suggesting maybe I didn't see a red sedan, as I said -- maybe I saw a Jeep, a red Jeep, which is I guess what Van de Velde has.'
Police suspicions helped turn the rumor mill at Yale. John Bullock, who was in one of Van de Velde's classes, said that the police told him that Van de Velde had been fired from Stanford for sexual harassment -- a charge denied by Stanford. Another student, Alison Cole, said that several detectives asked 'repeatedly what the nature of my relationship was. And when I answered multiple times that it was strictly teacher-student, they would say: 'Are you sure? You won't get in trouble.'
Van de Velde went back to work, although he said he could not put the case out of his head. He thought the secretaries were looking at him differently. He was worried about Yale's reaction to the news, but he heard nothing. With winter break under way, he did not run into students or faculty. Then, the Sunday in January before classes were to begin, he got a message from the dean of Yale College, Richard Brodhead. When Van de Velde reached the dean's office Sunday evening, Brodhead had a letter waiting: Van de Velde would not teach second semester. With the same salary and title of lecturer, he could concentrate instead on 'research or scholarly projects.'
The next day, students showed up for one of Van de Velde's classes to find a terse notice of its cancellation on the blackboard. In a statement, Yale noted that it presumed Van de Velde innocent, but that the New Haven Police had informed the University that he was 'in a pool of suspects' in the murder. 'Under these circumstances,' it continued, 'it is inevitable that his classroom presence would be accompanied by continuing speculation about events outside the classroom that would constitute a major distraction for students and impair their educational experience.'
The police confirmed Yale's statement, and for the media this was a bugler's call. Van de Velde's telephone and doorbell rang, he said, from 6:30 in the morning until 11 at night. He took to sleeping on a friend's floor.
Brodhead told me that Yale's decision not to let Van de Velde teach was a difficult one. 'The presumption of innocence is not a trivial thing,' he said when we met in his office earlier this summer. Brodhead is a slight, courtly man with a silver mustache and graying hair; his sonorous voice was familiar to me from the impressions that my friends who took his American literature class used to delight in performing. 'The point of it isn't that it's valuable in situations where nothing is at stake, but that it's valuable in situations where something is at stake.' He went on to say that the university had to focus on whether students would learn. 'We don't hire faculty members to make a point about them and their character,' he said. 'We hire them to get something taught.'
Van de Velde did continue to go to his office, but only on nights and weekends. His colleagues in political science noticed that his office shades were perpetually drawn. When he approached peers, students or acquaintances on the street, he thought they looked nervous. He never knew what to say: how could he defend himself when no evidence had been presented? Would it be risky to criticize the police while they were still investigating him?
He did not respond sometimes when friends called to lure him out for lunch or dinner, and when he would agree to go, he would insist on eating in the suburbs, one of his friends recalled. A grinning head shot of him was now running often in the newspaper, usually paired with one of Jovin.
Van de Velde began applying for teaching positions and jobs as a policy analyst, but he never got an interview, though students' evaluations of his classes were sterling. He agonized about seeking recommendations. In March, he appealed to Brodhead for one. The dean wrote back that he would have to mention 'the intervening controversy,' though he would note that he presumed Van de Velde innocent. Van de Velde did not follow up.
His dream -- to become a foreign-affairs TV commentator -- was now further out of reach than ever. He spent a lot of time through the spring watching cable television news as the NATO campaign unfolded in Kosovo. He also studied the coverage of himself, bristling at what he saw as constant innuendo. Why did NBC describe him as a lecturer on 'the C.I.A., terrorism and drug cartels?' Why did 'Good Morning America' describe him as having 'something of a cloak-and-dagger reputation on campus?'
So much seemed suspicious about Van de Velde, once he was suspected. In retrospect, he seemed ostentatious in his mourning for Jovin, even appearing on television to pay tribute to her right after she was killed. He was so strait-laced; that kind of guy always cracks. Then there was the almost total silence of his colleagues, not counting the ones who anonymously called him frosty. And why would he hire a hotshot like Ira Grudberg if he had nothing to hide? Everything reporters and their audiences learned about him was inevitably darkened by suspicion. How could it be otherwise? His was the only name mentioned in connection with Jovin's murder; so only he could be the subject of profiles like the page 1 story on Jan. 13 in The Hartford Courant under the self-fulfilling headline, 'From Pillar to Pariah.' Citing 'sources,' that story said that two local television reporters had filed complaints against Van de Velde with the New Haven Police. Other reporters and Van de Velde's lawyers have found one complaint, filed last Sept. 16 in nearby Branford. In it, a reporter said she had received several hang-up calls and suspected Van de Velde because he had sent her two letters at work expressing interest in a relationship. The letters were not improper, according to the complaint. Van de Velde denied making the calls or harassing any woman.
From the dining halls to the neighborhood where Jovin was slain, rumors raged. Van de Velde was said to have had C.I.A. or Seal training that enabled him to kill and leave no trace. The rumors apparently were rooted in Van de Velde's days as dean of Yale's Saybrook College. Students there were convinced that the C.I.A. had taught him the techniques of handwriting analysis that he would perform sometimes in the dining hall. Van de Velde told me that he taught himself out of a book.
One of Van de Velde's friends told him that an English professor had asked her if he carried knives. 'I know what you did last Dec. 4,' read one ominous E-mail note he said he received from someone at Stanford. By E-mail, a picture of Jovin arrived from someone in Albany. Without mentioning Van de Velde's name, a local deejay, Glenn Beck, began marketing a 'Yale professor doll' on his KC-101 morning show; in a pinched, snotty voice, the 'doll' said: 'A midterm will be held in the trunk of my car' and 'I can't understand you since I punctured your throat; did you say 'thesis' or 'Jesus'?'
Van de Velde saved the supportive E-mail messages he got from some students, and he agonized about all the students and old colleagues he never heard from. 'I've come to realize that life is not about power or prestige,' he told me at one point. 'It's about the respect and admiration others have for you. And they have taken that from me.'
The police have never found the murder weapon. At intervals, seeming breakthroughs implicating Van de Velde have stirred a furor, only to dissipate. In late April, the media trumpeted a big development: a potentially significant item had been found 100 feet from Van de Velde's home. But then The New Haven Register learned that the item was apparently the owner's manual to his Jeep.
The police and others have issued regular appeals for help. In mid-April, Donna Jovin, Suzanne's mother, wrote an open letter, published in the local papers, to the mother of the murderer, 'assuming that she resides in the greater New Haven area.' She wrote that 'as a moral and rational human being, you will not be able to live with yourself if you withhold knowledge or suspicion of your son's complicity.' Van de Velde and everyone else following the case read the letter as aimed squarely at his mother, who still lived in Orange, the New Haven suburb where he grew up. She has since made a long-planned move to California.
Van de Velde's supposed motive for committing the murder has never been publicly detailed. The early police questioning, and the early reporting, suggested that a romance had detonated. Later, the relationship came to be described as not romantic but filled with tension. One of her friends told me that Jovin became disenchanted with Van de Velde and what she viewed as the militaristic cast of his class. Her parents, who declined to comment for this article, have told reporters that Jovin was worried that her senior essay, about the terrorist Osama bin Laden, was suffering from inattention by her adviser. Van de Velde acknowledged being slow to respond to one draft -- a startling lapse for him -- but said, 'If she was disappointed in me, she never expressed it.' Jovin dropped off a last draft on the Friday she was killed. Van de Velde said that they spoke for perhaps eight seconds and that he never saw her again.
Corrosive as it was to his standing at Yale and in New Haven, the suspicion of Van de Velde seems to have had no effect on his old friends. Several told me that they were certain from the beginning of his innocence. That was what I expected to hear again when, at Van de Velde's urging, I met Anna Ramirez in New Haven. What I got instead was a more complex portrait of Van de Velde than he had showed me, from a woman who wants to believe in his innocence but does not know what to think anymore.
A graduate of the Yale Divinity School who is its assistant dean of admissions, Ramirez became close to Van de Velde last summer after he moved back to New Haven from Stanford, where he had spent just a few months as the director of the Asia Pacific Research Center. Both Van de Velde and his former boss have characterized the job as a bad fit. To some of his friends, it was the first time he had failed.
Ramirez would bring cannolis to Van de Velde to cheer him up. But sometimes he was so listless and sad, she recalled, that he would just fall asleep on her couch. She assumed Van de Velde had told me all this. Actually, he hadn't. When I asked him about that summer, he said he felt depressed and briefly sought help. Van de Velde's mood lifted that fall, Ramirez recalled, as he rediscovered his joy in teaching. When she saw him with his students, she was reminded of a politician working a crowd, hungry for approval.
The evening of the murder, Ramirez stopped by Van de Velde's office and invited him to see 'Life is Beautiful.' But he said that he had to work, so she perched in his windowsill and they chatted. (Among his projects that evening, Van de Velde told me, was to read Jovin's latest draft.) They made plans to jog at 9 the next morning.
He turned up on schedule, Ramirez recalled, and seemed as grouchy as ever at the prospect of exercise. After they finished, he asked her if she had heard there was a murder in the neighborhood the evening before. (Van de Velde told me he learned of it on the 11 o'clock news.) She should be careful, he warned her.
Ramirez was questioned by the police, who summoned her downtown on New Year's Eve and, in her view, lied to her. She said that they told her that Van de Velde had 'almost cracked' and warned her, 'This guy is a serious lunatic.'
Ramirez called Van de Velde a compassionate friend who was always there when she needed him. She saw him get angry over trivial matters like an uncooperative stereo system, she said, but she never saw him lash out at a person, and sometimes when she criticized him for being a workaholic she pushed him pretty hard. She resented the 'witch hunt' that she thought consumed Yale in January and February. But as the spring wore on, she began to wonder.
She was troubled by a conversation in January with Van de Velde about a recent failed relationship he'd had. She wondered why he wanted to discuss the subject and why he seemed so upset. She said that in May, Van de Velde asked her if she was willing to surreptitiously tape the police, to catch them in a lie. (Van de Velde later confirmed this.) She decided to break off contact with him, she said, and she has not spoken to him since.
She said she still believed him to be innocent, but her doubts continually bobbed to the surface. 'I don't know if you've read 'Crime and Punishment,' she said at one point. 'Jim's complex; the case is complex. Jim isn't the kind of person that I would say can do this, at all. But stranger things have happened. Whether or not he did it, I would be supportive. But at this point I think he's innocent.' She paused. 'I could be wrong.'
'I miss the confidence that no one doubts me,' Van de Velde told me once when I asked what he missed about his old life. The doubts have crept closer and closer, penetrating even his fire wall of friends. There is very little he can do to combat them. Yet it bears repeating: the man has never been charged with any crime.
The last time I saw Van de Velde, at the end of July, I stopped by his apartment shortly before 11. Earlier that evening, we had split a pizza and talked about the case. But after paying one more unsettling visit to the crime scene, a banal rectangle of grass marked only in the neighbors' memories, I wanted to ask again if there was any lead that he thought might reassure his doubters. I did not mention that they included me, but he is not a stupid man.
By then most of his life was gathered in neatly stacked boxes. Within a few days, the boxes would be in a storage locker, while he would be moving from home to home, staying with family and friends. His lease was up, he had no job, but, he said, he was hoping to return to New Haven and to Yale.
That night, Van de Velde showed me Jovin's last draft, a document that seemed unutterably sad. His name and hers were typed in the upper left-hand corner, along with the date she died: Dec. 4, 1998. 'Terrorism, as opposed to other forms of violence,' it began, switching to a quotation, 'is the systematically applied threat or use of illegitimate force.' In its margins, the document had a couple of notations by Van de Velde in blue ink.
When I asked if there was any other way to 'prove you innocent,' Van de Velde came as close as I ever saw to venting frustration. 'This is the dilemma,' he said. 'Why should I have to prove my innocence? Frankly, it's impossible.' He flung himself back on his futon couch, legs sprawled, and made as though to flip the channels with an invisible clicker. 'About 10 P.M., Friday, Dec. 4, I am 99 percent sure I was just like this.' I drove off wondering at my recurring suspicion, from the first time I shook Van de Velde's hand, and why so many institutions and people had moved a careful distance away from him. Like them, I felt an obligation to consider the possibility that he had committed the murder, even as I tried to presume that he did not. But it seemed that to undertake that struggle -- to try to reconcile the presumption of innocence with the possibility of guilt -- was to lose it, to fall short of the standard we set ourselves.
I recalled Brodhead's impulse to lecture when pressed about the tension between principles in pulling Van de Velde out of the classroom. 'Take a trip across the block and look at the tombstone of Kingman Brewster,' he had said.
Brewster, a legendary Yale president who served from 1963 to 1977, is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery under a witch hazel tree. Surrounding his grave is a low border of black granite that bears a quotation attributed to him, from 1971: 'The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept,' it reads. 'In commonplace terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.'
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company