|Re: 4/1/01 - Hartford Courant: Are You Wrong About James Van de Velde? (Part 1 of 4)|
Are You Wrong About James Van de Velde?
Story by LES GURA
The Hartford Courant
April 1, 2001
James Van de Velde believes the police never properly investigated the Suzanne Jovin slaying, that Yale University improperly removed him from teaching and that the media perpetuated the image of guilt the police and Yale created. Now working for the Department of Defense, Van de Velde was photographed by Tom Brown in Washington, D.C.
The bright red type signifying a new Lotus Notes message popped up late in the morning on Sept. 19, 2000.
"James Van de Velde."
I stared at it. Why would the former Yale University lecturer and only named suspect in New Haven's most notorious unsolved murder, the Dec. 4, 1998, stabbing death of 21-year-old Yale senior Suzanne Jovin, be e-mailing me?
True, I had a connection with Van de Velde; he had been a student in the graduate journalism course I'd taught at Quinnipiac College that fall. But I hadn't seen or spoken to him since Dec. 7, 1998, 36 hours before his name was to become publicly linked with Jovin's. When The Courant, where I am city editor, sought insight into the case in early 1999 and asked me to reach out to Van de Velde, he never answered my message. So why now?
I showed a couple of colleagues the e-mail message with the infamous name, still unopened in my message folder. Eyebrows were raised, smart-aleck remarks ("So, the killer wants to talk with you, huh?") prevailed. Van de Velde's messaging me had good titillation value in a cynical newsroom whose collective gavel had long ago, like that of most people who had ever heard about the case, banged down on the guilty side.
The e-mail got me to thinking about Van de Velde and the other seven students who comprised MC 504A, Newsroom Clinical. They were curious, intelligent and driven by a desire to succeed. Everyone had done well in the class, with three going on in newspapers. There was the doctor who loved to write op-ed pieces about our problem-plagued health-care system but who longed to improve his prose. There was a television producer, and two people in public relations; they would each go on to find new jobs in the two years that came and went. And there was Van de Velde, whose future would change so dramatically the day after our final session, our goodbye dinner the night of Monday, Dec. 7.
I had started the class that night in the regular setting, the computer room inside Quinnipiac's communications building, set in the shadow of Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden. One last time we sat around the oval desk, and I gave them my final speech, to strive always for the best, to work hard and to remember the three questions they should ask themselves before writing: What's the story, what's the significance of the story, and what's my point? The latter question deals not with personal viewpoint so much as the ability to understand the motivation for writing a story. In short, it is an admonition to think.
After class, we departed in separate cars for Dickerman's, a quiet restaurant and bar five minutes away. There, we reassembled around a long, rectangular table. At one end was Van de Velde, flanked by me and Zoe Stetson, Carla Yarbrough on Stetson's other side. That was how the conversation divided that night: the four of us, and everyone else.
Yarbrough, then a producer at WTNH, Channel 8, asked Van de Velde if he knew the student who had been slain the previous Friday night. Yes, he told her. In fact, she was in one of his seminars, and he had been her senior essay advisor. She was an excellent student, he said. In class, I had found Van de Velde a calm man, who spoke quietly but with authority when he chose to. That night, he kept his voice under control, but words came haltingly, his face betraying emotions he was struggling to control. He said that earlier that day had been the last meeting of his class, and it had been tearful and difficult for his students. Later, I would review over and over the words and meaning of that night at Dickerman's. I always came away thinking Van de Velde's was exactly the reaction I would have had, if something similar had happened to one of my students.
The Sept. 19 e-mail from Van de Velde cut right to the chase. "The Jovin case has been an intelligence test for the Connecticut media, which it has profoundly failed: can the New Haven Police and Yale name `anyone' a suspect in a crime and the media obligingly massacre the person in public with no regard to the facts, accountability or ethics. The answer to date is a resounding yes."
So began my more than two-month e-mail dance with Van de Velde, he lobbing brickbats even as he enlisted my help in writing about the Jovin case and his status as one in a "pool of suspects" cited by police and Yale University.
Sept. 21: "Frankly, I am checking you out, not the other way around. ... I have never had anything to fear except shoddy journalism and corrupt cops. Once you hear the story, you will have many phone calls to make to certain people to corroborate the facts. If you are smart, you will understand why certain people will refuse to talk with you. And then you will be faced with your true test: will you have the personal strength to write what you believe based on my story and your intuition, or will you fall apart and degenerate into rumor repeating and `It's still possible he did it since he says he was home watching television alone.'"
Oct. 5: "The way I see it is this: my life is destroyed yet there is nothing I have ever done that I feel ashamed of. You can't take away my dignity. Yet yours is gone; you just don't see it. The fact that you tolerate the state `naming' and destroying people based on speculation is an embarrassment for you, not me.
"Why does the moronic media ask the New Haven Police blandly `So what is new in the Jovin case?' (As if they would explain.) And then accept the banal, `Nothing.' And then never bother to follow up, `well, what exactly are you doing? Are you checking other crimes involving knives? Are you checking with other municipalities? Are you checking the floors of impounded cars for trace evidence? Are you soliciting information from arrested felons?' No one asks. As I see it, the Connecticut media is no better than the Germans in the '30s and '40s who sat by blindly and questioned nothing as a group of political criminals took over the country and led it into murderous ruin."
Oct. 31: "There is a reason why the constitution protects privacy and insists on equal protection - it's not to protect the victim, but to protect society from capricious investigation. By definition, I AM INNOCENT! I have not even been arrested, yet many have condemned me. This should alarm and concern you tremendously. Yale University and the State ended my political career, my broadcasting career, my academic career, many friendships and relationships and drained my life savings - merely by purposefully whipping up hysteria and naming me within days of the crime, before investigating the crime. It's a form of character destruction which the Courant participated in. It is an utterly frightening and disgusting aspect of our current society. All journalists and editors first and foremost, like doctors, should pledge to do no harm. Yet in this case, CT journalists were willing partners of the State and may have kept a murderer free by participating in capricious State activity. The case is clearly an absolute joke. It's a joke of an investigation, an insult to our careful judicial system, an insult to the Edgehill and Yale communities and left the New Haven community weaker.
"My goal, since no one in the Connecticut media seems interested, is to bring some critical thinking to the investigation."
Van de Velde's cutting words hit home in a couple of ways. First, critical thinking is the key to my profession, and the point I stress above all others when I teach. Second, what became crystal clear, not just in those e-mails but in five months of investigation, is despite all his outrage, Van de Velde is desperate for help from the same media he blames so much for his situation.
James Van de Velde loathes us.
James Van de Velde needs us.
Suzanne Jovin was a political science major at Yale University completing her senior year when she was murdered Dec. 4, 1998. (Photo courtesy New Haven police)
Inevitably, the two adjectives used in newspaper and magazine articles and in television interviews to describe Suzanne Jovin are "brainy" and "beautiful." The daughter of American scientists, Thomas and Donna Jovin, she lived in Gottingen, Germany, where they worked, before entering Yale in September 1995.
Jovin was an excellent student with broad interests. As her senior year began, the political science major was accepted into one of the two seminars being taught that fall, 1998, by Van de Velde, "Strategy and Policy in the Conduct of War." She also asked Van de Velde to be her senior essay advisor; she would be one of six students he advised that term on essays. Unlike many upwardly mobile Yale students who ask high-profile professors to be their senior essay advisors - the better to use for future reference as they head out into the world - Jovin stuck with a lecturer whose specialty was the field she wanted to pursue.
Friends, Yale officials and those who knew her can't always put into words what made Jovin special. "Suzanne was just one of those people who are absolutely incredible, just warm and brilliant," said Bailey Hand, a friend in the Strategy and Policy seminar. "I remember thinking Wednesday of that week (two days before Jovin was slain), I looked at her while she was saying something in class, thinking how wonderful that someone like that is alive in this world, 'cause she's going to make such a difference." Susan Hauser, the former director of Yale's undergraduate career services office where Jovin worked, described her as "extremely bright, interested, generous, considerate, warm, fun." In her senior year, Jovin became president of Yale's campus chapter of Best Buddies, an international program that pairs people with mental retardation with college students for social get-togethers. Dawn DeFeo was the host site coordinator for Marrakech Inc., the New Haven-based agency that matched the adults with the students. She called Jovin, who had been with Best Buddies all four of her Yale years, "inspirational in everything she did. She was very bubbly, and the type of person everyone would admire because of the energy level she had and the enthusiasm."
Jovin began the last night of her life, Friday, Dec. 4, with a pizza party for Best Buddies at Trinity Lutheran Church on Orange Street in New Haven, a few blocks from her university-owned apartment on Park Street. It was the end of the semester, and Jovin told friends she was looking forward to a chance to return to Germany. She also had been through some turmoil with her senior essay, on the international terrorist Osama bin Laden, sweating out until Wednesday, Dec. 2, until she could review her first draft with Van de Velde, who had been tardy in reading it and giving her feedback. Still, on Friday afternoon, she swung by Brewster Hall, the white-pillared political science building on Prospect Street, and dropped off a second draft, asking Van de Velde in a breezy, handwritten note to peer at some of the revisions she had made. Her final draft was due the following Wednesday. Sean Glass, a sophomore in the Best Buddies program, recalls Jovin being "very happy" at the party that night, talking about seeing her family again. "I don't remember her seeming to be upset about anything."
The sequence of events once the party ended, about 8:30 p.m., has been pieced together from various sources - some from the police, others from witnesses. Jovin, after helping clean up, left the party in a university-owned car available to students for such events, dropping off at least one person, then parking the car at a lot at Edgewood and Howe streets, and walking a couple of short blocks back to her apartment. There, she e-mailed a friend just after 9 p.m., promising to leave some books for her in her building's lobby. Jovin then entered Yale's old campus, the most direct route being a pass-required gate at Pierson College, one of the school's residential colleges, across the street from her apartment. She walked a few blocks through the old campus toward Phelps Gate, the main entrance to Yale, so she could drop off the keys to the car she had driven to the party. Along the way, about 9:15, she saw a classmate, Peter Stein. He told the Yale Daily News that Jovin said she was tired and did not indicate she was going anywhere else on a warm night when many students were celebrating the end of classes for the semester. At 9:25, Jovin was spotted for the final time, on College Street, heading toward Elm Street, by another Yale student, a woman walking back to campus from that evening's hockey game at the Ingalls Rink on Prospect.
Half an hour later, at 9:58 p.m., Jovin's body was found face down, feet touching the street and body stretched across a grassy part of sidewalk, nearly two miles away, at Edgehill and East Rock roads, an upscale residential section. A soda bottle was found in bushes nearby; it bore only Jovin's fingerprints. Police reported that witnesses heard a man and woman arguing loudly about 9:45 p.m. Jovin had been stabbed 17 times in the back, neck and back of the head. The tip of the weapon used was later recovered from her head. Although police in the early stages confirmed certain information, such as the number of wounds and the fact that they believe the crime was committed by someone who knew the victim, they have never discussed many logical questions, even the simplest ones. What was the substance of the argument reported? What about the question overheard by some witnesses: "Why are you doing this to me?" Is it known whether anything overheard that night was, in fact, connected to Jovin's death?
Van de Velde was an altar boy at Holy Infant Church in Orange, Conn. Here is pictured with the Rev. Howard Nash (Photo courtesy James Van de Velde).
Inevitably, the two adjectives used by reporters to describe Van de Velde are "cool" and "mysterious." But that appears to be an outgrowth of his professional background. Ironically, his training is rooted in honor and trust, traits Van de Velde's family and friends say were evident from his earliest days; they say he didn't get into fights or adolescent hijinks. He grew up in Orange and was a top student and athlete at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge before going on to graduate from Yale in 1982. His higher training - he holds a doctorate in international security studies from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has a top secret government security clearance as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve - led him through a series of government and education positions in the U.S. and abroad for the State Department during the administration of President George Bush.
Van de Velde left government service to rejoin his alma mater as dean of Saybrook College, one of Yale's residential dormitories, in the fall of 1993. He held the position, which included supervising Saybrook's 475 students, for four years, and during that time taught some unusual policy courses within the political science department, classes he designed himself. Evaluations of Van de Velde by students were glowing; he studiously prepared and handed out class notes for each session. His "International Drug Trafficking: National Security Dimensions and Drug Control Strategies" class was named by Spin magazine as one of the most interesting college courses in the country. Van de Velde brought crisis management games to Yale, working with friends from the Naval War College, where he did his work in the Navy Reserve.
In the spring of 1997, he took a leave from Yale on a Navy assignment to help monitor the status of peace in Bosnia from a base in Italy. After returning to finish out the term, he left Yale to become deputy director of the Asia/Pacific Research Center, part of Stanford University's Institute for International Studies. But the position on the West Coast didn't work out. Henry Rowen, Asia/Pacific's co-director, said after just a few months, several faculty members had come to him to discuss problems with Van de Velde, who he indicated was "a little stiff" in handling administrative matters. Rowen and Van de Velde talked largely about the job's focus on administration rather than policy. The result was an agreement that the job wasn't best for Van de Velde, who was far more interested in policy, Rowen said. Van de Velde decided to come back home. Professor David Cameron, then chairman of Yale's political science department, hired him as a lecturer of two fall seminars: the Strategy and Policy course, and "The Art of Diplomacy: Negotiating, Crisis Management and the Role of Force in International Politics."
Van de Velde as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
With his training and combined government and education backgrounds, Van de Velde was beginning to figure out his life's goal. What he really wanted was to be a television commentator on foreign affairs who also could find time to be a college lecturer. Toward that end, he enrolled in Quinnipiac's master's program, which he hoped would give him the basics in journalism. And he sought to obtain an internship at one of the state's local television stations. Months later, the story of how Van de Velde moved from one television station to another became an eyebrow-raising issue among the media. Yet the story is quite simple, and confirmed by the parties involved. Van de Velde had sent out queries to all of the stations, and was initially accepted as an intern by WTNH Channel 8 in New Haven. He started there in early September. That week, however, were the first sessions of his seminar and the start of his news reporting class at Quinnipiac. He had more than 80 students enroll in each of his two Yale seminars, and he had to whittle that down to about 20 in a week. Faced with that task and his other demands, he told WTNH he wouldn't be able to do the internship, and the two sides parted company amicably. Meanwhile, Van de Velde began settling into his routine at Yale and Quinnipiac. Two weeks later, he suddenly heard from a news official at WVIT, Channel 30, in West Hartford who had been away on vacation. Feeling more in command of his time, Van de Velde agreed to begin work at WVIT two days a week.
As his professor at Quinnipiac, I was annoyed when Van de Velde twice failed to hand in assignments. His classroom presence was quiet; he was not confident of what he was learning and held back more than the other students. Several of his Quinnipiac classmates said they thought Van de Velde was aloof and unfriendly. One, Joyce Recchia, recounted a story in which she approached Van de Velde during a class break to inquire about a Yale doctoral program in political science. Recchia had obtained a master's degree in the field, same as Van de Velde's. She said he told her she wouldn't like it, but that the message he conveyed was she couldn't handle it. She said she felt his response was so cold that she avoided him as much as possible the rest of the semester. Several others recalled an incident I had forgotten, during which, as the students pursued an in-class writing assignment, I went around asking various questions. When I got to Van de Velde and asked him about the missing assignments, he turned around and said curtly, "I don't have them," and turned back to his tube. It didn't help his reputation among his peers.
What I remember about Van de Velde was his pursuit of his goals and the swiftness with which he learned a new trade. His work started out mediocre, common for fledgling reporters, but by semester's end was quite good. Van de Velde also wrote me a lengthy e-mail - sign of things to come - in mid-semester apologizing for his failure to complete some assignments and advising me to give him an "F" on those papers. In the e-mail, he mentioned his dream of doing foreign affairs, and spoke of WVIT possibly giving him a chance to do short background detail pieces on foreign issues such as "Kosovo, the Middle East peace talks, North Korea, ballistic missiles." He asked if, rather than working with him on the varied assignments we would have for the rest of the semester, I would help him by editing such pieces (I offered to look at the TV pieces as a favor, but wouldn't let him off the hook on the class assignments). He said he didn't plan to complete the Quinnipiac program, mentioning that this might be the only course he would take.
He said in the e-mail:
"Of course, your course teaches the basics well and I should study the basics hard to attempt to add the discipline of journalism to my credentials. But frankly, my life precludes this realistically:
"I teach full time at Yale;
"I have 8 [sic] senior essays, a directed reading project, two articles pending, a grant proposal, a web site, a web game, two new courses to design, and spend two full days a week at WVIT! My students at Yale, you can understand, come before anything else in my professional life, especially my personal interest in learning the art of journalism; and preparation for course teaching is quite time consuming.
"I am a Navy reservist and spend one weekend away every month!
"I endeavor to be a normal human too!"
For Van de Velde, the future would be anything but normal.
Van de Velde visited the White House in 1989 while he was executive secretary to an ambassador in the U.S. delegation to nuclear space and arms talks with the Soviet Union.
Hours before he raised a glass with his Quinnipiac classmates at Dickerman's, Van de Velde had been questioned briefly by police at his office. They asked if he knew of anyone who might want to hurt Jovin, if he was aware of any problems she had been having. All the routine stuff you would ask those in a certain circle, he said. The session with the two detectives lasted 15 or 20 minutes.
The next day, Tuesday, Dec. 8, Van de Velde arrived home from the gymnasium in the late afternoon and saw a police car outside his place, in the church house at Bethesda Lutheran Church on St. Ronan Street. Detectives knocked on his door after he got inside and asked him if he minded coming to the station for some more questions. So he drove his candy-apple red Jeep down to the station. Thus began a four-hour interrogation that Van de Velde says had all the elements of classic policing. He had learned about interrogation during some of his military training. Although it was unpleasant to be the brunt of such a probe - which alternates accusatory questions with manufactured witnesses, lies and sympathy, all in an effort to entice the subject to confess - Van de Velde said a part of him was fascinated to see such techniques in action. He said, however, he calmly answered every question put to him, and offered the police the keys to his vehicle, as well as to take a lie detector test, give blood and have his apartment searched. The police took him up only on searching the car.
The police have never given their version of what went on in the interview.
Van de Velde went home convinced, he said, that "that was that." He said he figured they were doing this with quite a few people who were closest to Jovin. But the next morning, The New Haven Register's lead headline was "Yale Teacher Grilled in Killing." Though the story didn't name him, it didn't take long for many to determine who the suspect was. Van de Velde saw the story while at his office; dazed, he walked out Prospect Street for a 9:45 a.m. cleaning and checkup with his dentist. The idea that police had leaked his being questioned to the media made him realize his was not a routine experience shared by others. As if to pound the point home, a television news reporter approached Van de Velde on the street and, with cameras rolling, abruptly asked if he would ever harm Jovin.
The image of a startled Van de Velde, not quite knowing how to respond (he answered "no"), or even whether to respond, helped cement a public perception of guilt that still lingers for many who watched the noon news on Channel 8 that day.
The New Haven Police Department has kept its theories about Jovin's death to itself. Police Chief Melvin Wearing declined to discuss specifics for this story, saying the case remains an open investigation.
Though there was little official news from the beginning, the police anonymously leaked many tidbits in the days and weeks after the slaying. Members of the media were quick to go after each morsel, beginning with the big one, that a Yale lecturer was being questioned. (The initial Register story was attributed to "city and university sources close to the case," but clearly, the police had to have been talking to others for the information to get to the newspaper.)
What the police believe happened can be deduced by examining department statements over the months, and by looking at the fact that Van de Velde continues to be the only named suspect.
When investigating a homicide, police look for motive, means and opportunity. Van de Velde, who lived less than half a mile from where Jovin's body was found, had no alibi. He has insisted he worked late the night in question, then went home, where he remained, watching television and eating leftovers.
With opportunity in hand, police looked to motive. Their initial theories of a potential love interest between Jovin and Van de Velde didn't materialize; none of the students interviewed even hinted at such a possibility, though police would continue to try even months later to get students to confess to having had affairs with Van de Velde. Soon after the murder, though, police learned from family and some friends that Jovin had been extremely upset with Van de Velde because he had taken so long to give her feedback on her senior essay. David Bach, one of her closest friends on campus, and Jovin's parents have told reporters she was in tears over the lack of feedback. The police also learned that Van de Velde had applied for an assistant professorship that fall, a tenure-track position. Perhaps most important, they interviewed some television newswomen, including one Van de Velde had dated a year earlier. What these women said appears to be one of the central issues in Van de Velde's becoming the focus of the police investigation. Their comments apparently gave police the idea - again, an idea later leaked anonymously to reporters - that Van de Velde could have a history of stalking women.
Now police felt they had a possible motive - Van de Velde and Jovin get into an argument and she threatens to report him for something - and they believe there is opportunity, since Van de Velde couldn't prove his whereabouts. So how does that translate to the murder in question? Jovin was last seen walking north on College Street near Elm Street, which means police must follow one of these theories:
Van de Velde meets Jovin on the street, perhaps following her from her apartment, and he persuades her to come with him in his Jeep, which must have been parked nearby.
Van de Velde, perhaps waiting in his Jeep outside her apartment, sees her leave through the Old Campus and cruises the neighborhood, eventually persuading her to come with him.
Van de Velde waits for Jovin, sees her return to her apartment and calls her there to arrange for a brief meeting, perhaps with the enticement of returning the second draft of her essay. A slight variation here would be that the two made an appointment earlier, perhaps when she dropped off the second draft earlier in the day, for later in the evening.
Regardless of the theory, police believe Van de Velde hooks up with Jovin - one witness told Vanity Fair magazine she saw him walking behind Jovin on College Street, though she didn't report this to police until after she saw Van de Velde's face on the Channel 8 interview. Van de Velde begins to drive Jovin toward his side of town for reasons unknown - police may speculate he wanted to soothe her anger, or perhaps they believe he was secretly smitten - and something goes wrong. She leaves the vehicle, and Van de Velde follows, at some point in a murderous rage, stabbing her 17 times on the street and driving off.
Following this rage theory, it stands to reason police must believe the murder was not premeditated. Clearly, if Van de Velde, a smart, disciplined person, had planned it in advance, he would have had an alibi. Also, if he had planned this in advance, why would he take the enormous risk of being seen with Jovin downtown on a warm Friday night? Likewise, if they had made an advance appointment, he would have been taking a risk that she might tell someone else. Thus, police must believe the murder is an act of rage, and possibly passion, done spur of the moment. Logically, since it was not planned in advance, police must believe Van de Velde used his own vehicle and that he had a propensity for either carrying a knife or having one in his vehicle. The weapon used to kill Jovin was never found.