|Re: 11/8/01 - NH Register: Jovin mystery van in police custody|
Jovin mystery van in police custody
William Kaempffer, Register Staff November 08, 2001
NEW HAVEN — For nearly six months, a vehicle sought in connection with the murder of a popular Yale student has been secreted inside a police garage as detectives scoured it — and later scoured it again — for clues in the unsolved, 3-year-old case.
But authorities now acknowledge they're uncertain what — if any — significance the unregistered, aging Dodge van might have in the murder of Suzanne Jovin.
"It's uncertain what its role is at this point," said a law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's still of evidentiary value, but to what extent is unclear."
Authorities believe it's the same tan van — now painted white — that witnesses reported seeing in the vicinity of East Rock and Edgehill roads the night Jovin was stabbed to death near the intersection in the upscale neighborhood.
According to sources, the van has been parked inside the out-building at the police garage since April, squeezed in next to the department's bomb disposal truck, scuba van and mobile command post.
Whether the 1982 Dodge E-250 has yielded anything in the investigation remains less clear. Authorities still won't officially acknowledge that they even seized it.
While it remains unclear if the van holds any significance in the murder, it has become clear that police have taken great pains to conceal that they have it.
Its storage site has been most perplexing for some police officers. Detectives routinely seize vehicles in connection with investigations and universally store them in the police garage, located under the police academy at 710 Sherman Parkway.
But that's not where police are keeping the Jovin case van. It is parked in a separate, less trafficked building in the same compound that usually houses the department's emergency services vehicles.
"I guess they didn't want anyone to know they had it," said one veteran officer.
A sticker in the van's window indicates it was seized April 20, less than a month after authorities made a very public plea for help in finding the mysterious vehicle seen near the murder scene.
At a March news conference, New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington revealed that witnesses had spotted a tan or brown van the night of the killing and said investigators believed "there are individuals who have unreported information who may assist in this investigation."
The van at the police garage originally was tan, but subsequently — apparently since the murder — was painted white.
The last owner of record of the van, a former Guilford resident, has been questioned at least once by police. He could not be reached for comment.
In March, before they recovered the van, authorities insisted they believed the occupants or occupants were potential witnesses to the crime, not possible suspects. But police forensic detectives have looked closely at the vehicle. While officials would not confirm it, police sources have said the forensics unit examined the vehicle at least twice. The examinations did not yield anything significant, a source said. Whether detectives were simply covering their investigative bases or hoping that the van could yield useful clues is a question police wouldn't field.
Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing declined comment. Assistant State's Attorney James G. Clark, the prosecutor assigned to the case, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Jovin, 21, was killed Dec. 4, 1998, stabbed 17 times in the back and neck. Her thesis adviser, former lecturer James Van de Velde, is the only named suspect in what police have described as a "pool" of possibilities.
He has consistently denied he had anything to do with the murder.
In a recent e-mail to the Register, Van de Velde cited the van as a potentially important piece of evidence. He noted, "I drove a red Jeep, which I consented to have police search" when they made the request four days after the murder.
Van de Velde alleged it was private investigator Andrew Rosenzweig, hired by Yale to look into the case, who "forced the New Haven police to reveal the existence of the tan van."
"Given the probable use of a vehicle in the crime and the possible link to a van, why were neighboring municipalities never asked for their help identifying suspects?" Van de Velde asked.
In the three years since the killing, authorities have released little about evidence in the case but periodically reveal nuggets of their ongoing investigation. In the March news conference, 27 months after the killing, Dearington for the first time divulged that witnesses had seen a van the night of the murder.
And last week, prosecutors revealed for the first time that a male's DNA was found under the fingernails of Jovin's left hand. Dearington said investigators would ask certain classmates and associates of the victim to volunteer DNA samples in hopes of finding its source. The DNA was not Van de Velde's.
Authorities wouldn't comment on either occasion to questions about the timing of the announcements.
Register reporter Randall Beach contributed to this story.
©New Haven Register 2001