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

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From: Jeffrey S. Mitchell12/4/2013 12:01:16 AM
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Does Connecticut Really Want the Jovin Murder Solved?

In late October, 2012, Gilles Carter had just entered the gate to New Haven’s Edgerton Park when his guest, a much younger fellow Princeton alumnus, “Billy”, blurted out “There is something I have to tell you, I am obsessed with the murder of Suzanne Jovin.” Billy had been a first-year architecture student at Yale in 1998, the same year senior undergraduate Suzanne Jovin was stabbed 17 times in the head and neck and left for dead two miles from campus in the posh Edgewood section of town.

Speaking hurriedly and non-stop, intertwined with seemingly random psycho-sexual allusions, Billy explained that, soon after the murder, he had emerged from sleeping in his room to find his roommate watching a broadcast news report regarding the murder. “They’ll never catch me” he told Gilles he blurted out. Explaining that although these words were meant as a joke, ever since then, Billy had spent his life living in fear the police were constantly surveilling him, trying to trap him into confessing to a crime he did not commit. On the verge of crying, Billy confided to Gilles how totally, utterly unhappy he was and that his obsession with the Jovin murder had prevented him from ever having a relationship with a woman.

Billy would soon after send Gilles a 30 page meticulously crafted and lucid account, entitled “Prisoner 0879431”, of life events related to his medically mind-altering internment in the psycho ward at Yale New Haven Hospital over the summer. In it, he recounted his efforts to gain copies of all his medical records from his psychiatrists in Washington DC and Miami to seek out any references he or others might have made to them about “episodes of paranoia regarding being investigated for the to-date unsolved crime.” From that and other sources, it appears Billy had become estranged from this family shortly before matriculating at Yale, and had been prescribed psychotropic drugs to deal with his emotional pain.

At 4:14pm one late winter day that followed, attorney Alan Rosner received a call from Billy asking if Billy could legally transfer title of his condo to his niece by means of a will. Alarmed, Alan asked Billy to explain why, at 38, he was making a will. After a ten second delay, Billy replied “They’re out to get me, they’re closing in.” Still concerned, Alan got Billy to loudly tell him: “I promise I am not going to do anything to hurt myself.” A few minutes after hanging up, Billy called back to say “Something big was going to happen today” but refused to elaborate as he said he did not want to involve Alan. Billy then did write out a will, had it witnessed by his neighbors, and died after jumping into oncoming traffic on I-95. His official cause of death was listed as an accident.

Several weeks later, Gilles, Alan, and two additional Princeton alumnae began recounting Billy’s untimely and tumultuous demise. They realized that being paranoid about something, like being investigated for murder, was a far cry from being guilty of it. Nevertheless, given that they knew Billy also had been accused by more than one woman of stalking and threatening behavior, they should err on the side of caution and call the Jovin Murder Task Force hotline.

A week later, Gilles got a call back from lead investigator, John Mannion, who thanked him for the information and assured him that Billy would be checked out. A week after that, Alan’s home phone rang. The caller ID read that it was Billy calling. Alan could hear Billy’s parents in the background reading out loud and deleting emails off of Billy’s computer.

Billy’s mother later admitted to Gilles that they knew of their son’s obsession with Jovin’s murder but that Billy had assured them he did not kill her. She and her husband then thought it prudent, after wiping Billy’s expensive computer hard drive clean, to physically smash and dispose of it. Fearful possible crucial evidence was being destroyed, Gilles called Mannion back to urge him to act swiftly in investigating Billy.

Mannion, apparently truly concerned, said he would immediately contact Billy’s parents. He also stated his team had located Billy’s 1998 roommate and were preparing to head south to interview him.

Weeks passed. The four Princeton alumns were well aware that information gathering for police investigations normally flowed one-way, and thus assured themselves that hearing nothing did not mean nothing was happening behind the scenes. But apparently nothing was.

Months passed. The group finally decided to call the hotline and check in. This time, the number had been disconnected. Mannion, who had been retired, had been reassigned to active duty in East Haven, the Jovin Task Force disbanded, and the investigation taken over by the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s office. Confused, the group contacted me, a longtime blogger on the case from Westport who had been following the investigation since its inception when my childhood friend, Yale Professor James Van de Velde, was having his name unfairly bantered about as a possible suspect, ruining his career.

In 2001, I and the Hartford Courant had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the Jovin case file on the basis that information gathered by the local police is eligible for potential public release. My simple premise was that the NHPD had already admitted in the newspaper to having given the case file to a private investigator, and therefore they had lost the right to claim total confidentiality. The State’s Attorney’s office then got involved, insisting that because the file passed through their office en route to the investigator, given they were not subject to a FOIA, the file was now somehow protected again. The Freedom of Information Commission ruled in my favor, essentially labeling this supposed agency hand-off as a brazen attempt to launder information to keep it hidden from the public’s eyes. Predictably, the State appealed to superior court on a technicality (in this instance, that the Commission failed to fill out a form formally allowing a senior director to take over this high-profile case from a subordinate) and vowed to tie up any future decisions against them in court for years to come. Neither the Courant nor I saw any light at the end of the tunnel and gave up on this endeavor.

Therefore, my first response to seeing the NHPD Task Force shut down and the investigation moved formally to the State’s Attorney’s office as, once again, to be polite, suspicion. Figuring we might be onto something important—but far from convinced – the Princeton alums and I decided to meet on a regular basis and re-examine the available evidence.

The most recent public revelation had come on July 1, 2008, when, nearly a decade after the murder, the Task Force released a sketch of a man considered a “person of interest”. When a member of the group showed the sketch to a former employer of Billy, he remarked “That’s him.”

As sketches are approximations that often resemble a multitude of people, the group turned its attention to the words used to describe the witness’ encounter with the person of interest: “a man in his 20s or 30s with an athletic build, well-groomed hair, dark pants, a loose-fitting greenish jacket, running like his life depended on it in the opposite direction from where Suzanne Jovin was killed.” Billy was 25 in 1998. His high school yearbook indicated he had been a track star. Billy’s friends confirmed that he had kept up long-distance running while in college.

Still not allowing themselves to be convinced, the group began a search for photos of Billy circa 1998. What they discovered shocked them. In at least four of the pictures, taken in diverse locations, in one instance even wearing a tie, there was Billy posing in a loose-fitting greenish jacket. To top it off, as in the sketch, his face was gaunt.

Of course, the group was well aware that the only “aha” moment that counted was one from the actual eye-witness, and, once again, turned their findings over to law enforcement to elicit such a reaction, or not. Shock quickly turned to incredulity. There would be no such encounter with the “running man” witness because, a mere three years after the Task Force trumpeted her cooperation in a press conference, the NHPD now deemed her “too old and unreliable.”

It then became quite clear why it took 10 years for the “running man” witness to emerge in the first place. Just days after the crime, she had immediately contacted the NHPD with her important tip. After a week of trying, she finally got a call-back. The NHPD secretly drove her to Professor Van de Velde’s office, pressing her to ID him as the person she saw. She adamantly refused, making it clear he was not the man she had seen that night. The NHPD tried again, and again, each time pushing harder and harder for an ID. The truth was, she had not seen Van de Velde that night, end of story… and the apparent end of her credibility as the NHPD then deep-sixed this vital clue.

While law enforcement stonewalled, the group kept investigating. Next they focused their attention on the murder weapon.

Jovin had been stabbed 17 times in the back and neck, and her throat slit. ABC’s 20/20 news show quoted the medical examiner as saying only one wound was fatal; the tip of the nonserrated carbon steel blade had lodged in the left side of her skull. The group found it perplexing how seemingly flimsy the knife must have been to break from the force of all those blows, and therefore apparently only the throat slit was fatal. Equally puzzling was a tip the group got that many of the wounds were also consistent with blunt force, as if a screwdriver were used.

Billy was an architecture student. Architects use X-Acto knives with a #11 carbon steel blade. When the tip breaks off, the implement resembles a screwdriver. It would explain why despite all those blows, only one was deemed fatal. More importantly, such a flimsy weapon would also help explain why Jovin was found alive, albeit barely.

It seemed a pretty simple task to compare the metallurgy tests the NHPD had done on the murder weapon with a #11 X-Acto blade. An autopsy report would verify the nature of the wounds inflicted such that tests could be done to see if they were consistent with a #11 X-Acto blade. Once again, the group was stymied. Law enforcement would neither do any new tests themselves nor allow the group to compare their own test results to what the police had on file. They refused to re-examine her autopsy.

Jovin had been found with no defensive wounds, her soda bottle nearby, nearly two miles from campus. This implied to the group that Jovin had willingly gotten into the car of someone she knew, been comfortable enough to grab her soda before walking away from the car, and never saw her attack coming. Similarly, it implied her escort must have simply and irrationally snapped to the point of rage. Might Billy have been considered such a threat?

Police records obtained by the group detail an instance where one of Billy’s Yale classmates taped a poster on an elevator wall “Billy… leave him alone before he goes postal”. Another report was filed by a woman who had accused Billy of harassing her. People who knew Billy were filled with stories of how he was prone to sudden and frightening emotional outbursts. Making matters worse, Billy had just begun taking prescription psychotropic drugs which often play havoc with your body until it gets used to them, if ever. So, yes, Billy very much did fit the profile of someone disposed to snapping at a moment’s notice.

Ironically, Billy’s rationale for killing himself -- that finally, after nearly 13+ years of constant surveillance, the NHPD were finally going to arrest him for the murder of Suzanne Jovin -- seems wholly unfounded. Rather, the moment law enforcement was presented with information suggesting further investigation of Billy was warranted, the Task Force was disbanded. In follow-ups to the State’s Attorney’s office, the rationale for nearly nine months of minimal follow through was that they talked to a few people, could not establish that Billy knew Jovin, and therefore it made no sense to waste any more time on a case they have already labeled as unsolvable.

And therein lies the rub. If the case remains unsolved, might it be true that nobody can ever accuse Yale, the city of New Haven, and even the State of Connecticut of botching the investigation from day one? Such would be an important perception to present with regard to ongoing or potentially future lawsuits filed against them. Granted most of the people involved in the original investigation are long gone, but, for the current group, might there be a “not invented here” mentality for fear of embarrassment that it was a group of amateurs that finally solved the crime?

Nevertheless, how Billy might have known Jovin is for sure a good question, and absolutely one the group had been asking itself all along. But, unlike law enforcement, the group actually had established a possible avenue of further investigation: the Yale German Club. Jovin had co-founded the club to bring together “all German-speaking undergraduate, graduate and professional students as well as post-docs, staff and friends.” Billy spoke quite proficiently in German.

Another intriguing aspect of the case has always been Jovin’s last email, one she wrote in German to a friend whose GRE study materials she had borrowed and then lent to “someone” else. As Jovin told her friend she could come pick up those materials later in her (Jovin’s) lobby, it seems reasonable to speculate that Jovin had planned to have had those materials returned to her by that night. As nobody has ever come forward to claim they were the borrower, this despite public pleas by the Task Force and a concerted investigation trying to find said person, it also seems reasonable to speculate said person might have arranged to rendezvous with Jovin that night, had coincidentally run into her, or was waiting for her in front of her apartment to gain entry to her lobby.

Admittedly, Billy, already being in graduate school, had no need of borrowing GRE materials. But men have done stranger things to get closer to women they desire, and Jovin was a woman many men reportedly did desire. Additionally, both Jovin and Billy were over 21, shared a love of dancing and socializing at local nightspots, and Jovin’s apartment was just one street over from where Billy attended all his classes.

For sure, such an expected meet-up with Billy would not have aroused any suspicions for Jovin. Perhaps Billy offered her a ride back home which she either accepted because she was tired from her walk or figured it would be impolite to decline.

Once in his car, about to return the only tangible link he had to her, perhaps Billy began searching for a way to spend more time with her. Could they talk at her place? No, how about we just drive around and talk, she may have suggested. Once it became apparent what Billy wanted to talk about, though two miles from campus, perhaps Jovin politely asked to be allowed out of the car so she could catch the nearby Yale minibus to take her back to the main campus.

Billy might then have parked the car, let Jovin out still clutching her soda bottle, sat and stewed for a while, grabbed the X-Acto knife architects routinely carry with them, and confronted her. When she turned to walk away, perhaps Billy jumped on her and started stabbing at her from behind before she knew what hit her, the tip of the blade finally breaking off yet she was still obviously alive, so he then slit her throat.

Despite the severity of the attack, the entire episode might have taken less than a minute. Perhaps instinctively, Billy ran away from the murder scene and thus away from where his car was parked. As Jovin now lay on East Rock Rd, perhaps he ran one block south to Huntington Street where he flew down the hill, across the main road, Whitney Avenue, where the passing motorist returning home to Hamden saw him (the source of the aforementioned police sketch), then jumped into the bushes across the street and out of sight. When he awoke the next morning from his psychotropic haze, the night before likely seemed like a bad dream. Billy may have then spent the next 13+ years of his life on earth trying to prove to himself, and by extension others with his constant unsolicited denials, that it really was all a dream and thus he surely was not a murderer.

Of course, perhaps it all truly was a dream. Perhaps Billy was not the “running man” with the loose fitting greenish jacket the witness observed. Perhaps the murder weapon was not an X-Acto. Perhaps Billy was perfectly calm under his prescribed medication. Perhaps Billy had never met Jovin in his entire life. But, after 15 years, with no strong leads apparently ever uncovered in this case, is there not enough of a cloud of suspicion around Billy that any reasonable person would not at least push to have these questions surrounding him answered ASAP?

For example, how hard might it be for law enforcement to simply show Billy’s picture to the “running man” witness? If she says “Nope, no way, not the guy I saw that night”, for absolute sure it puts a huge dent in the Billy-as-murderer theory. But what if she has the opposite reaction? Considering asking potential witnesses to identify persons of interest is Police Work 101, and considering we have a viable potential witness and a viable person of interest, to continue to not follow through causes one to wonder if perhaps there is a more sinister factor at play here beyond mere incompetence.

To be clear, our group never started with the premise that Billy had to have murdered Suzanne Jovin. If that were the case, Gilles would have gone to the police back in November of 2012 when Billy had “confessed” to him. Rather, we decided to instead focus on the available evidence and where that led us. But rather than force us to concoct new scenarios for how Billy might have been a killer, his presence actually helped explain “gotchas” in prior scenarios.

For example, it was inconceivable to me a Yale student was capable of going from calm to rage so quickly so as to inspire fear in the other person. Billy had a documented history of doing just that. It made no sense to me how Jovin could be found alive after 17 stab wounds and a slit throat, nor how/why some of the wounds were described as screwdriver-like blunt force. The use of a flimsy X-Acto knife where the tip had broken off explains this. It was baffling how the couple walking up East Rock Rd, who found Jovin bleeding and dialed 911, neither saw a car nor person race past them, as well as why the man running like his life depended on it had come down Huntington instead of East Rock. Billy running on foot back away from the crime scene accounts for this, not to mention the unusually warm weather made it probable he was wearing his favorite loose-fitting greenish jacket which the witness clearly described. Given Billy spoke fluent German like Suzanne, it’s not at all far-fetched they could have met at a German Club (which Jovin co-founded) event. And finally, it was always a mystery to me why the person Jovin had intended to retrieve the GRE materials from that night has never come forward. If Billy were indeed this person, it would explain why Jovin willingly got into his car and why, being her killer, there was no incentive for him to ever come forward.

Our group’s fact-sheet detailing our investigation of Billy is 16 pages long. Most of the group considered Billy a friend and had bent over backwards to help him in his time of need, truly hoping to prove to themselves that Billy really was merely delusional and not a killer. To our knowledge, not a single of our suggestions has been acted upon. Alan even petitioned the FOIC once again for access to the case file to verify this, but was stymied once again by the State’s Attorney’s office and the prospect of years spent litigating appeals in superior court should he get a favorable ruling.

It has now been a year since Billy “confessed” to Gilles. Suzanne Jovin had her life taken away 15 years ago yet not one single lead has ever led to a serious person of interest, let alone a suspect. With one innocent person’s reputation already ruined, the group surely did not want to be accused of doing the same to someone else. That is why, despite the saying that you cannot defame the dead, the group insisted an alias still be used to conceal Billy’s identity from the masses. Billy may indeed turn out to be wholly innocent, but, for now, he is being wholly ignored by law enforcement. Enough is enough.

Despite my serious suspicions about Billy, the reason I have chosen to – finally – take the entire Billy episode public goes beyond him personally. The bigger picture here is that rather than admit the Jovin investigation was a farce from day one, Connecticut law enforcement at all levels apparently still feels it is more appropriate to be defensive instead of responsive. This is no way to solve a murder.

- Jeff
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