|Re: 12/3/2014 - New Haven Register: Suzanne Jovin’s killer can be found, with public’s help|
DAVID R. CAMERON: Suzanne Jovin’s killer can be found, with public’s help
By David R. Cameron
POSTED: 12/03/13, 5:59 PM EST | UPDATED: ON 12/03/2013
Shortly before 10 p.m. on Dec. 4 15 years ago, Suzanne Jovin, 21, a Yale College senior, was murdered near the intersection of Edgehill and East Rock roads, two miles north of Yale’s Old Campus, where she had been seen only a half-hour earlier. She was stabbed 17 times in the back and neck, stabbed so forcefully that the tip of the knife broke off inside her body.
Given the brief amount of time that transpired between when she was seen walking to the Phelps Gate office of the Yale police and when she was attacked and the fact that several people heard her screams and one person had a very close encounter with the likely murderer, there was no reason to think the murderer would not be identified and arrested quickly.
Yet incredibly, 15 years later, there is still no answer to the question that haunts her family and friends and all those who have investigated the case: Who killed Suzanne Jovin?
The police immediately focused on James Van de Velde, a Yale graduate and former residential college dean who was a lecturer in political science, the instructor of a course Jovin was taking, and the adviser of her required senior research paper. They heard from various sources that she was upset about his delays in giving her feedback on the paper earlier that week — Dec. 4, 1998, was a Friday — and was unhappy with his advising and teaching.
Within days, Van de Velde was labeled by the local media, courtesy of leaks from the investigation, as the “prime suspect.” Under the circumstances, it might have been reasonable to consider him a “person of interest.” But in retrospect, the single-minded focus on Van de Velde blew the investigation off course from the outset and kept it off course for many years. Most importantly, it caused investigators to disregard the large number of other men she knew.
It was not until June, after his long-standing lawsuit against Yale and the city was settled, that the “suspect” label was removed from Van de Velde. When asked after the announcement of the settlement if he no longer considers Van de Velde a suspect, State’s Attorney Michael Dearington said, “I think that’s fair to say. I guess I can say at this point in time he’s not considered a suspect.”
Aside from being blown off course at the outset, there have been some important setbacks in the investigation. None was more devastating than the 2009 announcement that the male DNA found in 2001 in the fingernail scrapings came not from an as-yet-unidentified suspect but from a technician in the state’s forensic lab. It was bad enough that it took more than two years to test the scrapings — literally the first place one would look for the DNA of the perpetrator in such an attack. It was incomparably worse that the DNA that was found turned out eight years later to be the result of lab contamination.
But there have also been some important steps forward. In 2006, the New Haven prosecutors agreed, after years of resistance, to turn the case over to the state’s cold case unit. Created in 1998, the unit, located in the chief state’s attorney’s Rocky Hill office, has compiled a remarkable record of solving difficult and long-unsolved cases. But its resources are limited and it was already fully engaged in a large number of investigations. So Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane and Dearington decided to create a four-man task force of retired state police detectives, headed by John Mannion, the former commanding officer of the State Police Central District Major Crime Squad, to investigate the case.
Free of the initial fixation on Van de Velde and with fresh eyes and a great deal of investigative experience, the Mannion team developed a number of new leads. One involved a mysterious “someone” mentioned by Jovin in an email she sent at 9:02 p.m. After wrapping up the pizza-making party she and the others in the Yale Best Buddies program organized for their Buddies, Jovin returned the Yale vehicle she had used to a parking lot and returned to her Park Street apartment. Just before leaving to return the keys and mileage form to the Campus Police office in Phelps Gate on the Old Campus, she sent an email, in German, to a female classmate who had called and asked if she would return the Graduate Record Exam study materials she had borrowed.
In the email, Jovin said she had lent the materials to “someone” but would get them back and leave them in the foyer of her apartment. The Mannion team made that information public more than five years ago.“Someone” has not yet come forward and has not been identified. After dropping off the key and form at the Phelps Gate police office, Jovin walked out to College Street and was last seen walking north. Had she perhaps arranged to meet “someone” at Phelps Gate or someplace else?
The Mannion team also returned to the account of a Hamden woman who told police that as she was driving home with her daughter on Whitney Avenue around 10 p.m., a man came running very fast — “as if his life depended on it” — from Huntington Street into Whitney, ran for a moment alongside the car, then sprinted to the east side, hurdled some shrubs, and disappeared in the darkened grounds between the Red Cross and the church that has been replaced by the new Worthington Hooker School.
The man was described as a physically fit, athletic-looking white male in his 20s to 30s with defined features and well-groomed blond or dark blond hair. The police arranged for the woman to do a field view — a surreptitious viewing — of Van de Velde. She said he wasn’t the “running man.” The police, convinced the “running man” was the killer but also convinced Van de Velde was the killer, wrote her off as an unreliable witness. (They theorized the man had run one block south on Edgehill and then down Huntington toward Whitney.) They didn’t have a police sketch prepared and didn’t seek the public’s assistance in identifying the “running man.”
The Mannion team reconstructed the encounter, had a New York police artist prepare a sketch based on her description, and circulated it widely. That happened more than five years ago. The “running man” has not yet come forward and has not been identified. It’s highly unlikely he was just a jogger; joggers don’t sprint “as if their life depended on it” straight across Whitney into oncoming traffic, jump shrubs and run into darkened areas at 10 p.m.
For various reasons, the Mannion team’s formal involvement in the investigation ended two years ago, although they continue as consultants. (Mannion is now the deputy police chief in East Haven.) The case is now back with the state’s cold case unit in Rocky Hill. But the unit has limited investigative resources — a result of the state’s chronic underfunding of the Division of Criminal Justice and the need to move some senior inspectors to other critical assignments — and the few resources it has are spread very thinly; the unit is now engaged in nearly 50 investigations and there are, in all, more than 900 — yes, 900 — unsolved homicides in the state.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that the chief state’s attorney’s office is committed at the highest levels to bringing the murderer of Suzanne Jovin to justice. But it needs help — from the public in bringing information about the case to it and from the state so that it has the investigative resources needed to continue the good work done by the Mannion team. Without that help, we may never find out who killed Suzanne Jovin. But with that help, we surely will.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force.