|Re: 1/17/2015 - New Haven Register: Randall Beach: Many trying to solve the mystery of who killed Suzanne Jovin|
Randall Beach: Many trying to solve the mystery of who killed Suzanne Jovin
Jeff Mitchelll at the Phelps Gate entrance to Yale University’s Old Campus. (Arnold Gold — New Haven Register)
POSTED: 01/17/15, 5:18 PM EST | UPDATED: 57 SECS AGO
Jeff Mitchell and I met for our interview last Wednesday morning at Yale’s Phelps Gate, a place with special meaning for this man, who has spent 16 years trying to find out who killed Yale student Suzanne Jovin.
Mitchell took me inside Yale’s “Old Campus” quad and pointed to a spot in the middle of the courtyard.
“That’s where she spoke with Peter Stein,” Mitchell noted.
Stein, a classmate of Jovin’s, later would tell police that she told him she was going to the Yale Police substation at Phelps Gate to turn in the keys to a university car. She had used the vehicle that night to help out at a Best Buddies charity party.
Jovin, a 21-year-old senior, dropped off the keys at about 9:20 p.m. on her last night, Dec. 4, 1998.
Mitchell and I turned left out the gateway onto College Street, where she was last seen walking, toward Elm Street.
Where Jovin went after that, who she was with and how she ended up about 30 minutes later lying mortally wounded near the corner of East Rock Road and Edgehill Road about two miles away, remains unknown.
Mitchell says it’s “a mystery” he is driven to solve.
He and I share a keen interest in this case and both of us are frustrated that the killer has not been found. For each of us, it’s personal. Jovin died in my neighborhood, about four blocks from my house; Mitchell’s longtime friend, James Van de Velde, was named as a suspect soon afterward.
When I first interviewed Mitchell at his home in Westport in 2002, Van de Velde was still listed as a suspect and Mitchell was trying to dig up information that would implicate somebody else and clear his old high school friend.
At least that’s my belief about Mitchell’s motivation. But last week he told me, “This was never about clearing Jim’s name. It was about: there was a murder and somebody has to be brought to justice for that.”
Finally, in 2013, Van de Velde reached a legal settlement with Yale University and t he city of New Haven in his lawsuit which claimed they wrongly singled him out and damaged his reputation. He had been Jovin’s instructor and adviser at Yale; university officials did not renew his contract after he was named a suspect in the case.
After the settlement was reached, State’s Attorney Michael Dearington said Van de Velde was no longer a suspect.
“There was never any evidence against Jim,” Mitchell told me. “No motive, no blood, no fiber. Nothing at all.”
Mitchell, a self-employed entrepreneur, said he regularly devotes “lots and lots of hours” to working on this case.
As Mitchell and I walked down College Street, he demonstrated the logical thinking he says he always employs when trying to figure out the case. He was rebutting a theory that somebody stalked Jovin, following her as she walked and then abducting her.
“How do you stalk somebody when you’re in a car?” he asked. If the stalker was on foot and then forced her into a vehicle, Mitchell added, how would the perpetrator have known where she was going and where to have parked his vehicle so that she could quickly be pushed inside?
We walked a half-block on College Street, then turned left onto Elm Street. Mitchell has theorized that this continued to be the route Jovin took that night because it has been reported a Fresca bottle with her fingerprints on it was found near her body on East Rock Road. Mitchell determined through his research that the Krauszer’s near the corner of Elm and York streets was the only place in the area that sold Fresca in bottles. (Stein said she was not carrying the bottle when they spoke.)
The Krauszer’s is no longer there but Mitchell noted as we stood on its former site that vehicles now, as well as in December 1998, could legally park in front of that building. He also pointed up Elm Street toward Park Street, where Jovin lived; he said in 1998 the strip was “dangerous,” with at least one boarded-up building.
Mitchell noted these facts because it was long his theory that Jovin was randomly abducted by several people in a vehicle in that area. He had theorized they were seeking money or sex, became enraged when she resisted, stabbed her repeatedly and dumped her body on East Rock Road.
But as we walked up Elm Street last week, Mitchell told me his random abduction theory, although still possible, is “now less possible.”
Over the past several years, Mitchell and several other citizen investigators have been looking into the possibility that Jovin was killed by a mentally disturbed Yale School of Architecture student.
As I reported in December 2012, Gilles Carter, an East Rock resident who knew that troubled man at Princeton, reported to authorities his concerns after conferring with two other Princeton alumni.
This group compared the man’s college yearbook photo with a police sketch police released based on the description of a female motorist who on the night of Jovin’s slaying saw a man running wildly on Whitney Avenue, close to the crime scene. Carter and his friends said the “running man” closely resembled that troubled graduate student, who had been a runner in school and often wore a green jacket, as did the runner on Whitney Avenue.
Moreover, Carter said that one day in October 2011, the man showed up at his doorstep in a “hyper-agitated state” and told him, “I am obsessed with the murder of Suzanne Jovin.”
Whenever that man felt a woman had rejected him, Carter said, he flew into a rage.
A year after that conversation, the young man died in what appeared to be a suicide.
Mitchell told me he wants to be clear there is no evidence Jovin knew that man; Mitchell admits this man could have nothing to do with her death. But he said that person “fills in a lot of holes” in the puzzle.
Mitchell recently emailed Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who oversees the cold case unit investigating the Jovin homicide and many others. Mitchell asked to be shown a photo of the murder weapon to see from the knife’s tip if it’s an X-Acto, the type used by architecture students.
Mitchell, who told me he has spoken with many of the witnesses in the Jovin case, added, “I know as much as anybody anywhere about it, outside of the police.”
He said another expert on the case is David Cameron, a Yale professor of political science and a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force. “I share everything I know with David. He, I and Jim (Van de Velde) have been sharing information for 16 years. We test each other’s theories, debating what makes sense and what doesn’t.”
Mitchell added, “Jim has worked pretty much every day from the start to help find the real killer.”
Van de Velde now lives near Washington, D.C., doing government consultant work.
When I asked Cameron about Mitchell, he said, “Jeff has been seriously committed to trying to figure out how to solve this case for a long time. He’s had some ideas that have been useful to the investigators.”
Although Mitchell passes along to the cold case unit any leads he develops through his many contacts, he wants to meet with those investigators (joined by Cameron, Carter and other private citizens deeply involved in the Jovin case) and share everybody’s knowledge. “Let’s come together and get this thing solved.”
When I asked Kane about this, he said, “Sometimes people (with information on cases) call and ask to meet with us and occasionally we will.” He added, “We appreciate any ideas. But sometimes they want information back and that’s difficult. There’s a risk that details known only to the offender or witnesses might be released.” (Police refer to this as “contaminating” evidence.)
As for Mitchell’s request to see a photo of the knife, Kane said, “I won’t comment on any specifics on what we might or might not do.”
Meanwhile, Mitchell said, “I’ll do everything I can for as long as I can, to get this solved.”
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The contact information for the Jovin tips line is email@example.com or 1-866-623-8058.
Contact Randall Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-680-9345.