Yale Murders

Date Published 09.15.09
In light of the recent murder case of Annie Le, the Yale graduate student who was missing and whose body was found on Sunday hidden in the wall of the lab building where she worked, I've decided to re-run a story I wrote back in the summer of 2008, about the case of Suzanne Jovin, a Yale senior who was brutally stabbed to death in December '98 and whose case remains unsolved.

There's nothing right now to indicate the two cases are related.  But Le's case brought back painful memories for the Jovin family; her parents wrote an open letter to Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell asking that the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory be given more funding to solve Suzanne's case and other cold cases.

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All this time the clue was there, waiting to be discovered.

All this time --- ten years in December --- of suspicion, lives ruined, DNA tests, folders stuffed with pages of details that led nowhere.

Witnesses can be mistaken.  Investigators can be biased.  But this clue wasn’t subject to human fallibility; it was part of the digital record, a word passed between computers, pure and undistorted.

9:02 p.m., December 4, 1998.  Suzanne Jovin sent an e-mail message to a classmate.  The classmate had lent Suzanne some study materials and needed them back. 

I let someone borrow the study materials, Suzanne explained in the e-mail, but I’ll pick them up and leave them in my foyer for you to come get tomorrow morning.

Someone

How did investigators not identify the someone? Why did they disregard the reference, intriguing in its blankness?    

Investigators were not as tech-savvy in 1998 as they are now.  And the e-mail was written in German; both Suzanne and the e-mail’s recipient were raised in Germany. 

Perhaps most importantly, within days investigators thought they had their suspect. 

They pursued him publicly.  He was ambushed by television news reporters and stammered awkwardly on camera.  The college fired him; his life fell apart.  

But police could never make a case against him.  Over the years suspicion turned to something else.  Unease.  Regret.

Ten years later, new investigators pored over the evidence, and the ignored clue, a single mysterious word buried in an e-mail, came into focus.   

At 9:02 p.m. Suzanne indicated she was going to pick up study materials from someone soon.

Less than an hour later, she was dead.
 
*****

The Suzanne Jovin case, like other unsolved murders, has a series of clues that people have puzzled over, argued about, even reenacted.

The latest information changes everything.  Previously baffling details make more sense.  Gaps that remained blank can be filled in with possibilities that, for the first time, form a logical narrative.

But first, in order to understand how tantalizingly close the mystery is to being solved, we must go back to the incomplete puzzle that has served as the official public record of the case for the last ten years.

Suzanne
 
The shortcut impression of Suzanne Jovin is that she was a stereotypical high-achieving Ivy Leaguer.  The truth appears to be, as it is with all interesting people, more complex.  Born in Germany to American research scientists, Suzanne was bright and self-directed, excelling in music and languages and thriving in the famously tough German school system.  When it came time for college she chose and was accepted at one of America’s finest --- Yale, where her mother had gotten her Ph.D.

She was pretty and strong-willed.  Lively and determined.  While acknowledging that Suzanne was serious about academics, her Yale friends also remember a funny young woman who got silly on the dance floor and wasn’t above drinking Schnapps on a cold winter night.


Suzanne Jovin

She was also committed to public service.  She tutored inner-city kids and, since her freshmen year, volunteered with Best Buddies, a program that pairs students with mentally disabled adults.  By her senior year Suzanne, 21, was running the Yale chapter of the program.

On the night of her death, Suzanne spent the early part of the evening at a pizza-making party for Best Buddies.  She seemed a little tired but in good spirits.  Around 8:30 p.m. she used a borrowed university vehicle to drive other volunteers home.  She left the car in the parking lot and returned to her apartment on Park Street.  A group of friends passed by her window between 8:30 and 8:50; they waved at her and shouted that they were going to a movie and did she want to join?  Suzanne begged off and said she had to work on her senior essay.

At 9:02 p.m. she sent the e-mail in German to a female classmate.  Until recently it was believed that the e-mail indicated some study materials Suzanne had borrowed would be waiting in the foyer for the friend to pick up.

She logged off at 9:10 p.m.

Suzanne then headed out on foot to return the keys to the car she had borrowed for the pizza party.  On her way to the key return at Phelps Gate on Yale’s Old Campus she ran into a friend, Peter Stein, who was out for a walk.  They chatted briefly.  Suzanne didn’t mention any immediate plans or worries.  She said she was tired and looking forward to going to sleep.  Stein said she had one or more sheets of white 8 ½ by 11-inch paper in her right hand.  She didn’t appear nervous or agitated.


Phelps Gate

She returned the keys.  She was next seen around 9:25 walking north on College Street.  An acquaintance passed her.  The woman said Suzanne was walking at a normal pace and didn’t appear to be looking around for anyone or for a pick-up from a car.

Where was she going?  If she meant to return home, it’s odd that she didn’t retrace her steps and was instead taking a roundabout path.  It was an unseasonably warm night in December; first semester classes had ended and students were out in celebratory mode.  It's possible she wanted to take the long way home.  However, it’s more likely that this last sighting, placing her on College Street, is the first clue that she had an errand or plan no one knew about --- something that would bring her face to face with a man she knew and didn’t fear but who, for unknown reasons, became her killer.

The next piece of the puzzle comes at 9:45 p.m., almost two miles away on East Rock Road, when witnesses reported hearing a man and woman having an argument.  Other neighbors reported hearing a woman scream a few minutes later.  One passerby allegedly heard a woman cry out, “I can’t believe you’re doing this!”

At 9:55, a passerby called 911 to report a woman bleeding at the corner of Edgehill and East Rock Roads.  When police arrived, they found Suzanne lying on her stomach on the grassy area between the street and the sidewalk.  She was fully clothed and still wearing her jewelry.

She had been stabbed 17 times in the back of the head and neck, and her throat was slit.  A neighbor who observed Suzanne’s body said it appeared she was trying to make it to the nearest house when she went down.


Intersection where Suzanne Jovin's body was found

The contrast between the neighborhood and Suzanne’s injuries was stark.  East Rock is affluent, a cozy, well-lit area full of large old homes; Yale faculty members and other professionals live there.

While police never found the murder weapon, they were in possession of a terrible clue --- the tip of an estimated 4-5 inch non-serrated carbon steel blade was found lodged in the left part of Suzanne’s skull.

Police concluded almost immediately the murderer was someone Suzanne knew.  The timeline didn’t allow for her to get to East Rock on foot; she must have traveled by car.  No one who knew her thought she’d get into a vehicle with a stranger.  And the area around campus where she was last seen was busy enough to make a stranger abduction off the street unlikely.

Other signs supported the theory she knew her killer.  Witnesses reported hearing an escalating argument.  Her injuries were inflicted from behind, suggesting she was walking away from her killer but not defending herself from him.  She was arguing with him, but not fearful of an attack. 

Suzanne did have a long-term boyfriend, but he had an alibi: he was on a train coming home from New York City when she was killed. 

Meanwhile, another man in Suzanne’s life was piquing the interest of investigators.

Suspect

James Van de Velde was Suzanne’s senior thesis adviser.  Depending on your source, Van de Velde was either a reasonable suspect or an innocent man who, through no fault of his own, had a series of quirks and personal circumstances that were spun to appear suspicious.

Van de Velde was Connecticut-born, a ’82 Yale grad who had worked at the Pentagon and State Department.  He was buttoned-up, maybe a little socially awkward, but considered straight arrow.  Suzanne was a student in his “Strategy and Policy in the Conduct of War” seminar.  Sometime in the fall she chose him to be her senior-essay adviser.

After the murder Van de Velde appeared on the local evening news with a brief tribute to Suzanne.  He brought flowers to his seminar and placed them near her chair, asking the class to sit in silence.  He suggested that Yale organize a walk or vigil in Suzanne's memory.

According to Van de Velde, detectives thought his behavior wasn’t normal; they read it as guilty.

Their suspicions deepened when they heard Suzanne was upset about Van de Velde’s handling of her senior essay.  She felt he was giving the project short shrift and complained to family, friends and another faculty member.

Suzanne had dropped off a new draft of the essay to Van de Velde on the afternoon of her murder. 

Add in a couple of ex-girlfriends who complained he was creepy and stalking them --- Van de Velde flatly denies this --- and a prime suspect was born.

Detectives called in Van de Velde and shoved Suzanne’s autopsy photos at him.  They grilled him for hours.  He readily consented to car and apartment searches, blood and polygraph tests.

The seriousness of their suspicions didn’t hit Van de Velde until the day after the interrogation, when he was on his way to the dentist.  A news reporter from Channel 8 surprised him on the street.  The reporter wanted to know if Van de Velde had seen the front page of the New Haven Register.

“Yale Teacher Grilled in Killing” the headline read.

While the article didn’t name Van de Velde, the details all but gave away his identity.

Van de Velde would remain in a purgatory of suspicion and innuendo for years.  He lost his job at Yale and, according to a friend of his, was thwarted from other job possibilities by New Haven detectives who tipped off employers about their suspicions.

Yet every so often new details about the case were released, and they appeared to exonerate Van de Velde.  DNA tests on genetic material found under Suzanne’s fingernails did not match Van de Velde.  According to a source, the DNA belonged to a male and was something more substantial than skin cells --- the kind of genetic material you’d get from scratching someone.

A bottle of Fresca soda was found near Suzanne’s body.  Fresca was a brand she was known to like; the bottle had her fingerprints on it and a partial print from an unidentified person.  The print did not match Van de Velde.


Long way home

What happened to Suzanne Jovin between 9:30 and 9:50 p.m. that Friday night in December?

Her movements in the hour or so before her murder suggest she had a pre-arranged meeting with someone.  Several witnesses said she appeared tired, yet after parking the borrowed university vehicle she didn’t return the keys right away but went back to her apartment to write e-mail.  Why not park the car, return the keys, and come back home and do your e-mailing for the night?  It suggests she may have had to make a call to arrange something, and used the time at home to send an e-mail about the study materials, knowing she wouldn’t be back right away.

Calls within Yale’s telephone system were not traceable.

The off-kilter path she took after dropping off the keys at Phelps Gate supports the idea she was meeting someone and not returning home.

The witnesses who saw her near Phelps Gate and on College Street said she didn’t have a Fresca bottle with her at that time.

She didn’t have her wallet with her either.  She didn’t think she’d need it wherever she was going.  A single crumpled dollar bill was in her pocket.  If she bought the Fresca herself, one would assume some loose change would also be in her pocket.

Fresca was an unusual brand, and the only place that sold it nearby was a Krauszer’s market on York Street, which was further along the path toward her apartment.  Did someone she know meet up with her around Krauszer’s and offer her the Fresca?

The fact that the Fresca bottle was found near her body also underscores the theory she knew her killer.  She apparently traveled by car holding the soda bottle.  That suggests she was composed and calm.  Even as she walked and argued, she had the bottle with her.  She didn't drop it, fearful and anticipating violence.

New Information 

In June 2007, State’s Attorney Michael Dearington called together a team of retired State Police detectives to reinvestigate Suzanne’s murder.

The first piece of information they released to the public was a composite sketch and description of a young white male seen running near the crime scene around the time of Suzanne's murder.  The man didn’t appear to be a jogger, and detectives felt his proximity to the crime scene and his demeanor --- harried, serious --- warranted review.


Sketch

The second piece of information was the bombshell.  While reviewing the case file detectives were alerted to the text of Suzanne’s last e-mail.  In the e-mail, Suzanne apologizes for not returning her friend’s call and says she’ll return the study materials she borrowed from her --- after she gets them back from an unidentified person.

Suddenly a lot of disparate details clicked into place.  It had always felt like Suzanne had arranged to meet with someone; this could be it.  She was a meticulous person, and if she told her friend that the materials would be waiting for her tomorrow in the lobby, it’s likely she set up a time that evening to retrieve them.

She wouldn't have mentioned the meeting to anyone because it would have seemed innocuous at the time.

The fact that Suzanne’s boyfriend was out of town is also intriguing.  The romantic rival was out of town; classes were ending.  It’s possible a classmate who had feelings for Suzanne, someone who maybe used the ruse of borrowing the study materials to connect with her, felt this was his time to make a move. 

He knows from watching her she likes Fresca and offers her a bottle.  Maybe he says the study materials are in his car; while they’re at the car, why doesn’t he just drive her home?  It’s just a block or two, she says, but he persists.  He wouldn’t have alarmed her.  She probably thought he was simply eccentric, or a pest. 

It isn’t until he drives off route that tiny alarm bells start going off in her head.

Someone

Investigators have several key avenues now to explore.  The study materials in questions were related to the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a standardized test that is an admissions requirement for many graduate schools.  Suzanne had taken the exam in October.  A list of Suzanne’s classmates who also took the exam, or were planning to, would be a good start.  She was a cofounder of the German Club; its members should also be investigated.

I would also look at her boyfriend’s friends --- someone who may have harbored a secret crush on her and knew that the boyfriend was out of town.

And it’s a long shot, but I’d be interested if she knew or associated with anyone whose parents were Yale faculty members.  The East Rock neighborhood is popular with Yale professors; it’s possible the suspect came to the neighborhood because he was hoping to bring Suzanne to his family’s house if, for instance, his parents were out of town.

Whoever he is, Suzanne’s killer probably never intended to kill her.  An argument escalated.  She turned her back to get away from him.  He pulled out a knife, a kind that was not typically considered lethal.  He attacked her from behind.  The number and severity of the wounds suggests he was in an all consuming rage.

He would have been a nervous wreck after the murder, waiting for police to arrive.  Imagine his surprise, and relief, when they began to circle James Van de Velde.

Suzanne’s major was political science and international studies; a decent amount of her classmates from those majors would have gone on to careers in academia, especially those students who took the GRE, which indicates a desire to pursue a graduate degree.

It’s possible that while one professor’s life fell apart in the aftermath of a murder mystery, another young man, the real killer, was becoming a professor.

For ten years he’s gotten away with it, but he’s got to be looking over his shoulder now. 




The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.