Nine years ago, the life of Suzanne Jovin ’99 ended tragically, but the University’s public-affairs struggle in handling the aftermath had just begun.
University administrators said they have never wavered on their stance on Jovin’s murder — that the primary objective is solving the case in order to bring comfort to family and friends. Deputy University Secretary Martha Highsmith said the focus has always been solving the crime.
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With the recent announcement of the Jovin Investigation Team, comprising four retired state police officers who will independently be investigating the homicide, the University is no longer at the forefront of the case.
But since the night of the murder, Dec. 4, 1998, Yale has weathered media storms surrounding the incident, a public-relations nightmare in 2000 and constant scrutiny by students, faculty and those close to the case.
Jovin, an international-studies and political-science double major from Gottingen, Germany, was found at 9:58 p.m. at the intersection of Edgehill Avenue and East Rock Road. She had been stabbed 17 times in the head, neck and back. Jovin was pronounced dead at Yale-New Haven Hospital soon after.
A mysterious slaying at Yale was more than enough to send local and national news outlets into a media frenzy.
In the middle of Dec. 1998, the New Haven Register ran an article claiming that a University “educator” had been questioned twice in the investigation. The “educator” was later identified as political-science lecturer and former Saybrook College Dean James Van de Velde ’82, Jovin’s senior-thesis advisor.
At once, Yale had not only lost a student but also had a suspect on its payroll.
Former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said in 1999 that the University acted on information it received from the New Haven Police Department that Van de Velde was in a “pool of suspects” in the murder case.
“Under the circumstances, his presence in the classroom could inevitably give rise to speculation about events outside the classroom,” Brodhead told the News in 1999 after Van de Velde’s spring classes were canceled. “That would be a major distraction to students and impair their educational experience.”
Over the years, Yale officials have denied ever naming Van de Velde as a suspect themselves.
Van de Velde has claimed since then that the University’s statement that accompanied the decision to cancel his spring-semester classes was the first official public acknowledgement of his suspect status. It is Yale, in concert with the NHPD, that leaked his name to the press, Van de Velde has said repeatedly.
But University administrators have stuck to their original statement. Highsmith said earlier this week that the University still presumes Van de Velde’s innocence.
Van de Velde filed a civil-rights lawsuit against multiple New Haven officials in December 2001, adding various Yale officials and administrators to the lawsuit in April 2003. The lawsuit asserts that Yale and New Haven violated Van de Velde’s civil rights because they named Van de Velde — and only Van de Velde — as a suspect in the Jovin homicide.
The federal portion of the lawsuit was dismissed in 2004, although Van de Velde has since filed a motion to reconsider.
Van de Velde was reassigned from his lecturer position to “research.” He did not have tenure, and the University did not renew his contract after the 1998-’99 academic year.
On March 1, 2000, ABC’s 20/20 ran an hour-long broadcast on the Jovin murder. The show quoted an unnamed spokesman who said “bringing more attention to the murder can only hurt Yale” and that “they want to put the murder behind them, that it is time to move on.”
Two weeks after the show first aired, Yale officials said the comments on the show did not represent the University’s official attitude toward the murder.
The statements, which were later attributed to University Spokesman Tom Conroy, were denied vehemently by the University. Conroy denied even being interviewed for the story. But ABC producer Jude Dratt continued to stand by what the network had broadcast, claiming that Conroy had repeated the sentiments “over and over again in interviews.”
The 20/20 statements became even more controversial on March 30, when Jovin’s parents wrote a letter to the News calling on Yale to “spare Suzanne and us the hypocrisy” of denials. The Jovins said they had notified University Secretary Linda Lorimer of Conroy’s alleged comments a month before the show aired. Lorimer subsequently admitted the Jovin family had contacted her about the remarks.
University President Richard Levin would later issue an apology in a prepared statement on April 6. Levin regretted “any offense” that the official’s statements on the show caused the family and friends of Jovin.
When news of Jovin’s death first broke, Lorimer told the News in 1999 that the University rallied behind one voice to address the issue: Conroy, who is still a spokesman for the University today. Since April of 2000, Conroy has never commented on the Jovin incident to the News.
A request for comment sent to the Office of Public Affairs, where Conroy works, earlier this week was forwarded to Highsmith.
In December 2000, the University got involved directly with the Jovin case. Yale hired two private investigators, former New York police Patrick Harnett and Andrew Rosenzweig. State’s Attorney Michael Dearington gave the investigators access to the Jovin case files.
The two investigators were the first to test DNA evidence found under Jovin’s fingernails. The DNA did not match Van de Velde’s, and investigators were not able to match the DNA to anyone else.
As months passed, in March of 2001, the University would also commit an extra $100,000 to the state’s reward for information leading to the arrest of Jovin’s killer.
After 2001, the Jovin case continued to see sporadic media coverage — a Freedom of Information Act request for the Jovin case files was denied, Van de Velde filed and amended his lawsuit — but no new leads. From The New York Times to Vanity Fair, the murder of Suzanne Jovin has been covered widely. But nine years later, the case remains unsolved.
The University’s $100,000 reward is still on the table, and the Jovin Investigation Team promises an independent probe into the murder. But Jovin’s killer remains on the loose, and Van de Velde continues to claim that Yale’s actions ruined his life.
“Our position has been from day one that we wanted this case to be solved, primarily to bring comfort to Suzanne’s family and friends,” Highsmith said Wednesday. “The University’s position on the matter is that we hope the crime will be solved.”