Nine years later, murder of Yale senior still unsolved

Less than six hours before she was killed, Suzanne Jovin, a 21-year-old Yale student, turned in a draft of her senior essay.

It was Dec. 4, 1998, just a week before the final copy was due. In 21 single-spaced pages on “Osama bin Laden and the Terrorist Threat to U.S. Security,” she examined the terrorist’s already prominent organization. Her paper was virtually complete, except for the conclusion. In neat handwriting on the margins of page 20, she wrote about the final paragraphs: “I’m saving the conclusion for last.”

A plaque in Davenport College memorializes Suzanne Jovin, who was murdered in New Haven on Dec. 4, 1998, months before she would have graduated.
Blair Benham-Pyle
A plaque in Davenport College memorializes Suzanne Jovin, who was murdered in New Haven on Dec. 4, 1998, months before she would have graduated.

“She had a few hours more work to go,” says James Van de Velde ’82, her senior essay adviser and the instructor of her political science seminar, “Strategy and Policy in the Conduct of War.”

In the unfinished paragraphs, which were provided to the News by Van de Velde, she ended her paper with a warning to foreign-policy makers: “To ultimately defeat bin Laden in his ‘holy war’ against the United States and the non-Muslims, we must be prepared to ‘stand some more heat.’ Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that this ‘holy war’ will turn cold anytime soon.”

But Jovin would never know how true her words were. On that December night, almost three years before Sept. 11, she was stabbed to death just two miles from the Yale campus. And while al Qaeda’s holy war has certainly not turned cold since 1998, it seems to Van de Velde that Jovin’s unsolved murder investigation did — at least until two weeks ago.

Since September 2006, when Jovin’s case was handed over to Connecticut’s Cold Case Unit, details about the investigation were almost impossible to come by. The Unit refused to release any information about the status of their work, and its Web site, which features photographs and details of nine other unsolved murder cases dating back to 1982, had no mention of Jovin.

As the ninth anniversary of Jovin’s death approached, Van de Velde began to say repeatedly that he wanted that to change — whether out of self-interest or not is anybody’s guess — calling publicly on the Cold Case Unit to renew its efforts. Van de Velde’s interest, after all, extends beyond that of a teacher concerned about his student.

The former Saybrook College dean is also the only person ever named as a suspect in the murder.

His wish came true, or so it seems. At a Nov. 30 press conference outside the New Haven Superior Court, State’s Attorney’s Office officials unveiled a new Jovin Investigation Team charged with solving the Yale senior’s murder by bringing fresh eyes to a crime that may have needed a more thorough effort from the start, interviews with Jovin’s friends, police officers and local reporters at the time have revealed. And just yesterday, after more than a year of judicial silence, a federal judge resurrected Van de Velde’s claims against Yale and the New Haven Police Department.

But whether the new team is anything more than a strategic response to Van de Velde’s recent criticism — and whether the investigators will bring real closure to the nine-year-old mystery — remains uncertain.

The stabbing

For early December, the Friday of the murder was unusually warm.

Jovin, an international studies and political science double major who grew up as the daughter of scientists in Goettingen, Germany, spent the early evening at New Haven’s Trinity Lutheran Church at a holiday pizza party with Best Buddies, an organization that matches students with mentally disabled adults. She had been involved with Best Buddies since her freshman year and was director of Yale’s chapter.

Dawn DeFeo, who was then the coordinator of the supervised living arrangements program at Marrakech, Inc., a not-for-profit provider of residential, educational and career services for mentally challenged adults, says she met with Jovin weekly to help organize Best Buddies activities. DeFeo was unable to attend the Dec. 4 party, she says, because she was working part-time in order to spend time with her young children. DeFeo says she tried, without much success, to recruit other people from Marrakech to help Jovin coordinate Best Buddies activities.

“It was really hard for Suzanne because I would put other people in charge, and they weren’t really that responsive,” she says. Because no one from Marrakech had volunteered to bring the buddies home after the party, Jovin had borrowed a University station wagon so she could drive some of them back herself, DeFeo recalls.

Around 9:25 p.m., a classmate, Peter Stein ’99, saw Jovin on Old Campus, he told newspapers soon after the crime. He said Jovin told him that she was returning the keys to the car and was planning to return to her apartment on Park Street.

“She did not mention plans to go anywhere or do anything else afterward,” Stein told the News in April 1999. “She just said that she was very, very tired and that she was looking forward to getting a lot of sleep.”

Stein declined to comment for this article, saying he could no longer remember details from the night of the crime.

Less than 20 minutes after Stein saw her, Jovin had been attacked.

At 9:58 p.m., police found her bleeding on the corner of Edgehill Avenue and East Rock Road, about 2 miles from Old Campus, according to a 1998 NHPD press release. The murder had occurred at about 9:45, according to the Department’s description of the crime posted online in 2001. Jovin had been stabbed multiple times in the head, neck and back.

Some witnesses report having heard a scream and an argument between a man and woman; others say they saw a tan or brown van in the street next to where Jovin’s body was later discovered, according to the description.

Jovin’s friend DeFeo says she still does not think it was plausible that Jovin walked from Old Campus to the crime scene in just 20 minutes. She said she doubts it was a random attack.

“I find it hard to believe that she would have just gotten into a vehicle with somebody who she didn’t know; it seemed it would have been more somebody who she knew,” DeFeo says. “But you hear so much, and it’s been such a long time.”

The ‘pool’ of suspects

Davenport Dining Hall Manager Jim Moule had planned an intense Saturday of preparing for the college’s annual holiday dinner. The dining hall and common room would be decked out with lights, white linens, ice sculptures, train sets and dozens of pies and roasts by the night of Dec. 5.

But the usual cheer at the dinner was lost. Jovin, after all, had been a favorite student worker for two years. “We were in a state of shock all day,” recalls head pantry worker Pat McGloin. “We were all just walking around like zombies.”

“It was very difficult to grieve when you had TV cameras aimed at the front and back gates of the college,” Davenport College Master’s Senior Administrative Assistant Barbara Munck says. “It was to me an imposition of our home.”

If the Yale community was looking for answers, so were the police. And officials thought they might have found one in Jovin’s adviser, Van de Velde.

On the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 7, New Haven police officers interviewed him briefly in his Yale office, for “10, 15 minutes tops,” according to Van de Velde. On Dec. 8, he says, police interrogated him for several hours at NHPD headquarters, asking him, among other things, whether he had killed Jovin.

Then it all went public.

The next morning, The New Haven Register reported that a Yale “educator” was the lead suspect in the investigation, citing “city and university sources close to the case.” The bold banner headline, “Yale teacher grilled in killing,” was one-and-a-half inches high. The Register claimed in the sub-heading that the “prime suspect lives near where slain student was found, sources say.”

The article did not name Van de Velde outright, but at that point, he had effectively been identified to the public, Van de Velde says. He lived only .6 miles from the scene of the crime, at 305 Ronan St., and since he was working as a lecturer in the political science department, he was not a professor — a title the Register article had been careful to avoid.

On Jan. 10, 1999, then-Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead called Van de Velde into his office, telling him that his spring term courses would be canceled and that he could not advise any senior essays or directed readings, Van de Velde says. On Jan. 11, Yale Public Affairs Director Tom Conroy issued a statement announcing that Van de Velde was in a “pool of suspects,” although the University presumed him to be innocent.

“Yale relieved Van de Velde of his spring term teaching after the New Haven police identified him as in the pool of suspects for the Jovin murder,” Brodhead wrote in an e-mail to the News last month. “The decision involved no presumption of his guilt by myself or the [U]niversity. It followed from the recognition that it would be inappropriate for his classes to take place under these circumstances. He was not ‘fired,’ but put on paid leave for the remainder of his appointment.”

Despite this declared presumption of innocence, students say the University’s actions contributed to their suspicion of the faculty member.

“When Yale canceled his classes, I think most people on campus assumed that we were all just waiting for the other shoe to drop, that the next thing you were going to read about in the paper was that Van de Velde was arrested and charged with the murder,” a former News reporter, Blair Golson, says. “I think we assumed that Yale wouldn’t have done what it had done unless it was acting maybe on more information than was publicly available.”

Golson says that since he does not know what University administrators knew at the time, he does not know whether the University made the right call.

Van de Velde was never charged, and no evidence has ever been presented to the public to link him to the crime. Yet when he asked former Political Science Department chair Ian Shapiro to re-hire him after his one-year term expired, Van de Velde says, Shapiro refused. Shapiro did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment on why Van de Velde was not re-hired. His secretary said he was out of the country.

_____ until proven guilty

In his academic and professional life, Van de Velde often found himself coming back to Connecticut.

He grew up in Orange, a middle-class suburb just miles from Yale. After studying political science at Yale and graduating with honors in 1982, he earned a Ph.D. from Tufts University in 1988. He went on to serve as a diplomat with the Department of State, later joining the U.S. Naval Intelligence Reserves and serving in several positions, from Sarajevo to Singapore.

But Van de Velde says his true love was teaching. After serving as a lecturer in the Political Science Department and Saybrook College dean, Van de Velde spent a year working in an administrative position at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. In 1998, he returned to Yale because, he says, he missed teaching college students, “didn’t particularly like being an administrator of a research program,” and did not get along with a Stanford faculty member.

After his one-year appointment at the University, he says he applied for a “tenure-track” position within the department. His competition, he says, was “All But Dissertation” graduate students and those with newly minted Ph.Ds. “I feel that it was an outrage that I was not given the open tenure-track position,” he says. “I am sure the Jovin matter had a lot to do with my not landing [it].”

After the Jovin case, no university — or virtually any other organization — would touch him, he says.

“For about a year, I couldn’t get a job anywhere,” Van de Velde asserts. “I applied to over 100 positions and couldn’t get an interview.”

Eventually, his prospects began to improve. The Navy gave him a series of 30- and 90-day assignments in Washington, at one point assisting the Pentagon as a “Y2K watch officer.” In 2003, the Department of Defense sent him to Cuba twice, where he says he “interviewed detainees” at Guantanamo Bay. He says he then held a “top secret/codeword security clearance” with the Department of Defense.

Van de Velde now resides with his wife and their 3-year-old son in a small town outside of Washington, D.C., where he works on government contracts for Booz Allen Hamilton, a private consulting firm. He says he feels “extraordinarily lucky for many reasons.” But he cannot leave the Jovin case behind, because, he says, it will not leave him.

“It damaged my professional life; it damaged my personal life,” he says. “I lost more or less all my professional acquaintances.”

Demonstrating how damaging the initial headlines were to Van de Velde’s reputation, one Yale staff member who claims to have known Jovin says that even though Van de Velde’s DNA does not match that found under Jovin’s nails, he could still have been involved in the crime. “I don’t know if he did it or not, but I’m sure he was capable,” the staff member says, offering no proof and insisting on remaining anonymous. In an e-mail to the News, Van de Velde said the staff member’s statement is “trash.”

“Very few people in history have ever had their lives so totally inspected and prodded through more than Van de Velde,” says Donald Connery, an author and independent journalist who over the past 60 years has worked with NBC, Time and Life magazines and United Press International. “And the authorities in this state — the New Haven State’s Attorney General, the police, the Chief State’s Attorney’s office — no one has the guts or the morality to simply say that this man was falsely identified and is in no way a suspect.” In the 1970s, Connery reported on Connecticut teenager Peter Reilly, who was wrongly accused and convicted of his mother’s murder.

In 2001, Van de Velde began to come back onto the media’s radar. He filed defamation lawsuits against Quinnipiac University — where he had been dismissed from a degree program in broadcast journalism — and the Hartford Courant. The Courant lawsuit is pending, and the Quinnipiac lawsuit was settled out of court in 2004 for a “pretty generous” $80,000, according to Van de Velde. Lynn Bushnell, Quinnipiac’s vice president for public affairs, and John Morgan, Quinnipiac’s associate vice president for public relations, were both named in the lawsuit. Both declined to confirm the amount of the settlement or to comment on the lawsuit.

But the more attention-grabbing defamation lawsuit is the one in which Van de Velde’s state claims were reopened yesterday. Van de Velde filed the lawsuit against the NHPD in 2001 and added Yale officials to the lawsuit in 2003. He claimed that the University and the police leaked not only the fact that a “male Yale teacher” was the lead suspect, but also that Van de Velde himself was the suspect.

University President Richard Levin told the News last month that neither he nor any other Yale officials acted as a source for the Register article. And when asked whether Van de Velde is — or ever was — a suspect, New Haven Chief State’s Attorney Michael Dearington said: “I wouldn’t get within 5,000 miles of that question. I have never commented on that, and hopefully no one in my office has ever commented on that.”

Cold case or no case?

In August 2007, 11 months after Jovin’s case was turned over to Connecticut’s Cold Case Unit, Van de Velde sent a letter to Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who oversees the unit. He urged Kane to post Jovin’s case on the Cold Case Web site and asked him to examine 12 “avenues to investigate in the Suzanne Jovin cold case homicide.”

“As both a citizen wrongly accused by the police and an analyst in the national intelligence community, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the case and how it might be solved,” Van de Velde wrote in the letter. “As you may know from numerous press accounts, I have been, since the beginning of the case, the most vocal advocate for a vigorous and truly professional police effort to solve the crime.”

Among Van de Velde’s suggestions were examining the DNA of a set of fingerprints on a Fresca soda bottle found at the crime scene; looking into other murders committed by men driving vans, as may have been the case in Jovin’s murder; examining a knife tip found in Jovin’s head to determine a manufacturer and type of knife; comparing DNA found under her fingernails to DNA in the Connecticut and Combined DNA Index System; conducting a sweat print analysis on her clothing; performing a microscopic forensic analysis to determine the presence of dirt, tire and other molecules on Jovin’s clothing; and looking into the Best Buddies program.

Connery, the criminal law writer, sent a similar letter to Kane in February.

In an interview in mid-November, Kane said he received both letters but that he chose not to respond. He declined to say why, and also declined to comment on whether he had taken any of their suggestions. Kane says he does not believe all cold cases are listed on the Cold Case Unit Web site. He declined to say why Jovin’s is not.

Dearington, who was overseeing the investigation in New Haven, said in mid-November that he had been forwarded Van de Velde’s and Connery’s letters, but that he had no further comment. “I do know that the case is being actively investigated by extremely experienced and qualified investigators,” he said. He declined to say how many people are working on the Jovin case, although he suggested that he would be more forthcoming in the future. “If you caught me on a sunny day, maybe I’d say more,” he said Nov. 15. “I think, though, that as the ninth anniversary [of Jovin’s murder on Dec. 4] approaches, we may provide more information about what’s going on.”

A ‘brand new’ approach

In late November, Dearington’s words rang true. At the Nov. 30 press conference, Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark announced the formation of a four-person team of retired Connecticut detectives to look into the crime independently. Each will earn just $1 a year for his work. The team will re-evaluate all previously gathered information and will also seek out new leads, he said.

“The idea is to approach the case as if it were brand new,” Clark said. “Therefore, no person is a suspect in the crime, and everyone is a suspect in the crime.”

Also present at the press conference was Ellen Jovin, the sister of Suzanne Jovin. Her family has long remained silent about the case – her parents declined to comment for this article and her other sister, Rebecca Jovin, did not return calls for comment. At the November press conference, Ellen Jovin spoke briefly, asking people to contact the new squad if they have any information.

“Not knowing what happened to Suzanne is devastating for our family,” she said. “Please do not let one more day pass in silence.”

In an interview five days after the team was announced, John Mannion, a retired state police officer who is heading up the investigative team, said he had already received information through new telephone and e-mail tip lines, but he declined to give any more detail. Since June, he said, the team has been reviewing the “expansive” case file on the murder.

Although state officials interviewed say the team has been meeting since the summer, they gave different reasons for why the squad was not announced until the end of November. Earlier in the month, both the Register and News published front-page articles about Van de Velde’s unanswered letters; Van de Velde also published a letter to the editor in the News in which he called on Yale officials to clear his name and to push the Cold Case Unit to conduct tests on evidence from the crime.

State’s Attorneys Clark and Dearington said the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with Van de Velde’s recent appearances in the media and letters to the State’s Attorney’s Office. But Mannion says media pressure had in fact played a role in the announcement. “We thought it would be the appropriate time because there was some inquiries being made,” he explains, “and we wanted to tie it in with the anniversary [of Jovin’s murder] to see if we could rekindle some memories.”

But Van de Velde says he is skeptical about how much work the Jovin Investigation Team will actually accomplish, saying that they are not forensic specialists or computer forensic specialists and will likely work part time, for an unknown amount of time. Mannion confirmed that the team meets “periodically,” saying the four try to meet once a week. Although Mannion has not yet interviewed Van de Velde, he says that he has looked at Van de Velde’s 12 suggestions for the investigation. But he did not say whether any had been pursued. “It became part of the official file, and it’s something we will consider as we march down this long road,” Mannion said.

In his letter, Van de Velde also offers suggestions of specific people to contact. One is DeFeo, the Best Buddies coordinator from Marrakech. Despite the fact that Jovin’s last activity the night of her death was at the Best Buddies party, DeFeo says neither she nor anyone from her office who was at the party was ever contacted by the police.

“It was really surprising to me,” DeFeo says. And the police waited days, she says, before contacting any of the mentally disabled clients Jovin drove home Dec. 4, an exclusion DeFeo says she finds worrying. “If it was any other person who didn’t have a disability … they certainly would have pursued it a lot more than they did,” she says.

Former FBI agent Foria Younis, who now trains police departments on Arab and Muslim cultures and terrorism issues, says she is surprised that the Marrakech staff, according to DeFeo, were never contacted. “If that wasn’t done, hopefully this new team would be able to [interview them],” she says.

NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz, who became chief in 2003 and will be leaving his post in January, declined to comment on details of the investigation and says simply “we certainly stand by our work.”

Another person Van de Velde mentions is Skip Palenik, president of Microtrace Scientific, a private laboratory that examines and identifies small particles and quantities of unknown materials. Van de Velde said in the letter that this kind of microscopic forensic test could show whether Jovin’s clothing was in contact either with the floor of a type of van police said was seen at the crime scene, or with that of some other van. Microtrace is often called into cases by cold case units, Palenik says, and has worked on high-profile cases such as the JonBenet Ramsey murder.

Palenik says Van de Velde has never contacted him and that Van de Velde’s suggestions to Kane indicate “a layperson’s general knowledge of the subject.” It is possible, although time-consuming and labor-intensive, to develop investigative leads from dust molecules, Palenik adds. But in order for the analysis to serve a purpose, he explains, the investigators usually must have something they can compare the findings to.

“The question is,” he says, “ ‘will it be useful?’ ”

Aimless violence or traceable logic?

Still, Van de Velde argues that this and other tests can and should be conducted. “Why doesn’t President Levin call for these forensic tests to be performed?” Van de Velde asked in an e-mail. “A Yale student was murdered and the investigation into her death was a travesty. Everyone on the campus knows it. There is no harm in following my forensic suggestions. There is no chance an innocent person could be implicated.”

Yale officials, Connery said, should make it known to the public that they believe Van de Velde to be innocent. “There’s hardly anything worse that could happen to you than to be accused of a crime you didn’t commit,” Connery said. “I just feel there’s a tremendous responsibility on everyone involved here not just to solve a murder but to see that a man’s reputation is restored.”

Levin declined to comment on specific tests, saying the decision to pursue those leads is up to the authorities. “But every sensible avenue should be taken to resolving the unanswered questions in this case, including reconsidering Mr. Van de Velde’s status as a suspect,” he wrote in an e-mail. He said Yale officials encouraged the police “years ago” to reconsider whether Van de Velde should continue to be regarded as a suspect.

Although the current investigators will not say which tests they are conducting or which people they are contacting, some people familiar with the crime say the case has been mishandled from the start. Eytan Halaban, a longtime associate resident fellow of Davenport College who was friends with Jovin, said he thinks police focused their efforts on identifying Van de Velde as the murderer too early.

“All the things they did in the research, like combing the ground where she was found, it was just to pin evidence on [Van de Velde],” Halaban says. “It was pathetic.”

Meanwhile, he speculates that the police may be ignoring what he thinks is one of the most likely scenarios for her death: that it was in some way linked to her senior essay on al Qaeda.

In her Dec. 4 draft, Jovin did not list any primary sources in her footnotes. And just a few weeks before her death, Halaban says that Jovin told him she was worried that she did not have enough research to give a Mellon Forum, a senior’s presentation to his or her college about a research project. “If my theory is correct and the New Haven Police would have pursued this crime and investigated what happened in New York,” Halaban argues, “9/11 would not have happened.”

***

Just beneath Halaban’s Davenport apartment, at the back of the college’s lower courtyard, is a memorial stone. The black slab lies between grass and flowers, near a hammock in which Davenport students often relax. Its simple inscription reads:

Suzanne N. Jovin

In Loving Memory

Jan. 26, 1977 – Dec. 4, 1998

By now, her classmates are in their early thirties, working as coaches, doctors, lawyers and writers. Jovin had just as promising a future.

Yale awarded her a posthumous degree on commencement day in 1999. She received an A- in Van de Velde’s class, and she graduated cum laude, with distinction in both her majors. At a May 23 ceremony awarding her the Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize for commitment to and capacity for public service, law professor Stanton Wheeler recounted her tutoring and mentoring activities.

“It was always absolutely clear that her driving motivation was to help people,” Wheeler says. “In death as in life, Suzanne Jovin left many lives forever changed. No student has done more to inspire others.”

Just before the final sentences of her senior essay, Jovin wrote that bin Laden’s use of terrorism “follows a self-dictated, but traceable logic, unlike the irrational acts of a fanatic or the aimless violence of a criminal delinquent.” This finding, she wrote, is reassuring, since “it suggests that bin Laden will be susceptible to the application of a judicious long-term counter-terrorist strategy.”

But as far as Van de Velde can tell, no such logic may ever have been applied to Jovin’s death, and no clear long-term strategy seems to be in the works.

Bin Laden is still on the loose. Nine years after her death, Jovin’s killer may be, too.

The Jovin Investigation Team can be directly contacted by phone at (203) 676-1575 or by e-mail at jovincase@gmail.com.

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