After almost a decade of snares, dead-ends and few public disclosures, this summer yielded two pivotal revelations in the investigation into the 1998 murder of Yale College senior Suzanne Jovin ’99.
The first: a physical description of a man seen running near the spot where Jovin, a native of Göettingen, Germany, was stabbed on the night of Dec. 4, 1998. The second was a call from investigators to identify a mysterious, nondescript “someone,” whom Jovin mentioned in an e-mail she sent less than an hour before she was found dead in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood.
Lead investigator John Mannion, who took over the case during the summer of 2007, said both details have been part of Jovin’s case file since the early days of the investigation, a sign to some that early police work was poorly executed. Still, the value of these newly unveiled clues to solve the case is unclear and, as the 10th anniversary of Jovin’s death approaches, her assailant is still at large.
“Don’t get me started on whether the initial investigation was wonderful,” said Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark ’72, who is overseeing the Jovin case. “There’s no way to rewrite history, so you move forward with the different focus.”
Plain, black-and-white posters were plastered across East Rock this summer. The text, “Seeking Public Assistance,” was printed in a simple typeface. The mugshot was sharply illustrated.
“A physically fit, athletic looking white male with defined features, 20’s to 30’s years of age with well groomed blond or dark blond hair,” the poster read. “He was wearing dark pants and a loose fitted greenish jacket.”
The man was seen running — “like his life depended on it,” according to the New Haven Register — two-tenths of a mile from where Jovin was stabbed.
Citing sources “familiar with the case”, The Hartford Courant reported on July 2 that it was a Hamden, Conn. woman who gave the description of the man after he ran in front of her car shortly before 10 p.m. and glanced at her. When she originally came forward with her testimony, police took her to the office of James Van de Velde ’82 — then Jovin’s senior thesis advisor and the only ever publicly named suspect — to see whether she would identify Van de Velde as the runner, according to the Courant.
She did not, and was reportedly never contacted by investigators again.
David Grudberg’ 82, Van de Velde’s attorney, welcomed the development, but he qualified his remarks with a sharp rebuke of the investigation’s storied course.
“Any positive step towards solving the crime is always a very welcome development,” he said in a July interview. “On the other hand, the fact that it took nearly 10 years to turn a witness’ description into a request for relevant information is a little puzzling and, I think, illustrates the tunnel-vision that afflicted this case for far too long and perhaps did irreparable damage.”
There is no publicly known evidence linking Van de Velde to Jovin’s murder. Van de Velde has repeatedly claimed that the early investigation was both unfairly and disproportionately focused on him.
Beyond the nameless runner, investigators are also looking to unmask the “someone” Jovin referenced in an e-mail shortly before she was murdered.
She had just returned to her Park Street apartment on Dec. 4, 1998, after leaving a pizza-making party around 8:30 p.m. Jovin had organized the event for the New Haven chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that partners volunteers with individuals who are intellectually disabled.
At 9:02 p.m, Jovin sent an e-mail to a female Yale classmate of hers. In the e-mail, which was written in German, Jovin apologized for not returning her classmate’s phone call. Jovin wrote she had her classmate’s GRE study materials, including a book and a CD-ROM, but had lent them out to “someone” else.
It was the phrasing — “someone” as opposed to “a friend” or “Bob,” Mannion said — that initially piqued investigators’ interest. In the last decade, this “someone” has not come forward with his or her identity. Clark said that may be because the question of the person’s identity was never asked “in a public way.”
Mannion and his team are reaching out to Yale alumni in hopes of finding a former classmate of Jovin’s, perhaps someone who took the GRE with her or who studied with her.
At about 9:25 p.m., Peter Stein ‘99 ran into Jovin on her way to Phelps Gate. She was returning the keys to a University-owned car she had used to get to the Best Buddies event. Stein told the News in 1999 that Jovin told him she planned on returning to her apartment and getting some rest.
A few minutes later, Jovin was spotted near Phelps Gate on College Street by another student, who did not talk to her. It is unclear from that student’s testimony, Mannion said, whether Jovin was walking somewhere, waiting for someone or pausing to admire the holiday lights along the New Haven Green.
Just over half an hour later, police found Jovin on the corner of Edgehill Avenue and East Rock Road. She had been stabbed at least 17 times in the head, neck and back.
She was pronounced dead on arrival at Yale-New Haven Hospital at 10:26 p.m.
Mannion’s four-man team of investigators revived the Jovin case about a year ago, prior to which it was being handled by the state’s Cold Case Unit. Clark would not comment specifically on other facets of the investigation.
“What’s being done is a broader look than what’s ever been done at people who could have had some contact with Suzanne Jovin,” Clark said, stressing the painstaking care with which investigators decide to make public disclosures. “In terms of any big, new discoveries, we wouldn’t tell you if we had made them.”
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