News analysis: Lessons learned from Jovin’s ’99 unsolved murder

More than 10 years ago, the murder of a promising young woman shocked the University: On a cold December night, Suzanne Jovin ’99 was found stabbed on an East Rock street corner, baffling investigators and drawing eulogies in the form of letters and vigils. Administrators moved to calm an unsettled campus in the days that followed, as national media descended upon a shaken Yale.

It was not the first time a student had been slain. But students, faculty and staff hoped it would be the last.

The intersection of Edgehill and East Rock roads, where Jovin’s body was found in 1998.
Aileen Agricola
The intersection of Edgehill and East Rock roads, where Jovin’s body was found in 1998.
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.
Suzanne Jovin ’99, above, died after being stabbed 17 times the night of Dec. 4, 1998.
Yale University
Suzanne Jovin ’99, above, died after being stabbed 17 times the night of Dec. 4, 1998.

The killing of Annie Le GRD ’13 has reignited interest in the Jovin murder — a function of the eerie parallels that draw the two cases together, and the crucial differences that set them apart.

“The Suzanne Jovin incident was a terrible tragedy, but we did learn some lessons from it,” University President Richard Levin said in an interview Saturday, the day before Le’s body was discovered.

Both the Jovin murder and the Le slaying rocked the University community, provoking fear and uncertainty among students, faculty and staff. In each instance, law enforcement attempted to reassure the community, saying the murders were not random acts. But where Jovin’s case frustrated investigators from the start, the initial investigation into Le’s disappearance has followed a more promising path.

Just before 10 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 4, 1998, New Haven Police Department officers found Jovin’s body at the corner of East Rock and Edgehill roads. She had been stabbed 17 times.

The Jovin case was a homicide investigation from the start. Despite offers of help from a state forensics team and other law enforcement agencies, the NHPD continued to handle the case alone.

Evidence was mishandled: A bottle of Fresca was found at the crime scene but never submitted for DNA testing — an error that James Van de Velde, then a popular Yale lecturer and the only person ever named as a “person of interest” in the case, has continued to press law enforcement authorities to correct. No evidence has ever been found to link Van de Velde to the murder, and he is no longer a suspect.

“It remains unclear to me whether failure to perform these tests is due to apathy or indifference from the team now charged with the investigation,” Van de Velde, who advised Jovin’s senior thesis, said in an e-mail message Tuesday. “Either way, I find it shocking and indefensible.”

As of Tuesday night, investigators still had not submitted the bottle for testing, said John Mannion, a retired state police officer who heads a four-person team that reopened the Jovin case in 2007. Other evidence Jovin investigators have sent to the state forensics laboratory is still awaiting testing, Mannion said.

“It is an ongoing process with the State Police lab,” Mannion said. “We have made several requests and are waiting for them to come back with a report for the requests we have made.”

It is a marked contrast to the Le investigation: Within 36 hours of Le’s reported disappearance, which was first treated as a missing person investigation, the Yale Police Department had asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation and State Police for help, forming a force of over 100 law enforcement officers to tackle the case.

During the first week of the investigation, over 150 pieces of evidence related to the graduate student’s murder were sent to a state forensics lab for testing — as items from the Jovin slaying continued to wait on the shelf. And late Tuesday night, law enforcement officials moved to add another item to that list: the DNA of “person of interest” Raymond Clark III, a 24-year-old animal technician employed by Yale.

Clark himself was never named — by law enforcement authorities or University officials — before Tuesday, when his name began to percolate through media reports.

“We don’t want to destroy people’s reputations,” NHPD Chief James Lewis told the New Haven Independent on Monday.

Which is exactly what happened to Van de Velde, whose name began to draw suspicion on Dec. 9 — five days after Jovin’s murder. Police interrogated Van de Velde on Dec. 8, and the next day’s headline of the New Haven Register claimed “Yale teacher grilled in killing,” although it took a month before the University acknowledged Van de Velde was in a “pool of suspects.” No other suspects have ever been named.

On Tuesday, Jovin’s parents issued a stern letter calling on Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell to increase state funding to forensics labs and to avoid repeating the mistakes that have allowed their daughter’s killer to remain at large.

In an e-mail message to the News on Tuesday, Jovin’s father, Thomas, said slow evidence testing in his daughter’s case was a result of a lack of funding and personnel at Connecticut state forensics laboratories. And in their letter to Rell, Thomas and Donna Jovin asked the governor to address that delay with additional state funds.

“One should not compound the tragedies of Suzanne Jovin, Annie Le, and other victims by failing to apply the necessary resources for resolving the circumstances of the crimes committed against them,” they wrote.

Rell responded hours later, noting that Connecticut allocated $2 million in federal stimulus funds last month to improve DNA testing procedures. But it remains unclear whether the extra funds will lead to a resolution in the case. Reached by telephone in Goettingen, Germany, where he and his wife work as scientists at the European Neuroscience Institute Goettingen, Thomas Jovin said DNA testing alone may not provide adequate evidence in cold cases, and that the state may need to outsource procedures to out-of-state laboratories.

Of course, if Jovin’s killer is never caught, and Le’s ends up behind bars, it may owing more to circumstance than to police work. The FBI arrived because Le was originally reported missing. The pool of potential suspects is small because the site of the murder could only be accessed by certain individuals. And there is the simple fact that Le’s death occurred more than a decade after Jovin’s — enough time for the lessons of 1998 to be absorbed.

Comments

  • a parent

    To the parent’s of Suzanne Jovin, I seldom think of your beautiful daughter who was so tragically taken away from you and the constant pain who must have in your hearts. Your strength to carry on is admirable, I as a parent dont beleive I would be able to do so. May God bless you and your wife, hold close her memories as they can never be taken away.

  • Perplexed

    What are the “eerie parallels that draw the two cases together”? Both cases concerned Yale students who were murdered — not exactly a subtle similarity. What else?

  • WOW

    Not one word about how former Dean of Yale College, Brodhead, and now President of Duke University, helped ruin a former colleagues reputation.

  • David

    I find it difficult to believe that the police and DA’s office continually have failed to send the can of Fresca and other potential evidence in the Jovin murder case off for DNA testing. The police and DA really botched that case.

    Now, 10 yrs later, if DNA testing is still possible, the state owes it to the public and the Jovin family to immediately test it — even if it may not be conclusive. At least then, perhaps there might be some leads in the case, as well as closure for the Jovin family.

    Continuing not to send the evidence in for DNA testing is … criminal.

  • to wow

    it wasnt just Brodhead that ruined his reputation. others too

  • JJ

    Shame on the New Haven Police Department, for botching the Jovin investigation, and then adding insult to injury by refusing to push for DNA tests which could potentially bring it to a close! I am the same age as Suzanne but unlike her, I lived to see my college graduation in 1999. It pains me to think about the years of life that she missed, but it pains me even more to think that a killer is out there, roaming the streets, because the NHPD couldn’t care less about solving her murder. This is a gross injustice, and I do hope the CT AG investigates promptly.

  • Luna

    The quick decision by the NHPD to pursue Van de Velde on the basis of no evidence, while failing to pursue actual evidence, was supported and abetted by Yale. I believe that the NHPD and Yale conspired to sacrifice Van de Velde as a decoy suspect to satisfy the public and obfuscate the fact that no genuine attempt was being made to find Jovin’s murderer(s)–and still is not being made despite the “new team.” The incompetency of the NHPD in no way explains the way the Jovin murder was handled from the outset. The “untouchables” of this story are the Yale top administrators, and the real story, whatever it is, will never be known because they don’t want it to be known.

  • @#5

    @#5

    Brodhead is a serial loser. Van de Velde. Hershel Parker. The Duke LaX team.

    Here is an apt quote:

    “Rushing to judgment is part of Brodhead’s character. The circumstances at Duke merely brought out what anyone who knew his history could have predicted: that he had led a sheltered existence that never had called forth a display of force derived from a personal history of striving and achieving and mastering difficult information and complex ideas. As the writer in the Providence JOURNAL said, Brodhead caved and failed. The wonder is that anyone thought he might behave differently than he did.”
    –Professor Hershel Parker

    “President” does not equal “leader” in all cases.

    As for “parallels” between Jovin and Le, I’m with poster #2: the only “parallel” is that both victims were members of the larger Yale community.

  • Paul Keane

    Letters to the Editor
    Yale Daily News

    Dear Editor:

    I am sorry to add to your somber article (9/16/09) about Ms. Jovin ’99′s unsolved murder published in the wake of Ms. Le’s tragic killing at Yale last week.

    During my time at Yale, late ’70′s early ’80′s, a young male undergraduate was found dead on the steps of the Catholic Church on Hillhouse Avenue two houses up from the president’s house. Apparently he had been mugged the night before and abandoned, leaving him without medical help till morning, when it was too late.

    And then there is the unsolved case of the disappearance of divinity student Sam Todd in Greenwich Village New Year’s Eve 1984/85. See Connecticut Magazine article on this mystery at the following blog address:

    http://www.yaledisappearance.blogspot.com/

    I have not changed my original opinion arrived at in that article, even after 25 years, that it is possible that Sam Todd could still be alive despite the time and silence of this quarter century which has passed.

    Paul Keane
    M.A., M.Div., M.Ed

  • joseph ezekial

    Christian Prince was the name of the Yale student shot in a robbery attempt on Hillhouse Ave. – RIP . Some speculate that Miss Jovin went to Hillhouse ave. after dropping off the keys to the vehicle at Phellps gate.
    ( best buddy vehicle that was borrowed for a christmas party)
    Was’nt she a Political Science student who attended classes at a building on Hillhouse ave.?
    A Yale student was almost positive that Miss Jovin was walking towards Elm street at 9:30 that nite. possible she met the same fate that Mr. Prince met on Hillhouse, and the same fate that Gary Stein met at Orange street and Clark st. back in the early seventies.

  • joey

    Not one person ever came forward and said they spotted her after she was seen or “pretty sure it was her” on College headed towards Elm . No one saw Jovin at College and Wall,whatever that area is – a homeless hangout and terrifying caretakers that were noticed. In front of Woolsey , turning a corner. I guess the killer(s) won’t say. And with much prodding on-line no one ever said -”yeah i saw her at the corner of Grove ..”

    Some say it’s as plain as day. She walked to Krauzers and bought the fresca that was found near her body. That’s the only store downtown that sold fresca. She had a sever unfortunate encounter with an inebriated patron of Rudy’s Bar.A few people left Rudys at around 9 – 9:30 that evening who strongly resemble a person of interest bounding across Whitney Ave.on the night of the murder at around 10pm One noticed a commotion in the vicinity of that clothing store, but there always is.
    Some state the girl was returning home after dropping the keys off and as she informed friends that she was tired and going straight home that night.
    Mentioned also was that Miss Jovin had an argument with someone and he/she and relatives came back to talk with susan and str8n susan out.
    Then that case really reeks of the same type of issue here with poor Annie Le. You won’t be these family’s friends then you must be the enemy

  • by 12

    Others mention a possibilty that a volunteer and/or worker involved in the best buddy program went looking for her to settle a score of some type . Miss Jovin did mention that someone involved in that program was really psycho.A to do in a kitchen. She did not mean a recipient of their goodwill or member. But an assistant or volunteer

  • Chola Widow

    Both these things can be true:
    1. Hershel Parker is wrong about “The Isle of the Cross” not being the stories Melville did publish (and Brodhead right)
    2. AND that Brodhead has much to explain. And why did he explain so quickly that he was in that East Rock neighborhood that night ten years ago?

  • ElizabethStein

    Joseph Ezekial,
    Thank you for remembering my cousin, Gary Stein. Weird as it may seem, I appreciate knowing the location where he died.
    Sincerely,
    Elizabeth Stein

  • joey00

    Interesting that the brown van was never mentioned at the time of her murder.Not until several years later did the general public find out. Nor was the testimony of a couple heading south on Prospect Street on the night of her murder at 10 pm who was cut off by a red sedan who had a seriously frightening and raging look on his face . They went on to say it was abnormal and horrofying, it was a large darker male , not black,def not blond..I recall two people who had cars like that – both actually unkown to me but seen around campus – The van i have it down to a few , both or all with ties to Yale. I really think i put two groups together and found out why they were together in the weeks preceeding this.
    Brodhead is an overreaching overreacting little child , he’s a sorry excuse for anything he was ever involved in , reading about that guy at zetaboard is scary.
    The case is a no brainer, it was as easy as pie to resolve , the meddling and misleading of the case by the PD is the give away

  • joey00

    Parallels to the Jovin case and / or similiarities ? ! He said, she said , he told you she said this about you she told on you ,he saw her over there she went nanoo nanoo and is the one – Stuff Brodhead would swallow hook line and sinker..I wonder if the Administration is or was hiding behind students in some sort of Union or hiring squabble ?