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.
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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.