Eleven years after the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99, investigators have lost a lead that they had long hoped contained a DNA sample from Jovin’s killer.
State lab workers discovered several months ago that forensic evidence from underneath her nails contained DNA of a former lab technician at the State Police Forensic Laboratory. The worker, Kiti Settachatgul, contaminated the sample during initial tests, rendering it useless. The contamination means that the list of suspects is again wide open, since investigators initially ruled out suspects — including Jovin’s senior thesis adviser, James Van de Velde ’82 — using the faulty sample. But the head of the investigation said he still hopes to find Jovin’s killer and plans to submit more evidence — a soda bottle and a cigarette found at the crime scene — to be analyzed by the forensics lab.
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The state recently confirmed that the DNA belonged to Settachatgul, who now lives in Thailand, according to the Hartford Courant, which first reported the news Sunday. As part of a routine procedure, state lab employees several months ago added Settachatgul’s DNA to their internal database, which matched his DNA with the unidentified Jovin sample, according to the Courant.
John Mannion, retired state police detective and lead investigator on the cold case, said he recently told Jovin’s parents about the contamination. He said they were very upset when they heard the news, adding that it was “somewhat devastating” for them.
Mannion said the investigative team still has leads to follow. He plans to submit the Fresca bottle and cigarette found at the scene, as well as samples of Jovin’s clothing, to the state lab. Mannion said the case remains solvable because of the advances in DNA testing since the murder.
“Testing was in its infancy back then,” he said. “Now we know a lot more.”
Still, Mannion said that investigators working on the case are pressing ahead, despite the setback.
“We have no inkling or thought of giving up,” Mannion said. “We haven’t lost our faith. This is just another stumbling block.”
In December 1998, Jovin was found stabbed to death in East Rock, a New Haven neighborhood where many Yale faculty live. Police publicly named only one possible suspect: Van de Velde. The University canceled his spring-term courses, and he never returned to teach at Yale. In 2001, New Haven State Attorney Michael Dearington announced the discovery of the DNA sample underneath Jovin’s nails and stated that it did not match the DNA of Van de Velde, all but clearing him of the crime.
Van de Velde wrote in an e-mail message Sunday that he thinks the news of contamination makes it necessary for the state lab to test an unidentified palm print on the Fresca bottle.
“Not conducting these tests is indefensible now,” he wrote, adding that he does not think he will be brought back into the case.
No evidence was ever presented linking Van de Velde to the crime.
This September, before they learned about the contamination, Jovin’s parents wrote a letter to Gov. M. Jodi Rell complaining that under-staffing and under-funding in the state forensic laboratory prevented timely testing of the evidence in their daughter’s case.
“The unit is struggling to satisfy the needs of ongoing and emerging investigations, not to speak of ‘cold cases’ such as the murder of our daughter,” the Jovins wrote.
Rell responded hours later, noting that Connecticut allocated $2 million in federal stimulus funds in August to improve DNA testing procedures.