Jovin ’99 remembered

This morning, a small crowd will gather in the lower courtyard of Davenport College to honor the life of Suzanne Jovin ’99, the Yale College senior who was murdered — stabbed 17 times in the back of the head and neck — 15 years ago today.

On each anniversary of her death, a collection of University administrators, faculty members and staff hold vigil in front of a small plaque bearing Jovin’s name. Trading memories and leaving behind flowers, they pay their respects to a student whose life was cut short in a brutal attack that left Jovin bleeding to death on an off-campus street corner. To this day, her murderer remains unknown.

For 15 years, investigators in various precincts have probed the murder, now a cold case in the hands of the chief state’s attorney’s office, where roughly seven investigators work part-time to collect evidence and process tips, according to Deputy Chief State’s Attorney John Russotto. During a decade and a half’s time, the investigation has waxed and waned; tips have dried up and critical witnesses have yet to come forward.

But the passage of 15 years has not eased the loss for Jovin’s parents, Thomas Jovin and Donna Arndt-Jovin GRD ’69, both scientists living in Goettingen, Germany, where Suzanne grew up. Reached Sunday, the Jovins said their daughter’s death was heart-wrenching then — and remains so today.

“It’s not something I can put into words that would even make sense,” Mr. Jovin said. “When you’re a parent and you lose a child, nothing can make it okay.”

The last time they saw their daughter was over the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November 1998, the Jovins said, when the family gathered in California to visit Jovin’s younger sister, Rebecca, who was studying at Stanford University. Suzanne was excited about her course work, they said, and full of plans for her life after graduation. Her parents postulated that a career in international affairs would have followed graduate school. A bright future awaited the 21-year-old, they said.

The Jovins said they are hopeful that someone will one day be caught and put behind bars for killing their daughter. If need be, Russotto said, the search for answers could last years, adding that the state’s attorney’s office will not give up.

As another anniversary of their daughter’s death passes, Jovin’s parents urged anyone with new information to come forward.

“Nothing can provide closure, but from the standpoint of the justice system, you want a case like this to be solved,” Mr. Jovin said. “It is important to know what happened.”

A BAFFLING MURDER

It was warm on Dec. 4, 1998, exceptionally so: It was in the mid-50s and students were in short sleeves. Yale was playing Princeton University in hockey, and Prospect Street around Ingalls Rink was crawling with fans, some from outside the city.

Suzanne Jovin was nearing the end of her penultimate semester at Yale, where she double-majored in political science and international studies. Less than six hours before she was killed, Jovin turned in a draft of her senior thesis in political science, a single-spaced 21-page examination of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who, three years later, would help orchestrate a set of attacks on U.S. soil.

After turning in her draft, Jovin spent the evening at New Haven’s Trinity Lutheran Church, attending a holiday pizza party for Best Buddies, a service organization that pairs students with mentally disabled adults. At about 8:45 p.m., Jovin returned the station wagon she had borrowed for the event to a Yale parking lot at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Howe Street.

At 9:02 p.m., Jovin logged onto her Yale email account from her Park Street apartment and told a friend that she was going to leave Graduate Record Examinations study material for her in the lobby. Jovin said the books would not be ready to be picked up until the morning because she first had to retrieve them from an unidentified “someone” who had borrowed them from her. Investigators under the leadership of retired state police detective John Mannion launched a probe in 2008 into the identity of this nondescript “someone” to no avail. Jovin logged off her email at 9:10 p.m.

She crossed paths with a classmate, Peter Stein ’99, on Old Campus at around 9:25 p.m., Stein told the media at the time. The two briefly conversed, with Jovin telling Stein that she was headed to Phelps Hall to return the car keys and then 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. Stein declined to comment for this article, saying in an email to the News last week that there was nothing further he wished to share.

A few minutes later, a student returning from the hockey game saw Jovin walking on College Street toward Elm Street.

At 9:58 p.m., Jovin was found bleeding from 17 stab wounds on the corner of Edgehill Avenue and East Rock Road, just less than two miles from Phelps Gate in the city’s East Rock neighborhood. She was rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital and declared dead on arrival.

Jovin’s classmates and friends said the death was a blow to the student body, robbing them of a passionate and sharp young woman and shattering their sense of security on campus.

“It is hard to believe it has been 15 years,” Eric Peterson ’99, Jovin’s classmate in Davenport, said in an email to the News. “Suzanne’s murder was shocking, horrifying and traumatic for all of us. It did not make sense in 1998, and still does not … this was especially tough, bursting the bubble that we are usually able to enjoy on campus.”

Yale School of Management Senior Associate Dean David Bach ’98, Jovin’s best friend on campus, said Jovin was an idealist with a “strong moral compass,” someone who, among legions of talented students at Yale, stood out as “truly extraordinary.”

Bach, who came to Yale from Germany in the same freshman class as Jovin but then accelerated and graduated a year early, said he still routinely thinks of her.

“Whenever there’s a milestone in my life — I finish my Ph.D., I get married, I have kids — it’s at those moments that I think, ‘God I wish I could tell Suzanne about it.’”

Bach said he is still optimistic justice will be served, for the sake of Jovin’s family and friends. Still, he said the crime remains baffling.

“I don’t even want to tell you how many scenarios I’ve played through my head,” Bach said.

AN ONGOING INVESTIGATION

The cold case investigation into Jovin’s murder is currently focused on three leads. Two of them are new to the case, Russotto, who is leading the probe, told the News on Monday.

Investigators are seeking to identify a potential witness who drove by the crime scene shortly after Jovin was stabbed. The female driver was overheard on a 911 call from the scene, where a couple found Jovin bleeding to death and called in the incident to the police. The driver asked if the people on the scene needed assistance. They said no and she drove off.

“That driver may have noticed something down the street from the scene,” Russotto said. “While she may not think it’s important, it may be helpful based on other things we know.”

Second, investigators want to determine the identity of a female passenger who took a Metro Taxi cab ride from the area of 333/337 Blatchley Avenue to the Newhallville neighborhood at around 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1998. Russotto provided no further details concerning the relevance of this information.

The last lead is one that investigators have been pursuing since 2008: the identity of the person to whom Jovin had lent GRE study material and from whom she was reportedly planning on retrieving those books. Yale political science professor David Cameron — a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force, a group that works to improve standards for eyewitness identifications — said the company that administers the test, Educational Testing Service, refused to turn over to investigators a list of people who took the examination that fall. Cameron has been actively involved in the investigation since 2000, when he staunchly defended the innocence of Yale political science lecturer James Van de Velde ’82, Jovin’s senior thesis advisor and the only suspect ever formally named in the case.

Cameron said he is confident investigators will find a culprit.

“There are a lot of little pieces in this, and with the help of the public and provided the state can actually put some resources into the investigation, I think they will put it together,” Cameron said.

Yale is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, in addition to $50,000 offered by the state of Connecticut. Of the 48 cold cases currently under investigation statewide, Russotto said, the Jovin case is one of the more active ones.

Over the years, the investigation has drawn extensive criticism, most forcefully from Cameron, who said fixating on Van de Velde early on skewed the search. Charles Hill, a diplomat-in-residence and lecturer in the Political Science Department who advised Jovin’s international studies thesis, called the investigative and forensic work done in the case “astonishingly incompetent.”

Jovin’s parents said the investigation was botched from the beginning. They said police failed to secure the crime scene right away: investigators did not run tests on all the available forensic evidence and a lab technician contaminated crucial DNA evidence from the scene. They said overlapping jurisdictions prevented any single team of people from taking control of the search for their daughter’s killer. The University did not help, they added, saying high-level Yale administrators were more concerned about protecting Yale’s reputation than coming to grips with the murder.

“On a personal level they tried to be as considerate as they could — putting us up at the president’s house for example,” Mr. Jovin said. “But their feelings of responsibility raised fears about the status of the University and everything else that arises when you’re dealing with institutions of this sort.”

Cameron agreed, saying the University — in an effort to “cover its backside” — was complicit in the tarnishing of Van de Velde’s reputation.

Martha Highsmith, senior advisor to the president and then-deputy secretary for the University, said she and other administrators responded as best they could given the difficulty of the situation: They tried to equip the Jovins with the information they needed while also providing support to the community at large.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said that as long as the case remains unsolved, there will always be understandable frustration.

Jovin’s parents said it is their understanding that Van de Velde remains under consideration as a potential suspect, though Michael Dearington, the state’s attorney for the New Haven district, told the News this summer that the former political science lecturer and dean of Saybrook College was no longer a suspect in the case. Russotto declined to clarify whether Van de Velde is currently considered a suspect.

Van de Velde’s attorney, David Grudberg, criticized Yale for having “abandoned [Van de Velde,]” who was relieved of his teaching duties for the spring 1999 semester by then-Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead, currently the president of Duke University. Brodhead declined to comment on his decision to remove Van de Velde from the classroom.

Van de Velde, who now works as an analyst for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, did not return multiple requests for comment. Grudberg said the settlement this summer of a lawsuit Van de Velde had filed against the University and the New Haven Police Department for allegedly leaking news of his being a suspect to the media — a settlement that involved both the University and the city compensating Van de Velde financially — gave his client the vindication he deserved.

“The police wrongly fixated on an innocent person from the beginning of their investigation, and 15 years later all they have to show for it is a settlement payment and an unsolved murder,” Grudberg said.

AN ALTERNATE THEORY

Gilles Carter, a documentary filmmaker living in East Rock, has a theory about a different man who lived in the area at the time. In a Monday interview, Carter said he and two others — attorney Alan Rosner and Yale Law School professor J.L. Pottenger LAW ’75 — have rigorously linked a now-deceased student at the Yale School of Architecture to Jovin’s murder. Carter asked that the name of the student , who he said suffered from severe psychological problems as well as multiple drug addictions, be kept confidential.

Carter said he did not know the student at the time of Jovin’s murder but became suspicious of his involvement years later when the former architecture student said to him without provocation: “You should know that I’m obsessed with the Suzanne Jovin murder.”

The student’s studio at the Yale School of Architecture was just a stone’s throw away from Jovin’s apartment, Carter said, and both spoke German.

An eyewitness driving down Whitney Avenue on the night of Dec. 4, 1998 saw a man running down Huntington Street and then alongside her car, Carter added, and provided information that led to a sketch that closely resembled the former architecture student. She said he was wearing a light-green windbreaker jacket, Carter said — a description that matches a jacket in which the former architecture student appeared in photos attached to his obituary following his spring 2012 death, reported as the result of a traffic accident.

Carter said investigators discounted the woman’s testimony by saying she was in her 80s. She was in fact in her 40s at the time, he said.

“I know the woman — she was not old,” Cameron said. “She insisted the running man wasn’t Van de Velde, so they assumed she was unreliable.”

In the wake of the former architecture student’s death, Rosner received a bizarre phone call from the dead man’s own telephone. On the other end of the line, Rosner said, he could hear the man’s parents going through their son’s emails and deleting a number of messages. When Carter called the man’s parents to tell them that their actions were potentially obstructing an investigation into a murder, he said, the mother replied, “Oh, Jovin?”

In the wake of that phone call, Carter and Rosner said, they shared their theory with the police, a suspicion heightened by information leading them to believe Jovin had been stabbed with an x-acto blade, an instrument they said the student would have used in his architecture work.

“The investigators have no intention of solving this crime — believe me,” Rosner said. “They completely blew us off.”

Russotto declined to comment on how the investigation would go about considering a deceased person as a potential suspect.

Carter said their theory does not depend on proving Jovin and the architecture student knew each other extensively. He said the student, whom he and Rosner knew as a fellow alumnus of Princeton, was prone to violent outbreaks when he was off his medication, particularly toward women.

Both Jovin’s parents and Russotto said the critical question is why Jovin was in East Rock — a question that the Jovins said has led them to believe their daughter’s killer was someone she knew. Cameron said the short amount of time that elapsed between Jovin’s sighting by Phelps Gate and her subsequent murder leads him to believe that she had been driven there by someone. He said a tip about a brown van stopped in the street near where Jovin was found stabbed has led some to believe that the student was abducted.

“WE REMEMBER HER”

Joanne Ursini, a Davenport dining hall desk attendant, said she does not like to think about the investigation. She prefers to simply remember Jovin as she was 15 years ago, when the student worked part-time in the dining hall and “kissed me on the cheek whenever she saw me,” Ursini said.

“There are people who still remember her here,” Ursini said, tearing up. “We remember her.”

Ursini said Tuesday that she and her co-workers plan to attend the vigil for Jovin in the Davenport courtyard. Highsmith said she would also be there, to“pray and give remembrance.”

Jovin’s parents said the 15th anniversary of their daughter’s death should be an opportunity for the University to revisit its past, as unfortunate as it may be in this instance. Mr. Jovin said the murder is not only a lesson in human evil, but lasting proof of the need for Yale to further invest in New Haven. Improving public safety in the city is the only way the University can ensure the safety of students both on and off campus, he said.

In the wake of the tragedy, the University devised means of honoring Jovin’s legacy on campus. In 1999, Yale awarded her a posthumous degree — Jovin graduated cum laude with distinction in both her majors. The University also named a fellowship after her, Mr. Jovin said. For her family and friends, however, these have been but small comforts.

“The loss is of course ours, but the primary loss is for Suzanne herself,” Jovin’s father said. “She lost her whole life. That’s just not fair.”

 

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