Over four years ago now, on Dec. 4, 1998, a talented and intelligent student I taught and advised, Suzanne Jovin, was brutally murdered in New Haven. Her killer has yet to be found.
Within five days of the crime, on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1998, with absolutely no evidence, motive or logical reason to link me to the crime, New Haven and Yale officials told reporters of the New Haven Register that I, Jovin’s political science thesis adviser at Yale, was the “prime suspect” in the murder.
On the morning of Dec. 9, 1998, the police briefed the Council of Masters and senior Yale officials that I was the prime suspect in the crime. Not a single Yale official bothered to ask “why” or demand any evidence to support the accusation. In a Dec. 21, 1998 Hartford Courant article, Yale Corporation member David Gergen was reported saying that the Jovin slaying is not necessarily a national story with lasting implications. ” — the 1991 shooting death of Yale student Christian Prince may have had far greater ramifications because it was random — ” There is nothing to support the speculation that the Jovin murder was committed by someone she knew; in fact, all facts suggest the opposite.
After a month of official statements by the police that there were no suspects in the crime, the University issued a public statement on Jan. 11, 1999, announcing that it had been informed by the New Haven Police that I was in a “pool of suspects.” By publicly branding me a “suspect” (again) in January 1999, Yale University caused immense and irreparable damage (again) to the investigation and to my reputation and ended my career.
Despite now 52 months of investigation, nothing, absolutely nothing links me to this crime. Nothing then did, nothing now does, nothing ever will.
I hold a Top Secret clearance from the Department of Defense, which conducted its own review of the investigation and never pulled my security clearance. Yale’s private investigators, hired to develop leads in the case, met with me three times for a total of six hours and requested and received a DNA sample, which did not match the DNA accrued from underneath the fingernails of Jovin. I passed three separate polygraphs with a nationally renowned former FBI polygrapher and FBI Academy instructor. The New Haven Police never asked to see me again or forwarded any questions for me whatsoever after their Dec. 8, 1998 interview.
The outrageous insinuation that I had anything to do with this crime is criminal, cruel and irresponsible. Nevertheless, Yale and the New Haven Police refuse to retract their label, despite making no progress in the case and finding no reason to suspect me. In fact, the police refuse to communicate with me whatsoever, as does Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark, who is in charge of the case. Their and the University’s continued failure to retract that label in the ensuing four years has greatly compounded the damage done to my life since January 1999. The Yale statement has derailed the investigation and likely caused the case to remain unsolved.
Though the facts suggest otherwise, within a day of the crime the police asserted that Jovin was likely killed by someone she knew. University Secretary Linda Lorimer reiterated this unsupported speculation several times on campus and off, no doubt to dissuade the national public from Yale’s and New Haven’s image of being a dangerous place to live. At a time when the police and Yale needed the public’s help the most, the police and Yale were more interested in looking as though they were making progress in the investigation by pinning the crime through innuendo on a Yale teacher and former dean.
Once clearly botched, the case quickly moved into the cover-up stage. In April 2001, at a hearing before the Freedom of Information Commission to discuss the Hartford Courant’s request for access to the case file, New Haven Head of Detectives Bryan Norwood testified under oath that the private investigators retained by the Yale Corporation, Andy Rosenzweig and Pat Harnett, were not provided access to the Jovin case file. At first the city was allowed to keep the case sealed, though they had shared the information with Rosenzweig.
At an appeal hearing, FOI Commission member Dennis O’Connor described Norwood’s testimony as “not credible” and “contradicted by the record.” He cited a letter to the New York Police Department by New Haven Police Chief Melvin Wearing in which Wearing spoke of the cooperation the department had extended Rosenzweig and Harnett.
In January 2002, O’Connor, who read the entire case file, declared the case “cold.” The Commission voted 5-0 to release all documents related to the case.
Yale professor David Cameron, a member of the New Haven Civilian Police Review Board, wrote an op-ed in the New Haven Register about the possible false testimony committed by Norwood and called on Chief State’s Attorney John Bailey to investigate. The City of New Haven sued the State of Connecticut to keep the case file from the public. The local media challenged no one, though the scandal could not be more obvious. Although the president of Yale, the mayor of New Haven, the assistant state’s attorney, the chief of police, and Rosenzweig all know the truth, none came forward to date to decry the false statement.
After having first studied the case, Rosenzweig and Harnett told Cameron that they just looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it,” Rosenzweig said to Cameron. Comparing my situation to that of the man who was wrongfully identified as the Atlanta Olympics bomber, Harnett told Cameron, “Jim Van de Velde is Richard Jewell with a Ph.D.” In response to Cameron’s assertions that the investigation was botched and that I had nothing to do with the murder, Rosenzweig said, “You don’t need to convince me. You’re preaching to the choir.”
Despite all this, Levin said nothing publicly; nor did he express outrage to the mayor about the conduct of the original investigation or call for the State Cold Case Unit to take over the investigation, which I have called for numerous times since October 1999. Why does President Levin oppose transferring the case to the State?
For two and a half years, the police kept from the public eyewitness accounts of the tan or light brown van seen at the crime scene, and delayed for two and a half years testing material for DNA found under the fingernails of Jovin.
Yale leadership should be furious with the New Haven Police. Levin’s responsibility was to stand up to innuendo and character assassination to prevent the investigation into the murder of a Yale student from becoming derailed.
Richard Levin did the opposite. His silence suggests that all he is really concerned with is alumni donations, freshman yield percentages and maintaining the facade of amicable Yale-New Haven relations.
I have done everything possible to decry an injustice, plead for competence and express outrage at misconduct. Yet the institutions of the local media, the police and Yale University work in concert to cover up their misconduct, even though it means the murderer of a Yale student will go free. As a Yale graduate and a former dean and teacher, I regret that I must take legal action against the University and several of its officers. I must now sue in order to hold them accountable for the unwarranted and malicious injury they have caused me.
James R. Van de Velde ’82 is a former dean of Saybrook College.