Five years have passed since Suzanne Jovin ’99, a political science and international studies double major, was murdered shortly before 10 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1998, near the intersection of East Rock and Edgehill Roads, almost two miles from Old Campus and less than 30 minutes after she dropped off some keys at the Phelps Gate police substation.
Within days, the local media reported that the police regarded James Van de Velde ’82 as the leading or “prime” suspect. Van de Velde, a lecturer in political science, was one of her instructors that semester and had advised her senior essay on Osama bin Laden as a threat to U.S. national security. Five years of investigation have produced no evidence linking Van de Velde to the murder.
As the investigation enters its sixth year, it remains stymied largely because of mistakes and lapses in the first hours, days and weeks.
For example, Henry Lee, the world-renowned forensic scientist who at the time was commissioner of public safety and head of the state’s forensic lab, called the New Haven police that evening and offered his assistance. His offer was rejected. The police later refused to cooperate with him when he tried to reconstruct the crime.
Several witnesses heard a man and a woman arguing in the area shortly before the attack and several others heard Jovin’s screams as she was being attacked. Not all of them were interviewed immediately. Some potential witnesses living in the area were never interviewed.
A full-sized tan or light brown van was seen parked immediately adjacent to where she was attacked, in a place where vehicles are seldom, if ever, parked. The police did not seek the assistance of the public in finding the van for more than two years. They still have not found it.
A plastic soda bottle with Jovin’s fingerprints on it was found at the scene. The police did not immediately track down where and when she obtained the soda — especially important since one of the last people to see her on Old Campus has said she did not have a soda bottle when he spoke with her.
And the police never solved the initial mystery in the case: Why, after walking from her apartment on Park Street through Old Campus to the Phelps Gate substation, did she go out to College Street and walk northward toward Elm Street, rather than retracing her steps back through Old Campus? Where was she going?
Where did she go after she got to the corner of College and Elm? Where did she encounter the murderer?
In May 1998, a cold case unit was created in the office of the Chief State’s Attorney. The purpose of the unit is “to focus special investigative efforts on crimes that have gone ‘cold,’ that is, unsolved for a prolonged period of time.” More than three years ago, Lee said the Jovin murder was a “cold” case. The fact that a New Haven detective continues to investigate it does not alter the fact that it is a “cold” case.
When asked last year why the cold case unit was not involved in the investigation, Chief State’s Attorney Christopher Morano said his predecessor, John Bailey, and the New Haven State’s Attorney, Michael Dearington, had discussed the matter and had decided not to call in the unit. “That was the decision then, and I don’t see any reason why that decision should be changed now.” He went on to say, “It’s just a very difficult case no matter who investigates. He [Dearington] and his office are the appropriate people to be looking into the matter.”
When asked recently, Dearington said he would not ask for the assistance of the unit because he continues to have confidence in the people working on the case.
No one would deny that it is a very difficult case. And given the mistakes and oversights in the first hours and days of the investigation, it is by no means certain that, five years later, the unit could solve the case. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is the chief state’s attorney who is ultimately responsible for the investigation of all criminal matters in the state and that one of the resources available to him is the cold case unit.
It is not surprising, of course, that local law enforcement authorities continue to refuse to ask for the assistance of the unit. But does anyone really believe that, in a state that has a cold case unit as well as an array of state-level investigative and forensic agencies, the best possible way to solve a case that has remained unsolved for five years is to leave it in the hands of a single New Haven detective?
When Melvin Wearing, then-New Haven chief of police, was asked last year whether the cold case unit should be called in, he said the investigation was not stalled and that they were “on the right track.” He went on to say, “If we can’t solve the case in the next year, if someone else wants to look at it, that’s fine.”
Wearing is now retired, a year has gone by, and the police haven’t solved the case. Yale and the city of New Haven should insist that the chief State’s attorney do what should have been done two or three years ago — create a multi-level state-local task force that includes the cold case unit to pursue the investigation.
David Cameron is the director of undergraduate studies in the Political Science Department. He is a member of the East Rock community policing management team and the Civilian Review Board.