The authorities sit you down and watch you squirm. Their look tells you they’ve already got you nailed. Why do they suspect you? What do they have on you? What can you do to save yourself? You’re scared, sweating, and growing more desperate by the minute.
This is right where James Van de Velde wants you.
From October until January, Van de Velde ’82, a former lecturer in the Department of Political Science and dean of Saybrook College, spent his time interrogating al Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Guys blindfolded and in handcuffs. Great place,” friend and political science professor David Cameron said with a note of disapproval.
He was there because he is an al Qaeda expert. Because, Cameron said, he can do what the military cannot do well: break down suspects until they reveal their closely guarded secrets.
But Van de Velde was mainly in Cuba because, despite his academic brilliance and intimate knowledge of the intelligence community and the military, no college would let him anywhere near its students.
Because Van de Velde has been on the other side of an interrogation, too. He is the only named suspect in the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99, whom he advised on her senior thesis. Despite five years of investigation and the most media coverage of any crime anyone at Yale can remember, no other suspect has been named and Jovin’s killer is still on the loose.
At 9:25 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1998, near Old Campus, Jovin, then a senior in Davenport College, told classmate Peter Stein ’99 that she was very tired and looking forward to getting some sleep. For the next 20 minutes, despite intense police efforts to reconstruct the crime, Jovin essentially disappeared.
When she was next seen, she was lying in the grass by the intersection of East Rock Road and Edgehill Avenue. And she was dying.
Even compared to the murder of Christian Prince ’93 in 1991, the Jovin killing was brutal. She had been stabbed multiple times in the back, neck and head.
University Secretary Linda Lorimer said Yale Police Chief James Perrotti informed her of the murder an hour or two after it happened, but it was not clear at first that the victim was a Yale student. Within a few hours, though, word had spread all over campus.
Van de Velde said he spent the night of Dec. 4 at home, watching “Friends” and channel surfing. A little after midnight, Van de Velde said, he received an e-mail from a student, telling him Jovin had been killed.
“I sat there for about 10 minutes in stunned silence, shocked, not exactly sure what I was feeling — grief, sadness, anger,” Van de Velde said.
In the early days of the investigation, city and University police scoured campus and East Rock for clues. Eventually, their investigation led them to Van de Velde, who was advising Jovin on her senior thesis on al Qaeda.
“He gave a television interview that Saturday where he spoke about her — The police heard from various sources that she was unhappy with him because he hadn’t read her draft of the senior essay over the Thanksgiving break and didn’t get it back to her until that Wednesday,” Cameron said. “That would be enough for any good cop to at least want to talk to him and ask him some questions.”
Van de Velde said his first interview with police, on Dec. 7, 1998, only took about 15 minutes and seemed largely cursory, with police mostly trying to check him off their list of potential suspects.
On Dec. 8, the next time Van de Velde spoke with police, he said, the interview took four hours and had a markedly different tone. Between the afternoon of the 7th and the evening of the 8th, police were told by Barbara Pinto, a former girlfriend of Van de Velde’s and a reporter at the time for New Haven’s Channel 3, that she believed Van de Velde peered in the window of her home while the two were dating. Van de Velde has denied that accusation, but he now looked to police like a harasser of women.
Because of his lawsuit against the NHPD, Van de Velde said he cannot discuss the interviews with police. But, in an interview in 2000 with Michael Horn, a former staff reporter for the News, Van de Velde said police made it clear they believed he had an affair with Jovin.
“The biggest issue to the detectives during my interview was the fact Suzanne and I tried (but failed) to schedule a lunch in early November to discuss her senior essay,” Van de Velde said at the time. “They were incredulous that Yale professors have ‘lunch’ with their students and repeatedly argued that this lunch was a social lunch.”
On Jan. 10, 1999, James Van de Velde said he had a message on his answering machine from Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, telling him to come to Brodhead’s office. When he arrived, he found Brodhead and Lorimer waiting for him.
“[Brodhead] began this strange soliloquy about the presumption of innocence,” Van de Velde said. “I can always tell when Dick is nervous because he kind of rambles.”
It was then that Van de Velde said Brodhead handed him a letter, telling him that he would not be teaching classes in the spring semester.
“I asked, ‘Do you really know what you’re doing?'” Van de Velde said. “‘Have you drafted a press release?'”
Van de Velde said the administrators looked somewhat dumbfounded. Then Lorimer told Brodhead it was something they should consider.
“I sort of rolled my eyes internally and said, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be a circus,'” Van de Velde said.
The next day, students arriving for Van de Velde’s lecture found the words “PoliSci 181b cancelled for Spring” written on the board. That same day, Yale announced that police had named Van de Velde a suspect in the investigation. Until that moment, Van de Velde had achieved almost baffling success in the academic and political realms for such a young man. His fall would be just as dramatic.
Van de Velde first arrived at Yale as a freshman in 1977 where he made an instant impression on Cameron, then chair of the Department of Political Science. Van de Velde was a student in Cameron’s comparative politics class in 1979, Cameron said.
“He was a great student,” Cameron said. “He got a distinction in the class.”
After graduating in 1982, Van de Velde said he went on to the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy and then worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard.
From Harvard, Van de Velde went into government, first as an expert on nuclear weapons arms control for the State Department and later as an appointee of President George Bush. When Bush lost the White House to Bill Clinton in 1992, Van de Velde lost his job and returned to Yale.
Van de Velde was hired in 1993 as dean of Saybrook College, where he served for four years. He spent a year working at Stanford and then was hired as a full-time lecturer in Yale’s political science department, where he served for one semester before the Jovin murder.
After being fired from Yale, Van de Velde said he chose to work for the navy because it allowed him to work on interesting temporary assignments without committing himself to a new career.
“I was very naively hoping that the crime would be solved and I would be able to come back [to Yale],” Van de Velde said.
But Van de Velde said he has applied to over 100 academic positions since 1999 and has never been offered a job.
Yale President Richard Levin said he stands by the decision to cancel Van de Velde’s classes.
“It was a very difficult situation,” Levin said. “We did what was the right thing at the time.”
But Cameron said Yale’s decision has ruined Van de Velde’s life.
“Can you imagine any university that would hire someone under that circumstance?” Cameron said. “As long as that allegation sat there, there was no way a university would touch him.”
The blue wall
“How can I help you? Probably not very much,” New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington said when he picked up the phone.
Dearington is the man currently responsible for the Jovin investigation, and he wasn’t kidding about his ability to help. In a short interview, Dearington was asked how much work is currently being done on the case.
Are there any new leads in the case?
Is Van de Velde still considered a suspect?
But Dearington was downright chatty compared with New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz, who, when asked by e-mail to discuss the case, responded with a curt, “no interviews.”
After initial press conferences, frequent announcements of leads in the case, and requests for the help of the public, the New Haven Police Department has taken the case out of the public eye almost completely. Bits of information leak out from time to time, but there is little information about what the NHPD is doing now to solve the murder.
“Over time [there] has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on whenever anyone makes a misstep, so they’re very careful,” one police officer said.
The secrecy of the investigation has led supporters of Van de Velde to claim, rightly or not, that the NHPD is not capable of solving the crime, and that outside help should be sought. Van de Velde has pushed for the case to be turned over to the Connecticut cold case unit, which deals with old investigations that have stalled.
Dearington said the cold case unit is unnecessary, and has resisted Van de Velde’s efforts.
“It is an ongoing case,” Dearington said. “It is not a cold case.”
But Van de Velde has argued the department is only trying to cover up its incompetence.
“They know that there’s nothing here that a cold case unit could do,” Van de Velde said. “They so botched a crime scene investigation — that they have no case. There is no investigation. They haven’t worked on the case in five years.”
NHPD detective Michael Quinn is currently assigned to the investigation. However, Dearington would not say how often Quinn looks at the case. Perrotti said university detectives keep in regular contact with Quinn about updates.
“New Haven has a very strong interest, as we do, in solving the case,” Perrotti said. “It’s always been very troubling to me that that has not happened.”
But Cameron, who sits on the police department’s civilian review board, said the case is symptomatic of major problems within the NHPD.
“You cannot exaggerate the degree of incompetence that was exhibited in this investigation,” Cameron said. “This is by no means atypical. These guys botched investigations completely.”
Perrotti said the investigation of the murder was done properly.
Another effort, undertaken by Jeff Mitchell, a friend of Van de Velde’s, and the Hartford Courant, aims to release the Jovin case file to the public. Van de Velde said he believes releasing the evidence collected to the general public might open up new leads in the case.
In February 2002, a Freedom of Information commission ordered the case file opened to the public. That decision was overturned by a judge in November 2002, after pleas by investigators and members of the Jovin family.
David Rosen, the lawyer representing the Jovin family, said the family wants the case to remain closed to the public for their daughter’s sake.
“Investigators always try to find out everything they can about the private life of the victim that might possibly provide a lead to the killer,” Rosen said in an e-mail. “Many witnesses provided any information at all that they could think of, no matter how private, in an effort to be helpful.”
Rosen also said authorities will release information about the case when they believe it can be useful.
“Release of information that the authorities have determined should not be released can certainly harm the investigation,” Rosen said.
Failed mugging or calculated murder
Dealing with an investigation they describe as nonexistent, Van de Velde and Cameron have taken their case to the public, saying in the Hartford Courant, the Yale Daily News, and other newspapers that the NHPD’s theory of the case is ludicrous.
According to police, Stein last saw Jovin walking near Old Campus. Since she was killed about two miles away only 20 minutes later, police have speculated that Jovin most likely was driven to where she was found, and that Jovin would only have gotten into a car with someone she knew.
But Van de Velde has said he believes it is extremely unlikely that Jovin knew her killer, since Jovin was walking at a random time and few members of the Yale community use a car to get around campus. Instead, he posits she was abducted by several people in an attempted robbery near Broadway, driven to East Rock and killed.
However, Van de Velde admitted his theory of the crime is largely speculative.
Van de Velde has also demanded that the New Haven police employ more advanced procedures for analyzing the DNA samples found under Jovin’s fingernails and on a Fresca bottle discovered near her body. Using new technology, Van de Velde said, forensic scientists can determine the ethnicity of a person from a sample of DNA. Elaine Pagliaro, the assistant director of Connecticut’s forensics science laboratory, where most of the Jovin evidence is analyzed, said such a test has not been run.
“No, we don’t do that here,” Pagliaro said. “That’s a relatively new estimate test from a company in California.”
Van de Velde said that if the DNA samples turned out be from someone of South Asian heritage, it would suggest they came from innocent contact with an employee of Krauser’s, the only nearby store that sold Fresca, and could be largely ignored. An ethnicity test could also be especially useful in providing a clue as to whether the murderer was a member of the predominantly white Yale community or the predominantly black New Haven community that surrounds it.
Van de Velde said new technology can determine the age of a person through the hormones found on the fingerprints of the soda bottle. The tests are expensive, Van de Velde said, but are a cost the university should accept. Pagliaro said she had not heard of any such tests.
Van de Velde has also pushed for investigators to try to match the two DNA samples to each other. If the two are the same, he said, it is likely that they both came from the killer and not from innocent contact with Jovin. Pagliaro said she did not know whether the two samples had been matched.
Tests show Van de Velde’s DNA does not match either of the samples.
James Van de Velde vs. —
In a few months, Van de Velde hopes, Levin will have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He will have to answer any question about Van de Velde’s firing that his lawyer, David Grudberg ’82, chooses to ask. This is the chance Van de Velde has been waiting five years for.
But he may never get that chance. Yale has filed a motion to dismiss Van de Velde’s federal civil rights lawsuit, which names Levin, Lorimer, Brodhead, Perrotti, and Yale spokesman Tom Conroy as defendants. In the next few weeks, a judge will likely decide whether the case can proceed, Grudberg said.
If the motion to dismiss is denied, Grudberg can depose those connected to the case. He declined to say specifically who would be deposed, but said it was likely that all of the named defendants in the case would be subpoenaed, meaning that Levin, Brodhead, and the rest would have to speak, under oath, about the discussions that led to Van de Velde’s firing.
“We know 100 percent of the story now. We know exactly who said what and when,” Van de Velde said. “We plan to surprise them.”
Yale General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said she believes that Yale officials acted properly and that Van de Velde’s lawsuit lacks merit.
Lorimer said the possibility of being deposed was not terribly worrisome.
“I think the proceedings will underscore the reasonableness of the University’s actions,” Lorimer said.
In January, Van de Velde got some legal vindication when he received an $80,000 settlement in his defamation suit against Quinnipiac University. Van de Velde, who was dismissed from the school’s broadcast journalism program following the murder, claimed the school leaked false and damaging information about him to the New Haven Register.
Quinnipiac spokesman John Morgan and Peter Ponziani, the lawyer representing the university in the case, both declined to comment.
For Van de Velde, the Quinnipiac suit is small potatoes. Both Cameron and Grudberg said they expected any settlement in the Yale case would be much higher.
“The damage caused by the actions of the Quinnipiac officials was a very small fraction of the damage that’s been done to James Van de Velde.” Grudberg said. “Having your name and face beamed across the planet as a potential murderer, what would that be worth?”
Five years and counting
James Van de Velde returned to the U.S. in January, and said he does not know if he will go back to Guantanamo Bay.
Some may think it ironic that a man who has spent the last five years complaining about being presumed guilty based on scant evidence and innuendo would work for the government in Guantanamo Bay. But Van de Velde doesn’t see it that way.
“I would like to think that my expertise is in fact culling the substance from the innuendos,” he said. “That is the opposite of what happened in my case.”
He described the job as “fascinating work” but said he wanted a job that kept him from driving into a prison everyday.
So for now, Van de Velde is looking for a job once again. Before the murder, he was hoping for a permanent teaching position at Yale. Instead, he has developed a wandering lifestyle, drifting from job to job and place to place.
In some ways, Van de Velde is starting to move on. The man whose romantic life once came under intense scrutiny was quietly married less than a year ago.
“I’m just ecstatically happy these days, which is ironic considering the enormous amount of pain that I’ve suffered,” Van de Velde said.
Nevertheless, the case continues to occupy his energy. The lawsuit against Yale administrators must be ready for trial by January 2005, and the efforts to turn the case over to the cold case unit and release the file to the public continue.
Van de Velde said he keeps bringing the case to public attention because Yale does not care about finding Jovin’s killer.
“The University has turned its back on the case,” Van de Velde said. “They knew that if they just held on a few years, campus interest in the case would wane.”
But Lorimer said Yale stands ready to help police in the investigation whenever the police ask. Brodhead, who drove by the spot Jovin was killed the night of the murder, said he is still deeply affected by Jovin’s death.
“It was one of the great scarring moments of my life,” Brodhead said.
Van de Velde was back on campus Monday to meet with his lawyer and see old friends, a return he said was difficult.
“Mostly it makes me feel terribly sad that this entire circus happened,” he said.
Officially, at least, the Jovin murder investigation is open, and city police continue to work on it. But even at the State’s Attorney’s Office, officials seem less than optimistic that the case will ever be solved.
“Well, there’s always that hope in any case, any open case,” Dearington said.
Rosen, representing the Jovin family, expressed more hope. Asked if he thought Jovin’s murderer would ever be caught, Rosen responded, “Yes, eventually.”
But with each day that goes by, solving her murder becomes increasingly unlikely. And after police and the media put his life under a microscope for five years without ever arresting him, it seems even less likely that Van de Velde will ever be behind bars — except in Guantanamo Bay.
Until anyone can conclusively prove otherwise, Van de Velde is innocent in the eyes of the law. At least that’s what any good political science professor will tell you.
Of course, James Van de Velde isn’t a political science professor, not anymore. So maybe he can be forgiven for seeing the system a little differently.
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