NORTH WEBSTER — Tuesday, Aug. 6, will mark 44 years since the last time Syracuse resident Sarah Knisley saw her older sister alive.
The 1975 murder of 17-year-old North Webster teen Laurel Jean Mitchell remains unsolved to this day.
Mitchell’s murder sent shock waves through the sleepy little town. North Webster was considered quiet, peaceful — safe. A place where residents often didn’t lock their doors, where parents felt comfortable letting their children ride bikes up and down the traffic-free streets. A community where everyone knew each other and folks spent hours hanging out on their front porches.
But with Mitchell’s murder, the small-town residents were faced with the unsettling possibility that the killer could be someone they knew.
Knisley was 12 years old at the time.
Mitchell, a senior in high school, was employed at the Cokesbury Inn, a small restaurant in Epworth Forest, located on the shores of Webster Lake. Around 10:15 p.m. on Aug. 6, Mitchell left work and headed to Adventureland, a once-popular amusement park just down the road.
She was last seen near the entrance to Epworth Forest.
“A friend saw her at the big stone columns and waved at her as she walked by, and that’s the last she was seen,” Knisley said.
At some point during her short walk, she simply disappeared into the night.
“Normally either my mom or dad or the neighbor picked her up after work,” said Knisley. “That night was just a fluke. She was going to meet friends at Adventureland. We don’t know if she ever made it there because her friends ended up going to the county fair instead. Nobody knew she was missing until she didn’t come home at midnight.”
Mitchell’s body was found the next morning by a fisherman and his son in the Elkhart River in Noble County, about 15 miles from Epworth Forest. The autopsy showed Mitchell had drowned, despite being a strong swimmer, but her body also showed signs of sexual abuse.
It remains unknown if Mitchell was abducted or went willingly with someone she knew. Knisley is firm in her belief that her sister would not have accepted a ride from a stranger.
Captain Kevin W. Smith, Area 2 Commander with the Indiana State Police, has been the lead investigator on the case for the past 12 years.
“There are a lot of people who still live in that area who were living there at the time this occurred,” Smith said. “If anyone has any information that they’ve been holding on to, we ask that they please come forward. I know Sarah and her family would appreciate it.”
In 2014, Smith received information about a musical group that performed in Epworth Forest the night of Aug. 6, 1975. That information was never noted in Mitchell’s case file. This generated renewed interest in the case; unfortunately, it appears to have led to a dead end.
“I feel pretty confident after speaking with someone from that group,” Smith said during a phone conversation with InkFreeNews last month. “I don’t believe they have information that will help.”
“We’re still involved, still working on other types of testing,” Smith said. “We certainly have items of significance from the crime scene.”
Smith confirmed he has a list of suspects, all of whom are still living.
“My parents are both gone so both of them died not knowing,” said Knisley. “He (Smith) is determined to solve it and I appreciate that, but personally I don’t think he’ll ever solve it. It’s going to come down to a confession.”
Knisley said her sister was involved with church choir groups, dance classes and other community events.
She described Mitchell’s funeral as a testament to the sense of community in North Webster.
“There were so many flowers at the funeral home, there was no room for the people,” said Knisley. “We had to move the funeral to the church.”
“I don’t remember the sermon at all,” Knisley said. “I just remember sitting between my dad and my brother and they were both squeezing my hands so hard.”
“When we walked out the door of the church, there were people lined up all down the street that couldn’t even fit inside the church,” Knisley said.
A reward is still being offered for information that leads to the solving of this case. Anyone with information related to the case should contact Smith at (260) 432-8661.