By Lasca Randels
NORTH WEBSTER — In August 1975, the murder of 17-year-old North Webster teen Laurel Jean Mitchell left residents of the small town stunned and shaken.
With a population of about 500 at that time, North Webster was reminiscent of the mythical town of Mayberry.
Doors were rarely locked and everyone watched out for one another.
And while crime rates tend to be lower in small communities, one thing is certain — when a murder does take place in a small town, there’s a good chance the victim and the murderer knew each other.
Mitchell, who was preparing to enter her senior year in high school, disappeared after leaving work. She was employed at Cokesbury Inn in the Epworth Forest neighborhood on the shores of Webster Lake.
Around 10:15 p.m. on Aug. 6, 1975, Mitchell left work and headed to Adventureland, a once-popular amusement park about a mile down Epworth Forest Road, where she planned to meet up with friends.
She was last seen near the entrance to Epworth Forest.
“A friend of the family lived at a house right at the pillars. He walked out the front door and waved at her and she waved at him and then she went out past the pillars and was never seen again,” Mitchell’s sister, Sarah Knisley of Syracuse, told InkFreeNews.
Knisley was 12 years old at the time.
The friends Mitchell was supposed to meet at Adventureland decided to go to the county fair instead. As a result, no one was aware that Mitchell was missing until she didn’t come home at midnight.
Mitchell’s body was discovered the following morning by fishermen 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.
Forty-five years later, Knisley still doesn’t know who killed her sister — or why.
Mitchell’s murder remains unsolved and is classified as a cold case, but as Indiana State Police Captain Kevin Smith points out, “Cold doesn’t mean closed.”
Smith is the lead investigator on the case. A native of Syracuse, he is the commander for Area II, which includes Indiana State Police districts in Bremen, Fort Wayne and the Indiana Toll Road.
And he has a lot of experience working cold cases.
In October 2015, Smith was given the Meritorious Service Award for his investigative efforts into a cold case homicide from 1989 in which the suspect was ultimately located in Bangladesh and arrested in India. The suspect was extradited back to Indiana in 2013 and pleaded guilty to manslaughter the following November.
Smith also received the Meritorious Service Award in October 2018 for his work in the 1988 April Tinsley homicide case, which was solved in July 2018, 30 years after the crime was committed.
“I don’t let things go very easily,” Smith said. “I’ve worked a lot of cold cases in my career and had some success on them.”
When asked if there are viable living suspects in the Mitchell case, Smith replied, “Absolutely. I have suspects. We have work to do — and we’re doing it.”
Smith said that although they don’t give up on cold cases, some cases do reach a point where there’s nothing further that can be done. All viable suspects are deceased and everything that could be tested has been tested repeatedly.
“On some of them, you just kind of have to move on to the next one, but if there’s viable information, viable suspects, still work to be done — technology is still on our side — if those things are there, I’m not gonna let that sit,” Smith vowed. “And those things are there. I would be very honest with Sarah if I thought this was a dead end. There is no way this is a dead end.”
Smith said it’s rare to have stranger abductions in small towns.
“It’s certainly possible,” Smith acknowledged. “But it’s fairly rare that that happens, especially somewhere like that road that’s off the beaten path. Not just anybody is gonna drive down that road.”
Knisley said her older sister was involved in a local church youth group and was part of a traveling singing group called God’s Children.
“They traveled all over the United States singing,” Knisley said. “They made some records. They had a couple of albums.”
Knisley described her sister as “very, very religious.”
Mitchell’s free time was spent at the church, Knisley said, for church services, rehearsals and youth group.
“If there’s somebody out there that knows, I want to know,” Smith said. “I’m not ******* around. I’m not letting this go. If somebody’s got information, they need to bring it cause it’s the right thing to do and it’s way past time.”
“I just want to ask them why. Why did you kill her?” Knisley said. “We’re still waiting (for answers). I have all my faith in Kevin.”
“There’s a dozen well-known cold case TV shows out there now — people love that stuff,” Smith said. “If you want to be a part of that, it’s fascinating. If you’ve got something, bring it — it’s time. Even if it’s anonymous that’s fine — I have no issue with that. If you’ve got something that’ll help me, it’s time.”
Anyone with information related to the case may contact Smith at (260) 432-8661 or email the Indiana State Police at [email protected].