By Lasca Randels
NORTH WEBSTER — On Aug. 6, 1975, 17-year-old Laurel Jean Mitchell of North Webster finished her shift at work and headed out to meet friends.
That was the last time she was seen alive.
Mitchell’s body was discovered the following morning by fishermen in the Elkhart River in Noble County. An autopsy showed she had drowned, despite being a strong swimmer, but her body also showed signs of sexual abuse.
Forty-six years later, Mitchell’s sister, Sarah Knisley of Syracuse, is still waiting for answers.
And Indiana State Police Captain Kevin Smith, lead investigator on the case, is determined to help Knisley find closure.
Although Mitchell’s murder is officially a cold case, hope remains that that the killer could still be identified.
“Cold doesn’t mean closed. We’re still involved, still working on other types of testing,” Smith said. “We certainly have items of significance from the crime scene.”
Mitchell, who was preparing to begin her senior year of high school, was employed at the Cokesbury Inn in the Epworth Forest neighborhood on the shores of Webster Lake.
Around 10:15 p.m. she left work and began walking down Epworth Forest Road toward Adventureland, a once-popular amusement park, where she planned to meet up with friends.
Knisley was 12 years old at the time.
“She didn’t typically walk home from work,” Knisley said. “Normally either my mom or dad or the neighbor picked her up after work. That night was just a fluke. She was going to meet friends at Adventureland.”
Knisley recalled Aug. 6, 1975, starting out as a typical day.
“We had morning chores and we did all that. Laurel went to work. I was home. Mom and dad were at work. My brother was married and in the Army in California so I was home alone. I’m not sure what hours she worked, maybe 2-10, at the snack bar,” Knisley said. “And so the day went by, Mom came home. Laurel got off work and she was supposed to walk down to the amusement park and meet friends.”
Knisley said those friends decided to instead go to the county fair in Warsaw.
“So she didn’t show up anywhere. Her friend from Michigan was staying with us. She was one of the group who ended up going to the fair,” Knisley said. “So she came in at midnight and my mom asked ‘Where’s Laurel?’ and thats when we found out that the others had gone to the county fair.”
Knisley said Mitchell “wasn’t one to run off” and would have called if she’d been running late.
“So Mom called the police, which back then you could do. You didn’t have to wait 24 or 48 hours. Everybody knew her and they started making rounds,” Knisley said. “When my dad got home, he went out and walked the ditches up and down the road in case she’d been hit by a car and thrown off to the side. We were up all night.”
According to Smith, it’s not believed that Mitchell ever made it to Adventureland.
“It’s pretty clear something happened on the way there,” he said.
Mitchell was last seen near the entrance of Epworth Forest.
“A friend of the family lived at a house right at the pillars. He waved at her and she waved at him and then she went out past the pillars and was never seen again,” Knisley said. “It’s probably about a mile walk – in the dark, no streetlights because what you see out there today doesn’t look anything like it did then.”
Smith said there was only one house on the north side of the road at that time.
“There were a few cottages once you got out to the main road, but as you got out of the Epworth Forest area, there was very little,” Smith said. “That last half mile was pretty desolate back then.”
The location of Mitchell’s abduction and the discovery of her body in the Elkhart River, about 15 miles from Epworth Forest, seems to indicate that her killer was familiar with the area.
Smith described both areas as “off the beaten paths.”
“But you can get from one place to the other if you know the back roads,” Knisley said.
Smith will neither confirm nor deny the presence of DNA in the Mitchell case but said there are still “viable living suspects.”
“I have suspects. I don’t want to go into how specific that is, but obviously, North Webster was a small town … still is,” Smith said. “It’s fairly rare to have stranger abductions in small towns. It’s certainly possible, but it’s fairly rare when that happens, especially someplace like that road that’s off the beaten path. Not just anybody is gonna drive down that road.”
Smith has experience working cold cases. In October 2015, he received 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.
In October 2018, Smith received the Meritorious Service Award 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. I’m not letting this go.”
Advances have been made in some cold cases in recent years due to genetic genealogy.
The technique involves putting a suspect or victim’s DNA profile into a public database, allowing them to reverse engineer a family tree. This enables them to investigate multiple branches of the family’s tree to determine who could be a viable suspect in the unsolved case.
In June, a Montana unsolved murder from 1956 became the oldest cold case solved through genetic genealogy.
Some cold cases are solved by a witness coming forward years later, others by a deathbed confession. Sometimes it’s as simple as reviewing evidence and information.
Smith said some cold cases reach a point where nothing further 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.”
Mitchell’s murder is still an open and active case. A $5,000 reward is being offered. Anyone with information is asked to call the Indiana State Police post in Fort Wayne and ask for Smith. There is also a generic email on the ISP website where information can be directed to Smith.
“Even if it’s anonymous, that’s fine,” Smith said. “If you’ve got something that’ll help me, it’s time.”