The small lake community of North Webster had never before – and has not since – seen a crime like the 1975 murder of a local teenager. Even today, with the case still unsolved, the community remembers the case of Laurel Jean Mitchell.
Laurel’s father was Richard D. “Dick” Mitchell, a well known public figure in North Webster. He passed away on Jan. 16, 2012. Wilma Mitchell, her mother, operated the North Webster Food Pantry for several years and also passed away last year. They died never knowing what exactly happened to their 17-year-old daughter or why she was sexually assaulted, killed, and her body thrown into the Elkhart River less than 20 miles from their home.
Police records from a series of interviews show it was 10 p.m. on Aug. 6, 1975, when Laurel left her job at a restaurant in Epworth Forest and began the walk up Epworth Forest Drive to Adventureland, a one time thriving amusement park.
Sarah Knisley was interviewed by WSBT-TV about her sister’s now 37-year-old murder. “She was to meet friends there, and she never made it there,” Knisley told reporter Kristin Bien. “A friend saw her at the big stone columns and waved at her as she walked by the columns, and that is the last she was seen.”
Knisley remembered her older sister as a teen dedicated to church and planning to attend business college.
Interviews conducted with family members of Laurel’s, friends and townspeople gave police the image of innocence. A young girl – a senior at Wawasee High School – who had a passion for her church and a plan to attend business college. She was responsible; known to call her parents if she was going to be late arriving home. “We knew something was wrong,” said Knisley.
And wrong it was.
Hours after Laurel’s disappearance, as the daylight broke, her body was found lifeless in the Elkhart River in nearby Noble County by fishermen. She was dumped there, obviously meant to be found. Her killer, however, is another story. He has never been found.
Ultimately, detectives from the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department and Indiana State Police examine the case closely through the years. Many people were interviewed, but there was never enough evidence to charge anyone.
Was Laurel abducted or did she go willingly with someone she knew? One of the best suspects in the case, according to police records, has since died. Whether he was the killer may never be known, but authorities – and Laurel’s remaining family members – still ultimately hope for answers and closure.