DELPHI — Four years.
Four years of missed birthdays. Four years of missed holidays. Four years of missed milestones like learning how to drive, going to prom and preparing for college.
This weekend marks four years since Abigail Williams and Liberty German, barely even teenagers at the time, went missing and were later found dead along a stretch of Deer Creek in rural Carroll County.
No arrest has yet been made in the case.
FEB. 14, 2017
Driving around Delphi, one might believe it to be a bedroom community, with its bustling courthouse square but nearby seemingly quiet neighborhoods.
However, on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, Delphi was anything but quiet.
The day before, Williams and German, then 13 and 14 respectively, had been dropped off at the Monon High Bridge area — an abandoned railroad track popular with the local youth — to enjoy the unseasonably warm temperatures together as it was the last day of Delphi Community Schools’ midwinter break.
But when the girls didn’t make their scheduled pick-up time later that evening, panic set in, and police were notified.
The next morning, federal and state police mobile command centers were set up along various stretches of nearby roadside.
The downtown Delphi Fire Department also became a makeshift command hub, with hundreds of volunteers joining in the search.
And then around noon on Valentine’s Day, a group of those volunteers discovered two bodies — later identified as Williams and German — lying near the banks of the creek, about a half-mile from the Monon High Bridge.
Out of respect for the families, police did not initially comment on the condition of the bodies or the cause of death, nor have they publicly done so since.
“It’s been a long several hours,” Carroll County Sheriff Tobe Leazenby said during a press conference at the time. “It’s played tremendously on the emotions of this community.”
SEARCH FOR A KILLER
Just a few days after the girls’ bodies were discovered, police conducted a press conference during which they showed the grainy image of an unidentified male walking along the Monon High Bridge near where the girls were last seen. Police also confirmed that picture was taken from German’s cellphone.
During that same press conference, authorities released a short audio loop of what they now believe to be the same man saying the words “Down the hill.”
A tip line was also released to the public so that they had immediate access to authorities.
Hundreds of tips flooded in.
That July, police held another press conference and released its first composite sketch of a man they believed was involved in the girls’ deaths. Leazenby told the Associated Press at the time that the sketch was based in part on descriptions provided by someone who saw the suspect around the time the girls went missing.
The sketch produced hundreds of more tips, each one meticulously poured over, authorities noted.
And then came the waiting and the hoping that one of those tips would lead to an arrest.
“It’s not easy,” German’s grandfather Mike Patty said during an interview in early 2019. “We go through the highs and lows every day. You see something that is maybe a reminder of Libby. You open up a drawer or a cabinet and pull something out and have a tear or maybe even a chuckle and a tear. She was just a teenager. They were both just young little teenagers, doing all the corny and happy things they like to do. And that sucks that it’s gone.”
But then during an April 2019 press conference — two years after the girls’ deaths — police released several new pieces of information, including an updated sketch, audio and video.
The updated sketch appeared to show a man between the ages of 18-40 years of age, a dramatic difference in appearance from the first sketch that was released in 2017.
And the video — also taken from German’s cellphone and believed to be the same individual — came with a stern comment by Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter toward the man potentially responsible for the girls’ deaths.
“I’m speaking directly to the killer, who may be in this room,” he said at the time. “We believe you are hiding in plain sight. For more than two years, you never thought we’d shift gears to a different investigative strategy, but we have.”
“We likely have interviewed you or someone close to you. We know that this is about power to you. And you want to know what we know. One day, you will. The question to you is, what did you think of when we found out that you brutally murdered two little girls? Only a coward would do such a thing.”
Hundreds more tips came in after the press conference, and thousands of tips have come in since then from all across the country.
‘NOT A COLD CASE’
After a few moments of exchanging pleasantries over the phone, Leazenby’s tone became a bit more serious during his conversation with the Kokomo Tribune earlier this week.
“I guess I’ll speak a little bit in this regard,” he started out, “we’ve all heard the comments that this has turned into a cold case. So by way of keeping it out there in the forefront and letting folks know that it’s an active ongoing investigation…” His voice then trailed off before regaining his comments.
“This is not a cold case,” Leazenby noted. “This is nowhere near being a cold case at this point. So to display the information and letting people know the investigation is still open is helping us to continue to get pieces of information flowing to us that our investigators investigate on a daily basis.”
And investigators are still diligently working on the case, Leazenby noted, highlighting the continued efforts of ISP and Carroll County detectives — as well as the FBI when needed.
But Leazenby also admitted that four years without an arrest is still frustrating, even for law enforcement, though continually having “fresh eyes” on the case can help.
“I guess I would compare it to something as simple as proofreading a letter,” he said. “Anyone can put together a letter and even go through it two or three times or more and think that they have everything covered. But it’s always a good idea to have a second or third party to come along and take a look too.
“On this case, there’s that healthy dialogue between agencies that can say, ‘Well did you look at this?’ It’s that sort of thing,” Leazenby added. “It’s that sharing among the law enforcement channels that occurs that definitely helps, having those additional sets of eyes.”
Leazenby also said that he knows some of the investigative tactics used aren’t always what the public wants to hear or see, highlighting in particular the public’s quest for authorities to release more information in the case or to already have the unidentified man behind bars.
To that notion, the sheriff blamed Hollywood.
“What people see on TV or in movies,” he said, “it’s automatically assumed that real crime scene investigations are the same. And there are some similarities, but obviously we can’t always get these cases solved in 50 minutes.
“And in terms of releasing information, I’m going to resort back to what I said early on, and that was going to the courtroom,” Leazenby continued. “Our prosecuting attorney only gets one opportunity at prosecuting and possibly getting a conviction. So if we were to release what we feel are vital pieces of information related to the investigation that should be strictly reserved for the courtroom, there’s a very good chance that a solid defense attorney is going to move to have that suppressed because that evidence will have already been in the public’s eye.”
Of course Leazenby was also quick to point out that authorities are using every tool available to them to aid in the investigation.
But according to one former Alameda, California prosecutor, perhaps there is even more that can be done.
For the past four years, investigators have not publicly released whether there was DNA found at the crime scene, though Leazenby just this week didn’t deny its possibility.
And if there is indeed DNA from Delphi, some people believe a simple method of familial searching could possibly hold the key to solving the case.
During a telephone interview with the Tribune earlier this week, Rockne Harmon, who worked as a prosecutor for 33 years in California — including the famous murder case against O.J. Simpson in the mid-1990s — took a few moments to explain the possibilities that familial DNA searching can provide for law enforcement agencies.
“You know our DNA offender database,” he said, “that’s been in place for over 20 years. You can get the evidence type, upload it in the state. If it doesn’t match anyone there, it gets uploaded to the national database … which is just a network of the state databases. … But [an exact match] only succeeds about 30% of the time. So about 70% of the time, cases get uploaded and end up matching nobody.
“Familial searching uses the same state offender database that police look for the direct match in,” Harmon added. “But it says, ‘OK, within Indiana, is there a close relative of the person who left the evidence in our state database?’” Close relatives, Harmon noted, are limited to parent, child or full sibling in this case.
“Then I look at a profile and from the evidence can say, ‘Is that a father-son thing right there?’ Because you inherit half of your DNA from your father,” he said. “So which is it, the father or the son? … That’s what happened in the Grim Sleeper serial murder in L.A.”
Once they’ve honed in on a possible individual, Harmon said that investigators can then use tactics like getting DNA off of a drinking glass or a cigarette butt, even digging through someone’s trash, to locate the exact DNA that was found at a crime scene.
“It works,” Harmon said, “I’ve seen it.”
But Indiana is one of dozens of states whose state police labs don’t conduct familial DNA searching. The Tribune called ISP for answers as to why that’s the case but did not hear back as of press time.
“In order to be done, a state has to agree that it’s the right thing to do,” Harmon said. “And I guess no one’s ever said, ‘How come other states are doing them and you’re not?’ … The premise behind familial searching is that crime tends to run in families. So if you committed a crime, and you haven’t been caught yet, chances are pretty good that someone else close to you in your family committed a crime and are likely in a state database. That’s why something like this works.”
Harmon also added that there is another DNA search called genetic genealogy, which looks at private databases like Ancestry.com and formulates expansive family trees linked with common DNA.
That’s also a possible way of tracking down potential individuals involved in criminal activity, he noted, though it’s not clear whether investigators in the Delphi investigation have used that technique either.
And with each passing day, there are constant reminders of the task at hand and the memories of the two lives that were taken that day in February 2017.
Williams and German would have now been seniors in high school and preparing for their graduations later this year.
Two young girls with their whole lives ahead of them, tragically cut short in a stretch of rural Delphi.
And though Leazenby said he obviously wants justice for them to come sooner rather than later, he believes that there will one day be an end to this case.
“That [justice] is the ultimate goal,” he said. “I’m going to add this too, not only for the girls and their families, but I think at this point for the community too. It’s weighed heavily on so many hearts and minds for four years now, and it’ll be so nice to hopefully say one day that we finally have taken care of business.”
This article was made available through the Hoosier State Press Association.