Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Today marks the 30th anniversary of the killing of 8-year-old April Tinsley.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Janet Tinsley, mother of April Tinsley, in the garden that was dedicated in her honor at the corner of Masterson and Hoadland Streets, not far from where she disappeared. Today marks the 30th anniversary of her death.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Janet Tinsley sits in the garden that was dedicated in her daughter’s memory at Masterson and Hoagland avenues.

Sunday, April 01, 2018 1:00 am

Mom holds out hope for justice

Tips still come in on 30-year-old slaying

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Thirty years. A generation.

So much has changed since April 1, 1988. Yet for Janet Tinsley, so much remains the same.

She is the mother of April Tinsley, an 8-year-old who left her family's home on Fort Wayne's south side to go to a friend's house on Good Friday three decades ago. The girl with the mop of blond hair and a slight, almost wry, smile never returned.

Her body was discovered three days later by a jogger in a DeKalb County ditch. She had been sexually assaulted and suffocated.

It is a case that received national attention and has kept the attention of residents of northeast Indiana as technology to test DNA found at crime scenes has improved.

The terms of five U.S. presidents have passed, but Tinsley is still without answers in the death of her daughter.

“I never thought it would go this long,” she said. 

Tinsley and the detectives continue to pore over evidence and investigate tips hopeful April's murder will be solved.

To celebrate that hope and remember her daughter and other children who have been killed, Tinsley will hold a balloon release – blue, pink and purple ones: April's favorite – at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the southwest corner of Hoagland and West Masterson avenues.

If it rains, the release will be at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Community members built a small park called April's Garden at the location in 2015. Flowers and donated bricks honor the girl with inspirational messages including, “Trust the wings you have and fly” and “God's little angel forever in our hearts.”

'Are they doing anything? Any leads?'

The case has not been forgotten.

Events like the balloon launch periodically renew public awareness about April and her death. Newspaper articles and television reports commemorate the anniversaries of the crime.

National broadcasts including “America's Most Wanted” have profiled the case.

Information about the crime is available in ways many would not have imagined in 1988, when few people owned personal computers.     

Blogs recount old and new details. A Facebook page dutifully keeps viewers updated on events, mentions of the case in the media and proposed laws designed to protect children.

The world is new in some ways, but reality for Tinsley is not. She does not know who killed her first-born child, and she questions whether she ever will.

“There's times you have your ups and downs,” said Tinsley, who has one grown child. “For a while you'll think, 'Are they doing anything? Do they got any more leads?'

“It's slow-going.”

Handwritten notes

Details about the grisly killing have continued to trickle out as the years and decades pass.

The day April disappeared, witnesses said they saw a man forcing a girl into a beat-up blue pickup with loud pipes. An autopsy revealed April had been killed at least a day before the jogger found her body in the ditch along DeKalb County Road 68.

In 2004, handwritten notes on yellow lined paper began to appear in different locations in Allen County – in mailboxes and left on the seats of bicycles. The messages began with, “Hi honey,” and claimed to be written by the girl's killer.

Roy Hensley, a man police believed kidnapped and killed another girl in 1990, was once floated as a suspect in April's death. Her parents have said they don't believe Hensley, who died in 1994, was the killer.

DNA collected during the investigation was used to create images of what the person who killed April might have looked like.

A sketch released in 2015 shows a white man, 45 to 55 years old with a light complexion. A similar image was released about a year later. 

'There's samples at the lab now'

Other than Tinsley, those closest to the case have been investigators who continue to collect information and respond to calls and emails about April.

The Fort Wayne Police Department is the lead investigative agency on the case, and its detectives work with Allen County sheriff's deputies, Indiana State Police and federal investigators.

“There's 700 or so names on our suspect list,” said Cary Young, a Fort Wayne homicide detective assigned to the department's Cold Case Unit.

He said investigators receive an average of three to five voicemails weekly on a special tip line created for the case. Another two or three emails show up each week to an email account for the case.

“We're talking about an 8-year-old girl,” Young said. “We've got a completely innocent victim.

“It's still at the forefront of our minds. We're still actively working on it.”

Troy Hershberger, deputy chief of operations at the Allen County Sheriff's Department, was in college at IPFW when April was killed. Decades later, he works with Young and other investigators on the case, which he considers among his most important.

“It being a child, that has a lot to do with it,” Hersberger said.

“In cases like this, you've got to work together – and we do. It's a collaborative effort.”

The effort continues with interviews and phone calls to tipsters and potential witnesses around the country. Young said DNA samples continue to be analyzed for clues.

“There's samples at the lab now being tested,” he said.

Keeping her spirit alive

April's death, the investigation and the unknown have taken a toll on Tinsley, her husband, Michael, and their son, Paul.

The family left Fort Wayne in 1991 to escape the spotlight.

“We couldn't go outside, go to the store – anything – without TV cameras, camping outside our door, being followed,” Janet Tinsely said.

She said Paul, who was 2 years old in 1988, suffered mental trauma after his sister's death. Janet Tinsley focused on taking care of her son, which kept her grounded.

“You've got so much going through your mind, you don't know what to think,” she said. “At the time, I had a 2-year-old to focus on. If it wasn't for him, I'd be in my own padded room.”

After stops in Tennessee and Kentucky, the family moved back to Fort Wayne about five years ago.

Now the focus is on remembrance and keeping the spirit of April, the little blond-haired girl with the impish smile, alive.

Janet Tinsley hopes the balloon release does that.

“Hopefully, it's going to be a nice day,” she said.

mleblanc@jg.net