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The Journal Gazette

  • Brett Luke | The Journal Gazette April’s Garden, a memorial on Fort Wayne’s south side for 8-year-old April Tinsley, who lived nearby and was killed in 1988, is adorned with new balloons and flowers Sunday after an arrest was made in the 30-year-old case.

  • Miller

  • April Tinsley

Monday, July 16, 2018 1:00 am

Police make arrest in April Tinsley case

DNA leads to Grabill man, who detectives say confessed to killing 8-year-old in 1988

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Pink balloons tied with purple ribbons adorned a bush Sunday at April's Garden, a memorial built for an 8-year-old girl whose 1988 abduction, sexual assault and slaying shocked Fort Wayne and kept its residents' attention for more than three decades.

Constructed in 2015, the garden at Hoagland and Masterson avenues has been the site of regular somber vigils of pink and purple – April Tinsley's favorite colors.

Sunday was different. For once, the balloons that fluttered in the breeze symbolized hope and closure rather than loss and sadness. Allen County prosecutors announced the arrest of John D. Miller, 59, of Grabill, in the girl's death. He is charged with murder, child molesting and criminal confinement.

“I'm glad now the garden can be a place to celebrate,” said Colleen Obergfell, who owns the property where the memorial is located. “When we heard the news, we thought we had to celebrate. It seemed like balloons were the way to celebrate.”

It's the first arrest in a case that received attention from national media outlets, stretched from the 20th into the 21st century and featured dozens of investigators from the Fort Wayne Police Department, the Allen County Sheriff's Department, Indiana State Police and other law enforcement agencies.

The case has been featured twice on the now-defunct “America's Most Wanted” program. “On the Case with Paula Zahn,” a true crime newsmagazine on Investigation Discovery, profiled the case Sunday night.

April left her family's West Williams Street home on April 1, 1988 – Good Friday – to go to a friend's house. She never returned, and her body was found three days later in a ditch on a county road in DeKalb County.

She had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Those details and others including messages taunting investigators have been public for decades, but detectives had been stumped until recently despite evidence that included DNA samples. Police used DNA taken from April's clothes and from used condoms recovered July 6 from outside Miller's home and in 2004 from locations in Fort Wayne and Grabill to focus in on Miller, according to court documents.

Investigators also looked to genealogy databases to narrow the search for the alleged killer, a probable cause affidavit states. The search method was used by investigators in California to locate alleged Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in April.

It's not clear specifically how detectives Brian Martin of the Fort Wayne Police Department and Clint Hetrick of the Indiana State Police used DNA information in the Tinsley case, but the affidavit says they worked with “highly trained genealogist” CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist who has commented on the California case in news articles and is famous for her work on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.”

A police department spokesman did not return messages Sunday. Officials with the Allen County prosecutor's office also declined to comment, citing ethics rules regarding attorneys discussing pending cases.

The prosecutor's office said a news conference is scheduled for Tuesday morning.

The break in the case that investigators had been waiting decades for came July 9, when Martin of the city police department said in court documents he learned from the Indiana State Police laboratory that DNA taken from condoms in the trash at Miller's mobile home in Grabill “was consistent with the DNA profile recovered in 2004, which also match the DNA recovered in April M. Tinsley's underwear” in 1988.

Police arrived Sunday at Miller's home, 13722 Main St., Lot 4, in Grabill, according to the affidavit.

“I then asked John Miller if he had any idea why the police wanted to talk to him,” Martin wrote in the affidavit. “John Miller then looked at detectives and said 'April Tinsley.'”

Miller admitted kidnapping, killing and sexually assaulting the girl at his Main Street home in Grabill, according to court documents. Miller allegedly told police he dumped the girl's body early on April 2 and later drove by the site.

When he didn't see the story on the news, Miller threw one of April's shoes that was still in his car in the ditch. Detectives found the shoe near her body, according to the affidavit.

The case left an indelible mark on city residents who remember the little girl with the mop of blond hair, and among public officials who were left to grieve with their constituents.

Paul Helmke was the city's mayor in 1988, and he took office a few months before April was killed. He said he had two young daughters at the time, and April's death affected him personally.

Helmke had wondered whether an arrest would ever happen. There always was hope that periodic updates from investigators – police twice released sketches showing what the killer might look like – and coverage locally and through national news outlets might lead to an arrest, he said.

“This case – it was one that stayed with us, stayed with me,” Helmke said. “Thirty years is a long time. You'd keep thinking, maybe someone will come forward this time. Maybe something will happen.

“It was like a gash in the community's heart.”

Angelo Mante, a Fort Wayne pastor, had planned a few weeks ago to hold a cookout near April's Garden on Sunday. He arrived to find the pink balloons and said he grew up on the city's south side and remembers when April was killed.

“I remember the fear that swept this city, even at 6 years old,” he said.

Miller does not appear to have a serious criminal record. Online court records reveal three traffic-related offenses dating back to 1994. He is scheduled to appear in Allen Superior Court today.

mleblanc@jg.net