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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Janet Tinsley, mother of April Tinsley, speaks Wednesday in her daughter's memorial garden on the city's south side after charges were filed against April's alleged killer.

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards addresses members of the media during a press conference regarding April Tinsley at the Rousseau Center on Tuesday.  

  • Schwab

  • Richards

  • Helmke

Sunday, July 22, 2018 1:00 am

Detectives on Tinsley case happy with arrest

Genealogy website able to finish 3 decades of work

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Gary Grant spent years searching for the person who killed 8-year-old April Tinsley in 1988.

On several occasions in recent years, the now-retired Fort Wayne police detective likely stood just yards from the man who is charged with the girl's murder. He didn't know how close he was to finding the key to a slaying that shocked the city and kept its residents' attention for more than three decades.

Grant, one of the first investigators assigned to the case, is a member of the Fort Wayne Corvette Club, and the group takes part each fall in a parade at the Grabill Country Fair. Car owners line up to start the parade near the Grabill Mobile Home Park on Main Street.

John D. Miller, 59, was arrested at his home in the trailer park last week. He is charged with murder and child molesting in April's death.

“It's ironic that Dan Camp and I were right there,” Grant said, referring to another Fort Wayne detective who was assigned to the case.

April disappeared after leaving her family's home in the 300 block of West Williams Street on April 1, 1988, and the details of her death are nightmarish.

The blonde girl who relatives said loved to read arrived home from Fairfield Elementary School about noon that Friday – Good Friday, the first day of a weeklong vacation. She quickly left to visit a friend who lived six blocks away on West Suttenfield Avenue. The friend told police she and April left about 3 p.m. to visit another friend on Hoagland Avenue, according to an April 10, 1988, report published in The Journal Gazette.  

There, April remembered she'd forgotten an umbrella at the home on West Suttenfield Avenue and set off to retrieve it. She never made it.

A jogger found her body three days later along DeKalb County Road 68. Police said she had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated. One of her shoes lay nearby.

Witnesses said April might have been pulled by a man into a noisy blue pickup truck, but the tip became only the first in a string of potentially valuable leads that ultimately did not lead to an arrest.

Her disappearance and slaying began an earnest search for a killer. With the passage of time, the case morphed into a search for answers – any answers.

“I remember this (case) vividly from my childhood,” Angelo Mante, a Fort Wayne pastor, said last week. “I remember the fear that swept this city, even at 6 years old.”

Investigators were stymied, despite DNA collected from April's clothes, police sketches of possible suspects, clues from tipsters, local and national media coverage and notes and DNA samples left by the alleged killer himself over the years.

That mountain of evidence grew alongside a list of names of potential suspects but strong evidence to tie someone to the crime didn't surface until July 9, when Indiana State Police investigators said DNA extracted from used condoms recovered from the trash at Miller's home this month matched samples from 2004 and 1988.

“I couldn't believe it,” said Paul Helmke, the city's mayor in 1988.

DNA's role in making arrest

It's clear that police and prosecutors from the beginning took seriously the role DNA would play in solving April's case. The method by which it was used to secure an arrest likely could not have been predicted in the late 1980s, however.

Former Allen County Prosecutor Stephen Sims was among the first to champion “DNA fingerprinting” as a way to solve the murder. Then an emerging technology, DNA analysis could be a way to ensure police “get the right person, not just a person,” he told a reporter days after April was killed.

Investigators saved DNA taken from the girl's underwear, and it proved to be the most vital piece of evidence that led to Miller's arrest. DNA from used condoms found at three locations in 2004 with notes left by someone claiming to be the person that killed April also were collected and kept.  

Police analyzed the samples and used them to produce sketches showing what a suspect might look like but, without DNA to compare it to, it was impossible for detectives to determine the source.

After decades of using traditional investigative techniques including interviews and sifting through evidence, Fort Wayne police Detective Brian Martin took a different approach. In May, according to court documents, he arranged for genetic testing conducted by Parabon Nanolabs.

The Reston, Virginia, firm analyzes DNA for law enforcement agencies using genealogy databases to compare samples with publicly available data to narrow the search for suspects. Its most prominent researcher is CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist famous for her work on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.”

Moore said DNA data is uploaded to GEDmatch.com, a website that allows users to upload their own data and search for relatives using genetic codes. Matches can help lead police to those accused of crimes, she said.

The new tactic has been used to arrest suspects in several high-profile cases, including alleged Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in California. Moore calls it a game-changer, and Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said it should send a message to criminals.

“It's a very different way of looking at DNA,” Moore said.

Police and prosecutors declined to comment on whether investigators are using or have used genetic genealogy in other local cases. They also would not discuss the Tinsley case, careful to protect a long-running investigation.

Downside to using genealogy data

Proponents of police using genetic genealogy hail the technology as a way to relieve victims of heinous crimes and families of pain they have had to endure for years.

Others call it a useful tool for police officers, but say there are consequences that have not been fully vetted.

Abe Schwab, an associate professor of philosophy at Purdue Fort Wayne whose focus is biomedical ethics, co-authored an article this month in the journal Clinical Chemistry that argues genetic data and the growing interest in it has potential for harm.

People who upload their genetic data to websites know what they've signed up for, but the decision affects more than just an individual, Schwab said. Once it's uploaded, the data now can affect even distant family members who might not have agreed to the action, he said.

Schwab cites a hypothetical example in which one person uploads data to the website and then that person's brother – who hasn't uploaded his information – seeks a life insurance policy. It's possible the insurance company could search the genealogy data, find that the brother is susceptible to a disease and deny him coverage, he said.

“When it's used in the best of circumstances, it's hard to argue we shouldn't do it,” Schwab said in an interview. “What are the other circumstances?”

The American Civil Liberties Union also questions the use of genealogy data for investigations. 

“It is always good to see a cold case like this solved, but we must be aware of the precedents being set,” Ariella Sult, a spokeswoman for the ACLU's Indianapolis office, said in an email. “After a genealogy database was used to make an arrest in the Golden State Killer case, the ACLU raised concern that we must be cognizant of the impact sequencing DNA could have on innocent people. Using genealogy sites may unfairly involve law-abiding family members, who could be targeted due to a partial DNA match.”

Questions remain about Tinsley case

Genealogy data and DNA apparently have answered some questions about April's killing, but others still remain.

No information released by prosecutors or police indicates how Miller – who has lived at the trailer park in Grabill since at least 1978, according to his brother – found April.

He does not appear to have known the family and Janet Tinsley, April's mother, said last week she had never heard of him. The brother, identified in court documents as JPM, said last week Miller never owned a pickup.

Grant, the retired detective, said investigators did not identify him as a suspect after the killing. Larry Jackson and Camp, police detectives who also worked the case, confirmed that in separate interviews last week.

Police have not said whether they believe Miller wrote messages taunting police and threatening to kill again in 1990 and 2004. It's not clear whether he might be tied to other crimes.

Court records show Miller was charged with minor traffic offenses in 1987, 1994, 2003 and 2004.

Family preparing for long trial

Miller told police he kidnapped April, sexually assaulted her in his trailer and strangled the girl so she couldn't report him to police, according to the affidavit. An Allen County judge entered a not guilty plea for him in a hearing Thursday.

Reliving the trauma of April's death has been painful, her mother said, but the family is hopeful “he'll get what he deserves.” Tinsley also told The Journal Gazette she would push prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Miller.

Prosecutors and police are celebrating the arrest of the man who allegedly eluded them for decades. In a news conference Tuesday, investigators from the police department, the Allen County Sheriff's Department, Indiana State Police, the FBI and other agencies thanked each other for their work and expressed congratulations and hopes for closure for April's family.

“We're probably on our second or third generation of detectives,” said Richards, the prosecutor. “They have done a fabulous job for us.”

“It meant everything to us,” said Jackson, one of the detectives assigned to the case in 1988.

Tinsley, though, is bracing for a long court process that could take years. She said her daughter's killing and the push for a resolution to the case has changed her family. Michael Tinsley, April's father, has not spoken publicly, and Janet Tinsley said he has avoided phone calls and text messages.

Janet Tinsley said she thinks about what life might have been like if April didn't die.

“My life would have been totally different,” she said. “I would have been just like everyone else.” 

mleblanc@jg.net