A community's wound opened by the murder of a little girl in the spring of 1988 and kept bare for decades partly healed Friday as her killer was sent to prison.
John D. Miller, 59, was sentenced in Allen Superior Court to 80 years behind bars for the slaying of 8-year-old April Tinsley. He will likely take his last breaths behind prison walls.
A judge's order to send him there provides a resolution to a notorious case, but it leaves a collective scar on April's family, Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana.
“Thirty years ago, this man did something in this community that changed almost everyone in this courtroom,” Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said through tears during an emotional sentencing hearing.
Parents for years were afraid for their children, unsure whether April's killer might strike again, she said. Notes left by Miller in 1990 and 2004 to taunt police investigating the case – “depraved and thoughtless” acts, Richards said – heightened anxiety levels.
“I cannot, still, imagine the pain and anguish this caused the Tinsley family,” she said. “What he did shook the foundation of this community.”
April left the home of a friend on Good Friday, April 1, 1988, and vanished. Her body was found three days later in a ditch in DeKalb County, miles from her home on the south side of Fort Wayne.
She had been sexually assaulted and strangled, crimes to which Miller admitted Dec. 7.
In court Friday, Janet Tinsley confronted her daughter's killer for the first time. Dressed in a blue T-shirt with April's picture, Tinsley said she always knew she'd one day have a girl with blond hair and blue eyes.
“Why did you take her?” she asked.
Miller sat shackled in a wheelchair a few feet away, mouth open slightly and wearing a jail-issued jumpsuit. He did not speak or react.
“I'll never forgive, and I'll never forget what you took from us,” Tinsley said.
The case captured the attention of local and national news outlets and was featured in other media, including the TV show “America's Most Wanted.”
Investigators kept DNA evidence from the crime scene in 1988, and samples left with the taunting notes years later also were collected. But the case went cold, even as investigators kept it open and possible leads continued to be sent by phone and email to detectives.
Fort Wayne police tried something new in May and asked for help from a Virginia firm that analyzes DNA and compares it with publicly available genealogy data – a burgeoning sleuthing method that's been used to solve other high-profile cases such as that of the Golden State Killer in California.
Miller was arrested July 15 at his trailer home in Grabill, the same place where he strangled April three decades before. About a week before their visit, police took used condoms from the trash outside the home. State police investigators matched that DNA to samples collected in 2004.
Miller told police when he was arrested that he sexually assaulted and killed the girl, according to court documents, and repeated the confession in court earlier this month.
Reaction to the arrest by members of April's family and investigators ranged from outrage to acceptance to relief.
Janet Tinsley told The Journal Gazette two days after Miller was arrested that she would push prosecutors to seek the death penalty. She has since been critical of Richards' move to seek a plea agreement instead.
“You took her life, and we want yours,” Tinsley – one of four family members who spoke at the sentencing hearing – told Miller on Friday. “But, unfortunately, we're not getting that.”
Richards said she empathizes with the family but added that she weighed other factors, including Miller's age, when considering punishment. The last death penalty case in Allen County was decided nearly 20 years ago, and the man sent to death row – Joseph Corcoran – is no closer to an execution date, she said.
Corcoran was convicted in 1999 of the murders of four people including his brother, his sister's fiancé, and two of his brother's friends.
“I don't disagree with the Tinsley family that I would have loved to see the death penalty (for Miller),” Richards said. “The anguish is certainly justified.
“Had this case been solved 30 years ago, we would have asked for something different.”
That's of little solace to Kristina Snyder, April's cousin.
“There will never be closure,” she said facing Miller and reading from a statement. “May you burn in hell, you monster.”
Defense attorney Anthony Churchward said his client has accepted responsibility for his crimes and read a statement in which Miller apologized to the Tinsley family and the community.
“I wish that it had never happened,” Miller's statement said.
Judge John Surbeck, in one of his last official judicial duties before his retirement Dec. 31, said he typically would make comments at sentencing but offered that there was nothing he could add to comments already made by others.
“It's a terrible situation,” he said.
Miller was ordered to serve back-to-back sentences of 50 years for murder and 30 years for child molesting.