It was 10pm on August 6, 1975 when 17-year-old high school senior Laurel Jean Mitchell was finishing her shift at the snack bar, the Cokesbury Inn at Epworth Forest Church camp in North Webster, Indiana. The small restaurant sat on the shores of Webster Lake. Her co-worker offered her a ride home, but Laurel declined, saying she already had one. Instead she began to walk the half mile toward Adventureland amusement park to meet her friends but she never arrived.
When Laurel didn’t come home that night, her parents, Richard & Wilma Mitchell called the police to issue a missing person report at 4am. Six hours later, at approximately 10:30am, a man & his son were out fishing & found her body floating in waist-deep water in the Elkhart River at a public access site about seventeen miles away from where she had been in North Webster. Before officers had arrived at the scene, those that found her body assumed she had drowned & waded into the water & brought her body back to the river bank. When she was found, she was wearing Wawasee High School class of 1976 ring with her initials, LJM engraved on the inside.
Investigators at the scene also initially believed she had drowned though Laurel was known to be a strong swimmer. An autopsy that same day determined that Laurel’s cause of death was drowning & indicated that her “death occurred rapidly.” It was also determined that she “made a violent struggle to survive.” Bruising was evident on her hands & shoulder. It was also determined that Laurel had been sexually assaulted. Many articles indicated that no marks were found on her body & her clothing did not appear to be in disarray when she was found while others indicate her jeans were unzipped, unbuttoned & inside out. Immediately, investigators believed that Laurel had been abducted during her walk.
The small town of about 500 were shocked & shaken; it was a safe town where people rarely locked their doors & everyone looked out for one another.
At the time that Laurel went missing, no one suspected anything was wrong; her friends had changed their minds & went to the county fair instead. Her parents assumed she was out, having fun with her friends at the amusement park. Laurel was born on May 24, 1958 described as boisterous & motherly; someone who was very attentive to kids. She was very smart & kind, participated in dance & choir & was a very familiar face in the small town of North Webster. Laurel was part of her church’s traveling youth singing group called God’s Children; they traveled all around the United States & even had a couple of albums. Her sister described her as “very, very religious.”
Detectives began to speak with residents in the area of the church that Laurel left that evening, knowing she would have taken Epworth Forest Road to get to Adventureland. The road was described as heavily traveled in this resort area which had multiple lakes with summer cottage rentals. A classmate told police they had seen Laurel walking by the pillars of the entrance to the Epworth Forest; a family friend lived in a house right at the pillars. He walked out the front door & waved to Laurel & she waved back; as she moved past the pillars, she was never seen again.
Another resident said that he & his wife heard a loud car drive by & then it turned around & stopped near their home. The husband heard what he thought was someone slamming the trunk of a car & when he went out to investigate, he saw two cars leaving the area, maybe an Oldsmobile. Another resident said that at about 10 pm or shortly after, a car turned around in the drive next door & as it came back in her direction, she heard several voices say, “let’s get” or “let’s get her.” She described the car as very loud & dark in color. As the years passed, many of the original investigators died.
After more than 47 years have passed, on Monday, February 6th, Indiana state police made an arrest, charging Fred Bandy Jr of Goshen, IN & John Wayne Lehman of Auburn, IN, both 67-years-old, of Laurel’s murder. Police revealed that the breakthrough began over the past couple of months with DNA analysis that matched samples from the clothing Laurel was wearing when she died in 1975.
In 2013, a Port Charlotte, Florida woman who had lived in Noble County as a teenager contacted police with information & they set up an interview. She told them that when she was 16-years-old she had gone on a date with Lehman & as they were driving home from the party, he talked about his involvement in a crime he committed with his friend, Fred Bandy. The story that Lehman told her aligned with what was found at the crime scene as well as from the autopsy.
The next year, in 2014, a person who was a sophomore in high school in Ligonier, IN at the time of Laurel’s murder, told police that he had been at a party with Bandy that year & he told him that he had committed a crime. This was corroborated during a September 25, 2019 interview with another person who was at the same party; during the party, a conversation about Laurel’s murder was brought up & Fred Bandy told them that he & Lehman committed the crime together. That year, State Police Captain Kevin Smith resubmitted Laurel’s clothing which led to a DNA profile that belonged to a male. When she was found, police collected all the clothing & belongings from her body which included a silver necklace, one earring, shoes, undergarments, jeans that had been unzipped & unbuttoned; it’s unclear which item contained the DNA.
In December, state police went to Bandy’s home to get a DNA sample. When the analysis was complete on January 15h & indicated that Bandy was 13 billion times more likely to be the contributor of the DNA found on Laurel’s clothing than anyone else. Warrants were issued to search the homes of Bandy & Lehman to collect DNA from Lehman. The investigation generated three other potential suspects though they were eliminated as possible contributors of the DNA obtained from her clothing. On February 6th, they were both arrested. The investigation is ongoing & right now they’re both scheduled for pretrial hearings on April 24th. Thus far the affidavit hasn’t mentioned matching DNA with Lehman. They had separate hearings & a judge indicated they’ll be held without bond & be assigned public defenders. They both pleaded not guilty.
Investigators believe that as Laurel walked down the street that night, Bandy & Lehman grabbed her & put her in Bandy’s 1971 Oldsmobile & took her to the Mallard Roost public access site on County Road 600 N in Noble County where they drowned her.
In 2001 Bandy pleaded guilty to child solicitation & contributing to the delinquency of a minor & was sentenced to two years, in 2016 he pleaded guilty to two counts of child molestation & was sentenced to six years in prison. He also has a DUI on his record from 1995. Lehman appears to have no criminal record in Indiana prior to this murder charge.
Captain Smith has been working on the case for 20 years & sees that this case follows the same pattern as other cold cases where witnesses pass away, memories fade & as more time passes, solving the case becomes very difficult. When Laurel was killed, her younger sister Sarah was only twelve-years-old when she was killed; she said their childhood was typical before horror visited her family. She said the town was small, they felt safe & even when young, they came & went without their parents getting too worried. When Laurel didn’t get home in time for curfew, her family knew something was wrong.
The next day, as police, family members & friends helped search for Laurel, a family friend picked Sarah up early for softball practice. When she arrived home, her driveway was full of police cars. Sarah remembers that her sister was a very good person & someone who would have done a lot in this world. She is very appreciative to those who have come forward with the information that helped find her sister’s murderers. She & her brother, Bruce only wish that their parents were alive to see this.
She remembers Captain Smith always carrying around large books containing case information with names & addresses of those they’ve interviewed with over 1,000 names inside. Sarah feels that despite more than 47 years passing, it feels like just yesterday that her sister was murdered. When Sarah was in court on February 8th, she spoke to reporters about how she always wondered what her sister’s life could have been like, had it not been cut short. She missed prom, graduation, missed getting married & having kids & Sarah missed growing up with her sister. Sarah always stayed dedicated to her sister’s case & never gave up hope that justice would be served. Each year she would appeal to the media to cover her sister’s case & kept contact with Captain Smith.
A family friend, Michael Harris, remembers being with Laurel in the church choir & that Laurel was the type of person who was everyone’s friend. He hopes that now that arrests have been made, they hope to have some closure & more information about what happened that day in hopes of being able to move forward. Sarah wants to know why they killed Laurel
Ashley Hall, the director of the forensic science graduate program at the University of California said that method used for the DNA was likely standard genetic identification technology used in crime labs called STR or short tandem repeat. The technology is developing & becoming more & more sensitive & is picking up smaller & smaller amounts of DNA than was previously possible. This case is an example of how DNA is evolving to assist in criminal investigations that were previously unsolved. The goal is that no matter how old the case, every victim & every family member has an answer.
- Washington Post: A 17-year-old died in 1975. Two men were just arrested in her killing.
- The New York Times: 2 Charged With Murder in 1975 Killing of an Indiana Teenager
- Wane.com: Arrests made in 1975 murder of teen found in Noble County
- 16 News Now: Family, friends of teen murdered nearly 50 years ago are finding closure with arrests made
- The News Sun: Archive: The New Sun’s initial reporting on the Mitchell case
- Imgur.com: Laurel Jean Mitchell
- Redditt: UnresolvedMysteries
- Ink Free News: Police, Family Continue To Seek Details In Unsolved Murder of Laurel Mitchell
- The Post and Mail: Two charged with murder in 1975 cold case investigations
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