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ONE YEAR LATER: Looking back at the April Tinsley cold case breakthrough

(Fort Wayne’s NBC) — It took 30 years, but family members of April Tinsley finally got answers after their 8-year-old was found raped and murdered in southern DeKalb County.

On April 1, 1988, 8-year-old April Tinsley walked to a friend’s house from her Fort Wayne home. She never made it home. A desperate search would end three days later, sending the Tinsleys’ world to a screeching halt.

“There was a lot of times where I had people say to me you should’ve kept her home, you should’ve kept her home. You can’t prison your own child, you gotta let them outside and play.”Janet TinsleyApril Tinsley’s Mother

A jogger in DeKalb County came upon April’s body in a ditch. The girl had been raped and suffocated, a sex toy located not far from the body. The case haunted the police force through the years.

The Hunt for a Killer

In 2009, ABC21 spoke with a retired Fort Wayne police officer who worked on the case. Dan Camp told us he had no idea the pressure he would feel to try to solve the case when it was dropped in his lap back in 1988. The case became an obsession for Camp; he spent years tracking hundreds of leads, interviewing and re-interviewing witnesses.

“You have to go over it and over it and over it, because being unsolved, there was something that I was missing, and I wasn’t seeing it, and that’s how I felt about it,” he told us in 2009.

The unsuccessful search for Tinsley’s killer finally drove him out of the detective bureau.

READ MORE: Retired detective ‘elated’ about Tinsley suspect arrest

The killer taunted police through the years. In 2004, the killer left a series of notes at the homes of young girls mentioning the murder. The notes included used condoms and photos of the killer from the waist down. The condoms had DNA that matched DNA found at the crime scene.

In October of that year, a convicted sex offender was questioned extensively about the case, but was released after his DNA didn’t match what was found at the scene.

READ MORE: 20th Anniversary of April Tinsley Case

Bringing New Technology to the hunt

In 2015, a sophisticated computer program used by a Virginia laboratory produced a new composite sketch of what April Tinsley’s killer might look like. It took a new approach to analyzing DNA evidence in the case.

The photo was updated the following year to show what the killer might have looked like in 2016.

John Miller’s mugshot (left) compaired to the computer generated composite sketch (right)

The profile led police to believe the killer was a white male who was now between the ages of 49 and 59.

In 2009, a profile indicated he worked, lived in or spent time in the northeast section of Fort Wayne. The profile also indicated he spent time where groups of children, especially little girls, were likely to be. He may collect toys that are of interest to young girls, it suggested.

READ MORE: Suspect photo in Tinsley case released; some similarities with 2016 computer image

Using genetics to find a suspect

In 2018, a new law went into effect that was designed to solve crimes such as the April Tinsley case. As of January 1, those arrested for a felony crime in the Hoosier state had to begin submitting a DNA sample via a cheek swab.

The DNA profiles are gathered for inclusion in the state’s Combined DNA Index System or CODIS, following passage of Senate Enrolled Act 322. The samples are compared to other profiles in the database, hoping to boost the chances of getting a match on unsolved crimes like the 30-year old sexual assault and murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley of Fort Wayne.

READ MORE: Hoosiers arrested for a felony now required to submit DNA sample

This DNA ended up leading police to a suspect in the case. On July 15, 2018, police made an arrest. The suspect, John Miller, was arrested at his Grabill home, a few miles northeast of Fort Wayne.

The arrest came as the genetic genealogy unit at Parabon NanoLabs combined DNA evidence samples from the case with a public genealogy database.

“What we are doing is looking for people who share a significant amount of DNA with the suspect,” Moore explained. “And if we find a second or third cousin or closer, we feel it’s a very promising case.”

READ MORE: Lead genealogist at lab that led police to alleged April Tinsley’s killer explains how genetics is cracking cold cases

The work narrowed the suspect down to two brothers. Police pulled samples of Miller’s DNA from condoms removed from a trash receptacle outside his home. This DNA was compared to the existing DNA evidence.

When police showed up at Miller’s home on a Sunday morning, they asked him if he knew why there were there. According to the affidavit, Miller responded, “April Tinsley.”

Clipping from John Miller’s probable cause affidavit

Neighbors had a difficult time finding the words to describe their emotions after the suspected killer, Miller, had been living just down the street, and even right next door, in their quiet Grabill community.

Neighbors said they were uneasy to learn that the man connected to this horrible crime lived right under their nose — in a place across from a softball field, and in a home that kids passed every day on their way to the bus stop.

READ MORE: Grabill community, where arrested suspect lives, reacts to the April Tinsley case

Heading to Court

The next six months would be a whirlwind for the Tinsley family as they went from not knowing who killed their daughter to seeing John Miller sentenced to 80 years.

Miller heard the preliminary charges against him during his appearance at the Charles “Bud” Meeks Criminal Justice Center in July 2018. Miller’s time in the courtroom amounted to only a few moments. His voice wavered as he answered to the judge.

Among those present: April Tinsley’s aunt, who wept during proceedings, which took place about 24 hours after Fort Wayne police detectives took Miller into custody following the development of new evidence linking him to the crime.

READ MORE: Tinsley murder suspect answers feebly in first court appearance

The case was initially set to go to trial in February 2019, but that court hearing would never happen.

During months after Miller’s arrest his lawyers argued that he would not be able to get a fair trial with a jury pulled from Allen County because of “public hostility against him, public outrage over the offenses alleged, and speculative opinions as to his guilt and character.”

His lawyers were given until late November to give the court their documentation on why they thought the change of venue was appropriate. A hearing would take place on December 7 to discuss these findings.

READ MORE: Admitted April Tinsley killer pleads guilty in court

Instead, the day they were to discuss the case, Miller pleaded guilty.

During the change of venue hearing Miller pleaded guilty to murder and child molesting. The plea called for a maximum of 80 years in prison.

The plea deal brought some protest from the community. People asked Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards why she did not seek the death penalty against Miller.

Richards said Miller’s age and health make it likely an execution would never happen.

“The last case in Allen County where we have the death penalty ordered, it’s 21 years later and we’re no closer to Joseph Corcoran’s execution then we were the day he was sentenced,” she said.

READ MORE: County prosecutor explains why she didn’t go for death penalty in April Tinsley murder case

The courtroom was standing room only for Miller’s sentencing, with almost every chair filled and several people standing in the back half of the room.

Judge Surbeck accepted John Millers plea agreement of 80 years behind bars. This was 50 years for the murder of 8-year old April Tinsley and 30 years for child molestation.

For Janet Tinsley, the wounds were still fresh in the courtroom.  She spoke in court saying even though it’s been 30 years she still remembers the day like it was yesterday telling Miller he ripped her family apart. She also looked at Miller and said you took her life we want yours, saying that the 80 years he’s getting is far less than what he has made the family deal with.

Now, a year after the arrest, Janet Tinsley is looking back at the whirlwind of events. You can hear from her tonight on Fort Wayne’s NBC.

Jazlynn Bebout

Jazlynn Bebout is the Assignment Desk Editor and Digital Editor at WPTA. Follow her on Twitter @jazlynnsb

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