true crime

Suzanne Jovin was murdered at uni. 20 years on, her death continues to baffle detectives.

Suzanne Jovin was, by all accounts, an extraordinary young woman.

The 21-year-old German-born student was in her senior year studying political science at the prestigious Yale University where her friends on campus described her as smart, beautiful and compassionate.

And compassionate she most certainly was. Alongside her studies, she made time for voluntary work as director of Best Buddies, a charity working with intellectually and developmentally disabled adults.

She was great fun too, her friends said, “sparkly”. She was not always as serious as her impressive academic credentials might suggest.

“Suzanne laughed a lot,” one friend told Vanity Fair back in 1999. “At Naples (a popular New Haven hangout) she’d go nuts when we got on the dance floor.”

Suzanne truly had the world at her feet.

But, tragically, she would never go on to fulfil her potential. On the evening of 4 December 1998, Suzanne was brutally murdered, stabbed 17 times in the back of her head and neck, left to die in the street just two miles away from the Yale campus.

Her throat had been slit and she had been stabbed so hard the tip of the knife was embedded in her skull.

There were no witnesses to the savage attack and initially the police had no suspects. They began to investigate, piecing together Suzanne’s last known movements.

On the afternoon of her death, about 4.30pm, Suzanne had handed in a draft of her senior essay to her course advisor, James Van Der Velde. The essay was written about Osama Bin Laden, three years before his name would become synonymous with the 9/11 terror attacks.

Then she had spent the early part of her evening at the nearby Trinity Lutheran Church, at a pizza-making party she had organised for Best Buddies.

She left the event about 8.30 pm, using a car borrowed from the university to drive some of the volunteers home.

LISTEN: Holly Wainwright and the Stephens Twins deep dive on our fascination with the crime genre. Post continues after audio…

From there she returned to her apartment on campus where she spoke with friends who were passing by and had called up to her window. They asked her if she wanted to go to the movies, but she declined, saying she had work to do.

At 9.02pm, she sent an email to a friend, telling her she was leaving some books for her in her apartment lobby, but that she first had to retrieve them from “someone”.

This person, the one who had borrowed the books, was never identified. More on that later.

Suzanne logged off at 9.10pm and was seen five minutes later on her way to return the keys of the borrowed car to the Yale police communications centre at the university.

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She chatted with her classmate, Peter Stein, at 9.25pm, as they passed each other on campus.

“She just said that she was very, very tired and that she was looking forward to getting a lot of sleep,” Stein would later tell Yale News Daily. 

But Suzanne didn’t return to her dorm. She was seen by another witness just minutes later, heading north on College Street, away from the Yale campus.

If she was indeed heading home, she was taking a very roundabout route – a very strange thing for someone to do when they’re tired and have work to do. Was Suzanne on her way to meet someone? Perhaps the “someone” who had borrowed her books?

The reason for Suzanne’s detour has never been ascertained, but ultimately, it could have been a decision that lead to her death.

At 10pm, a couple who had been walking by the intersection of Edgehill and East Rock roads dialled 911. They had discovered Suzanne lying face down and bleeding in the street. She was rushed to Yale New Haven Hospital where she was pronounced dead at 10.26pm.

There had been no sexual assault. Seventeen stab wounds spoke not of a robbery – it later transpired Suzanne’s purse was still in her apartment anyway. No, police believed this was a crime of passion, committed by someone she knew.

Another reason for this was the location where she had been found. Suzanne had travelled almost 3.2km since the time she’d last been seen, which would have been almost impossible on foot. Officers believed she’d got into a vehicle with someone – and her friends and family were adamant she’d never accept a lift from a stranger.

The location of the stab wounds and the lack of defence injuries suggested she’d been exiting the vehicle when she was attacked, the driver leaving her to die where she fell.

There was no murder weapon recovered at the scene. Who could have stabbed Suzanne 17 times night and disappeared into the night? Why would anybody have wanted her dead?

Suzanne’s boyfriend, 21-year-old Roman Caudillio, was ruled out – he’d been on a train to New York on the night of the killing. So police officers delved deeper, shining their spotlight on the other people in Suzanne’s life.

Meanwhile, the Yale community were in mourning. Floral tributes piled up outside the gates of Davenport, Suzanne’s residential college. Her friends were stunned.

Suzanne was beautiful, intelligent and compassionate. Image: Facebook

But there was even more shock to come when four days later, James Van Der Velde - Suzanne's thesis advisor - was identified as a person of interest.

Initially police suspected he may have been having an affair with Suzanne - but everyone who knew her felt it was extremely unlikely and there was no evidence to suggest they'd been romantically involved.

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Van Der Velde, then 39, was cooperative. He answered questions and allowed officers to search his car and his home - they found nothing. There seemed to be no scrap of evidence against him and yet he seemed to remained at the forefront of their investigation. He was interviewed many more times and his career was blighted by the accusations - his classes were cancelled and his contract at Yale was not renewed.

This blinkered approach meant other crucial areas of interest were neglected.

What about the "someone" Suzanne had loaned her books to, the person she emailed just one hour before her death? Despite appeals, this person never came forward and while it could be just a small piece of the puzzle, it could also be crucial in understanding what happened to Suzanne.

Over the years, other evidence began to come to light.

In 2001, police revealed that several witnesses had reported seeing a brown or tan coloured van parked near where Suzanne's body was found. No explanation has ever been given as to why that information wasn't released to the public at the time of the crime and the van was never located. If police believe Suzanne was driven to the location where her body was found, this could have been key.

Six years later, another possible lead was made public. A woman had seen a man running close to the scene around 10pm. Police had shown her a photo of Van Der Velde but she'd told them it wasn't the man she'd seen, so they never followed up with her again. It wasn't until a 2007 cold case team took over the investigation that a composite sketch of the man was released - but was anyone likely to remember him nine years later?

Finally, there has been speculation that the topic of Suzanne's thesis - Bin Laden and the terror threat he posed to the US - could've made her a target for Al-Qaeda operatives. An outlandish theory that's never been given much credence - but her prediction that a "holy war" between the Saudi and the US wasn't going to "turn cold anytime soon" was certainly eerily accurate and worth looking into as a possible motive.

The fact remains that someone murdered Suzanne in cold blood and that someone needs to be brought to justice.

Back in 1999, Suzanne’s mother Donna wrote an open letter to her local newspaper begging the killer’s mother to come forward. “Only you can imagine the pain and anguish which I have felt,” it read.

This year, it will 20 years on from the murder - and Suzanne's loved ones are still desperate for answers.

Yale and the state of Connecticut are offering a reward of up to $150,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer.

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