A 17-year-old girl failed to return home from her job at a church camp and was found dead in a river almost half a century ago. Now, officials have announced two Indiana men have been charged with her murder.
On Aug. 6, 1975, Laurel Jean Mitchell, 17, reported to her job at a snack bar at the Epworth Forest church camp near a lake in North Webster, but she failed to return home that night, the Associated Press reported.
Mitchell’s parents reported the teenager missing and her body was found the next morning in the Elkhart River, about 17 miles northeast of North Webster.
The autopsy showed Mitchell had drowned, but investigators stated there were “signs that she had fought for her life.”
Now, 47 years later, Fred Bandy Jr., 67, and John Wayne Lehman, 67, each face one count each of murder in connection with Mitchell's death.
According to court documents, witnesses tied the men to the girl's killing and DNA evidence was used to link Bandy to the crime, the AP reported.
Investigators believe Bandy and Lehman “forcibly, deliberately drowned” Mitchell after bringing her to the Elkhart River in Bandy’s 1971 Oldsmobile.
The testing determined Bandy was 13 billion times “more likely to be the contributor of the DNA in Laurel J. Mitchell’s clothing than any other unknown person,” the AP reported.
Investigators noted testing was conducted after three people, who were teens at the time of the killing, tied the men to the crime based on incriminating comments the suspects allegedly made.
In 2014, one man told police that he socialized with Bandy in high school and claimed the suspect told him that “he had committed the crime” and even told him the location of where her body was found.
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In 2019, a second man spoke with police, claiming he and the first witness went to a high school party with Bandy, Lehman and others. At the party, he said, Mitchell’s murder came up and Bandy allegedly admitted “he and John Wayne Lehman committed that crime, together.”
In June 2013, a Florida woman who was 16 and living in Indiana in 1975 contacted police, telling them she had gone on a date with Lehman. When he was driving her home, he “admitted his involvement in a crime that he committed with his friend, Fred Bandy.”
Lehman went on to give this woman details that were consistent with police findings when the body was found and with “anatomical findings” from the autopsy, the AP reported.
At a press conference, officers said they discussed what happened to Mitchell with her brother and sister.
“I cannot imagine having dealt with that for 47 years, wondering what happened,” Indiana State Police Capt. Kevin Smith said, adding he hopes the arrests can bring the two “at least a little peace.”
Bandy and Lehman appeared in court on Feb. 8 and were each charged with one count of murder in the first degree. Both pleaded not guilty and are being held without bond at the Noble County Jail, WNDU reported.
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