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by Suzanna Andrews
Seven months after the vicious stabbing of Yale senior Suzanne Jovin in a wealthy neighborhood near campus, the entire university knows that her thesis adviser, 39-year-old former dean James Van de Velde, is a suspect. But the police have made no arrest. Will this become the Ivy League version of the JonBenet Ramsey case?
The weather in New Haven, Connecticut, was unusually warm the evening of December 4, 1998. Children played in the streets, and people were out walking their dogs. At Yale University, whose vast campus, with its neo-Gothic architecture, sprawls through the center of the city, students were out in shorts and T-shirts, throwing Frisbees on the college’s lawns. The balmy weather made it a perfect night for undergraduates to celebrate the end of fall-semester classes before reading week and final exams. Parties were being thrown in several of Yale’s residential colleges and in off-campus student apartments. At the David S. Ingalls Rink, situated about a mile north of the turrets and bell towers of the main campus, hundreds of Yale students and faculty were out in force to cheer their hockey team on against Princeton. For nearly three hours—from 7:30 until approximately 10:00—they sat in the bleachers of the Eero Saarinen–designed building, under the soaring roof from which the banners of Yale’s hockey rivals and its 12 residential colleges hang. Screaming themselves hoarse, the spectators watched the Princeton Tigers defeat the Yale Bulldogs, 5–2. Less than a mile north of Ingalls Rink, in the wealthy East Rock neighborhood, with its huge mansions and manicured lawns, people were also out enjoying the warm weather. Several of those later interviewed by the police said they saw nothing unusual. LaJeune Oxley, who lives at the corner of Edgehill and East Rock Roads, says she and her husband spent most of that evening in their kitchen listening to Bach. For some reason she had shut the kitchen door. If she hadn’t, Oxley believes, she would have seen or heard something that might have enabled her to help the police or perhaps even to prevent what happened.
As it was, Oxley heard only a loud banging on her front door just after 10 p.m. She walked out of her kitchen and saw immediately, through her sitting-room window, the flashing lights of the police cars and the ambulance across the street. “As soon as I opened the door, a police officer said, ‘There’s a lady down,’” Oxley recalls. Terrified that something had happened to her 28-year-old daughter, Daphne, who had not returned from walking the family dog, Oxley ran across the street, where a young woman wearing jeans and boots lay near the curb. Oxley saw right away that it was not her daughter. The woman was Suzanne Jovin, a 21-year-old senior at Yale, who was horribly injured. About 15 minutes later, at 10:26, Jovin was pronounced dead at Yale–New Haven Hospital. She had been murdered savagely, stabbed 17 times in the back and neck.
During the past months, Oxley has gone over and over in her mind the details of what she saw that night and of what she afterward learned. She knows that some of her neighbors heard an argument between a man and a woman around 9:45 and, shortly after that, a scream. She knows from the newspapers that no weapon has been recovered. The mystery of how someone was able to stab Suzanne Jovin 17 times in a well-lit neighborhood where people were out walking their dogs and where at least one party was going on is among the many strange aspects of that night. In the months following the murder, the questions have multiplied and become even more troubling.
“You see that tree across the street?” says Oxley, looking out the giant bay window of her antique-filled living room to a towering oak across East Rock Road. “The body was right next to that tree. She was facedown. Her feet were almost in the street. We call that grassy area [between the curb and the sidewalk] the parkway; the body was across the parkway, at an angle. She looked to me as though she was trying … to get to that house and didn’t make it,” says Oxley, turning away from the window with a stricken expression. “We have lights on every single street here. … It’s not secluded. I just couldn’t imagine that anything like that could happen, number one in the neighborhood and then certainly not there.”
It took several hours for the news of Jovin’s murder to filter into the Yale community. The first student to learn that she was dead—Amy Chiou, one of the victim’s freshman-year roommates—was awakened around midnight by a call from the police, who had entered Jovin’s apartment and dialed every number on a list taped near the phone until they reached someone. Most of Jovin’s friends were partying that night; several were at the movies. Her 22-year-old boyfriend, Roman Caudillo, an engineering student, was on his way back to New Haven after spending the evening in New York City. “The police sent a car to get Amy, and they took her to identify Suzanne’s body,” says a friend of Jovin’s. “The police told her Suzanne had ‘expired.’ She had no idea what was going on. She thought Suzanne had gotten into a problem or something. Amy had a friend with her who said, ‘Amy, she’s dead.’”
By noon the next day, many had heard the terrible news, and flowers piled up at the gates of Davenport, Suzanne’s residential college. Devastated students sobbed in the courtyard. It seemed like a nightmare happening all over again. In 1991, Christian Prince, a sophomore lacrosse player and fourth-generation Yale man, was shot to death near the president’s house as he was walking home from a party at the Aurelian Society, a secret society akin to the more famous Skull and Bones. Prince’s murder had traumatized the university, which responded by investing more than $2 million in campus security. Over the years, Yale also pumped millions of dollars into the troubled, crime-ridden neighborhoods that surround the spectacular campus. But Christian Prince was the victim of a random killing. Suzanne Jovin, the police believe, was murdered by someone she knew.
Jovin was last reported seen around 9:25 near Phelps Gate, the main entrance to Yale on College Street. At 9:58, someone called 911 to report that a woman lay bleeding on the corner of Edgehill and East Rock, nearly two miles away. How had Jovin traveled so far in approximately 30 minutes? The police think that she must have been driven there, and her friends are certain she would never have accepted a ride from a stranger. But whose car had she gotten into? Who could have killed her so brutally and left no clues? And why would anyone have wanted to kill Suzanne Jovin? Brainy, beautiful, and hugely popular, she was considered extraordinary, even among Yale’s overachievers. She spoke four languages, sang in the Bach Society Orchestra, co-founded Yale’s German club, and spent much of her free time doing volunteer work, tutoring inner-city children and running a program for mentally disabled adults. “Suzanne was just an angel,” says Michael Blum, a 1998 Yale graduate who had known Jovin since her freshman year.
What no one was prepared for was the shocking news that one of Yale’s own—James Van de Velde, Jovin’s 38-year-old senior-essay adviser—was a suspect in her killing. Van de Velde was a brilliant and well-liked political-science lecturer, who had previously held positions at the Pentagon and the State Department. He was also a 1982 graduate of Yale and a former dean of Yale’s Saybrook College. In the week following the stabbing, Van de Velde vehemently denied any involvement in the crime and twice went in to be questioned by the police without bringing a lawyer. He gave the police permission to search his red Jeep Wrangler and his apartment, which was a half-mile from the crime scene. According to one of his attorneys, Van de Velde also offered to take a blood test and a polygraph—offers, his lawyer says, the police did not act on.
As the weeks wore on, Jovin’s murder became more and more mysterious. F.B.I. specialists in profiling the perpetrators of serial murders and unusual, often psychologically based crimes tried to piece together a portrait of the killer. Dr. Henry Lee, Connecticut’s public-safety commissioner and a well-known forensics expert who worked on the Nicole Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey murder investigations, examined the clothes that Jovin was wearing the night she was killed. The New Haven police searched the sewers around the crime scene and enlisted local treasure hunters to comb the neighborhood with metal detectors; hoping to find witnesses, they set up roadblocks and interviewed scores of people—including Yale students and faculty members. In March, at the request of New Haven police chief Melvin Wearing, who acknowledged that the investigators had hit a dead end, Connecticut governor John Rowland offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Jovin’s killer. Still, seven months later no arrest has been made. “This is a profoundly unusual case,” says one observer. “It’s like the JonBenet Ramsey case of New Haven.”
In January, police confirmed that Van de Velde was “in a pool of suspects.” Although the police have never said it publicly, today it is a pool in which he seems to be swimming alone. How he could have done it and why, and how he could have covered his tracks so thoroughly, are baffling questions that the police have so far not publicly answered. “It sounds like they have zero evidence, zero, against Jim,” says his attorney Ira Grudberg, who is one of Connecticut’s top criminal lawyers. And yet the police persist.
“The situation has been so extraordinarily perplexing,” says Richard Brodhead, the dean of Yale’s undergraduate college. “Someone has been murdered; no one knows who did it months after the fact. Allegations have been put in motion.… There is a confirmation by the police that he is a suspect, but then there is no arrest.”
‘When I think of Suzanne, I mostly remember how much fun she was,” says a woman who was a friend of Jovin’s since their freshman year. “Suzanne laughed a lot.… At Naples [a popular New Haven hangout] she’d go nuts when we got on the dance floor.… We went caroling freshman year and had so much fun, we glommed on to some crazy Christian group, and we ran around singing and somehow ended up drinking schnapps all night.” It is an evening in late April, right before exam week, and three friends of Jovin’s have agreed to meet over dinner at Caffé Adulis, an elegant Eritrean restaurant near the campus, to talk about her.
Over elaborate platters of African food, they recall how beautiful Jovin’s singing voice was, how much she loved to go to the theater, how much fun she was to laugh with. “Suzanne was sparkly,” says one friend. “She was so cool,” says another. Tonight Jovin’s friends want to focus on happy memories of her, but they start to cry when one of them brings out pictures of her. The photographs show a beautiful young woman with deep-blue, slightly dreamy eyes and a dazzling smile: Suzanne in an emerald-green dress on the way to “Casino Night” freshman year, Suzanne in Florida sophomore year, and Suzanne at a dinner party just two weeks before she was killed. “She did everything in her own way,” says one friend. “She was different,” says another.
Suzanne Nahuela Jovin had not lived in the United States before she arrived at Yale in the fall of 1995. She was born and raised in Göttingen, a beautiful medieval town in the western part of Germany. Her parents, Thomas and Donna Jovin, are American scientists—molecular and cell biologists—who work there at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. The elder of the Jovins’ two daughters, Suzanne grew up living in a 14th-century castle; by the time she was a teenager, she had traveled extensively throughout Europe and spent vacations in Mexico, where her grandparents lived. Suzanne was raised “as [an] American in Germany with all that implies,” her father wrote in one of a series of E-mails to me. She grew up speaking English and German fluently, although German was the language she usually spoke with her sister and closest friend, Rebecca, who is 20. Educated in the rigorous German school system, Suzanne began to study Latin in the fifth grade and French in the seventh. She played the piano and the cello. In high school, at the Theodor-Heuss Gymnasium, she took a double major in biology and chemistry, passing her exams with top marks.
In press accounts after her murder, Jovin was described in ways that made her seem very serious, even dull. But she was not that at all. “She was really lively,” says Rebecca Jovin. In high school she sang with several rock bands. “She was full of exciting contradictions,” says her friend David Bach, a Yale graduate who is from Germany. “She was extremely serious academically, but also just a great person to have fun with and hang out with … She was very traditional and stylish and feminine, but then also very rebellious and liberal.”
It was always assumed that Jovin would go to college in the United States. Her mother had gotten her Ph.D. from Yale, and Ellen and Diana Jovin, her older half-sisters from her father’s first marriage, with whom she was close, graduated from Harvard. Today, Suzanne’s grief-stricken parents say they deeply regret having encouraged her to go to the university, but Suzanne loved Yale from the moment she arrived. She immediately got involved in volunteer work—something her mother had done when she was at Yale, and had urged her daughter to do. Although she started out intending to major in one of the sciences, she switched to a double major in political science and international studies, friends say, after doing poorly in an advanced course in cell biology. “Suzanne and I both decided to take a graduate-level cell-bio class freshman year,” a friend remembers, laughing. “We were both from Europe and thought we could do it.… Cell bio, that was the only time I saw her not confident.”
“I think Suzanne held herself to very high standards partly because her parents were both these brilliant scientists,” says another friend. At the time of her death, Jovin was considering a career in the diplomatic service and was finishing applications to graduate schools in the field—including, her parents say, Tufts, Columbia, and Georgetown. She wasn’t interested in making money. She hadn’t been raised that way, her family says. “She always came down to, you know, helping people and being influential [as] more important,” says Bach.
In their early reports of Jovin’s murder, newspapers and television stations used the same photograph of her. It made Jovin appear fragile, a delicate sparrow of a woman. Her friends were taken aback by the picture. “It didn’t look anything like Suzanne really was,” one recalls. To begin with, friends insist that Jovin, who was five feet five inches and weighed 125 pounds, was physically quite strong. She jogged, played squash, skied, and sometimes took step-aerobics classes at Yale’s Payne Whitney gym. Whoever killed her, her friends say, was very strong or, says one, “someone who knew what they were doing.” Nor was Jovin as shy and hesitant as the photograph made her seem. “‘Strong-willed’ isn’t the word,” says a friend. “If you were talking about things Suzanne knew about, she would knock you out if she disagreed.” “She had very strong opinions,” says Rebecca Jovin. “Sometimes she lacked self-confidence, but overall she was the strongest person I ever met.”
“She was so not a victim,” says a friend. Jovin, says another friend, “had a very, very strong sense of justice and righteousness.… She could just be furious if she thought somebody she cared about or herself was treated unfairly.… She would make that clear, that she wouldn’t put up with everything.”
“We tried to encourage self-confidence in our daughters to the extent of recognizing their worth and capabilities and of exerting their rights while avoiding arrogance. We encouraged them to never feel limited by their sex,” her parents say. “We were very proud of Suzanne and admired her greatly. She suffered no fools and could identify them with ease.… It pains us terribly to imagine that she may have met her fate as a victim of her very positive, but critical, outlook.”
On the night she was killed, Jovin spent the early part of the evening at Trinity Lutheran Church, four blocks from the campus, at a pizza-making party she had organized for Best Buddies, an international organization that pairs students with mentally disabled adults. She had worked with the Yale chapter since her freshman year, and ran it by the time she was a senior. She would spend hours on the phone with her “buddy,” Lee, taking him to Yale games with her friends and arranging outings and social events. People later told the police that Jovin seemed tired that evening, but that she appeared to be in a good mood. She left the church sometime before 8:30, after she’d helped clean up, and then used a borrowed university car to drive other volunteers home. She left the car in a parking lot and then walked to her apartment, on the second floor of a two-story, Yale-owned building on Park Street. Sometime between 8:30 and 8:50, a group of friends passed by. “We waved to her and said, ‘We’re going to the movies—do you want to come?’” one of them remembers. “She was at her window and waved back. She couldn’t come—she was planning to work on her senior essay.” At 9:02, she sent an E-mail to a friend, telling her she was leaving some books for her in her apartment lobby. She logged off at 9:10. If she made or received any phone calls from within Yale’s telephone system, they may be untraceable, because the phones function like extensions of Yale’s central-exchange numbers.
By 9:15, Jovin had made her way to Old Campus, where she ran into a classmate, Peter Stein, who was out for a walk. She told him she was going to the Yale police communications center at Phelps Gate to turn in the keys to the university car. “She did not mention plans to go anywhere or do anything else afterward,” Stein later told the Yale Daily News. “She just said that she was very, very tired and that she was looking forward to getting a lot of sleep.” “Stein walked off, and when he turned around, Suzanne was gone,” says Blair Golson, who covered the murder for the Yale newspaper. Suzanne was seen again, between 9:25 and 9:30, walking north on College Street. If she was going home, it appeared she was taking a roundabout way. The witness who says she saw her close to 9:30 was a student who had left the Yale-Princeton hockey game early and was walking, alone, to an off-campus party. She passed Jovin, but didn’t think much of it until the next night, when she read about the murder in the Yale newspaper. Nearly hysterical, she called the police at two in the morning. “They told me to write down everything I saw, everything,” she recalls. What she saw was “a Hispanic or black guy in a hooded sweatshirt” going north. Behind him, also walking north, was Jovin, and walking in the same direction several paces behind her was, she says, “a blond man with glasses … a white guy dressed nicely.”
Less than a half-hour after this witness saw her, Jovin lay dying 1.7 miles away. According to the police, there was no evidence of a sexual assault. The viciousness of the stabbing suggested that robbery had not been her murderer’s motive. Police believed she was stabbed from behind at the spot where she was found. It appeared she had gotten out of a car, before or after having had an argument with a man. She did not appear to have called for help or to have put up a struggle. “The police said she didn’t scrape her hands. They didn’t think she was running away,” says a woman friend whom detectives questioned.
From the outset, it appeared that the police believed that Jovin was murdered by a man, one whose motive was probably jealousy or desire or anger. “Every guy she knew was interviewed by the cops, the cops were all over them,” says the woman friend. “They asked if they’d slept with her.” Her mentoring “buddy” was briefly a suspect, but he was cleared by the police almost immediately, as was Roman Caudillo, her boyfriend since freshman year, who took a leave from Yale after the murder. “Roman really loved Suzanne,” says a friend. “His family adored her. When the murder happened, Roman’s parents were in New York [from Texas] before Suzanne’s family was [able to get here].”
In the months since Van de Velde was linked in the press to the killing, his friends—as shocked and disbelieving as Jovin’s—have rallied around him. They have written letters to the local media defending him, they have sat with him when he’s broken down crying from the stress, afraid to go out in public. “You walk down the street and get the feeling everybody’s looking at you and thinks you’re a murderer,” says Ira Grudberg. Van de Velde’s friends say he is the last person they could imagine breaking the law, let alone killing someone. “You know the old TV show Happy Days?” asks Ken Spitzbard, a friend of Van de Velde’s since the second grade. “Jim is Richie Cunningham. Could you conceive of Richie Cunningham doing something violent and horrible?”
Van de Velde was president of the student council at Amity Regional High School, in the wealthy New Haven suburb of Woodbridge. He was captain of the soccer team, played on the tennis and baseball teams, and was a member of the National Honor Society. His date to the senior prom was the most beautiful cheerleader at Amity. His pictures in the high-school yearbook are of a stereotypical American golden boy—big, athletic, somewhat shy-looking. The second of James and Lois Van de Velde’s three children, and their only son, Van de Velde grew up in Orange, Connecticut. His mother worked as an administrative assistant at Yale, and his father in the media business, for the local ABC affiliate and also for Showtime. A driven workaholic, he died of lung cancer when his son was in graduate school. The family was staunchly Roman Catholic. “Jim,” says a friend, “really was an altar boy.”
Van de Velde majored in political science at Yale. He sang in the university’s well-known Russian chorus his freshman year and twice traveled to Asia on internships. He was a serious student who graduated with honors. After Yale, Van de Velde went to Boston to Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, from which, in 1987, he received his Ph.D. in international-security studies. In 1988 he was selected for a prestigious Presidential Management Internship and was assigned to work at the Pentagon and at the State Department, where he stayed for four years, working on U.S.-Soviet disarmament issues.
In 1988, Van de Velde also joined the U.S. Naval Intelligence Reserves, in which he still holds the rank of lieutenant commander, with a “Top Secret” clearance. Trained in intelligence work, he was assigned to Singapore, Brussels, and Panama, where he analyzed the drug trade out of Latin America. In 1993, after Bill Clinton defeated George Bush, Van de Velde, who was a political appointee and a Republican, left the State Department. That fall he was back at Yale as the dean of Saybrook College.
Jason Criss, a 1996 graduate, remembers when he first met Van de Velde, the week that all the freshmen were moving in. “I was a sophomore and Jim was the new dean.… The first couple days he looked like he was going yachting: blue blazer, white starched pants, he wore them everywhere. He was very formal and proper.” Like almost all of the former Saybrook students interviewed for this story, Criss remembers Van de Velde “as in some ways … the model dean.”
As dean, Van de Velde was supposed to supervise the academic affairs of Saybrook’s 475 students, and by all accounts he took his job very seriously. He ate meals in the dining hall and knew all the students by name. He attended their student-council meetings, gave them dean’s excuses when they were ill, and tried to help them out when they were in trouble. “He actually got involved,” recalls one woman. “We had rats in our room, and he did something about it.” During study breaks, he would invite students to his apartment. “He was a terrific cook,” Criss recalls. “He’d cook us sesame noodles and Asian dumplings.”
“He had this aura about him because we’d heard that he worked for the C.I.A.,” another woman recalls. “He said he’d studied handwriting analysis, and he would do it for us in the dining hall,” says another. Michael Ranis, who went to high school and to Yale with Van de Velde, says that his friend really enjoyed being a dean. “He liked the students a lot, the idea of being there for them,” Ranis says. “He was shy and awkward socially, but he really tried. He wanted to do everything right,” says one woman.
But some saw Van de Velde as too tightly wound. He was always formal and rarely used contractions in his speech. “He was no-nonsense; he wasn’t really personable,” says another former student. “Freshman year everyone called him Dean Anal. He was by the book, he didn’t make any exceptions.” Van de Velde, who Spitzbard says has never taken illegal drugs and rarely drinks, got the reputation for being extremely strict on the issue of alcohol and drug use at Saybrook. “Dean Van de Velde was the biggest straight arrow at Yale, more straight-arrow than any dean,” says Jason Karlinsky, who graduated in 1997.
Students say that by 1995 Van de Velde seemed tired of the job. “I knew he was going to resign two years before he did,” says one woman who was friendly with him when she was at Saybrook. “He never liked being dean. He didn’t know what he really wanted. I think he wanted something in Washington.” As the years went by, he appeared to some students to become more aloof. “He gave the impression of being sort of really inaccessible,” says a woman who graduated from Saybrook this year. “Men had a better rapport with him because he played on some intramural teams. For women it was more difficult; he wasn’t particularly friendly.”
After the slaying, the police asked students if Van de Velde had ever had an affair with a student. Whether they liked him or not, all the Saybrook students interviewed for this story say that there was never a hint of anything untoward. “There were no rumors of him having problems with women or relationships with students,” says Criss. Only after she graduated several years ago, says one woman, did Van de Velde even mention women to her. As she told the police when they tracked her down in December after finding her number in his phone records, “He said that it was odd being a young guy as dean, seeing all these freshmen who are so beautiful and that it’s hard not to notice,” the woman recalls. “They wanted to know if I’d had an affair with him,” the woman recalls. “I told them I had not.”
Van de Velde took a leave of absence from the dean’s job, early in 1997, to go to Italy on assignment for naval intelligence. He came back that April to complete the semester, and then left Yale to go to Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center as its executive director. In May 1998, nine months into a five-year contract, he resigned and returned to New Haven. Van de Velde, a friend says, had been miserable in California. “There were older professors who came [to work] in shorts. Jim wears suits and ties every day,” she says. “It did not click with anyone. He didn’t have a social life. He wasn’t happy.”
Nevertheless, Van de Velde was upset at having to leave. “He’s an overachiever,” says this friend, “and basically he’d been let go.” It was Van de Velde’s “first real setback,” says Ranis. “Most of us go through a lot of them by the time we reach 38; Jim hadn’t.” Van de Velde became depressed, friends say, to the point where he began seeing a therapist and was briefly put on an antidepressant.
During the summer he got back in touch with a woman he had dated before he went to California. Exactly what went wrong is not clear, but the results were disastrous. It appears that at some point during the fall of last year the woman, a local television reporter, went to the police and complained that she was being harassed by Van de Velde. “Supposedly she claimed that he was looking in her window, that he was stalking her somehow,” says Ira Grudberg. The police have not confirmed the existence of this complaint, but after Jovin was killed the local press reported that apparently two women who worked for local television stations had spoken to the police about their relationships with Van de Velde. The other woman is believed to be a friend of the first. He sent the second woman flowers anonymously. She learned his identity from the florist and later discovered that he was involved with her friend.
“We have asked both the police and through the state’s attorney’s office, ‘If there is a complaint, give us the date,’” says Grudberg. “Maybe he was out of the state. We don’t know. One of the cops claims that he spoke with Jim and told him to keep away, but Jim says that never happened.… Jim was never arrested. He was never questioned.” Van de Velde “flat out denies” that he stalked his former girlfriend, says Grudberg, but the attorney also believes that whatever this woman told the police has become a central element in their suspicions about Van de Velde. “I think they are convinced that he is a weird guy,” he says.
“I think she understandably got upset,” says a friend of Van de Velde’s, who believes he really cared about this woman. “He would phone her, run into her on the street. He wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.” (David Grudberg, Ira’s son and law partner, who went to high school and college with Van de Velde, objects to this account. Van de Velde, he says, only ran into this woman, and phoned her once. Grudberg denies that Van de Velde was pursuing her.) “The thing with Jim is this circumstantial evidence coinciding with his personal life,” says the friend. “Here he is, not letting go of a woman, and then people wonder: Was it the same with Suzanne?”
Jovin was accepted into Van de Velde’s seminar Strategy and Policy in the Conduct of War, in September 1998. She was among the 169 students who had applied for the 40 places in that course and Van de Velde’s other seminar, The Art of Diplomacy. During his time as dean of Saybrook, Van de Velde had also taught in the political-science department, and he developed a reputation as one of the best lecturers at Yale. His teaching style was riveting and creative. To demonstrate how force changes the balance of power in international relations, he once pulled out a fake handgun in the middle of a class simulated negotiation. He organized “diplomatic receptions” for his students and gave each of them the assignment of answering a question about someone else in their class without letting that person realize that he or she was being pumped for information. He took them on field trips, including one to a nearby naval base to tour a nuclear submarine, and, says one student, “we got to touch a cruise missile.”
Jovin, friends say, began the semester like many students, enthralled with Van de Velde. Indeed, she was impressed enough that she decided to do her senior essay with him as her adviser—actually, she had taken the unusual step of writing two senior essays, the other in international studies. She chose a subject in Van de Velde’s area of expertise: the international terrorist Osama bin Laden, who is believed to have masterminded the bombing of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Van de Velde appeared equally taken with Jovin. “I think he liked Suzanne’s enthusiasm. It was flattering that a student would be so deeply involved in his topic,” says a student who was in the class.
At some point in the semester, however, Jovin’s enthusiasm seemed to falter. She didn’t go on either of the two field trips. “She thought they were a waste of her time,” says a friend of hers. She also had reservations about a project on terrorism. The project, which was optional but which the class had voted to pursue, involved using the Internet to show how easy it would be for a terrorist to get information to create a weapon of mass destruction. “We decided to plan to use chemicals in a plane that we’d fly over the Super Bowl in Miami,” says one student. “We figured everything out except how much water to put in the chemical to make it fall from the plane—no one would give us the proportions for that.” According to Jovin’s parents, the chemical in question was the warfare agent sarin. “Suzanne expressed to a fellow student that we, her parents, might have that information,” the Jovins say, “but that we would be opposed to the project on moral and ethical grounds and that she therefore would not proceed further.” Faced with students’ objections, Van de Velde stopped the project. He does not recall any complaints from Jovin.
The initial speculation by the police was that Van de Velde and Jovin were having an affair that went horribly wrong. Although they pursued that theory aggressively in the first weeks after the murder, they seem to have found no evidence of a romantic relationship. Jovin was happy with Roman Caudillo, her friends and parents say, insisting that she never so much as hinted to anyone that she was involved with Van de Velde. For his part, Van de Velde seemed to be in search of a relationship, not in the throes of one. “He really wanted to meet someone,” says a friend.
If the police found no evidence of a romance, they did, however, learn something else. By November, it appears, the professional relationship between Van de Velde and Jovin had broken down almost completely. Although Van de Velde had written her a glowing recommendation for graduate school in late October, Jovin began to feel that he had no time for her. According to a friend of Jovin’s, she had tried repeatedly to meet with Van de Velde about her senior essay and had felt that she was rebuffed. In the weeks before she died, says this friend, “she complained bitterly about a bunch of things in that class, and especially his lack of support for her project. He had shown no interest in her work.” For a college-thesis adviser basically to check out on a student trying to get feedback on her senior essay would be unusual in any case. But for Van de Velde—a devoted teacher noted for his availability, who would take his students to lunch to help them with their work, and who answered their E-mails within minutes—it would have been downright bizarre. During November, it appears that Jovin was trying to pin down a time to meet with Van de Velde. “They never did get together [then],” says Ira Grudberg. “They couldn’t get the dates right and so forth.” According to David Grudberg, Van de Velde was unaware that Jovin was concerned. “He invited all his students to meet with him, especially those writing senior essays under his direction,” he says. “If she had complaints about the way he was advising her on her thesis, she never expressed them to him.”
By Thanksgiving, Jovin had become upset; her essay was due on December 8. “Suzanne indicated to us during the Thanksgiving break—we were together in California—how deeply she resented the lack of mentoring by this senior thesis advisor,” her parents recall. Although Van de Velde denies having received it, Jovin’s parents say she had handed in a draft on November 17. She left a second draft with Van de Velde right before the Thanksgiving holiday. Jovin told friends that Van de Velde canceled a meeting on Monday, November 30, because he hadn’t read the paper yet, although he says no meeting was scheduled. At a meeting the next day, December 1, he still hadn’t read it. “He’d gotten tied up over Thanksgiving and hadn’t done it,” says Ira Grudberg. “He was very apologetic, and he could see she was upset. That very day and night he made a lengthy review of it and met again with her on December 2, at which time he discussed it with her. She was much, much happier.”
According to her parents and a close friend, however, Jovin was far from happy after that meeting. “The last time I talked to Suzanne was … on that evening, very late in the evening,” the friend says. “She was still furious … and she was very insecure about what would happen.”
Jovin was concerned, her parents say, that the second reader of her essay would not be happy with it. Her parents say she spoke to a member of the Yale administration about the problem “in a highly emotional, tearful session,” but did not make a formal complaint. “She thought she could handle the situation,” her parents say. “I tried to calm her down on Wednesday evening,” says the same friend. “She was still upset.… Furious is how she was. That’s the way to describe how she was in those last couple of days with him.”
Sometime on the afternoon of December 4—Van de Velde believes it was either between 4 and 4:30, or around 1—Jovin stopped by Van de Velde’s office on Prospect Street to drop off a new draft. She attached a cordial, handwritten note outlining her changes and thanking him. “Feel free to e-mail me over the weekend if you have questions or run into any major problems,” she wrote, and signed it “Suzanne.”
Van de Velde spent most of the evening of Friday, December 4, at his office, Ira Grudberg says. A friend, who stopped by around six p.m. to ask him to go to a movie, says he was planning to work all evening. According to Grudberg, Van de Velde went over Jovin’s revisions that evening and was going to give her his comments the following morning. He took a short break at one point and walked up the street to Ingalls Rink, to watch part of the hockey game, then returned to his office, and then went home, which is where he was, alone, says Grudberg, at the time of the killing.
Grudberg says that he and his son David have spent the past seven months trying to understand why the police consider Van de Velde their chief suspect. As much as they have been able to, they have followed the police’s tracks, swooping in behind them to interview people who were questioned, hoping to get some insight into what the police believe to be the case against their client. “There was a witness who saw a car hightailing out from that area who spoke with the police,” says Ira Grudberg. “He described it as a small red car, and [the police] asked him 14 times if it was a big, red Wrangler.… And they showed him pictures of Jim, and he said that’s absolutely not who was driving the car.” Grudberg says he’s stumped. “Among other things, talking about a motive. Word got back to us supposedly from some people that [talked to the police] that Suzanne was going to make a complaint about the way he was handling her paper and therefore he killed her,” says Grudberg. “It’s just kind of strange. If, for some reason, she climbs in a car with him downtown, why drive a half-mile past his house and kill her on a corner? It doesn’t make sense.”
The police, says Ira Grudberg, first questioned Van de Velde on the Monday after the slaying. The session was brief, he says, and there was no suggestion that Van de Velde was a suspect. For some reason, however, by the next night the police appeared to have become persuaded that Van de Velde was guilty. They interrogated him for four hours, “accusing him of the murder,” says Grudberg. Choosing not to call a lawyer, Van de Velde offered them the keys to his car—which they searched—and his apartment, and also offered to let them do blood and polygraph tests on him. Grudberg says that the police did not perform these tests, and although the police had told the New Haven Register that they had searched the apartment, Grudberg says they did not. The next day, Van de Velde showed up in the Grudbergs’ office. He did not speak to the police again.
“I think that everything Jim did that weekend,” says Michael Ranis, “the police think is suspicious—that he put himself out there, that he was exposed.” Whatever he may have felt about Jovin before her death, Van de Velde seemed stricken by it. He showed up at Davenport College on Saturday, December 5, when Yale’s president, its dean, the chaplains, the psychiatrist, and the chief of its police force met with Jovin’s college-mates to discuss the killing. That weekend he also appeared on the local television news being interviewed about what an extraordinary person Jovin had been. On Monday morning he showed up in class with “red and puffy eyes,” one student remembers, and placed a bouquet of three dozen white carnations at Jovin’s seat. That day, Van de Velde spoke to the New Haven Register, in which he said again how wonderful Jovin was.
Ranis says that Van de Velde went on television only because the station called him. He had been working on a master’s degree in broadcast journalism at nearby Quinnipiac College and had had an internship at the station. “Where I come out on this is: How can being straight make you a suspect?” Ranis says. “The police probably aren’t used to having someone sit there for four hours answering questions without a lawyer. That is unusual. But that’s how Jim is. He’s so honest.”
On the morning of December 9, the New Haven Register ran a banner headline: “Yale Teacher Grilled in Killing.” The story did not name Van de Velde, but its details were so specific that many people knew it was about him. On his way to the dentist that morning, Van de Velde was waylaid by local television reporters. “They put a microphone in front of him on the street and said, basically, ‘Did you see the Register this morning? They did everything but name you.’ And Jim said it sure seemed that way, but ‘I’m innocent,’” Ranis says. The fallout from that interview was damaging for Van de Velde. Many people who saw the news that night say it made him look guilty. He seemed tired and looked down at the ground when he spoke. His words—“I never hurt her”—struck people as odd. There was, and still is, much discussion of whether the press at that moment, without breaking any rules, nevertheless went too far, crossing the line of fairness.
But what the police do know is that one person who watched the news that night phoned them, stunned at what she saw. The woman who had seen Jovin walking on College Street at around 9:25 on the night of the stabbing saw Van de Velde on television and started shaking. “I got chills,” she says. “I didn’t know Van de Velde. I go home and turn on the news and I see him. This guy, talking to reporters, he was blond, with glasses. I could not believe what I saw. I went back to my notes and saw the description I wrote, that I saw a blond man with glasses.” The man she claims she saw walking behind Jovin near Phelps Gate the night of the murder so closely resembled Van de Velde’s image on television that she believes it was he.
If this is a crucial element of the police case against Van de Velde—a tentative identification that could be highly biased by the television-news context in which it was made—it is obviously not enough for an arrest. In response to the claims of this witness, David Grudberg says flatly, “It was not Jim.”
‘I miss everything about Suzanne,” says Rebecca Jovin, who was in the middle of her freshman year at college when her sister was killed. “When she left for college … I cried for weeks on end. I feel the same way now, but now I know the separation is permanent,” she says. “I often think about the way in which Suzanne died and the questions that will never be answered, and that really traumatizes me. I cannot deal with that at all, I just have to let it pass when it comes to my mind.”
Suzanne Jovin’s family has said little publicly about the investigation into her death. Indeed, her parents spoke to Vanity Fair with deep reluctance and then only to clarify aspects of their daughter’s life that they thought were important to understand. “For us, there remains a void in our life that can never be filled,” Thomas and Donna Jovin say. The Jovins have not mentioned Van de Velde’s name in public, but an anguished letter from Donna Jovin that was published in Connecticut newspapers on April 14 seemed to many to be directed at Van de Velde’s mother. “I personally appeal in this open letter to the mother of [Suzanne’s] killer, assuming that she resides in the greater New Haven area,” she wrote. “As a moral and rational human being you will not be able to live with yourself if you withhold knowledge or suspicion of your son’s complicity. Come forward to the police, talk to them. Demand that your son tell the truth.”
Lois Van de Velde, says a friend, saw the letter, but “she didn’t read the whole thing. She is trying to keep on with her life. This has been awful for her.”
Ever since Yale canceled Van de Velde’s courses for the spring term last January—claiming that it would be a distraction to students to have a murder suspect in the classroom—he has had little to do other than focus on the horror of being the chief suspect in a savage killing he insists he didn’t commit. His friends, who believe he is innocent, say that Van de Velde is beyond desperate. “At this point, Jim has got to be formally absolved, or else his life will forever be under this cloud,” say Ken Spitzbard. Says James Thomas, dean of admissions at Yale Law School, “This guy has been ruined. Suppose it turns out some vagabond did it? Jim can never get back what he lost.”
“To get a search warrant or an arrest warrant an officer must present relevant facts under oath before a judge. That has not been done,” says David Grudberg. “To brand someone ‘a suspect’ all you have to do is pick up the phone and call the local newspaper. There is something very wrong with that when the potential consequence is the destruction of someone’s life.”
“I know how hard you have worked on the story about Suzanne. You have no idea how much I wish I could speak with you,” Van de Velde wrote me in an E-mail in late May. “My best wishes for your success. We very much hope that your story will advance the investigation and ultimately help bring peace to Suzanne’s parents, the Yale community, my family and all those horrified at Suzanne’s tragic death.”
By graduation day, May 24, the police posters of Jovin that had been tacked to the trees of Old Campus had long since been torn by the wind or ripped down. All of the pride and pomp and glory of Yale’s 298-year history was on display that day as the 1,361 members of Jovin’s class paraded in their black caps and gowns across the New Haven Green through Phelps Gate and into Old Campus. Looking exhausted and somewhat hung over, they stopped and posed for their proud parents, who were standing with cameras on the sidelines. As degrees were conferred, a loud roar filled the Old Campus courtyard as Jovin’s classmates rose from their seats and cheered.
Suzanne Jovin was on many people’s minds that day. In the smaller ceremony at Davenport after the main commencement, Yale conferred a degree on Jovin. She graduated cum laude with distinction in both her majors. Her classmates had placed a slab of black stone as a memorial to her in Davenport’s smaller courtyard. Nestled in a flower bed under a linden and a dogwood, it reads:
Suzanne N. Jovin
In Loving Memory
January 26, 1977–December 4, 1998
The candle that students had placed on the stone had been extinguished by the rain that poured down on graduation day, a torrent that also drenched the bouquets of flowers and a lone rose. Still, says a friend, “it was as though Suzanne was there.” In the months since the murder, says one woman who graduated that day, “a lot of us would wake up in the morning saying, Today maybe we’ll find out that so-and-so killed Suzanne. And then we realized that we might not know before we leave Yale. Now we might never know.”
Suzanna Andrews is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.