Content Warning: This article contains disturbing information about the sexual assault and murder of a child
Another high profile case has a suspect in custody using the same familial DNA method that caught the Golden State Killer this last spring. Thirty years ago, April Tinsley, an eight-year-old girl from Fort Wayne, Indiana, was abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered by an unknown man who would continue to taunt the community for years to come.
According to the Allen County Prosecutor, 59-year-old John Miller has been charged with the murder, child molesting, and confinement of April Tinsley.
It was April 1st, 1988 when April’s parents reported her missing after she did not return from her friend’s house. April was walking home when a witness saw a man drag her into a blue pick-up truck. The local police and community swept the area for a whole weekend, with no sign of her. Within three days, April’s body would be found by a jogger some 20 miles from her home, in a ditch beside an Amish farm.
It was determined that the cause of death was strangulation, and there were signs of sexual assault. Police were able to recover the killer’s DNA at that time.
The community was gripped by the murder and subsequent search for the man responsible. Things became even more unnerving when the killer begin communicating with the local population, through poorly-written childlike correspondences.
The first came in 1990, two years after April’s murder. The misspelled words “I kill 8 year old April Marie Tisley. I will kill agin” were found written in crayon or pencil on a barn door near to where her body was recovered. It has never been certain if the words were written by the killer, though they are similar to the letters to come.
In 2004, 14 years after the last message was seen, strange notes began appearing on the bicycles of young girls in Fort Wayne. These notes were left inside plastic bags also containing used condoms and polaroids of what police assumed was the body of the killer. The DNA found in the plastic bags matched the DNA collected during the April's autopsy.
One note read: “Hi honey. I been watching you I am the same person that kinapped an rape an kill Aproil Tinsely you are my next vitem.”
Fort Wayne was gripped by the story of April Tinsley, and terrified by a man they knew could be walking among them, a man who was not only a murderer and pedophile, but a man who also seemed to enjoy making children afraid. “This offender has demonstrated that he has strong ties to northeast Fort Wayne and Allen County,” the FBI had written on its website. “This is where he likely lives, works, and/or shops. You may be standing next to him in line at the grocery store, sitting beside him in the pew at church, or working beside him on the production line.”
Like so many cases dealing with murder and sexual assault, the successful collection of DNA does not necessarily lead to a suspect. In 1994, six years after April’s murder, the federal DNA registry system came into affect, storing DNA information of federal criminals. This means that if someone has not previously been arrested, their DNA will not be in the system and no match will be found. Obviously, John Miller’s DNA wouldn’t have been logged previous to April’s murder, as the system did not exist. In order for a match to be found, Miller would have had to have been arrest for another crime since the creation of the database.
However, the newest breakthrough in DNA detective work is proving to be the biggest since the creation of DNA evidence itself in the 1980s. Just like in the arrest of the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, investigators were able to plug in the DNA profile for April’s killer into an open source familial DNA website. From there, they built out a complicated family tree based on their findings, eventually narrowing their search to Miller and his brother.
Through the collection of garbage discarded from John Miller, they were able to find a DNA match to both the DNA collected from April and from the notes that came 16 years later. Miller confessed to his crimes when presented with the DNA match.
Miller has joined a growing list of killers identified through genealogical websites. As of yet, only sites like GEDmatch, which allow users to input their DNA profiles in order to search for relatives and ancestors, is usable by police. Sites that create the profiles, sites like Ancestry.com and 23AndMe, have privacy clauses in their user agreements that ban their use by outside agencies like the FBI. There are many, many more users catalogued in the latter databases, and some investigators site frustration that they cannot be used at this point.
Regardless, the development of this new process has already yielded some incredible results, and we are likely to see more and more cold cases, and well as newer cases, solved through this new method of investigative work.
We are happy that April’s family and the community of Fort Wayne finally have the answers they sought. RIP April Tinsley.