The message was slashed onto the weather-beaten planks of a barn in the empty farmland not far from where the girl’s body had been found.
Police in northern Indiana stared at the jerky handwritten scrawl in May 1990, realizing this was the most significant clue to drop in the region’s most publicized unsolved crime. In 1988, 8-year-old April Tinsley had been found killed and sexually assaulted. Two years later, police were now studying the white building on a stretch of lonely rural road, fields running to the horizon on all sides. The message appeared to be a confession — as well as a taunt and a threat.
“I kill 8 year old April M Tinsley,” the barn read, according to a recently filed police affidavit. “[D]id you find the other shoe haha I will kill again.”
Although the message initially failed to steer investigators to April’s killer, it was not the last word from the alleged murderer. As the case stalled and hundreds of suspects were targeted and cleared, the girl’s alleged assailant would continue to haunt the Fort Wayne area. Grotesque messages — left with used condoms and Polaroids — were sent to other little girls who the alleged child-killer claimed were next on his list.
This reign of terror initially failed to direct police to a suspect. But the horrific messages did provide investigators with the DNA they would eventually use to zero in on a suspect — albeit once the right advanced science and technology came along.
On Sunday, investigators from the Fort Wayne Police Department and the Indiana State Police arrested John D. Miller in connection with April’s death. The 59-year-old is scheduled to make his first court appearance Monday morning. According to a probable-cause affidavit filed in Allen County Superior Court, Miller confessed when questioned about Tinsley’s death.
Documents show the arrest was not the result of intense media attention over the years — the case was featured twice on “America’s Most Wanted” as well as a 2016 episode of “Crime Watch Daily” — nor the repeated pleas for information that followed the 30th anniversary of April’s death last April. Once again, the new lead in the cold case is thanks to the dramatic scientific breakthrough pairing forensic DNA with genealogical research.
The new science has led to a run of cold-case arrests, including the prosecution of alleged “Golden State Killer” Joseph James DeAngelo and an arrest in the 1992 murder of Pennsylvania schoolteacher Christy Mirack. Court records indicate the break in April’s case came thanks to Parabon NanoLabs, a company based in Reston, Va., that is at the center of many of the recent high-profile cases.
It was chilly on April 1 — Good Friday — 1988, the sky in Fort Wayne bruised over with threatening storm clouds. April Tinsley — a blond-haired, dark-eyed first-grader — left her home for a friend’s house two streets away. When April failed to walk through the door by dinnertime, her mother reported the little girl missing. “You’re sitting there looking out the window and trying to think, ‘Where is she? Who’s got her?’ ” Tinsley’s mother, Janet Tinsley, told Crime Watch Daily in 2016.
Three days later, a jogger spotted the body of a child in a water-filled ditch twisting through the rural fields of nearby Amish country. One of Tinsley’s shoes was found 1,000 feet from where she was located, according to court documents. Police also recovered a sex toy in a shopping bag left near the site. An autopsy showed the victim had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated.
“You got an 8-year-old girl that was sexually assaulted and strangled,” Fort Wayne Police Detective Cary Young told Crime Watch Daily. “She suffered, and we don’t know exactly how long she suffered. It could have been three days of horror.”
Witnesses recounted seeing a girl matching April’s description being forced into a blue truck near her house. A description of the suspect was circulated, but investigators failed to track down any substantial leads. DNA evidence found in the girl’s underwear also did not initially point to a perpetrator. The barn message scrawled two years later in 1990 unnerved the community. But again, the taunting note produced nothing in terms of immediate concrete investigative evidence.
But the alleged killer surfaced again 14 years later.
In 2004, four notes were left at homes scattered across the Fort Wayne area. Three of the messages — written on lined yellow paper — were placed on young girls’s bicycles. An additional note was put in a mailbox. Three of the messages were inside plastic bags with used condoms and Polaroid pictures of the sender’s nude lower body. Several of the notes referred to April.
“Hi honey,” one note read, according to a picture released by the FBI. “I been watching you I am the same person that kinapped an rape an kill Aproil Tinsely you are my next victim.” The same message demanded that the young girl report the note to the police; the writer said that if they didn’t see an article on the message in the newspaper or on the local TV station, they would blow up the child’s house.
Again, the letter did not immediately point police toward a suspect. But the DNA material recovered from the condoms matched the evidence recovered from Tinsley’s underwear — concretely linking the deranged 2004 notes with the 1988 killing.
Years passed. The case flickered in and out of the national spotlight. Last April, to mark the 30th anniversary of April’s murder, Janet Tinsley decided to hold a balloon release in a small neighborhood park dedicated to April near her home. More than 70 people attended, sending balloons up into the gray April sky.
“We thought ain’t nobody really going to show up,” Janet Tinsley told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “But then all the sudden we see a lot of people. It made me pretty happy. And hopefully they’ll continue supporting her, and thinking of her, and bringing up her name.”
According to the recently filed court documents, by the next month, the case had taken a dramatic turn.
In May, the Fort Wayne Police Department submitted the suspect’s DNA to Parabon NanoLabs. Using public genealogy databases, the firm’s researcher CeCe Moore was able to narrow the possible suspects down to two brothers in the Fort Wayne area.
Police tracked one — Miller — to a trailer park in Grabill, Ind., outside Fort Wayne. Investigators pulled trash from the location, including three used condoms Miller had allegedly discarded. According to the probable-cause affidavit, the DNA from the recently obtained condoms matched the DNA from the 2004 condoms, which matched the genetic profile found on the victim.
On Sunday, two detectives approached Miller outside his trailer and asked him to come to the police station to talk. There, after advising Miller of his rights, the detectives asked him whether he knew why they wanted to speak with him.
“April Tinsley,” the suspect allegedly told police, according to the affidavit.
According to the court document, Miller confessed after learning police had a DNA match linking him to the murder. He allegedly admitted to police he abducted Tinsley, took her back to his trailer and raped her. He allegedly strangled her to keep her from reporting the rape to police. Miller allegedly told police he dumped her body at night.
The next day he allegedly found the young girl’s shoe in his car. Driving past the ditch where he laid the body, Miller tossed the shoe in, too, he allegedly told investigators.
Miller faces felony charges of murder, child molestation and criminal confinement. Authorities plan to offer additional information at a news conference Tuesday.
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