Two arrested in 1975 cold case killing of Indiana teen Laurel Mitchell


Laurel Jean Mitchell had just left work at a church camp in North Webster, Ind., and started the walk to an amusement park to meet friends.

But she never made it to Adventureland that night in August 1975. The 17-year-old’s body was found in a river the next morning.

Despite an investigation that spanned multiple Indiana agencies and counties, the case went unsolved for decades, leaving Mitchell’s family with no answers.

Her cause of death was listed as drowning, but the autopsy revealed “she had fought for her life,” authorities said. A newly filed affidavit in the case alleges that two men took Mitchell while she was walking and drove to the river before they “forcibly, deliberately drowned” her.

On Monday, nearly 50 years later, state police arrested Fred Bandy Jr. of Goshen, Ind., and John Wayne Lehman of Auburn, Ind., charging both with murder in Mitchell’s killing. The Indiana State Police said Tuesday that the breakthrough came over the past couple of months with DNA analysis that matched samples collected from the clothing Mitchell wore in 1975.

“Science finally gave us the evidence we needed,” State Police Capt. Kevin Smith said at a news conference Tuesday, adding that the organization’s laboratory division members were the “unsung heroes” of many cases, including Mitchell’s.

Bandy and Lehman, both 67, are being held in the Noble County Jail without bond. Attorneys for the men declined to comment Wednesday evening.

She was kidnapped as a baby in 1971. Her family just found her alive.

On Aug. 6, 1975, Mitchell finished working at the snack bar at the Epworth Forest church camp around 10 p.m., and her co-worker offered her a ride home, according to a probable cause affidavit filed Tuesday.

She declined, saying she already had one.

But just after 4 a.m., her parents, Richard and Wilma Mitchell, filed a missing-person report after she hadn’t returned home.

About six hours later, Laurel’s body was found in the Elkhart River at a public access site about 17 miles from North Webster. People who were at the site that morning waded into the water, bringing her body to the river bank before officers arrived, the affidavit says.

She was wearing a Wawasee High School Class of 1976 ring with her initials, LJM, engraved on the inside.

According to the affidavit, an autopsy performed that day showed Mitchell had “made a violent struggle to survive.”

Detectives later spoke with residents who lived on Epworth Forest Road, which Mitchell would have had to take to reach Adventureland from the church camp, but none yielded enough information for an arrest.

The case remained open, and many of its original investigators have died.

On Tuesday, Noble County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Mowery recalled that he had met with Smith, the state police captain, about the case back in 2012. The pair conceded that there still was “not enough evidence to proceed.”

But in 2013, a Florida woman who’d lived in Noble County as a teenager contacted a detective at the sheriff’s department. In a subsequent interview, the woman said that she’d gone on a date with Lehman and that he told her on the drive home about “his involvement in a crime that he committed with his friend, Fred Bandy,” according to the affidavit.

The details Lehman told her aligned with those from the crime scene and the autopsy in Mitchell’s death, the document states.

Police may have cracked a 1975 killing — by digging through trash

In 2014, a person who was a high-schooler in Ligonier, Ind., in 1975 told police that while he was at a party that year, Bandy “told him that he had committed the crime” at the public access site, the affidavit alleges.

That account was corroborated in a 2019 interview with a different source who had also been at the party with Bandy, Lehman and others, according to the affidavit. That year, Smith resubmitted Mitchell’s clothing for DNA testing, which led to a DNA profile.

At the time of Mitchell’s death, investigators collected the clothing and belongings from her body for testing — a silver necklace, one earring, shoes, undergarments, a sweatshirt and blue jeans that were unzipped and unbuttoned, according to the affidavit. The document did not specify from which items investigators recovered DNA.

In December, a state police detective went to Bandy’s home to take a DNA sample.

On Jan. 15, Smith called Mowery again, this time with news of the DNA analysis. It showed that Bandy was 13 billion “times more likely to be the contributor of the DNA” found on Mitchell’s clothing than anyone else, the affidavit states.

In addition to the arrest warrants, officers executed warrants to search the homes of Bandy and Lehman and to collect DNA from Lehman, Mowery said Tuesday. He added that the investigation is ongoing.

“While the arrest of these individuals is an important step in this process, it is just a step,” he said. “And this is not the end.”

Bandy and Lehman are scheduled to appear for pretrial hearings on April 24.

On Monday, the day both men were arrested, state police officers spoke with Mitchell’s brother and sister, Smith said.

“I hope this brings them at least a little peace at this point,” he said. “I cannot imagine having dealt with that for 47 years wondering what happened.”

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