DNA Site Helps Indiana Police Make Arrest in 1988 Killing of Girl, 8
Posted July 16, 2018 4:37 p.m. EDT
The last time 8-year-old April Tinsley was seen alive, a man was dragging her into a beat-up blue pickup truck in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Police and her family fanned out that Friday afternoon in April 1988, searching through the weekend, but there was no sign of her.
On the following Monday, a jogger on a rural country road about 20 miles outside of the city made a gruesome discovery: April’s body at the bottom of a ditch. She had been raped, strangled and then dumped, police said.
In the 1980s, Fort Wayne was not immune to violence, but no case tormented the city like her abduction and murder. It struck fear in parents and frustrated police, who struggled to identify a suspect or make an arrest — a fact a person who claimed to be the killer reveled in reminding them, leaving a cryptic message on a barn door and attaching handwritten notes and used condoms on girls’ bicycles.
But this month, police in Northern Indiana got a break in the case. A DNA profile that detectives had recently uploaded to a genealogy website led them to a man who lived in a trailer park in Grabill, a tiny town just northeast of Fort Wayne and about 6 miles from where April’s body was found.
When police knocked on his door Sunday morning and asked if he knew why they there, he replied: “April Tinsley.”
Police took the man, John D. Miller, 59, into custody, and he was expected to be charged with murder, child molestation and criminal confinement. At a court hearing Monday, a judge ordered Miller to be held without bond and gave prosecutors three days to file charges.
Online court records did not list a lawyer for him. Relatives for April could not be reached for comment.
Police released few details about Miller but said that it appeared he lived by himself. A search of court records in Indiana show that he was charged with several minor driving infractions over the last 20 years.
Her disappearance gained national attention and gripped local residents, even when the case had appeared to have gone cold. April’s case was featured twice on the television program “America’s Most Wanted” and was the subject of a previously scheduled show on “Investigation Discovery” on Sunday night, hours after Miller had been arrested.
But before Sunday, it did not appear that police were close to making an arrest.
April disappeared after she told two friends she was playing with outside that she had forgotten her umbrella at one of their houses. She said she would get it and come back, but she never returned.
A witness told police that a man in his 30s yelled at April from inside a pickup truck and then pulled her inside. When her body was found, police recovered DNA on her clothing and one of her shoes 1,000 feet from her body.
Those clues and evidence did not immediately lead to a suspect, who started to taunt police.
In May 1990, a teenager told police that someone had written a cryptic message in Crayons on a barn door on a property about halfway between where April disappeared and where her body was found.
“I kill 8 year old April M Tinsley did you find her other shoe haha I will kill agin,” the message said.
The same person who scribbled that message left more hints in 2004, on girls bicycles outside homes in Fort Wayne, police said. The packages were roughly all the same: a plastic bag with a note on yellow paper and used condoms or Polaroid pictures of a man’s body.
“Hi Honey,” one note began, in handwriting similar to that on the message on the barn. “I have been watching you I am the same person that kidnapped an rape an kill Aproil tinsely you are my next victim.”
Authorities eventually found a positive match between the DNA recovered on April’s clothing and the packages left at the homes. But once again, the clues did not lead them to a specific individual. The FBI joined the search, releasing a possible personality profile for the suspect.
But the biggest breakthrough came only recently.
In May, a detective in the Fort Wayne Police Department sent the suspect’s DNA to Parabon NanoLabs, which works with law enforcement agencies to help identify possible suspects, their relatives and their physical appearances. A genealogist using the lab’s findings narrowed the possible suspects to two brothers, including Miller, police said.
A similar technique was used by police in California to arrest a man in the case of the East Area Rapist, also known as the Golden State killer, and another man in the 1987 killing of two people in Washington state.
In Indiana, police staked out Miller’s house on July 6 and took trash he had discarded. It contained three used condoms, which were tested and matched DNA recovered in 2004 and on April’s body, police said.
When police told Miller on Sunday that they had DNA evidence linking him to the crime, he confessed to abducting and killing April, police said.