Two Indiana men have been charged with murder nearly a half-century after a 17-year-old girl failed to return home from her job at a church camp and was found dead in a river, state police announced Tuesday.
Fred Bandy Jr., 67, of Goshen, and John Wayne Lehman, 67, of Auburn, were arrested Monday on one count each of murder in the killing of Laurel Jean Mitchell, said Capt. Kevin Smith.
Bandy and Lehman were being held without bond at the Noble County Jail and were scheduled for initial court hearings Wednesday. Online court documents did not list an attorney who could speak on behalf of either man.
Smith declined to comment on the specific developments that led to the arrests more than 47 years after the killing, but said that “science finally gave us the evidence we needed.”
A probable cause affidavit filed Tuesday in Noble County court said witnesses tied the men to Mitchell’s killing and DNA evidence linked Bandy to the crime.
Smith said that on the night of Aug. 6, 1975, Mitchell did not return home from her job at the snack bar of the Epworth Forest church camp near a lake in her hometown of North Webster, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Indianapolis.
Her parents reported her missing, and Mitchell’s body was discovered the next morning in the Elkhart River about 17 miles northeast of North Webster. Smith said investigators determined that she had drowned, and the autopsy found “signs that she had fought for her life.”
Officers have spoken to Mitchell’s brother and sister, he added, saying he hopes the arrests can bring them “at least a little peace.”
“I cannot imagine having dealt with that for 47 years, wondering what happened,” Smith said at a news conference in Albion.
According to the probable cause affidavit, investigators believe Bandy and Lehman “forcibly, deliberately drowned” Mitchell after taking her to the Elkhart River in Bandy’s 1971 Oldsmobile.
In addition, the affidavit says a DNA profile was obtained through recent testing on Mitchell’s clothing, which was saved along with other evidence collected in 1975.
Bandy voluntarily provided a DNA sample in December to state police, and testing determined that he was 13 billion times “more likely to be the contributor of the DNA in Laurel J. Mitchell’s clothing than any other unknown person.”
That testing came after three people who were teens at the time of the killing tied the men to the crime based on incriminating comments made about the death, according to the affidavit.
One man told police in 2014 that he socialized with Bandy while in high school and that Bandy told him after Mitchell’s murder that “he had committed the crime” and also provided the location where her body was found.
A second man told police in 2019 that he and the first witness had attended a high school party with Bandy, Lehman, and others when Mitchell’s murder came up. Bandy “stated he and John Wayne Lehman committed that crime, together,” the man told,d investigators.
And a Florida woman who was 16 and living in Noble County in 1975 contacted the county sheriff’s department in June 2013 to say she had gone on a date with Lehman and as he was driving her home, he “admitted his involvement in a crime that he committed with his friend, Fred Bandy.”
Lehman also told the woman details consistent with police findings when the body was found and with “anatomical findings” from the autopsy, according to the affidavit.
By Rick Callahan