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Two arrested in 48-year-old cold case after DNA link

Laurel Mitchell's school photo stood next to investigators Tuesday at a press conference announcing the arrest of two men in connection to her death in 1975.
Rebecca Green
/
WBOI News
Laurel Mitchell's school photo stood next to investigators Tuesday at a press conference announcing the arrest of two men in connection to her death in 1975.

At 4:16 a.m. on Aug.7, 1975, Laurel J. Mitchell’s parents called the Indiana State Police.

Their 17-year-old daughter had not returned home from her job in the snack bar at the Epworth Forest Church Camp in North Webster the evening before.

The plan was to have met friends at the Adventureland Amusement Park a half mile away. According to witnesses, she had started walking that way, waving at a man as she passed.

And at 4:15 a.m. she still wasn’t home.

At 10:30 a.m. Aug. 7, 1975, someone called the Indiana State Police post in Ligonier about a body in the Elkhart River at the Mallard Roost public access site on Noble County road 600 North, just west of 400 West.

Police identified Laurel with her class ring from Wawasee High School, class of 1976, her initials engraved inside.

Laurel died by drowning, having fought for her life more than 17 miles away from where she was last seen.

Indiana State Police Capt. Kevin Smith announces the arrest of two men in connection to the 1975 killing of 17-year-old Laurel Mitchell.
Rebecca Green
/
WBOI News
Indiana State Police Capt. Kevin Smith announces the arrest of two men in connection to the 1975 killing of 17-year-old Laurel Mitchell.

Capt. Kevin Smith, a long-time Indiana State Police detective, had worked the case for years.

“Over the next five decades, numerous detectives would continue to work on her case, and Laurel’s family would continue to suffer with no answers,” Smith said during a press conference Tuesday, announcing a break in the case.

“Science finally gave us the evidence we needed,” Smith said, praising the work of the Indiana State Police laboratory division.

Members of the various agencies that have investigated the crime stood next to a large school picture of Laurel Mitchell–her face and clothing frozen in time in the mid-1970s.

Fred Bandy, Jr.
Photo provided
/
Indiana State Police
Fred Bandy, Jr.

On Monday, right around noon, police arrested Fred Bandy, Jr., 67, at his home in Goshen.

John Wayne Lehman is charged with murder in connection with the 1975 killing of 17-year-old Laurel Mitchell.
Photo provided
/
Indiana State Police
John Wayne Lehman is charged with murder in connection with the 1975 killing of 17-year-old Laurel Mitchell.

At the same time, they arrested 67-year-old John Wayne Lehman, at his home in Auburn, Smith said.

Both men are charged with a sole count of murder in connection with the death of Laurel Mitchell, tied to the case by DNA samples taken from her clothes bagged as evidence all those years ago.

Court documents outlined some of the tips that came in to investigators in the days, years, and decades since the killing.

In 1975, police interviewed a husband and wife living near the church camp in North Webster, and they reported seeing a red-orange Oldsmobile Cutlass driving by. Another witness in the area said she heard several voices saying “let’s get her” right around 10 p.m. the night Laurel was taken.

In 2013, Noble County Sheriff’s Department Detective Shawn Dunafin received a tip from a woman living in Florida who said that she had gone on a date with Lehman at a party. When he was driving her home, he told her that he and Bandy had committed a crime.

In 2014, Smith talked with a man who had socialized with Bandy in 1975, and he too said that he had committed the “crime that occurred at Mallard’s Roost,” according to court documents.

And in 2019, Smith resubmitted Laurel’s clothing to the ISP lab for further forensic analysis. Male DNA was found on the clothing, and it eliminated other potential suspects they had identified at the time.

Then, in 2022, Smith asked for a DNA sample to be obtained from Bandy.

According to court documents, Bandy’s DNA was “13 billion times more likely” than any other person’s.

And state police driving records showed that Bandy drove a 1971 Oldsmobile at the time of the crime, according to court documents.

Noble County Prosecutor James Mowery said the case is far from over.

“While the arrest of these individuals is an important step, it is just a step. It is not the end. It is the beginning of the prosecution,” Mowery said. “The investigation of this crime is still ongoing, and many who have come forward will be asked to come forward again to talk to us.”

Mowery asked others who may think they know something to come forward as well.

Smith said it feels good to get to this point in the case, one made harder by age, fading memories and witnesses passing away.

Laurel has a brother and a sister who are still alive.

“I hope this brings them a little peace,” Smith said.

This was Smith’s fourth cold case to come to arrest, and he has worked this one since 2005.

“It’s a fascinating business we’re in,” Smith said. “It’s terrible but it’s fascinating… We’re not done yet.”

Bandy has prior felony convictions, having served time in the Indiana Department of Correction for child solicitation in 2001, and child molesting in 2016.

The pair will appear in Noble Circuit Court Wednesday for their initial hearings. They remain held in the Noble County Jail without bail.

Below are the probable cause affidavits filed in Noble Circuit Court: