The now-iconic photo of April Tinsley--a shy smile below blue eyes and a mop of curly blond hair--was all over the Allen County Courtroom Friday morning.
Her family members wore it on bright blue t-shirts, packing the first few rows of seats, awaiting the sentencing of her admitted killer, John D. Miller, 59.
Three retired Fort Wayne Police detectives sitting in another row had carried the picture in their pockets for years, working the case and hoping for results. One of the men kept the photo on his desk at home, until Friday.
Friday morning's hearing marked the end of the 30-year wait for something resembling finality in the case and the end of the mystery.
While Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards declined to seek the death penalty in the case, against the wishes of April's family, the 80-year prison sentence for the molestation and murder of the little girl 30 years ago will put Miller behind bars for the remainder of his life.
Because the crime was committed in 1988, Miller was charged and sentenced under the laws as they existed at that time. That meant prosecutors could not have used the option of life without parole, and it makes Miller eligible for more credit for good behavior. He could be released in as little as 40 years, though he would be 100 years old.
A variety of medical issues require him to come to court in a wheelchair, and he is now visibly frail and appears to be in declining health.
Emotional throughout her statements, Richards was clear both in and out of the courtroom Friday, of how she would have sought the death penalty in the case if she'd felt it to have been the best option. But the age of the case meant the age of witnesses, age of family, and the age of the defendant all complicated the likelihood of the planned conclusion.
"I think you could have found 50 people in that courtroom who would have pushed the button or given the lethal dose, or pulled the lever on the electric chair, and I am certainly one of them," Richards said after the hearing. "And I’m not ashamed to say that."
Richards had been on the case since its earliest days as a young deputy prosecutor, when the 8-year-old girl was abducted from a southside street on her way home from a friend's house on Good Friday 1988.
A few days later, April's body was discovered in rural DeKalb County. She had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated. The case devastated the community, striking fear in the hearts of parents.
And over the decades since, a person claiming to be Tinsley's killer left DNA and notes in various locations around northeast Allen County. That DNA matched DNA collected from the crime scene.
Though the case stayed cold, year after year, investigators kept pushing and reviewing. The FBI came to Fort Wayne with profilers in 2009 in an effort to jump-start the investigation. In 2013, Parabon Nanolabs released a sketch based on the DNA.
And this past spring and summer, investigators used Parabon and genetic genealogy to tie a suspect to the case.
Genetic genealogy identified Miller's brother as the brother of the suspect. A pull of the trash from Miller's mobile home in Grabill provided further DNA evidence to connect to April's death. When confronted by police, Miller confessed.
He pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges of murder and Class A-felony child molesting.
During the hearing Friday, Miller's court-appointed attorney Anthony Churchward read a very brief statement written by his client.
"I'm sorry to the Tinsley family and the community for their loss. I wish it never would have happened," Churchward read.
April's mother, Janet Tinsley, spoke of the tremendous impact the abduction, murder and subsequent mystery had on their family.
She said she'd dreamed of having a blue-eyed girl with curly blond hair, and had two. One passed away, and April survived.
The little girl immortalized in the picture, once seen on billboards around the community in a plea for solution, loved shopping and spending the night at her grandparents' home, her mother said.
April’s father, Janet Tinsley said, was struggling with health issues and could not attend the sentencing. She said they've all struggled with health issues and stress.
The children in their family, April's younger brother and numerous cousins and their children, were extremely sheltered and protected, she said.
"I'll never forgive and never forget what you took from us," Janet Tinsley said, looking at Miller.