On April 1, 1988 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 8-year-old April Tinsley disappeared while walking to a friend’s house. Three days later, a jogger discovered April’s body — sexually assaulted, strangled and missing a shoe — in a ditch next to a rural field. The investigation stalled, and April’s killer remained at large. Two years later, police found a message scratched on the side of a barn: “I kill 8 year old April M Tinsley. [D]id you find the other shoe haha I will kill again. [sic]”
The message provided authorities with few clues and the case went cold. Media attention from outlets like “America’s Most Wanted” and “Crime Watch Daily” also failed to produce leads for law enforcement. The case looked hopeless, until recent advances in DNA technology made new evidence collection possible. In July 2018, with the aid of forensic evidence, police were finally able to make an arrest.
A Town on Edge
At the crime scene, authorities were able to collect DNA evidence from April’s underwear, but forensic testing available at the time couldn’t produce a match. Running out of leads, the case stalled for 16 years until the young girls of Fort Wayne began receiving threatening letters. In 2004, four girls received explicit, sexual messages confessing to April’s murder and insinuating that they were next. Some letters contained used condoms, and the genetic material collected was sent for testing. While the DNA evidence didn’t lead to an arrest, it was a positive match for the sample found on April Tinsley’s underwear, linking the notes with the murder.
The case languished unsolved for another 14 years, until Fort Wayne Police submitted sample DNA evidence to Parabon NanoLabs, a lab specializing in DNA and genetic genealogy.
Genetic genealogy compares samples of DNA from a criminal investigation to public genetic databases to find a match. This type of comparison allows scientists to use genetic markers and determine if a subject’s sample matches any family members in the database. This reduces the suspect pool considerably, providing authorities solid leads in investigations.
CeCe Moore at Parabon was able to use this technology to narrow the suspect list to two brothers from the Fort Wayne area. Police tracked one of the brothers, John Miller, to his home where they were able to recover genetic evidence including used condoms disposed of in his garbage bin. When sent for genetic comparison testing, samples obtained from Miller’s home matched samples recovered from April’s clothing and the notes left around Fort Wayne.
On the strength of this new forensic evidence, police arrested John Miller in his Grabill home. When asked by police if he knew why they were there, Miller replied, “April Tinsley,” and soon confessed to her murder. Outcomes like April’s are becoming more common as new advances in forensic DNA technology can help law enforcement find justice for families after decades of waiting.