True Crime

21-year mystery: Who killed Suzanne?

The killer of a brilliant young student remains at large

Over two decades on, Suzanne’s brutal slaying remains unsolved

Suzanne Jovin was, quite simply, a brilliant young woman. Raised in Germany by American parents who were both doctors, she’d excelled at school, especially in music and languages. 

Aged 19, she won a place to study political science at the prestigious Yale University in Connecticut, USA, where her mum had got her PhD. Suzanne’s friends on campus described her as beautiful, smart and compassionate. 

Alongside her studies, she made time for voluntary work as director of Best Buddies, a charity bringing together students and mentally disabled adults. And while she took her work seriously, she loved to let her hair down too, dancing with her friends and drinking Schnapps on cold winter’s nights. 

But, on December 4, 1998, Suzanne, by then 21, was too tired to party. About 4.30pm, she handed in a draft of her senior essay to her course adviser, James Van de Velde. 

The essay was about terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.

After that, Suzanne headed to a local church for a pizza-making party she’d organised for Best Buddies. At around 8.30pm she dropped other volunteers home in a car she had borrowed from the university, before driving back to campus.

Half an hour later, she declined a friend’s invitation to go to the movies, saying she had work to do. Then she sent an email to another friend, telling her she was leaving some books for her in her apartment lobby, but that she first had to retrieve them from ‘someone’.

Minutes later, she logged off her computer and walked across campus to return the keys of the car
she’d borrowed. 

Suzanne would never return to her dorm room. 

Suzanne Jovin
The last photo of Suzanne Jovin (Credit: New Haven Police)

Just before 10pm, a couple out walking, in a well-lit neighbourhood off campus, discovered Suzanne lying face down and bleeding in the street. 

She was rushed to hospital, but at 10.26pm, she was pronounced dead. Suzanne had been stabbed 17 times in the back of her head and neck. 

Her throat had been slit and she’d been stabbed so hard, the tip of the knife had embedded in her skull. Police began an investigation, immediately identifying two crucial witnesses. 

The first was Peter Stein, Suzanne’s classmate who’d seen her right before she returned the car keys. She’d told him she was tired, and looking forward to getting lots of sleep. 

The second witness saw her just minutes later, walking away from the university. Police wondered why, if Suzanne was tired and had work to do, she would be walking in the opposite direction to her dorm?

Something else was confusing them too. 

The location where Suzanne’s body had been discovered was 3.2km away from where she’d last been seen not long before. It would have been impossible for her to travel that far on foot in the given time frame. 

Officers therefore believed she had got into a vehicle with someone. And with her friends and family adamant she’d never accept a lift from a stranger, they had no choice but to believe it must be someone she knew. 

Suzanne's death still haunts her family
Suzanne’s death still haunts her family (Credit: New Haven Police)

The particularly vicious nature of her injuries, plus the fact Suzanne had not been robbed or sexually assaulted, also fitted with the theory that this had been a crime of passion. 

But who would want to hurt Suzanne – someone so brilliant, with so many friends, someone so unlikely to have enemies?

The police spoke to her boyfriend, fellow student Roman Caudillo, 21. He had an alibi; he’d been on a train. 

Police would have to delve deeper. Who were the other important people in Suzanne’s life? Four days later, her essay adviser James Van de Velde was identified as a person of interest. 

Van de Velde cooperated with the police, allowing them to search his car and his home.

They found nothing and yet he remained their prime suspect. 

It had a huge knock-on effect for his career. His university classes were cancelled and his contract was not renewed. 

Meanwhile, there were so many unanswered questions. 

Who was the ‘someone’ Suzanne had said she needed to retrieve books from? 

Sketch man running from scene
The sketch of a man seen running from the scene (Credit: New Haven Police)

Despite appeals, the mystery student never came forward. 

And why was Suzanne walking away from campus when she’d told two separate witnesses that her plans were to study and sleep?

Over the years, other evidence came to light. In 2001, police revealed a witness had seen a tan-coloured van close to the crime scene.

Years after that, a cold case team discovered a witness had reported seeing a man running away from where Suzanne’s body had been found – a witness who said the man looked nothing like Van de Velde. 

It seemed investigators, intent on pursuing the innocent teacher, had dismissed the eye-witness.

The cold case team released a composite sketch of the running man, but who would recognise him after so many years?

In 2013, James Van de Velde was officially cleared. One far-fetched theory was that the topic of Suzanne’s essay – Bin Laden and the terror threat to the US – could’ve made her a target for Al-Qaeda operatives.

Suzanne has now been dead for as many years as she was alive and her family still don’t have answers. 

‘It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing,’ said Chief State’s Attorney, Kevin Kane.

James Van de Velde
James Van de Velde was officially cleared by police (Credit: New Haven Police)

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