The Journal Gazette
Saturday, December 08, 2018 1:00 am

April's killer pleads guilty

Sentencing Dec. 31 for 1988 murder of 8-year-old girl

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

For the first time, she heard him say he killed her daughter.

Janet Tinsley on Friday sat yards away from the man charged with abducting, sexually assaulting and strangling 8-year-old April Tinsley in 1988. She'd been told he admitted to police he committed the crimes, but she had not heard him speak the words.

That changed inside a courtroom at the Allen County Courthouse.

“On April 1, 1988, ... I abducted April Tinsley,” John D. Miller said, reading from a statement prepared with the help of prosecutors and his attorneys. “After abducting her, I had sexual intercourse with her. I strangled her with my hands, killing her.”

Miller, 59, of Grabill pleaded guilty to charges of murder and child molesting, bringing nearly to a close perhaps the most notorious criminal case in the history of northeast Indiana. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 31.

A plea agreement calls for him to serve back-to-back sentences of 50 years for murder and 30 years for child molesting. Miller likely will die in prison.

“Right now, it's emotional,” said Tinsley, who sat leaning forward in her front-row seat – surrounded by family – as Miller spoke. She declined to comment further.

April disappeared from her neighborhood on Fort Wayne's south side on Good Friday, after visiting friends who lived nearby. On April 4, 1988, a jogger found her body along DeKalb County Road 68.

For decades, journalists, police, members of April's family and others wondered who killed the blond-haired little girl. Local news outlets retold the story on anniversaries of her death, and it was featured on national broadcasts including “America's Most Wanted.”

Witnesses at first said she might have been pulled into a noisy blue pickup, but that lead didn't pan out. Later, detectives investigated DNA samples and notes – one scrawled on a barn door – left by someone claiming to be the murderer, but none of that led to a suspect.

Nearly five months ago, on July 9, Indiana State Police investigators said DNA samples taken from used condoms recovered from the trash outside Miller's home matched samples from the crime scene in 1988 and another location in 2004. Weeks before, Fort Wayne police Detective Brian Martin arranged for genetic testing conducted by a Virginia company that analyzes DNA and compares it to publicly available genealogy data to narrow suspects.

Miller was arrested July 15 at his home in a trailer park in Grabill. Asked by police why he thought they were at his home, Miller replied, “April Tinsley,” according to court documents.

“He's going to prison for what we can say is the rest of his life,” Martin said after Miller pleaded guilty. “We're close to the finish line.”

The court hearing Friday had been scheduled for defense attorneys Anthony Churchward and Mark Thoma to argue their client could not get a fair trial with jurors from Allen County because of “public hostility against him,” “public outrage” over the alleged crime and “speculative opinions as to his guilt and character.”

Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck, who presided over the hearing, said in October he probably would approve a request for jurors to be selected from another county and brought here for the February trial.

Instead, Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Tom Chaille walked into the courtroom clutching the plea agreement while Miller – shackled and wearing a jail-issued orange and white striped jumpsuit – sat next to Churchward.

Teresa Tinsley, April's aunt, said she knew prosecutors and Miller's lawyers were discussing a plea rather than taking the case to trial.

“It's a load off our shoulders,” she said.

Chaille and Churchward declined to comment after the hearing. Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards also declined to comment, citing ethical concerns.

Other than reading from the prepared statement, Miller spoke only to answer questions from the judge. In a gravelly voice, he answered yes to questions about whether he understands his rights and that he cannot appeal his sentence after it's handed down this month.

Miller said no when asked if he suffers from a mental illness.

For detectives who worked the case, the guilty plea marked the culmination of years of work and time thinking about April Tinsley and what happened to her.

Gary Grant and Danny Jackson were among the first assigned to the case. Each said the plea represents the end of a troublesome case but the beginning of closure for April's family.

“The whole community has taken part in this,” Grant said. “Not only does the family have closure, but the community also does.”

Jackson said a part of him wanted to see the case go to trial, so he could confront the man who committed the crime for which he spent some of his professional life investigating.

“I wanted to get there and look him square in the eye,” he said. “Then, you think of the Tinsley family. “I'm happy. I look at it as an early Christmas gift.”

Case Timeline

April 1, 1988: Eight-year-old April Marie Tinsley is reported missing from her Williams Street home in south-central Fort Wayne.

April 4, 1988: April's body is found in a ditch on DeKalb County Road 68 near Spencerville. She died from asphyxiation, and she had been sexually assaulted.

2004: Police are called to Benham Drive in Fort Wayne and Witmer and Roth roads and Indiana Street in Grabill. Used condoms are found at each of the three locations. Notes are also found stating that the person who left the condoms raped and killed April Tinsley. A DNA profile from the condoms is determined to be consistent with the profile of DNA from April's underwear.

July 9: Authorities learn that the DNA profile from the used condoms recovered from the trash at John Miller's home is consistent with the DNA profile obtained from condoms recovered in 2004.

July 15: John D. Miller is arrested after telling police he killed April Tinsley and dumped her body near DeKalb County Road 68 near Spencerville.

July 17: April Tinsley's mother, Janet Tinsley, asks prosecutors to seek the death penalty for John Miller.

July 19: John Miller enters plea of not guilty in Allen Superior Court.

Oct. 22: Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck says jurors from outside Allen County would likely have to hear the case if it goes to trial.

Friday: Miller pleads guilty to murder, child molesting as part of plea agreement calling for 80-year prison sentence.

Dec. 31: Miller scheduled to be sentenced in Allen Superior Court.

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