On the evening of Aug. 6, 1975, Laurel Jean Mitchell left the Epworth Forest church camp in North Webster, Ind., where she worked at the snack bar, to meet friends at a nearby amusement park.
She never made it.
Ms. Mitchell’s body would be found the following day in a nearby river. Alongside her was a class ring with the initials “LJM.” She was 17.
The initial autopsy report ruled the cause of death in the homicide was drowning and indicated that her “death occurred rapidly,” according to a police affidavit filed in Noble County Circuit Court. It said that “she made a violent struggle to survive.”
For decades, police investigated the killing but were unable to solve it. Then, on Monday, the Indiana State Police arrested two men who had been among the suspects for several years, and who live within driving distance of the crime scene.
The men, Fred Bandy Jr. of Goshen, Ind., and John Wayne Lehman, of Auburn, Ind., both 67, were charged with first-degree murder in the case. They appeared in Noble County Court on Wednesday and pleaded not guilty.
After nearly 50 years and advancements in technology, DNA evidence provided the missing pieces of the puzzle to link the two men to the victim, the authorities said. Capt. Kevin Smith, of the state police, said at a news conference on Tuesday that “science finally gave us the evidence we needed” and credited the Indiana State Police Laboratory Division for its help in the case.
“We simply could not solve this case without them,” he said.
Captain Smith, who had been working the cold case for 20 years, said the investigation into Ms. Mitchell’s killing had followed a similar pattern of other such cases: “Witnesses pass away, memories fade, all those hurdles make it very difficult,” he said, “especially when you go back this far.”
Over five decades, investigators from multiple state and local agencies tried to solve her murder, but to no avail, and “Laurel’s family would continue to suffer with no answers,” Captain Smith said.
Ms. Mitchell’s younger sister, Sarah Knisely, was 12 years old when she was killed. In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Knisely described their childhood in North Webster as typical before horror visited her family.
“It was just a very small town, laid back. We felt safe,” she said. “We came and went as we pleased in the summer and parents didn’t worry about us.”
But when Ms. Mitchell did not return home by curfew that night in August 1975, Ms. Knisely’s family knew something was wrong, prompting an extensive search by the police, family members and friends.
The next day, a family friend picked Ms. Knisely up early from softball practice. They arrived home to a driveway full of police cars.
“She was a really good person. It’s like, gosh, you picked somebody really good to do this too, somebody who could have done a lot of good in this world,” Ms. Knisely, 60, said. “I’m very glad they were finally arrested and very appreciative of the people who came forward.”
All of the clothing and belongings found on Ms. Mitchell’s body had been preserved for DNA testing, including shoes, a sweatshirt, bra, underwear and denim jeans, the affidavit said. The immediate investigation by the Indiana State Police was able to determine that on the night of her disappearance Ms. Mitchell was supposed to meet friends at Adventureland, which was on the north side of North Webster, about a half-mile walk from the church camp.
At the time, the police interviewed a North Webster resident who reported “what he thought sounded like someone slamming the trunk” of a car, possibly an Oldsmobile; another resident told investigators that she had heard several voices say “let’s get” or let’s get her.”
But the investigation proceeded in fits and starts. From 2013 to 2019, several witnesses came forward and told the police of instances, right after her murder, when Mr. Lehman or Mr. Bandy had admitted to killing Ms. Mitchell. In one of those instances, a woman who went on a date with Mr. Lehman said he discussed “his involvement in a crime” with Mr. Bandy and offered details that matched “the anatomical findings” in the autopsy report, the affidavit said.
In 2019, Captain Smith resubmitted some of Ms. Mitchell’s clothing to the state laboratory for DNA testing. The findings produced a male DNA profile that was found on Ms. Mitchell’s clothing. In addition to Mr. Bandy and Mr. Lehman, the investigation generated three other potential suspects, the affidavit said, but all three of those additional suspects were eliminated as possible contributors of the DNA obtained from her clothing.
Late last year, the Indiana State Police obtained a DNA sample from Mr. Bandy, the affidavit said. On Jan. 13, the state laboratory found that Mr. Bandy was more likely to be the contributor of the DNA found on Ms. Mitchell’s clothing than any other person.
There was no mention of a DNA match to Mr. Lehman in the affidavit.
Police records also showed that Mr. Bandy drove a 1971 Oldsmobile at the time of Ms. Mitchell’s murder. Mr. Bandy has a previous record of child molestation. In 2001, he pleaded guilty to child solicitation and contributing to the delinquency of a minor; in 2016, he pleaded guilty to two counts of child molestation and served nearly six years.
While the Indiana State Police declined to comment on the techniques used to solve Ms. Mitchell’s murder, Ashley Hall, the director of the forensic science graduate program at University of California, Davis, said the method seemed to be a standard genetic identification technology used in crime labs called S.T.R., or short tandem repeat.
“The technology is developing to become more and more sensitive, it is being developed to pick up smaller and smaller amounts of DNA,” Dr. Hall said. “We can pick up much more DNA than we used to be able to.”
Ms. Mitchell’s case is a “good example” of the power and evolution of DNA testing to assist in criminal investigations, Dr. Hall said.
“We’re not done with our work until every family, every victim, has an answer, and the fact that we can go back to cases that are this old — this is where we should be going,” she said.
The detective work to solve the case was unrelenting, the authorities and family said.
Ms. Knisely noted how Captain Smith had carried around “big books” that detailed the names and addresses of everyone the authorities had interviewed over the years.
“There were over 1,000 names in there,” she said.
When Captain Smith called Ms. Knisely and her brother, Bruce Mitchell, to let them know they had arrested two men in their sister’s murder, she was surprised, but mostly wished her parents had been alive to see it.
“It’s been 47 years,” she said, “but right now it feels like yesterday.”