PORTLAND, Ind. (WANE) The oldest cold case in Portland will remain unsolved for the foreseeable future. After reopening the case last year, investigators have hit a wall.
“I can not solve this case conclusively,” Portland Police Detective Todd Wickey said. “All I have is theories.”
In 1950, home economics teacher Garnett Ginn was found dead in a garage she rented just half a block from the police station. Ginn was found hanging from a sewing machine belt tied to the passenger side door handle of her 1949 Pontiac. She was only 33 years old.
Detective Todd Wickey presented his findings on the murder of Garnett Ginn to a packed room inside the Jay County Historical Museum on Tuesday night. There, the community learned of the two theories police believe happened and they all surround the town’s optometrist at the time.
“It could have been the optometrist or his wife,” Wickey said. “Maybe he wanted her quiet. Maybe she (the wife) wanted her out of the picture because she had something going on with the optometrist.”
Though the garage is still standing, the records including the autopsy, state and local police reports and the evidence are nowhere to be found. Wickey’s investigation stemmed from new witnesses and articles provided by the Jay County Historical Museum.
“If I could have gotten DNA from the suspects’ children compared it to the evidence I think the lab could have given me something,” Wickey said. “But that’s not going to happen.”
The mystery of what happened to Garnett Ginn still haunts the streets of Portland 69 years after her murder.
Jay County Historian Jane Spencer was only five years old when Ginn was murder. At the time she lived down the road from the garage Ginn was found in. Spencer said once news broke of the murder, the towns atmosphere shifted dramatically.
“I remember my mother, everyone in town was scared by this,” Jane Spencer said. “She would not let me walk up Arch Street because it went past the garage where this murder had happened. So it’s unbelievable the case reopened and we have more answers.”
Police at the time believed her death was a suicide, so much so that authorities took the body themselves to the funeral home without waiting on the county coroner. It wasn’t until weeks later that Ginn’s family and the Indy Star newspaper had her body exhumed and sent to Indianapolis for an autopsy that they learned the truth. Autopsy results found that Ginn was beaten, most likely knocked unconscious by five to seven blows to her head.
By the time her death was ruled a homicide and local and state police launched an investigation, most, if not all, of the crime scene was contaminated. According to old newspaper clippings, Ginn’s car and other key evidence, like footprints on the roof of the car and blood splatters, were not safely secured nor handled properly.
Police training, procedures, evidence handling, and forensic sciences were nothing close to what they are today. Mike Melder is a retired Indiana State Police trooper and crime lab director for the City of Indianapolis. Over the years, he’s seen and helped implement changes in police procedures at crime scenes to prevent cross-contamination.
“In 1950, it may not have been as difficult (to prosecute) without physical evidence because there was a lot more emphasis based on a witness, what somebody saw, what somebody said,” Mike Medler said. “But in today’s society, people expect DNA. They expect fingerprints.”
Last year, Melder was asked to give a presentation on forensic science to the local historical society. Interest at the meeting soon turned to the Ginn case. That interest caused an outreach of support from the community, which led to a new investigation by the Portland Police Department.
“One of the most difficult things for police to do anymore is to get the community involved,” Melder said. “A lot of times they don’t want to talk to police, either for fear of getting involved in the criminal justice system or fear of the suspect, which could be someone they know. It’s community policing at it’s highest level because of a lot of investment of resources and time on this that aren’t given other places.”
During the presentation, Wickey went through his investigation. Garnett Ginn attended a Psi Iota Xi Sonority Gamma Alpha Chapter meeting. After the meeting, she dropped off a friend around 10 p.m. and drove to the garage. Witness saw her park her vehicle in the north part of the garage. The garage is still standing to this day.
A witness said she heard Smith scream, and, when she looked out the window, could see a shadow in the garage. Then, the witness observed a cat running across the street and assumed the animal startled Ginn. It wasn’t until the next day when Ginn failed to report for work at Portland High School that the school’s superintendent went to both her apartment and garage and found Ginn dead. He called for the police.
Officers first on the scene found Ginn kneeling beside the passenger door of her vehicle. They also noted that Garnett’s wallet and driver’s license were missing from her purse.
However, it was a member of Ginn’s family that found blood splatters and stains both inside and outside of the car. They also found a muddy left-hand print on the vehicle’s fender.
When the state police began their investigation, they found 11 spots of blood her white gloves. They also found her sleeves of the fur coat she was wearing had rips in each sleeve. Police later believe the killer gripped Ginn’s arms with his hand which lead to a struggle and caused the seam of her blouse to rip.
Over the years reporters and officers have reopened and looked into the murder. Detective Wickey told those in attendance that he found articles staying those who looked into the case often received threats from unknown male callers over the phone. The calls told those working the case to back off the investigation. Threatening phone calls continue up until the early 2000s, according to articles.
Since the revamping of the investigation, a new witness came forward to Wickey. The witness told Wickey that, before her death, Ginn went to the police department and told officials the optometrist was stalking her. Ginn lived only a block from the police station and officers gave her a whistle to blow in case of emergencies. Through newspaper articles, Wickey was able to confirm the story. Names of former persons of interest were also cleared during the investigation.
According to records shortly after the murder, the optometrist left town and, to Wickey’s knowledge, the man was never questioned by police. Because the optometrist is now dead, police have decided not to release the name.
Detective Wickey says that his findings will stay at the Portland Police Department so the office will have records if evidence were to ever be found in the future.
“When I got this case, it was so cold it was frigid,” Wickey said. “I’m just disappointed I couldn’t go any further with it.”
Both Wickey and Melder agree that, without forensic evidence, the case will never be solved. The murder case will remain open but will sit inactive for the foreseeable future and the question of who killed Garnett Ginn will remain a mystery.
If you know anything about the Garnett Ginn case, you can contact the Portland Police Department at (260) 726-7161.