Now that the April Tinsley murder case is officially closed and finished in the court system, two of the lead detectives are shedding new light on how they found the killer and what happened to April 30 years ago.
April 1, 1988, 8-year-old April Marie was walking through her south Fort Wayne neighborhood from a friend’s house to get an umbrella from her house. But, she never made it. She disappeared on the way and her body was found three days later in a DeKalb County ditch. What exactly happened between her friend’s house and a jogger making the horrific discovery has been a mystery for 30 years. The biggest questions haunted her family and thousands of people who never even met the little girl. Who took April? Who killed April? And why? Just WHY?
Then the taunting. In May 1990, scribbles on the side of a barn said that the writer had killed April and he’d kill again. In 2004, four notes, accompanied with lewd pictures and used condoms, were left on little girls’ bicycles. Again, the messenger saying he had killed April, and he was watching the little girls. A terrorized community begged for answers as dozens of detectives from agencies across Indiana and the country tirelessly worked through 1,100 tips.
The answer to who finally came in July 2018, just three months after the 30-year anniversary. Detectives had always said DNA evidence found with April’s body in 1988 would be the key to solving the case. They just had to wait for technology to catch up. When Parabon NanoLabs ran the sample early last year, they used genetic genealogy technology to trace family trees and were able to give police two names. Detectives zeroed in on John D. Miller, 59, who was living in a mobile home in Grabill. Two weeks later, he was in the Allen County Jail. Five months later, he now calls the New Castle Correctional Facility home. And he likely will for the rest of his life.
Now Fort Wayne Police Detective Brian Martin and Indiana State Police Detective Clint Hetrick sat down with 15 Finds Out to answer more of the questions so many people were still asking. Did Miller hurt any other children? Did he know April when he took her? How did he get away with it for 30 years? And why? Just WHY?
After two weeks of surveillance, and DNA found in Miller’s trash outside his trailer matched the DNA found at the crime scene in 1988, Martin and Hetrick met Miller face-to-face.
“When he pulled in, we approached John. He had groceries in the back of his car and we gave him the opportunity to take them in the house and he said no. We asked if he’d help us with a situation we were investigating and if he’d go to the police station with us and he agreed to all that,” Martin said.
In the 20-minute car ride from Grabill to downtown Fort Wayne, Miller chatted up the detectives. He told them how he likes crossword puzzles and police shows. He would never miss an episode of Live PD.
“I think he enjoyed the car ride down,” Hetrick said.
Once in the interview room, after reading him his rights, the detectives asked Miller if he knew why they wanted to talk to him.
“He said April Tinsley,” Martin said. “I tried to maintain a calm, casual look at him. I didn’t want to jump out of my chair. We brought up nothing about April Tinsley’s case and for him to say that, I was like this is going to go well.”
Hetrick couldn’t believe Miller volunteered April’s name.
“I knew we’d find out what happened to April. I could tell he wanted to tell us, too,” he said.
Miller explained to them that he was in April’s neighborhood, far from his own, looking for someone to abduct.
“He was trolling down the street and he told us he saw April walking down the street and he pulled up a block and waited outside his vehicle for her to walk by. He told her to get in the car and she did. He then took her to his trailer in Grabill, the same trailer he was living in [when he was caught],” Martin recalled.
Miller sexually assaulted and killed April in his trailer and then under the cover of night, he took her body to a ditch along County Road 68 in DeKalb County.
But there was still the question of why. Miller had told police he had pre-meditated wanting to take a child, but he had never seen April before the day he abducted her.
“[I think he answered it] in an indirect way. He was looking for a child suitable for what he wanted and he saw her as a target and he jumped on it,” Martin said.
“It’s scary to think there are people in our society capable of doing this. Had she been five minutes earlier or five minutes later, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today. It could have been anybody, any little kid in that area that day and that was probably not the first time he had gone looking,” Hetrick said.
Miller admitted to Detectives Martin and Hetrick that, after he snatched and killed April, over the years he had thought about taking a child again. He even went trolling through neighborhoods and parking lots, but he never found an opportunity.
“To think he could do something so heinous as what he did to April in 1988 and then just stop, I think everyone was very skeptical of that and I think we tried to answer those questions,” Martin said. “We were very direct with John about other cases. We kept going over other cases. We knew there was no DNA match, but we were persistent with John to tell us and help other families if there are other families and he was very insistent there was not. It’s incredible that he went looking and fortunately no one was there.”
But, he did hide in plain sight. For 30 years, he lived in the same mobile home, dwelling under the radar.
“After knowing what we know now, I’m not surprised. He was a very private person. He was awkward. He kept to himself. He worked the midnight shift. He went from work to home and did the same thing every day. I think that is the reason he stayed under the radar for 30 years,” Hetrick said.
Still, Martin is shocked no one ever submitted his name as a suspect.
“It boggles my mind that no one recognized his handwriting or his bedspread. It boggles my mind that there was a handwriting sample and the bedspread was so unique and no one said you should look at this guy,” he said.
After Miller’s confession, he was taken straight to jail and detectives immediately started preparing for what could be a long, tedious trial where decades of details had to be perfectly presented.
“You have to present everything ever done on the case and that’s boxes and boxes and boxes from every department,” Hetrick said. “There was so much in this case, we spent the first month taking all the old boxes and scanning the old VHS tapes and cassette tapes and making everything digital and on a hard drive for evidence.”
With an unsteady gait and his mouth agape, walking to court Miller appeared feeble. But, Hetrick said he was determined fit to stand trial.
“He knows what he did. He knows right from wrong. He’s socially awkward and he’s not well-educated, but he’s just like anyone else and he knows what he’s doing. He knows right from wrong,” Detective Hetrick said.
The case, though, never reached a jury. John Miller accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to murder and child molesting.
“I didn’t initially [expect a plea deal], but as time went on, it became apparent that there would be and some of that was talked about by Mr. Miller and his legal team. The evidence was overwhelming against Mr. Miller,” Detective Martin said.
Martin added that he usually likes his cases to go to trial.
“There are a lot of questions answered in trial, but it would have been difficult for the family to hear some of the things Mr. Miller talked about and he’ll do the rest of his life in prison. The family expressed concerns about justice and to me prison is where we wanted him and I’m ok with that,” Martin said.
In the plea deal, Miller was sentenced to 80 years in prison with no chance for appeal. For the 59-year-old, Martin said that is essentially life in prison.
“We have one less monster on the street,” he said. “My end game was to get John Miller off the streets forever and we did that.”
Tinsley’s family initially was pushing to pursue the death penalty. But after sentencing, her mother, Janet, said she understood why the prosecutors agreed to the plea deal.
Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards explained that death penalty sentences are not immediate and can take 20 to 30 years to execute.
In the end, Hetrick and Martin are confident justice was done.
“It was not done as quickly as any of us wanted,” Hetrick said.
According to the Indiana Department of Corrections, Miller’s earliest possible release date is July 15, 2058, six days after his 99th birthday. 15 Finds Out’s request to interview Miller in prison was denied because of his security status. The prison would not elaborate beyond that.