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Crime News Cold Cases

Two Indiana Men Arrested For 1975 Drowning Death Of Teen Girl Who Disappeared From Church Camp

Investigators looked into Fred Bandy Jr. and John Lehman after witnesses allegedly heard them confess to killing 17-year-old Laurel Mitchell, who disappeared in 1975. 

By Jax Miller

Two men are in custody after a handful of witnesses linked them to a grisly murder that occurred more than 40 years ago.

Fred Bandy Jr. and John Lehman, both 67, were arrested for the 1975 murder of Laurel Jean Mitchell, 17, the Indiana State Police and the Noble County Prosecutor announced Tuesday. State police said the “much-needed break” in the case helped moved forward “an investigation which has spanned the course of nearly half a century."

Bandy Jr., of Goshen, Indiana, and Lehman, of Auburn, Indiana, were arrested at their respective homes without incident Monday morning and charged with murder.

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“While the arrest of these two individuals is a very important step, this isn’t the end,” said Noble County Prosecutor Jim Mowery. “The investigation of this crime is still ongoing, and the prosecution of these defendants has just begun.”

Mitchell disappeared on Aug. 6, 1975, at around 10:00 p.m, after leaving her shift at a snack bar at the Epworth Forest Church Camp in North Webster, part of Kosciusko County — about 40 miles northwest of Fort Wayne on northern Lake Webster — according to a probable cause affidavit reviewed by Oxygen.com. Witnesses saw her walking away from work, reportedly to meet friends about a half mile away at a local amusement park.

Mitchell’s parents reported her missing shortly after 4:15 a.m. the following day when she failed to return home.

Hours later, at around 10:30 a.m., a man and his son found a body in the river near a bridge at the Mallard Roost public access site on County Road 600 N, about 15 miles northeast of the church camp in neighboring Noble County. The witnesses pulled the body to a bank and alerted authorities, who quickly determined the body belonged to Mitchell, due in part to a 1976 class ring with the victim’s initials.

Police handouts of Fred Bandy Jr. and John Lehman

A postmortem examination revealed the teen died of forcible and deliberate drowning and that “death occurred rapidly and that she made a violent struggle to survive,” according to the affidavit by the Indiana State Police.

Collected as evidence were the victim’s clothes, including a pair of jeans that were unbuttoned and worn inside out, according to the affidavit.

For the next month, state police investigators spoke with several locals who reported hearing a loud car in the area of the Epworth Forest Church Camp around the time Mitchell disappeared. A married couple living just west of the church camp reported hearing “what sounded like someone slamming the trunk on a car” before seeing both a green Mustang and possibly an Oldsmobile Cutlass driving away from the area.

The husband said the Oldsmobile was “very loud and sounded like it was loud by design,” according to the affidavit.

Another neighbor reported seeing a “very loud” car turn around in a nearby driveway around the time witnesses last saw Mitchell, according to the affidavit. The woman claimed she heard multiple voices say, “Let’s get” or “Let’s get her.”

A murder investigation ensued and consisted of investigators from the Indiana State Police - Ligonier Post, the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department, the Noble County Sheriff’s Department, and the Noble County Coroner’s Office.

“The initial investigators spent hundreds and hundreds of hours trying to solve her murder,” according to state police’s recent press release. “Over the next six decades, numerous detectives would continue to work on her case, all the while her family would suffer with no answers.”

The break investigators needed came in 2013, when Noble County officials were contacted by a woman from Port Charlotte, Florida, per the affidavit. The woman — whose name Oxygen.com declined to publish — told authorities she came from Noble County and was 16 at the time of Mitchell’s disappearance and death.

The woman claimed she dated then-19-year-old John Lehman and that after they attended a party together in 1975, Lehman allegedly confessed he and then-20-year-old Fred Bandy Jr. were responsible for Mitchell’s murder.

Police say Lehman provided details that were “consistent” with the findings of the initial investigators.

In 2014, a man — then a high school sophomore — reportedly told investigators that Bandy also told him he killed Mitchell. Another witness in 2019 said the same.

In late 2019, investigators collected DNA from Mitchell’s clothing and had it tested by the Indiana State Police Laboratory Division, which yielded a profile that would eliminate three unnamed suspects separate from Lehman and Bandy.

Bandy agreed to submit his DNA while at his Goshen, Indiana home on Dec. 5, 2022, which came back as a positive match to the DNA found on Mitchell’s clothes on Jan. 13.

According to the affidavit, testing revealed that “Fred Bandy Jr. is 13 billion (13,000,000,000) times more likely to be the contributor of the DNA in Laurel J. Mitchell’s clothing than any other unknown person.”

Further investigation revealed Bandy owned an Oldsmobile in the mid-1970s.

“This case is a culmination of a decades-long investigation, and science finally gave up the evidence we needed,” announced Indiana State Police Captain Kevin Smith.

Bandy has a criminal history, including two 2016 child molestation convictions in Noble County for the abuse of a 10- and 12-year-old child, for which he served part of a six-year prison sentence and landed on the state’s sex offender registry, according to Northeastern Indiana news outlet KPC News. He was also convicted on a separate child molestation charge in 2001, for which he was sentenced to a two-year prison term.

Both Bandy Jr. and Lehman were being held at the Noble County Jail without bond and are scheduled to make their first courtroom appearance to face murder charges on Wednesday morning.

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