New DNA Evidence Leads To Arrests In 50-Year-Old Murder Of An Indiana Teen

Published February 8, 2023

In 1975, 17-year-old Laurel Jean Mitchell was "forcibly, deliberately drowned" — and this week, Fred Bandy Jr. and John Lehman were arrested and charged.

Laurel Jean Mitchell

Indiana State PoliceLaurel Jean Mitchell was 17 years old when she disappeared on her way home from church camp in 1975.

When 17-year-old Laurel Jean Mitchell’s body was discovered submerged in water shortly after she went missing in August 1975, police initially believed that she’d drowned. An autopsy, however, revealed that the teenager had “fought for her life” and launched an investigation that frustrated authorities for decades. Now, the police have finally made arrests in the case.

On February 6, the Indiana State Police and the Noble County Sheriff’s Department arrested Fred Bandy Jr., 67, of Goshen, Indiana, and John Wayne Lehman, 67, of Auburn. Almost 50 years after Mitchell’s death, police announced that they’d collected both DNA evidence and witness statements that suggested that Bandy and Lehman killed the teenager.

“This case is a culmination of a decades-long investigation… and science finally gave us the evidence we needed,” Indiana State Police Captain Kevin Smith announced in a news release according to the IndyStar. He commended the work of the Indiana State Police Laboratory Division.

As the IndyStar reports, Mitchell went missing on Aug. 6, 1975, after leaving her job at the Epworth Forest Church camp. Her parents reported her missing, and the 17-year-old’s body was discovered the next morning in the Elkhart River. Though police initially thought she’d accidentally drowned, an autopsy “showed signs that she had fought for her life.”

Convinced that Mitchell had been killed, the police launched an investigation that endured for the next several decades. They picked up clues in recent years that led them to focus on two men: Bandy and Lehman.

According to the Associated Press, multiple witnesses have come forward to tell police that both Bandy and Lehman had claimed responsibility for the crime. In 2013, a woman who’d gone on a date with Lehman told police that Lehman had “admitted his involvement in a crime that he committed with his friend, Fred Bandy.” Lehman also told the woman details about the case, including “anatomical findings” from Mitchell’s autopsy.

Fred Bandy John Lehman

Noble County JailFred Bandy, left, and John Lehman, right, have been charged in Mitchell’s 1975 murder.

Bandy, too, had apparently bragged about Mitchell’s murder. In 2014, a man who’d known Bandy in high school told police that Bandy admitted to the crime and even knew the location where Mitchell’s body was found. In 2019, another man who’d attended a party with Bandy in high school said that, when the conversation turned to Mitchell’s death, Bandy “stated he and John Wayne Lehman committed that crime, together.”

But the police weren’t able to arrest the duo until DNA evidence backed up the witness statements. The Associated Press reports that DNA recently recovered from Mitchell’s clothing turned out to be a match to Bandy. The police have stated that they believed that Bandy and Lehman “forcibly, deliberately drowned” Mitchell in 1975 after picking her up in Bandy’s car.

“This case is a culmination of a decades-long investigation,” Smith said, according to CBS. In addition to “science” he thanked the “many citizens” whose information about Bandy and Lehman “was key to solving this case.”

The police have also been in touch with Mitchell’s brother and sister. Smith said that he hopes that Bandy and Lehman’s arrests have brought them “at least a little peace” a half-century after their sister’s murder.

Smith added: “I cannot imagine having dealt with that for 47 years, wondering what happened.”

But though the arrests have brought a measure of closure to Laurel Jean Mitchell’s family and the community at large, there’s still work to do.

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

After reading about the cold case murder of Laurel Jean Mitchell, see how DNA evidence helped solve the 40-year-old murder of five-year-old Anne Pham in California. Or, see how police were able to arrest an alleged rapist after he uploaded his DNA to a genealogy website.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.