The Little Girl Who Was Nearly Forgotten
April Tinsley was abducted and murdered but her case went cold. Three decades later, justice was served.
Easter 1988 in Fort Wayne, Indiana was stormy and wet weather was forecast over the weekend. 8-year-old April Tinsley was playing outside with her friends when spots of rain began to fall. She’d left her umbrella at her friend’s house, just around the corner from her own home, and hurried to collect it before the rain got worse. Her friends continued to play but April never returned.
Dinner time came and when April didn’t arrive home to eat, her mother Janet began to worry. She went outside to speak to April’s friends, but they hadn’t seen her in a while and thought she’d already gone home. Panic set in and Janet rang the police to report her daughter missing.
The search team assembled quickly, and volunteers from around the neighbourhood began to hunt for April. 75 officers and locals set out on foot and in vehicles to locate the little girl, but as the sun went down, April still wasn’t home.
A witness came forward and told investigators that she’d seen a child being dragged into a blue van by a man in his thirties with light brown hair and facial stubble. The timings of the sighting matched up with April’s disappearance, and a sketch of the man was created with the witness’ description.
The man had a generic look and the search for him and the public appeal that followed produced no leads for the police to follow.
Three days later, April’s body was found by a runner. She was discovered around 3.30 pm in Spencerville, twenty minutes away from her home in Fort Wayne.
April’s body was lying in a ditch fully clothed but on closer inspection during her autopsy, it was apparent that she’d been redressed, and an examination concluded that she’d been sexually assaulted.
It was reported that April had been suffocated two days earlier at another location and her body was dumped in the ditch earlier in the day, meaning her killer transported her and left her on the side of the road in broad daylight. The police theorised that he was a local and knew the area well due to his brazen actions.
DNA samples were taken from April’s body and the crime scene, but it was 1988, so there was little that could be done with the forensics. However, the investigators knew anything collected could be vital in the future and the samples were preserved.
Just a few days later, police announced that they’d arrested a 34-year-old man in relation to April’s murder. 140 people had called Crime Stoppers to report the resemblance of the man and the composite sketch, and a neighbour confirmed that there was a blue van parked outside the man’s house on numerous occasions. The man had also spoken to friends about April and told them he had knowledge of her death.
The police questioned him for hours but instead of charging him for April’s abduction and murder, he was charged in an entirely separate case of molestation of an 11-year-old girl.
Samples of hair and blood were taken from the man as well as those from five additional men questioned in April’s murder, and they were sent to a laboratory in Maryland for further testing. The results came back from the lab in August 1988 but all six samples were inconclusive.
Nearby sex offenders were questioned as were April’s neighbours. Because April was abducted during the day, kept somewhere for a while and then left in a ditch around lunchtime, police were convinced the man they were looking for was a local. They would be proven right.
Two years later, writing appeared on the side of a barn, close to where April was found.
The barn in St. Joseph Township has been graffitied with the message; “I kill 8 year old April Marie Tisley. I will kill again”. According to a witness who lived near the barn, he’d seen a man return to the area several times and each time the message had become more prominent. Police never specified how they knew, but they confirmed that the message was consistent with what they believed to be the killer’s handwriting.
Despite having a witness, no leads were ever made. The killer stayed away for another fourteen years.
In 2004, four residents of Allen County received notes. They were posted in mailboxes and taped to the lawn-abandoned bikes of little girls outside their homes.
The notes were written on lined yellow paper and the spelling on each differed, but they all had a similar message. One read;
[sic] “Hi honey… I been watching you….I am the same person that kidnapped an rape an kill april tinsley, … You are my next victim….if you don’t report this to police an if I don’t see this in the paper tomorrow or on the local news…I will blow up your house.”
The notes were delivered in a bag, alongside either a used condom or a polaroid of the man from the neck down on a bed, all littered with DNA. Witnesses came forward, telling police that they’d seen a forest green van cruising the neighbourhood during the time the notes were thought to be delivered, and again, during the day.
The polaroids showed a naked man lying on a bed, with a distinctive bedspread behind him. The paisley-type pattern that was unique in style didn’t match any hotels in the area, so police believed this was a photo taken at home.
Despite the image being distributed in the press later on, no one came forward with information. Samples from the used condoms were also added to CODIS but no matches were found.
The FBI was called in to help with April’s case and in 2009, they created a very detailed profile of the suspect. Here’s an excerpt.
“We call this individual a Preferential Child Sex Offender. By that we mean he has a long-term and persistent sexual desire for children. In this case, the offender has demonstrated a specific sexual interest in little girls who have not yet reached puberty. In other words, he is attracted to hairless, undeveloped girls. This interest will not go away. Girls between the ages of 5 and 10 would greatly appeal to him.
This does not mean he cannot interact sexually with adults or even older children, but his overwhelming sexual fantasies and desires focus on young girls. He may be married; however the vast majority of Preferential Child Sex Offenders are not. If he has a long-term intimate adult partner, that partner will have an idea that this individual has a sexual interest in little girls, but may be in denial regarding the extent of that interest or his ability to act on it.
This offender may establish relationships that give him access to little girls; for instance, he may date or befriend someone in the little girl’s family. Perhaps he’ll seek employment or volunteer activities that give him proximity to little girls. He will be drawn to places where children congregate — playgrounds, swimming pools, parks, etc. Wherever he goes, if a little girl is nearby, his eyes will follow her.” — FBI Profile of April Tinsley’s killer. The whole profile can be found here.
The man they were looking for was;
- Current age — 40s through 50s;
- Lives and/or works in the northeast section of Fort Wayne/Allen County;
- Frequents places where children are likely to be — focus on little girls;
- Low- to medium-low income;
- Owned/borrowed a Polaroid camera in 2004;
- Hair on lower legs;
- In 2004, possibly owned/borrowed a forest green pickup truck having a matching camper shell with dark tinted windows.
The same year, America’s Most Wanted aired an episode on April’s abduction and murder [season 22, episode 29]. The episode brought renewed interest in the case;
“It is our policy not to reveal any numbers when it comes to AMW calls, but I can tell you that the April Tinsley case pulled in more tips than any other story on our show that night.” — Angeline Hartman, America’s Most Wanted talking to KPCNews.
In 2012, America’s Most Wanted returned to make a follow-up episode, and police released additional information to the public about April’s murder [season 26, episode 36]. Police also spoke about a very specific sex toy that was found in a Sears bag at the scene, as they were certain that someone would recognise the object. However, it appears the leads went nowhere, despite the number of calls.
A new face
In 2015, Parabon NanoLabs released a new composite sketch. The original DNA sample left on April’s body had been used up over the years, but because the killer left fresh samples in his notes, the lab had more than enough DNA to play with.
The sketch was used on the genetic makeup of the sample and it was also aged.
Three years later, the DNA was compared to other samples on GEDmatch, which was a new method being used in other cases, including that of the Golden State Killer, which broke just a few months beforehand.
The profile was narrowed to that of two brothers, one of which was living in Grabill, Indiana, just 15 miles away from Fort Wayne and where two of the notes were found. 59-year-old John Miller, the kidnapper, rapist and killer of April Tinsley had been found.
Police took used condoms from Miller’s trash to confirm they had the right brother and matched it to the DNA they already had on file. Miller was arrested at his trailer and during interviews at the station, he later confessed to the murder of April.
Though Miller initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, he retracted the plea and was sentenced to 80 years in prison on the 7th of December 2018. The lack of the death penalty caused outrage within April’s family and the larger community of Fort Wayne, however, his age and health conditions would unlikely let him see the end of his sentence, let alone execution.
Miller now resides in the New Castle Correctional Facility in Indiana, where he’ll stay until his earliest release in 2058 when he’ll be almost 100 years old.
In the Hoagland-Masterson neighbourhood, April’s Garden is alive. Filled with flowers and benches, the memorial is a place to sit and contemplate for those who remember her and passers-by.
Of the police involved in the case, many retired conscious that their efforts to find the little girl’s killer were being abandoned, but they knew the suspect would eventually be caught, it was just a question of when.
“I think about April often. I carried her picture in my wallet for a long, long time,” — Sergeant Dan Camp [retired] told Fort Wayne’s NBC.
Outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana, April’s murder isn’t well known. Whether it’s because of the time or perhaps due to the case going cold so quickly. Whatever the reason, the persistence from the police and those who cared, mean April’s family now have some justice.