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Seeking information
•Anyone with any information about the singing group, their members or the Laurel Jean Mitchell case is asked to call Indiana State Police Detective Kevin Smith at 260-403-2841 or 260-432-8661.

1975 cold case focuses on singers

Were at area center where slain teen worked

Laurel Jean Mitchell

Nearly 40 years ago in August, 17-year-old Laurel Jean Mitchell left her job at Epworth Forest, a religious retreat center in North Webster, at about 10:15 p.m.

She was supposed to meet friends a half-mile up the road at a place called Adventureland.

In the middle of the next morning, two men found her body in the south branch of the Elkhart River in Noble County. Her parents had reported her missing about eight hours before her body was found, according to reports in The Journal Gazette in August 1975.

She had been sexually assaulted and she had bruises on her head and her hand. Her clothes were on, but they were inside out and she was missing an earring and a sweatshirt she had been wearing.

The Indiana State Police have tweaked the case from time to time over the years, and now it sits on Detective Kevin Smith's desk.

The state police detective loves working “cold cases,” having recently helped bring the 1989 slaying of 19-year-old Todd Kelley to a close with the arrest, conviction and sentencing of 47-year-old Mahfuz Huq for manslaughter in Steuben County.

Another recently resurrected case proceeds, with the arrest of 49-year-old Matthew Fritz. He is charged with murder in the 2001 killing of 70-year-old Samuel Hunter, also in Steuben County.

Now Smith has turned his attention to Mitchell's death.

The cases are never abandoned, but amid the press of new investigations and a relatively small investigative staff, the state police work on them when they can, Smith said.

“These cases have been investigated quite thoroughly, with not a lot of stones left unturned,” Smith said.

And in the last week, new information has come to Smith's attention and he is asking for the public's help in identifying a specific group of people who were present at the Cokesbury Inn at Epworth Forest the night Mitchell was killed.

Nowadays, when you want to get information out there and get instant feedback on it, you turn to social media, Smith said.

So he did on Monday, sending out a press release, available though a variety of channels.

Smith wants to know what anyone might know about a singing group, made up of four to five girls and boys, that performed inside the business that night.

Believed to be from Delphi, the group of 16 to 22-year olds traveled in one vehicle, according to the release.

“I want any information that's out there,” he said. “I want to know who that music group is, who those members are and to identify them and talk to them.”

Smith wants to know what they saw, what they heard, anything at all that he thinks might be able to help him solve this case.

Cold cases often fascinate people. They do Smith, who is willing to do just about anything to help bring the case to an end for the families of those who have waited so long.

Mitchell's father died in January 2012.

Just a few hours after the press release went out via Twitter and other media, Smith's cellphone began getting calls.

Some of them had information he found absolutely useful.

And he wants everyone to call him, without hesitation, if they think they have any information that could help him.

“If anyone has anything on this case they think is relevant, please call me,” he said.

Smith gets calls from victims' families every year, asking for his help.

“I cannot imagine being in their shoes, having a couple kids. I cannot imagine it.”

rgreen@jg.net

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