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Frank Gray

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Tinsleys would like guest book returned

April

Twenty-six years after 8-year-old April Tinsley was abducted off a Fort Wayne street and later found murdered in DeKalb County, her father maintains a Facebook page where he regularly posts photographs and information about the case, and campaigns for harsher penalties for people who harm children.

The page has generated nearly 1,000 likes, and the father has accumulated some Facebook friends, including a woman named Barb Sturges, who said she became active in children’s issues after the murder of Aliahna Lemmon in Fort Wayne just before Christmas 2011.

With Sturges as a sort of go-between – the father has avoided the media since his daughter’s murder, with other family members speaking to reporters – a concern of Tinsley’s came to light.

At April Tinsley’s funeral, there was a guest book, and everyone who attended was asked to sign it.

After the funeral, police took the book, apparently hoping it might provide some leads. Officials often take videos of crowds at the scene of arsons, hoping that the person who set the fire will appear to watch. Perhaps the killer actually had the gall to appear at the funeral.

Twenty-six years later, the guest book has never been returned, Sturges said.

I approached the police about this. Certainly using the book as possible evidence is justifiable, but is it still considered evidence?

I spoke to Paul Shrawder, Fort Wayne’s deputy chief. Yes, he said, he’s heard from the father, but it was only a week ago, and that was the first time. He had asked about the book, and Shawder said he sent out some inquiries about it. He doesn’t know whether Tinsley ever contacted anyone else at the department on other occasions.

Shawder said Tinsley told him that he asked police about the book a couple of months after his daughter’s death but was told they still needed it. After that, he forgot about it, Shawder said Tinsley told him.

“I don’t know if we really have to hold onto it,” Shawder said, and if the book can be found, he’d be inclined to return it.

But there’s another issue here. At the time of April Tinsley’s murder, the Fort Wayne police didn’t have a crime scene management team. The Indiana State Police handled crime scenes.

The result is that some evidence might be held by the Fort Wayne police, some by the state police, some by the Allen County Sheriff’s Department and perhaps even some by DeKalb County officials.

So there is a question about where the book might be – and even if it is known who has it, it will undoubtedly be in with a huge collection of evidence from over the years.

Shawder said the Fort Wayne police evidence room takes up perhaps as much as half of the basement of the old City-County Building.

“You can’t just walk down and grab it,” he said.

But there is some good news, or at least slightly positive news, concerning April Tinsley’s murder.

Though the case is cold, it is far from closed.

“We get tips a couple of times a month,” Shawder said, and they are always checked out.

Some are questionable. A person reports she has a weird neighbor who could have done something like this. Still, police check it out.

Or someone might call and say that someone killed a child in California and the style of the crime matched what happened to April Tinsley. Police check it out.

Police, who have DNA evidence from the scene, continue to collect DNA samples from possible suspects, getting assistance from the state police or the FBI.

So far, Shawder said, perhaps as many as 700 people have been checked out in connection with the crime.

There are even new technologies available, including one that reportedly can use DNA to determine what a person might look like.

No, the crime hasn’t been solved, but 30-year-old crimes do get solved, and if nothing else, the complaint about the guest book helps bring the haunting April Tinsley case back to the front of our minds, and perhaps to the front of the mind of someone who knows something.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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