2 arrested in 1975 cold case death investigation of North Webster teen

Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 11:18 AM EST
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NOBLE COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - Two men who are allegedly responsible for the death of a North Webster teen back in 1975 were arrested on Monday.

The investigation into the death of Wawasee High School student Laurel Jean Mitchell, 17, has spanned nearly a half century.

Mitchell left work around 10 p.m. on Aug. 6, 1975, at the Epworth Forrest Church camp on the north side of North Webster Lake in Kosciusko County. She was planning to walk about a half mile to meet friends at an amusement park. When she didn’t come home, her parents contacted police to report her missing.

Mitchell’s body was found the next day, Aug. 7, 1975, at around 10:30 a.m. in the Elkhart River near the Mallard Roost boat launch in western Noble County, which is located approximately 17 miles to the northeast of North Webster.

Her cause of death was listed as drowning, and the autopsy report showed signs that she had fought for her life. Mitchell’s clothing and belongings were preserved for testing, including blue jeans that were found unzipped, unbuttoned, and “inside-out.”

Investigators with the Indiana State Police Ligonier Post initiated a murder investigation, along with the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department, the Noble County Sheriff’s Department, and the Noble County Coroner’s office.

The initial investigators spent thousands of hours trying to solve her murder. Over the next five decades, numerous detectives worked on her case.

Indiana State Police and the Noble County Sheriff’s Department arrested two men connected to her death on Monday, which comes approximately 47 years and 6 months after she died.

Those two men are Fred Bandy Jr., 67, of Goshen and John Wayne Lehman, 67, of Auburn. Both were taken into custody at their homes without incident. They are both charged with one count of murder and are currently at the Noble County Jail, where they remain held without bond.

According to court documents, DNA testing shows Bandy is 13 billion times more likely to be the contributor of material found on Mitchell’s clothing than any other unknown person. A warrant to collect a DNA sample from Lehman was apparently served at the same time as the arrest warrant.

Court documents allege that Mitchell was snatched by Bandy and Lehman while walking to the amusement park on the night in question, and that she was taken to the boat launch in Bandy’s Oldsmobile. According to the documents, she was possibly placed in the trunk.

Investigators believe Mitchell was forcibly placed in the water and deliberately drowned.

“We want to keep in mind that this is a 17-year-old girl that lost her life here,” said Noble County Prosecutor James Mowery during a Tuesday morning news conference. “We’re taking this investigation just as seriously as if it happened yesterday.”

The probable cause document in the case alleges that Bandy and Lehman admitted their involvement in conversations with others who were high school aged teens at the time. At least three former students gave such statements to police between June 2013 and September 2019.

The much-needed break in the investigation came only within the last couple months, after Indiana State Police laboratory personnel were able to make an evidentiary correlation which leading investigators to Bandy and Lehman.

“This case is a culmination of a decades-long investigation, and science finally gave us the answers we needed.” said Indiana State Police Captain Kevin Smith. “Playing a significant role in charges being filed was the Indiana State Police Laboratory Division. We simply could not have solved this case without them.”

Smith also thanked “the news media who gave this case coverage, which kept the public informed over the years and led to many citizens coming forward with valuable information. The publics willingness to bring forward important information was key to solving this case and I thank them.”

Also during the press conference, Mowery commented, “While the arrest of these two individuals is a very important step, this isn’t the end. The investigation of this crime is still ongoing and the prosecution of these defendants has just begun.”

Both Bandy and Lehman are scheduled to have their first hearing on Wednesday in the Noble Circuit Court.

Indiana State Police were assisted in this investigation by numerous detectives from both the Fort Wayne Post and Bremen Post, the Indiana State Police Laboratories in both Fort Wayne and Lowell, the Noble County Sheriff Department, the Kosciusko County Sheriff Department, the Noble County Prosecutor’s Office, the Kosciusko County Prosecutor’s Office, and the Noble County Coroner’s Office.

You can watch Tuesday’s press conference in its entirety at the video located below:

Fred Bandy Jr. and John Lehman
Fred Bandy Jr. and John Lehman(Indiana State Police)

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