February 14, 2023
Seventeen-year-old Laurel Jean Mitchell disappeared on Wednesday August 6, 1975 after she finished her shift at Epworth Forest Church Camp Snack Bar on the north side of North Webster Lake in North Webster, Indiana.
Her mother had dropped her off at work and she had arranged to get a ride home after hanging out with friends that night after finishing her shift at approximately 10PM. A co-worker offered her a ride before she clocked out, which she turned down, saying she was meeting friends at Adventureland Amusement Park on the North Side of North Webster, which she would have reached on foot by taking Epworth Forest Road for a half mile.
An acquaintance, Scott Pruitt, saw her walking at Epworth Forest and the pair acknowledged each other with a wave. This would be the last sighting of Laurel Mitchell alive.
Mitchell, who was born in the spring of 1958, had grown up in North Webster and attended the local Wawasee High School where she was a senior. She was a 1975 Girls' State representative and a member of the North Webster United Methodist Church.
The following day at 4:16am, the worried teenagers parents filed a missing person report with the Indiana State Police.
Several hours later, a phone call came in from a one Dana Homister, reporting the discovery of a body in the Elkhart River.
Clyde Homister and Glenn Dixon, of Wawaka, discovered the female body floating in the river while out fishing. They pulled on their waders and gently retrieved the decedent from the water while they waited for police to arrive at the scene. A deputy from the Kosciusko County Police department arrived at the scene with an image of Laurel Mitchell for identification purposes and found that the photograph matched that of the decedent.
The location of the body was described in a report as at the bridge on County Road 600 North, just west of County Road 44 west, in Noble County, Indiana, parallel to a public access site known to locals as Mallard Roost.
The victim was wearing a Class of 1976 ring with a Wawasee High School emblem and the initials "LJM" inscribed on the inside. P.M. Sankey, M.D at Goshen General Hospital determined that the girl had died from drowning.
The body was later officially identified as the missing teenager Laurel Jean Mitchell and a preliminary cause of death obtained from an autopsy performed by Dr. Sankey's notes added that the death was rapid and that she struggled violently. The examination also found that she had died within hours of eating her final meal that night.
Laurel Mitchell was found fully clothed; however, her jeans were undone and inside out.
It didn’t take long, however, for local newspapers to begin reporting that police had stated there was foul play involved in the teenager’s death.
Around a week after the girl’s body was discovered, Police interviewed two residents of Epworth Forest Road, Frank Overmeyer and his wife. The couple had been watching TV a home on the night of August 6, when Frank heard a vehicle outside the home. The vehicle drove past the couple’s home, and he reported that he heard what sounded like the car trunk slamming shut. In response, Frank Overmeyer turned on the porch light and went outside to see two cars driving away. He described one as a red or orange GM, an Oldsmobile Cutlass, if he had to guess, that had been customised to be loud, and the other a green Mustang.
An interview with another resident of the area, a woman named Kathryn Flynn, revealed a slightly similar story. Flynn claimed that on the night Mitchell went missing, at around 10:00pm, she heard a “loud, dark-coloured car” use a driveway near her home to turn around. She also reported that she heard voices saying something along the lines of “lets get her.”
These were just two of the many tips that came in after the discovery of Mitchell’s body, however, they did not lead to any arrests and the case sadly went cold.
In 2013, a woman named Ranae Sexton, who grew up in Noble County in the sixties and seventies, placed a call to the Noble County Sheriff’s department. She told Detective Shawn Dunafin that in June of 1975, when she was sixteen-years-old, she went on a date, followed by a party, with a man named John Wayne Lehman. While Lehman was driving her home that night in his car, she said he confessed to being involved in the death of Laurel Mitchell and said another man, Fred Brandy, was involved. The call was taken seriously when details of the crime that only the killer could have known were relayed to Sexton during the conversation.
Ranae Sexton was not the only one to bring up Fred Brandy's name in connection with the murder, in July of 2014, another man, Bill McDonald, who was a sophomore at West Nobel Highschool in 1975, said Fredy Brandy had confessed to him that he had committed the crime.
In 2019 Fred Brandy and John Wayne Lehman's names came up again. This time, a man named Rick Johnson, who attended a high school party with the two men when they brought up the Mitchell murder and confessed to it. Mitchell's clothing, which had been preserved by the Indiana State Laboratory, were forensically tested again in 2019. In 2020, a male DNA profile was developed from the evidence. In early December of 2022, a voluntary DNA sample was obtained from Fred Brandy, connecting Brandy to the crime. Research into Brandy also revealed that in 1975 Brandy was driving an Oldsmobile Cutlass.
News of Fred Brandy Jr. and John Lehman's arrests hit the headlines last week, detailing that each man, now both 67 years of age, have been arrested on one count of first-degree murder in connection with the murder of Laurel Mitchell.
Both men are being held without bond while they await a pre-trial hearing scheduled for April 2023.
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