Image: James Van de Velde
Tom Brown  /  AP file
James Van de Velde, in 2001, says his reputation has been ruined ever since he was labeled a suspect in the 1998 stabbing death of a 21-year-old Yale student.
updated 9/18/2009 3:53:19 PM ET 2009-09-18T19:53:19

This time, the suspect wasn't called a suspect until he was arrested. But the last time a Yale student was killed near campus, James Van de Velde wasn't so fortunate.

From the start, he was the favorite candidate of Connecticut's New Haven police for the stabbing death of a young woman 11 years ago. Though the Yale lecturer was never charged and the case is still unsolved, the attention ruined his reputation, he says, and got him fired.

He says there's a reason investigators have been so tightlipped about the killing of Annie Le: They're afraid of making the same mistake twice.

"We don't want to destroy people's reputations," Police Chief James Lewis said earlier this week.

Lewis, who was hired last year and not involved in the 1998 case, was explaining why officers had put a lid on the murder investigation of Le, a 24-year-old doctoral student in pharmacology. On Thursday, police arrested co-worker Raymond Clark but said little about motive or evidence.

"Clearly, the chief was admitting that calling me and only me a suspect in the 1998 crime was a terrible mistake," Van de Velde wrote this week in response to questions e-mailed by The Associated Press.

Hounded by media
In 1998, Suzanne Jovin, a 21-year-old political science major from Germany, died after being attacked in a prosperous neighborhood north of the campus. No arrests have ever been made.

A second casualty of that case was the good name of Van de Velde, then an unmarried, 38-year-old former naval intelligence officer who, besides teaching, also served as Jovin's thesis adviser. Her subject was Osama bin Laden. Early on, authorities identified him as a suspect, though they never said what evidence, if any, fueled that belief.

He was hounded by national and local media. He had no alibi. He told police he had been home alone when Jovin was stabbed 17 times in the back and neck on a cold December night and left slumped on the curb of a residential street, three-fifths of a mile from Jovin's home.

"I wasn't a boyfriend, ex-husband, a work colleague. I had no argument with her," wrote Van de Velde. "My DNA was not at the scene. I was not seen at the scene."

Calls to Yale President Richard Levin and the campus public affairs office were not returned. Lewis said Friday that he had no knowledge of the previous investigation because he's only been on the job for a year.

No DNA match
Van de Velde has been fighting to redeem his reputation for years. What angers him most is that police apparently did not conduct DNA tests on evidence found on Jovin's body during the initial investigation.

Police have never commented on why they may have waited nearly three years to conduct DNA tests. Famed criminologist Dr. Henry Lee, at the time a Connecticut commissioner of public safety, immediately volunteered to send state forensics experts. The department declined his offer.

In 2000, at the insistence of Van de Velde and the Jovin family, Yale hired outsiders to review the case.

Private investigators pressed local police to test fingernail scrapings taken from Jovin's left hand. They also sought fingerprint testing for a Fresca bottle found near her body, which contained her fingerprint and a partial palm print from an unknown person. Neither results matched Van de Velde.

A match for the DNA under her nails has not been found.

After the probe, investigator Patrick Harnett, former commanding officer of the New York Police Department's major crime squad, called Van de Velde "Richard Jewell with a Ph.D." He was referring to the Georgia man whose life was scarred by police publicity linking him, incorrectly, to the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta.

The university has not commented on its private investigation, or the results.

Fired by Yale
The only public mention of DNA analysis in the Jovin case came in 2001, when police asked friends and acquaintances to submit genetic samples for comparison against the unmatched DNA found in Jovin's nail scrapings.

Jovin's case was reopened in 2007 and assigned to four retired detectives in New Haven. No new evidence or leads have been reported. Assistant State's Attorney James Clark said neither he nor his investigators would comment.

A month after Jovin's murder, Van de Velde says Yale fired him — canceling his classes, refusing to renew his contract and telling him to stay away from students.

Angry and demoralized, he eventually left town and went to Washington, where he worked for three years as an analyst of weapons of mass destruction for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Later, he served in the State Department's diplomatic corps. He now works for a private firm, analyzing WMD and counterterrorism data.

"I was destroyed," Van de Velde wrote to the AP. "Naming someone Jovin knew served the interests of Yale, which wanted to dissuade the public that (she) was perhaps killed by a random act of violence," which would have raised controversial questions about security on campus and neighboring areas, he said.

He has filed a civil suit against the university and New Haven police, alleging his civil rights were violated.

Little comment in Le death
Investigators said little when Le vanished two weeks ago. They said less after her body was found five days later, stuffed behind a basement wall in the campus laboratory where she worked. They said nothing about who crushed her throat.

Until Wednesday, when investigators called 24-year-old Raymond Clark "a person of interest." Detectives took DNA samples from the lab technician who worked with Le, and they noted he had scratches on his arms. He was questioned, then released.

"We don't want to be accused of tunnel vision," Lewis told reporters.

On Thursday, Clark officially became a suspect — he was arrested on murder charges and jailed on $3 million bail. The only hint at a motive came from a police statement describing Le's death as an act of "workplace violence."

More on: Richard Jewell

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