When 20-year-old Kristin O’Connell asked if she could travel to New York to visit a young man she had met while on Spring Break in Florida months earlier, her mother’s first instinct was to say no.
But Phyllis O’Connell knew deep down that her only daughter wasn’t a child anymore. She was nearly 21. And she was sensible. Responsible. Phyllis told Dateline that despite her misgivings about the trip, she realized she had to let her go.
It wasn’t the first time she was hesitant about letting her go. Just months earlier, Phyllis had worried about Kristin going to Florida for Spring Break.
The Burnsville, Minnesota native had just completed her sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin Stout in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, where she had been studying Hotel and Restaurant Management.
It was 1985 and Kristin and her roommate, Sue, had wanted to go to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break, but Phyllis suggested a “less chaotic place” like Sanibel Island, Florida.
It was on that trip that Kristin met a young man named James “Jim” Vermeersch - and was charmed by him from the moment he approached her. The two developed a friendship and it wasn’t long before he invited her to visit him in Ovid, New York.
Kristin and Jim stayed in touch and just before the start of her junior year, made plans for her to travel from Minnesota to New York and stay at his parents’ house. Again, Kristin’s mother was hesitant.
But her husband, Kristin’s father, Mike O’Connell, reminded Phyllis that their daughter wasn’t a child anymore. She was an adult, and could make her own decisions.
“He was right,” Phyllis said. “Kris had always been a sensible child and I trusted her judgment.”
To ensure Kristin’s safety, and put their own minds at peace, they arranged for her to fly into Boston instead of New York City. They had one of Mike’s business associates meet Kristin at the airport and drive her to Jim’s parents’ house in Ovid.
A week before Kristin left for New York, she went into her mother’s room and sat on her bed, Phyllis recalled to Dateline.
“She would say, ‘Mom, I just want you to know how much I love you,’” Phyllis said. “And I would say, ‘Well, I love you, too, Sis.’” Sis was a name Phyllis frequently called her daughter.
“She was a beautiful soul,” Phyllis told Dateline. “We would spend hours together discussing her future plans, dreams, even her latest boyfriends. We had a mother-daughter relationship that I cherished.”
On the day Kristin left for New York, she went into her mother’s bedroom one last time.
“I told her how nice she looked in her outfit,” Phyllis said. “She was so bright with excitement.”
Phyllis told her daughter to call her when she was there so she didn’t worry. Her response was, “I will, Mom.”
It was the last time Phyllis would ever see her daughter alive.
Kristin had only been in New York for two days when she called her mother from a payphone and told her she was cutting her trip short.
“Something wasn’t right in her voice,” Phyllis told Dateline. “I asked if she was having a good time, but I should’ve pressed harder.”
That same night, Kristin disappeared.
According to the New York State Police, Kristin was at a party at the mobile home where Jim was living on County Road 139, just west of the Golden Buck Restaurant, in Ovid.
Witnesses told police that it was around 11:30 p.m. when they saw Kristin walking down County Road 139, heading west. She was not wearing shoes or carrying a purse.
The next morning, when Kristin failed to return to Jim’s house, he called her parents and the police to report her missing.
Her mother Phyllis still remembers the day they received the phone call.
Phyllis has described the morning of August 15 as holding the promise of a perfect midwestern summer day, as she headed to her job as a commercial real estate broker. Yet, she felt a sense of foreboding that she couldn’t shake.
When she returned home from work that day, her husband was waiting for her with the news. Their daughter was missing.
“I could tell Mike was scared, a man who had always been my rock,” Phyllis said. “This man who was never frightened. He was the most confident individual I had ever met, but now his face radiated fear. Stark, raw fear.”
Kristin’s disappearance didn’t make any sense to her parents. Neither did the fact that she was last seen walking barefoot without any sort of bag.
“This wasn’t like Kris,” she said. “It didn’t make sense at all.”
Phyllis waited by the phone at their home in Burnsville, Minnesota while her husband and family friends traveled to New York to help with the search.
On August 16, their worst fears came true. A search party found Kristin’s naked body in a nearby cornfield, less than a quarter of a mile away from the trailer where she had been staying. Her clothes were in a pile nearby.
Kristin had been stabbed multiple times, and her throat had been slashed, according to an investigation by the New York State Police.
Phyllis told Dateline she still vividly remembers the moment her husband called her to break the news that their daughter’s body had been found.
“My heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe… it felt like the room was suffocating me. Then I just broke down in sobs.”
The brutal murder stunned not only the community of Burnsville, Minnesota, but also the small village of Ovid, New York. Phyllis said those who knew Kristin were shocked that something so horrific could happen to such a kind, loving soul.
“They all just couldn’t believe anyone would try to kill Kristen,” her mother said. “She truly had a heart of gold.”
Phyllis told Dateline that her daughter wasn’t a drinker, never did drugs, and was saving herself for marriage, which was something Kristin shared with her mother, along with the frustrations she had with the young men who’d back off when they found out about her vow.
In her senior year in high school, Kristin went to her mother and asked if she could work at a shelter for battered women.
“She would tell me, ‘Mom, they need counseling but they don’t have anyone to stay with their children. I want to donate my time so they are able to go.’”
Another time, she loaned one of the family’s cars to a man at work, so that he could drive up north to see his children.
“Evidently, his car had broken down and it was his turn to see his children,” Phyllis told Dateline. “I looked at Mike and said, ‘Well, so much for that car.’”
But never for a minute did Kristin doubt that he would return it, and of course she was right. He did return it.
These are the memories Phyllis holds onto as she continues to plead for answers. She’s 81 years old now and has consistently led the effort to find her daughter’s killer. Her husband, Mike, died of cancer seven years after Kristin’s murder, so Phyllis has been on her own ever since.
“I think there are people up there who know what happened but are afraid to come forward," Phyllis said. “I believe people are scared.”
Over the years, Kristin’s family has hired private investigators and has had retired New York State Police investigators assist in trying to solve the case. Phyllis has traveled to Ovid and walked down the road where her daughter was last seen alive. She has consulted psychics. But year after year, is left without answers.
“I know I can’t bring her back,” Phyllis said. “But I can’t rest until I find out who did this to her.”
This year, 36 years after Kristin’s murder, the family has a new offer for help from a true-crime investigative documentary series. Producers have assembled a cold case investigative unit to offer fresh eyes on the investigation and work alongside New York State Police.
“We want to help and we’re offering them a fresh set of eyes,” documentary producer Christopher Pavlick told Dateline. “ We’re offering a forensic lab that’s available to test all the physical evidence and, in Kristin’s case, at no cost to the state of New York.”
But they hit a roadblock.
New York State Police declined the offer for help, stating that it’s against policy for outsiders to be brought into an investigation.
New York State Police Troop E spokesman Mark O’Donnell issued a statement to Dateline, in which he said, “The State Police has been actively investigating the murder of Kristin O’Connell from the tragic day she was discovered. The term cold case is used, however, the case is actively worked on by investigators of the Troop E Major Crimes Unit.”
He added that the State Police did listen to the information the producers of the True Crime Documentary Company provided, but “after careful consideration, declined their offer.”
“As in all cases, the State Police does not share critical information, evidence or the techniques used in solving cases,” O’Donnell said. “By sharing such information, it could jeopardize the integrity of the investigation.”
O’Donnell said State Police investigators take the responsibility of solving all cases very seriously “and will continue to work diligently to solve this homicide and bring the individual or individuals responsible for the homicide to justice.”
Christopher Pavlick told Dateline that investigators questioned whether the lab that would be used to test evidence is properly licensed in New York.
In letter to Seneca County District Attorney Mark Sienkiewicz that was shared with Dateline, Pavlick wrote, “I also secured a forensics lab that carries the NYSDOH Permit. The lab has agreed to test those pieces of physical evidence that investigators and the forensics team deem most prohibitive. This lab is willing to perform all the testing at no cost to the taxpayers of New York."
He says he also included a certificate of accreditation. In the letter, Pavlick wrote about hundreds of pieces of evidence that have not yet been tested with contemporary technology for DNA.
"There are 318 pieces of physical evidence in this case, which includes the victim’s bloodstained sweater and pants, a pillowcase, a painter’s hat, the victim’s fingernails containing unidentified fibers, and a couple of hundred hairs, two of which were found near her pubis. Kristin’s investigation is hampered by a lack of time and a lack of money."
Pavlick told Dateline that the team is not guaranteeing results or even an ending. But he said, “it’s worth a shot.”
Dateline reached out to the Seneca County District Attorney for comment on their decision to decline assistance from the cold case team, but they have not yet responded.
For decades, rumors have swirled in the small town about whether Kristin’s murder was a crime of opportunity by a passing stranger or if it was planned by someone she knew. Although hundreds of people have been interviewed, no one has ever been arrested or named a suspect in her death.
Many people have come and gone from the community over the years, but it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard Kristin’s story. Jolynn Oblak learned of the case when she moved to Ovid with her husband a few years ago. Her first question was, “why is this not solved?”
So she reached out to Kristin’s mother, and with the help of Uncovered, the case is getting more attention – especially across social media with the Facebook page: Kristin O'Connell Unsolved Murder. Jolynn told Dateline she believes the media attention and the work by Pavlick’s team is what will finally solve Kristin’s case.
“That was our question - how do we make more noise and put pressure where it needs to be put so that they look into the case,” Jolynn said, adding that they hope officials will change their minds and decide to utilize the resources Pavlik’s team is offering.
For Phyllis, who is writing a book about her daughter’s case, there is still one very important piece missing. An ending. And she hopes the ending will be justice.
“I promised Kristin I wouldn’t rest until I find out who killed her,” Phyllis said. “I promised I wouldn’t give up until I get an ending to her story, the ending she deserves.”
Anyone with information about Kristin’s case is asked to call the New York State Police Troop E, Major Crimes Unit, at (585) 398-4100.