Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Elkhart and the unsolved murder rate

I got an email from someone yesterday with regard to The Necrokonicon, specifically my reference to the unsolved murder rate thing. My quote, in the Elkhart entry, is this:

Elkhart also frequently earns the honor of having the largest unsolved murder rate in the country (although this may also be an urban legend.) Almost annually, a 17-year old girl is found naked, raped and dead in a farmer’s field, and the Elkhart Keystone Kops are too busy shaking down people cruising to do anything about it.

I frequently get asked about this, maybe more than any other thing in the glossary. Half of the people want to know the source because they think it’s very indicative of life in Elkhart, and the other half call bullshit on me because they think Elkhart is the greatest place in the world and I’m a horrible person for inventing such a legend. Now I feel a need to break this down and/or do some actual research to get people off my back about this.

(And before I begin, I should probably state for the millionth time that the Necrokonicon is not a reference book, or a citeable, peer-reviewed research journal. It’s my ramblings and observations, with the occasional fact thrown in. Almost all of it is my opinion, and my biggest regret to ever doing the project is that some dumb-ass mails me every other week saying “No, Concord mall is at 60% occupancy and you said it was less than 50%!” So take all of this with a grain of salt.)

First of all, the unsolved murder thing isn’t true. Elkhart isn’t the unsolved murder capitol and never has been. Statistically, it’s always going to be a large city like New York or LA. But when you talk about per-capita rate, it’s a different matter. Many people don’t realize that Elkhart has statistically higher crime rates per capita than places that are perceived as being much more dangerous or evil.

There are a number of crime statistic comparison calculator things on the internet, mostly for people shopping for new homes, and they all largely draw on the same FBI crime statistics. I used http://www.homefair.com/calc/citysnap.html, which provides an index on statistics, meaning that the national average is 100, with higher than that meaning a higher crime rate, and lower meaning a below national average number. (This isn’t as compelling or interesting as an actual number-of-incident report, but if you know the population of the US, have a calculator, and passed 9th grade math, you can figure it out. Of course, if you went to an Indiana public school, statistically you probably can’t do simple math.)

In Elkhart, zip code 46516, personal crime risk is 129, and property crime risk is 190. In comparison, my neighborhood in New York city (zip=10002), personal is 214 and property is 105. What’s what? Bear with me because I’m too lazy to make a table, and the following numbers are Elkhart/NYC. Personal crime includes murder (162/141), rape (147/85), robbery(138/361), and assault(150/175). Property crime includes burglary(193/84), larceny(246/94), and motor vehicle theft(109/112).

This really pisses me off. Why? Because every born-and-died-in-Elkhart person pisses on me about how safe and happy Elkhart is, how you never need to lock your doors, how you can leave a hundred dollars on the table and come back and there’s two hundred, and then goes into the tirade about how horrible New York is, with all of the robberies and rapes and crack cocaine and hookers and guns and blah blah blah. Now look at those numbers. You are TWICE AS LIKELY to be raped in Elkhart as you are in New York. It’s more than twice as likely your house will be burglarized. Larceny, 250% higher in Elkhart. And aside from the New York comparison, EVERY SINGLE ONE of those statistics are higher than average in Elkhart; every one except murder risk is LOWER in the state of Indiana as a whole. Per capita, Elkhart is a pretty damn unsafe place to live, at least according to the FBI.

The next logical question is “how do the unsolved murders match up to the rest of the country?” And that’s where the trail ends. There are no unified cold-case statistics, and any agency that does broadcast their numbers is probably tallying them in a different way. You could speculate that if x percent of murders go unsolved, Elkhart’s per-capita unsolved murder rate is y, based on either FBI crime statistics, or actual tallies of the dead in Elkhart. But there’s no universal unsolved murder stat, and it would vary depending on the police department. In New York City, there are millions of taxpayers, which means the NYPD gets a lot more neat toys to go all CSI on murder cases. Elkhart has, what, 10 or 20,000 taxpayers? By virtue of scale, their police force isn’t going to be as equipped to deal with murders, and their rate is going to be higher. But you can only speculate on that rate. Speculation on that trend, though, is more valid.

The next thing to factor in are the known high-profile murder cases that have gone unsolved. First is Marie Kline, who was killed on Jan 1, 1988. Her murderer, Dennis Leer, was charged at the end of 2004 for the crime. This was probably a driving force for the urban legend about the unsolved murder rate, because her parents were very critical of the police about the fact that the murder never got solved. There was also some vague urban legend that the two were at a party with a bunch of people, and got in a fight, and he said something like “if you ever break up with me, I’ll kill you,” and then she broke up with him, and her body was found and he split town. That rumor sounds similar to the “so-and-so cheerleader is pregnant” thing, but it gave the legend some substance. There’s also some conflict based on the fact that Elkhart County’s lead detective was fired for pursuing a suspect even after he was told not to. The county also never pursued DNA testing, which wasn’t done until the case eventually went to the state police. The DNA testing was also a no-brainer because Leer was already in prison for a different attempted murder.

The other high profile one was Kari Nunemaker, who was killed in January of 1991. After 14 years, there was a conviction, once again because the case got bounced to the state police. And a more recent one was Jessica Zbras, who was killed in May of 1995; Terrance Evans was charged nine years later. I can’t find any cases other than that, and that doesn’t back up my once-per-year allegation, but it adds a bit of fuel to the fire.

The last thing I add to the mess is this: I heard this urban legend constantly in high school, which was before two of those murders. Everyone accepted it at face value. It mutated, as people claimed to have seen it on Geraldo or Johnny Carson (much like people in that era also claimed to have seen the president of Procter and Gamble on a talk show, confessing that he was a satanist.) I also heard people state that Elkhart had the highest per-capita income (which makes no sense whatsoever), or had the highest interracial dating percentage. And how do these legends happen? Even if they aren’t true, peoples’ fears, doubts, and prejudices cause them to happen and to gain momentum. Everyone in high school hated the Elkhart cops, because most of them were pricks. (I’m assuming they were because the pay was bad, and the only people who signed up were power-hungry control freaks who liked to put on a uniform and act like a dick.) When a legend came about that exposed the inadequacy of the police, of course everyone believed it. Even when urban legends are not true, the legends expose either the environment in which they were created, or the people that perpetuated them.

And add to all of the above the fact that the Elkhart Truth, the South Bend Tribune, the Goshen News, and Elkhart’s public records department are still in the 19th century, and it’s impossible to tear through all of their stuff with a search engine and read results. If I wanted to seriously research this more, I’d have to fly to Elkhart and spend a few weeks at a microfiche reader, which isn’t happening any time soon. It’s no wonder almost all of my google searches on this material returned my own pages at the top result. That’s fucked up.


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