Jeffrey Hand

Submitted photo

These undated photos of Jeffrey Lynn Hand were displayed by Police Chief Shawn Keen during a presentation on the cold case homicide of Pam Milam.

Might the solving of a 46-year-old homicide in Vigo County lead police to the answer of who killed an Indiana University student 42 years ago?

The strangulation death of Ann Harmeier in Morgan County has remained unsolved since her decomposing body was discovered by a farmer harvesting corn near Martinsville in October 1977.

Harmeier, a 20-year-old Cambridge City resident, was returning to the IU campus when she vanished Sept. 12, 1977. Her southbound car broke down on Indiana 37 near Martinsville, and a witness saw a “good Samaritan” give the young woman a ride.

Through the years, police have checked out possible suspects, most of them connected to other violent crimes throughout the Midwest, as they attempted to solve the Harmeier homicide.

Nothing ever fit.

But it wasn't until last week — with the solving of the strangulation death of Indiana State University student Pam Milam — that another possible suspect in the Harmeier case emerged.

Terre Haute Police Chief Shawn Keen met Thursday with active and retired detectives from the Indiana State Police at Bloomington who are focused on the 1977 death of Harmeier.

“They were very polite and very interested,” Keen said of the ISP investigators who heard about suspect Jeffrey Lynn Hand and the recent match to his DNA found on Milam's body in 1972.

Hand was 23 years old when Milam, 20, went missing Sept. 15, 1972, on the ISU campus. Her body was found two days later in the trunk of her car. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten, bound and gagged, and strangled with clothesline.

Hand was never a suspect in that homicide until recently.

In fact, he would not come to police attention for any reason until June 1973, when he was arrested in connection with the abduction and killing of an Evansville man and the kidnapping of his wife.

Even then, police did not connect the Milam homicide to the young man who picked up the Evansville couple in Terre Haute while they were hitch-hiking home from Chicago.

Hand was jailed on the night of that 1973 homicide and would remain in custody until June 1976, when he was released from a state psychiatric hospital where he had been held since being found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.

Fifteen months later, Harmeier would go missing.

Four months after that, Hand would die in a gunfight with Kokomo police after he tried to abduct a woman at a shopping mall.

Just a small-town guy

Hand was a native of southern Indiana. Keen's investigation revealed that the young man, with his sandy hair and college-age appearance, traveled throughout Indiana and Illinois on delivery routes. He would fit in on a college campus, where he could look for victims without raising suspicions.

As a teenager, Hand attended Washington High School in Daviess County. Photos from the school's yearbook available online show a clean-cut teen in 1966 and 1967.

Keen told the Tribune-Star he talked to relatives of Hand and found out the young man grew up in an abusive home. That abuse carried over into Hand's own marriage with his wife and three small children, Keen said.

The wife told Keen she learned to never question where her husband was during his lengthy travels. She worked a low-wage job and received financial support from relatives who helped her and her children.

On June 16, 1973, Hand was living on a small farm near Warrenton in Gibson County. His wife and children were still living in Washington.

A killer on the road

According to a June 18, 1973, news report from the Princeton Daily Clarion, Hand was traveling south on U.S. 41 south of Terre Haute about 9 p.m. when he saw Jeffrey Wayne Thomas and his wife, Carol, walking along the highway. Hand offered the couple a ride to Evansville, saying he lived nearby in Gibson County.

The couple, both age 22, had been married only a few weeks, Carol Thomas told police, andthey had no money with them at the time, so they accepted the ride.

But when Hand reached the Warrenton road about 12 miles north of Evansville, he turned east toward his home on the pretext of stopping to pick up something. When the car reached the small white farmhouse, Carol Thomas said, Hand pulled out a handgun.

When the newlyweds told him they had no money, Hand fired one shot from the .38 special through the roof of his 1968 turquoise Chevrolet.

Hand then told Jeffrey Thomas that Carol would be held hostage while Hand took Thomas to Evansville to raise a ransom. At gunpoint, Jeffrey Thomas tied his wife's hands behind her with a nylon cord. Hand then tied Jeffrey Thomas's hands behind him.

Carol Thomas was locked inside a grain bin while Hand left with her husband in a 1964 Pontiac.

Carol Thomas was able to get free and run to a nearby farmhouse where she called police to report the kidnapping.

The newspaper account said police waited for Hand to return home, then took him into custody with Carol Thomas identifying him as the suspect. Police found the pistol in Hand's Pontiac, as well as a rifle and hunting knife.

Hand was booked into the Gibson County Jail in Princeton on a charge of kidnapping. A few hours later, Hand would tell police that Jeffrey Thomas was dead.

Hand led police to the body off Indiana 62 in Posey County. Jeffrey Thomas had been shot and stabbed multiple times.

Hand was charged with homicide in Posey County, but was moved to the Vanderburgh County Jail for security reasons.

The murder trial would be moved to Monroe County due to pretrial publicity, and Hand would be found incompetent to stand trial.

After lengthy legal challenges, Hand was brought to trial, where a jury found him not guilty of the murder charge by reason of insanity. He was committed to a state mental hospital in August 1975.

A later attempt to file a kidnapping charge against Hand for the abduction of Carol Thomas was struck down by a judge who said the kidnapping charge should have been filed with the murder charge.By June 1976, Hand was out of police custody.

Last encounter fatal

The next known contact Hand had with police is in Howard County — three hours and 170 miles from his southern Indiana home.

According to a Jan. 25, 1978, article in the Indianapolis News, 29-year-old Jeffrey Hand of Washington was killed by three gunshots fired by Kokomo policemen.

Police said Hand abducted a woman at gunpoint from the Markland Mall shopping center along the U.S. 31 bypass. He forced her into her car, saying he had to get to South Bend.

Witnesses notified police, and an off-duty Howard County deputy in the area cut off the fleeing car.

Hand jumped from the car and fled down an alley until the deputy ordered Hand to stop and return to the police car. When the deputy reached into his car for his radio microphone, Hand drew a .32 caliber revolver and opened fire, striking the deputy twice.

Hand fired three more times, but missed, and then fled down an alley.

Two Kokomo police officers chased Hand, who was running toward a railroad track. Hand was shot three times.

He crawled under a freight car, but collapsed and died on the other side of the train.

That news report mentioned Hand's trial in Monroe County and his mental health treatment and release from the Dr. Norman Beatty Memorial Hospital at Westville.

During those months between his release from the hospital and his death in Kokomo, the killing of Harmeier occurred.

A community in fear

Ann Louise Harmeier was admired by her Indiana University friends and faculty as a talented actress who worked hard at her acting craft and her studies.

When she didn't show up on campus for rehearsal at a theater production, her friends were instantly worried.

Signs cropped up around campus and in the Morgan County area where her car was found.

“Where is Ann?” the signs asked.

When her body was found in October, the question of “where” shifted to “who” and “why.”

A news report from the Richmond Palladium-Item newspaper described the rural area where her body was found, just a few miles from her abandoned automobile.

Neighbors in the area told a reporter they were paying more attention to their children waiting at bus stops, and had become wary of strangers.

The neighbors also noted that the Feb. 14, 1977, thrill-kill slaying of four youths in a rural home near Hollandsburg in Parke County revealed a darker side to the world.

“It's getting so you can't feel safe anywhere,” one woman told a reporter.

Everyone's a suspect

Through the years, various suspects would attract police interest.

Stephen Judy was convicted of killing Terry Lee Chasten and her three children in the same area between Martinsville and Bloomington in 1979.

Judy was a suspect in the Harmeier case until police found out he was in the Marion County Jail on the night of Harmeier's disappearance.

Oregon resident Joseph Mazer also became a suspect after he confessed to the strangulation of a Pennsylvania waitress on Sept. 10, just two days before Harmeier disappeared.

David A. Kinnaird of Morgan County was also checked as a possible suspect after he was arrested in the kidnapping and rape of a teenage girl in Mooresville a few months after Harmeier went missing.

Just as police continued to examine other criminal cases for possible suspects in the Pam Milam homicide, the search for Harmeier's killer would revive many times through the years.

Police had evidence from both the Morgan County and the Terre Haute scenes -- fingerprints, handprints and other potential evidence.

But Hand did not show up in any database and was not connected to either killing.

DNA made the difference

For several years, police have collected the DNA of convicted felons in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

But DNA testing did not exist at the time of either the Milam or Harmeier homicides.

The suspect in the Milam case left his DNA on her body, police said.

Fortunately, THPD Chief Keen said, some suspect DNA was able to be collected from the evidence stored in the Milam case, and a profile of the suspect was developed.

As the DNA technology improved, Keen realized it might be possible to find a suspect if relatives had entered their own DNA into one of the current genealogy databases growing in popularity. That led him to Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia.

The company does comparative DNA analysis, which measures the amount of DNA shared between two people, and uses genealogy research using historical records to infer relationships between people.

In the Milam case, the Parabon analysis led to southern Indiana, and turned up some potential relatives for Keen to interview.

During a news conference last week on the Milam case, Keen said he contacted people in the Washington, Indiana, area who directed him to Hand as a suspect. Keen located Hand's widow and two children, now living in the Vincennes and Washington areas.

After interviews which shed some light on the movements of Hand during the time of the Milam homicide, the man's relatives provided DNA samples for testing and comparison. The results of that testing showed Jeffrey Lynn Hand had left his DNA on Pam Milam's body.

An unknown connection

When the details of Hand's criminal past were released recently, veteran journalists remembered the unsolved Harmeier case and recognized that it fit the time frame of Hand's freedom following incarceration before his own violent death.

When Keen learned of that connection, he contacted the Indiana State Police at Bloomington.

He met with the current cold case detective, as well as the original investigator and another retired detective.

“I presented everything from the Milam case for their review, and told them that a DNA profile now exists in CODIS,” Keen said.

The detectives were “very interested” in the information, he said, but he could not publicly discuss potential re-examination of the Harmeier case.

Sgt. Curt Durnil of the Bloomington ISP post said detectives there are clearly interested in the information from Keen and will be looking for a possible connection to the Harmeier case.

"Any time we have this kind of inter-agency cooperation, we are going to look at that and hopefully bring some kind of closure to a cold case and maybe some comfort to the family or loved ones of the victim," Durnil said.

Keen said it is also possible other unsolved homicides could eventually be linked to Hand. That will depend, in part, on whether potential DNA evidence was collected from those long-ago cases.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.

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