It took 40 years to find Christie Mullins' killer. But the final verdict, and a police apology, didn't feel much like justice.
Kim Mullins strategically chose to stand in the corner of the starkly plain and drearily official Columbus Police Academy lobby on Hague Avenue. A line of reporters with bright lights and video cameras were off to her right, a line of detectives in suits facing her. With hands shaking, she hit the record button on her cellphone.
Sgt. Eric Pilya, head of the six-person Columbus police cold-case homicide squad, leaned toward the microphones clipped to the lectern and spoke the words that Mullins and her family had waited more than 40 years to hear: Police had solved the 1975 killing of Christie Lynn Mullins. Despite an earlier resolve to hang tough, tears spilled from Kim's eyes.
Pilya continued, "Christie was a 14-year-old girl who was murdered on Aug. 23, 1975, behind the Woolco at the Graceland Shopping Center. The suspect responsible for her death is Henry H. Newell Jr."
Few in the room stirred at the announcement. The Mullins family had believed Newell, a former Clintonville neighbor, was the likely killer almost from the moment he reported to authorities that he'd stumbled upon the murder scene while walking through the woods that bordered Graceland. He said he'd seen Christie's murderer swing the board that killed her and had knelt by the body to see if there was any hope of saving the girl even as her assailant ran away.
Christie was Kim's sister, older by fewer than two years. She was Kim's idol, her mentor, her best friend. Christie was talented, musical, inquisitive. She was the one who most cherished routine, who always ate Raisin Bran for breakfast and never said no to a bowl of chili, no matter the time of day.
And then one day she was gone.
As the years passed, life surged forward. The Mullins siblings built careers and marriages and had children and grandchildren. Even their mother moved on. Norman Mullins, though? He was different. Christie's dad obsessed over his daughter's death, fixated on what he thought he knew and told anyone who would listen, including authorities, that Columbus police weren't doing their jobs. Norman was certain that Newell, the purported lone witness, had killed his daughter and (for reasons unknown) everyone was willfully looking the other way. Newell's suspected involvement consumed Norman until cancer finally ended his life at the age of 72 in 2006.
After his death, the family learned to tuck their pain away into tidy little compartments, assuming no answers and no resolution would ever come.
Then John Oller came calling. The author and New York City lawyer was a student at Ohio State University when the Mullins case made headlines. Now, four decades later, he wanted to write a book about it. In the fall of 2013, he started asking questions that no one-even the very people charged 40 years ago with seeking truth-had ever asked. He got people to talk who never had before. He ferretted out new information and fed it to police. He reminded the public of the innocence a generation of teenagers lost the day Christie was murdered. And the community rallied at his cry.
It was Oller whom police credited when they made the announcement in that sterile lobby for bringing the truth to light, even if it was too little, too late. "He's the individual that kind of shook the bushes," detective Steve Eppert says of Oller. "He poked the bear, so to speak. I believe in giving credit where it's due."
Yet this long-awaited resolution brought little joy.***
Within eight days of Christie's brutal murder in the woods behind the Graceland Woolco store, police and prosecutors arrested a local man, charged him, convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison.
Jack Carmen, by police accounts at the time, was a slam dunk. He had, after all, confessed to killing the girl and an eyewitness-Newell-had implicated him and plucked him out of a police lineup. Good enough, right?
Never mind that Carmen had the IQ of a child and clearly documented developmental disabilities that meant he'd go wherever anyone led him-even if it meant confessing, after a marathon round of police questioning, to the murder of a girl he'd never met.
But the public was skeptical. Many in the Mullins' Clintonville community and her traumatized friends at Whetstone High School never believed it was Carmen. It just didn't add up. The American Civil Liberties Union took up Carmen's case. Locals interested in justice formed a "Justice for Jack" activist group to free him and to demand a real and thorough investigation.
Much of the Columbus media had already turned the page. But the unlikeliest of all media, Ohio State University's student newspaper, the Lantern, took up the cause. Student journalists Rick Kelly and James Yavorcik worked the neighborhood and interviewed key people police had failed to talk to. They retraced the journey Carmen had confessed to, from a Volunteers of America facility on West Broad Street where he lived, to Graceland via COTA bus, and determined that the police timeline didn't add up. Decorated police detectives apparently never bothered to check it out themselves. The story in the Lantern made a ripple that turned into a wave when Columbus Monthly magazine gave Kelly and Yavorcik a larger perch from which to publish their account. Within four months of the story, Carmen was granted a new trial and, ultimately, released.
"I was in the courtroom the day the judge said he was vacating Jack Carmen's guilty plea," says Yavorcik, 61, a married father of two grown children and a partner at Cubbon & Associates law firm in Toledo. "I was proud of our work then and I remain proud of it today. The work we did righted a wrong and helped to clear an innocent man."
The Mullins family, who themselves admitted they hadn't believed Carmen was the killer, were left begging for answers-and justice-in what would become over the following months, then years, an unsolved cold-case, a file collecting dust on a shelf in a police storeroom alongside hundreds of others.***
Jim Yavorcik always figured he would be the one to write the book about the Christie Mullins case someday. He even envisioned it being turned into a movie. Even today, he says, he can close his eyes and see the opening scene: a fresh-faced student, barely old enough to buy a beer at the Varsity Club, is riding his bike to the Lantern offices, a David Sanborn saxophone solo playing over the opening credits, maybe one that would lead to movie rights.
But Yavorcik, like so many others, had a life to live. "I would think of this case from time to time," he says, "but I never did anything else about it. I moved on. I assumed Jack Carmen and the Mullins family and all of the people who lived around Graceland Shopping Center moved on. When I heard from John Oller, I soon realized maybe they all didn't move on after all."
It was the fall of 2013 and Oller had just finished his second book, a Civil War-era biography called "American Queen," and found himself hungry for new material. It didn't take long for him to find it. Browsing a website for amateur unsolved-homicide sleuths, he found a thread that rang a bell. Oller had been a student reporter at the Lantern when Kelly and Yavorcik took up the Mullins case.
Oller called Yavorcik, and was thrilled to learn that his former classmate had kept boxes upon boxes of story materials through the long years. Interview notes, transcripts, photographs, names and numbers and addresses of people he'd talked to decades ago-he'd never thrown a single scrap away. "I gave him everything I had and told him 'Good luck,'" Yavorcik says. "He was the man to do this."***
It didn't take long for Oller to realize that Christie Mullins' murder had simmered just beneath the surface for many others as well. He called Christie's former classmates. He emailed her friends. He hunted down Newell's old friends and associates, his kids, his in-laws.
There was enough of a scent of something bigger that Oller soon abandoned his idea for a full-scale book. This was no longer about writing a book; this was about righting a wrong.
So he wrote from his home in New York and self-published the story, "An All-American Murder" online. A social media following of Christie's family and friends latched on. A fresh review by the police seemed the only way to get any resolution. Oller and neighbors approached the Clintonville Area Commission-an advisory body with no authority over police matters. But it worked. The commission petitioned the Columbus police, and in early 2014, chief Kim Jacobs ordered the cold-case team to review the file. Even then, Oller held little hope. The police and prosecutors had resisted for decades, seemingly miffed that their tidy case had been overturned. What would really change now, he thought. "The family had gotten no traction with them for 40 years and I had gotten no traction for months," he says. "I wasn't confident."
But then some of Newell's relatives decided to come forward.
Oller had reached out to them several times and struck out. But in the spring of 2014, all that changed. Newell's niece contacted him out of the blue. Her uncle couldn't hurt her anymore, she said. She was no longer afraid. She wanted Oller to know that he had confessed to her that he'd killed that girl.
According to the recently released Columbus police case files of the review, Pam Newell Brown told Oller in a recorded phone call, that Henry Newell had told her in 1991: "I wanted to let you know, I did kill her." He told his niece he intended to rape Christie, but it never got that far.
Another phone call followed. Nellie Newell, a sister-in-law, also talked to Oller. She knew, too, she said. Then, a daughter called. Oller provided that information to Eppert of the cold-case squad. The police could no longer look the other way.
The detective spent 18 months reexamining the old case. He asked for new DNA testing, which yielded nothing. He reinterviewed witnesses. He talked to the surviving Newells and had people take lie-detector tests.
And, perhaps most importantly, he went back and interviewed the officials-the ones still alive after all this time, anyway-who investigated this case originally. Lead detective Robert Litzinger, now 74, retired and still living in Columbus, told Eppert that he clearly recalled taking Jack Carmen into custody that day back in 1975, and that he was convinced that Carmen didn't do it.
Litzinger told Eppert that he was told by his superiors to "stand down" when it came to investigating and interrogating Newell. Litzinger told Eppert that he believed other detectives and his sergeant "railroaded Jack Carmen for nothing more than to close a high profile case that was on the front page of the newspaper," Eppert wrote in his report.
Others involved with the case told Eppert that Newell had been protected by the brass, that he'd been a low-level snitch for the department. But most of those involved, the records show, believed this was simply a case of tunnel-vision by detectives, nabbing a scapegoat who confessed.
At the press conference in November, Pilya called it "improper investigative techniques." Columbus police spokesman Sgt. Rich Weiner says the naming of Newell as a suspect and Eppert's investigative conclusions had been approved by not only Jacobs, but by the city's safety service director and prosecutors. He would not allow any more interviews with officials after that day. The record, Weiner says, speaks for itself.
Oller never really thought that day at the Police Academy would come. "I'm not sure this was a popular decision within the department, to reopen this case. I don't know anyone who supported it," he says.
And though he's proud of his work, he's only partially satisfied now. He'll still examine all of the old files, which have now been made public. He has something else he wants to learn from it all: "Was it sheer bureaucratic inertia or the desire to protect someone-sloppy police work or something more malevolent?"
Kim Mullins isn't done, either. There will be no charges. No guilty plea. No trial. No prison term. No death sentence. Never any answers for the Mullins family as to how and, most importantly, why.
"There's no one to punish. They knew all these years-or they should have known-it was him and they just looked the other way," Kim says. "All of this, these last two years, was just like reliving it. It's like my sister was dead all over again. We'd separated life with Christie and life after. After all these years, I couldn't separate them anymore. Now, we've had to face it all. Hearing them say that they closed the case was pointless, really."
In early December, more than 40 years after her sister's murder, she received the complete case file. She planned to spend her holidays pouring over records that had for so long been secret.
She wasn't sure how she'd feel about it, and she doesn't yet know what she's going to do next. She knows that if the records convince her that even one detective back then intentionally-or perhaps even accidentally-let a killer go free, someone should pay. "I think Henry Newell was a horrible, evil man and this resolution glorifies him. I think he would have wanted everyone in the world to know, 'Hey, look what I got away with.' It would have been bragging rights. And now, to know that the very people-the police that we trusted-for whatever reason let that horrible man stay on the street…" She stops. Drops her head into her hands.
Yet she is grateful to the current police administration, and Pilya and Eppert in particular. She credits them-along with Oller-for finally doing what had to be done. And she says there was indeed a measure of absolution that day in that lobby in Hague Avenue. Pilya apologized. And his words nearly felled her.
"The Columbus Division of Police wishes to formally and publicly offer an apology to the family and close friends of Christie Mullins for the lack of action taken in pursuit of Henry Newell as a suspect by investigators 40 years ago and any hardship that may have resulted from those actions."
That sentence vindicated Norman Mullins, who had been written off as an obsessed and nearly crazy father for years, filled with conspiracy theories in his pursuit of justice for a dead daughter he wouldn't let go.
That's why Kim hit "record" on her phone that day. She wanted the words and the apology on tape.
As Christmas approached, she drove through Claibourne Cemetery in the Union County village of Richwood. She rounded the two curves and drove past the little building to the back where Christie and Norman are buried, side by side.
She knelt by her dad's grave. She hit play.