One year later, the homicides of Abby Williams and Libby German still haunt Delphi. But if there’s a common thread of hope in the small town: Catching the killer is just a matter of time.
DELPHI, Ind. – A common thread runs through Delphi these days, echoed most mornings in Facebook posts by Liberty “Libby” German’s grandmother, Becky Patty: “Today is the day.”
A year ago this week, on Feb. 14, search parties found Libby and her friend, Abby Williams, two eighth-graders at Delphi Community Middle School, killed near Deer Creek. On Feb. 13, an unseasonably warm Monday, the two friends had used the day off school to hang out on a popular community trail leading to one of Delphi’s iconic spots, the Monon High Bridge.
To this day, the killer remains a mystery.
To this day, Delphi – where sketches of a suspect are blown up in the windows of storefronts, and ribbons in teal and purple, the girls’ favorite colors, surround the Carroll County Courthouse square – remains confident in an investigation that brought in hundreds of local, state and federal offices but has yet to produce an arrest.
If today isn’t the day, that day is coming soon. Or so goes the hope, one year later.
“I think people have been antsy to get this case solved since Day 1,” said Shane Evans, mayor of Delphi, a town of 2,877 about 17 miles northeast of Lafayette. “I don’t think there’s a person in Delphi who hasn’t felt this.”
Here are some of those who have been touched, one year into the case of Abby and Libby.
A GRANDFATHER: 'I CAN'T PUT MY HEAD AROUND IT'
Mike Patty said it just doesn’t feel like a year has gone by since his granddaughter, Libby, and her friend, Abby, were found less than a mile from the Monon High Bridge trail.
A year since thousands of tips have poured in with no arrest. A year since being asked hundreds of times, yet always one more time, to tell Abby and Libby’s story in hopes that this will be the retelling that sparks one more clue that leads to a killer. A year that he’s taken calls and dropped everything to drive across the state – “North, south, east, west, it doesn’t matter,” he said – to meet someone who says they might, just maybe, have some information relevant to the unsolved case.
“I’m always hopefully optimistic that something’s about to break – waiting for my phone to ring, know what I mean, with one of the officers calling me that they have somebody,” Patty, an engineer at Caterpillar’s Lafayette plant, said last week. “We’re just about getting things out there. What other ideas are there? Tell me. I mean, I’m not done. But I don’t know what my next move’s going to be. Here we are at a year. I never thought we’d be at a year on this. Let’s face it, with information that law enforcement has, it’s hard to believe we don’t have this guy caught.”
Police have released limited, but key bits about the investigation. Libby captured photos and audio of the suspect. A witness gave enough of a description of a man seen on the Monon High Trail at the time Abby and Libby went missing to provide a composite sketch. And a reward fund is just shy of a quarter-million dollars. Police have made no arrests.
Finding a killer, Patty said, would finally let his family and Abby’s mom, Anna, and family finally start to grieve. (“Right now, it’s constantly open – this wound,” he said.) But he said he also feels another pressure bearing down.
“I’m fearful for him to do this to another family,” Patty said. “This sucks, beyond imagination. People say, ‘Whoa, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.’ No. No, you can’t. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Because, hell, I couldn’t have.
“But I can tell you one thing: This is what you wake up with every day. It’s the last thoughts before you go to bed. And some nights, I still don’t sleep. For three months, I didn’t sleep,” Patty said. “And I’m not going to sleep until I know another family won’t have to go through this, like we are right now.”
The tailgate of his pickup truck has a “wanted” sticker with information about the case, a description, photo and a sketch of the suspect, along with Abby and Libby’s faces and the FBI’s tip line: 844-459-5786. (“Listen,” Patty said, “you can’t get that number out there too often.”) The window in the back of his extended cab features a large decal someone made for him, reading, “In Memory of Libby/Abby,” in the shape of a Harley-Davidson logo.
Last fall, Becky Patty started “Brainstorming for Abby and Libby,” a Facebook group dedicated not to discussing the particulars of the case but to coming up with new ways to spread the word. They created the bumper stickers and sent them in bulk to trucking companies for their fleets. They sent fliers about the case to 3,142 sheriff’s offices, one for every county in the United States. They’ve been on national broadcasts with Megyn Kelly and the “Dr. Phil Show.” They’ve gone to festivals, fairs and trade shows across the region.
“When we go to shows, I set up this big picture (of the suspect), three-foot-by-whatever, and I’m just waiting for somebody to come up and say, ‘Hey, I know that guy,’” Patty said. “Really? Yes, I want to talk to you. Come right around here, and let’s talk.”
The year also has been a time to take stock in how Delphi has wrapped itself around the families.
Shortly after Abby and Libby were killed, the community held a number of fundraisers and set up tip jars at grocery store checkout lanes to support the families. Patty said he wasn’t interested in the money – “I wanted my girl back, but that’s not going to happen,” he said – but was persuaded that it was a sign of a community looking for ways to help. He met them halfway.
Patty said the idea was to fold whatever money was donated into youth programs. He figured they’d have enough to buy a $5,000 set of bleachers for a softball field. As the fund grew into six figures, the families recalibrated and created the Libby and Abby Softball Park Fund, a nonprofit group set up through the Carroll County Community Foundation. The goal: Build a park with three fields for softball and baseball. (Abby and Libby had pulled out their softball gear in the days before they died, getting ready for the spring practices.)
With some help from the state and land donation from a neighboring property owner, the group has 21 acres in hand near the intersection of Hoosier Heartland Highway and Indiana 218, about a mile-and-a-half north of the Freedom Bridge and the entrance to the Monon High Bridge trail. Last week, Patty bought lumber and got a permit to put up a “Coming Soon” sign on the site. He calls the project “multi-generational,” and could take up to $1 million and several stages.
Patty said he’s looking forward to a day when he can put more of his time into the softball complex project.
For now, Abby and Libby’s killer is still out there.
He said he wonders often whether the killer is a brash, boisterous guy or more of a quiet type. He wonders how anyone could be capable of doing what they did. He wonders what sort of lives his Libby and her friend, Abby, might have had.
And he doesn’t always sleep at night.
“I can’t put my head around it,” Patty said. “This is horrible. Horrible to live like this, know what I mean?”
Patty wasn’t looking for an answer right then. He knows you probably don’t know how horrible. And that’s why he’s working so hard today.
THE SHERIFF: ‘WE’RE GOING TO GET IT’
Every morning, Tobe Leazenby’s phone dings with a daily Bible verse, courtesy of what the Carroll County sheriff calls a “brother sheriff from another county.”
“A comfort, really,” Leazenby said. “And at a time I can use it. I’m blessed.”
The search for Abby and Libby’s killer didn’t take long to expand beyond Leazenby’s department of 11 sworn officers. Enough investigators descended on Delphi – from Indiana State Police to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, with regular briefings reaching Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk – that for months they commandeered a former REMC building at one corner of the Carroll County Courthouse square, equipped with a dedicated tip line. The team, much smaller at the one-year mark, has since moved to Delphi City Hall.
But Leazenby, who still considers his office the lead agency in the case, said he understands that his name and his face are among those best known to those in town waiting for answers. The fact that the killer remains a mystery is among the reasons he filed to run for re-election in November 2018. (So far, he has no challenger.)
Leazenby said he has faith.
Faith in God.
And faith in the years of law enforcement experience attached to the case.
“I’m a huge believer that there is a plan and that it’s God’s plan,” Leazenby said. “There is a time for this to be resolved. … When people ask, ‘Why is it taking so long?’, I’m confident when I say that I know one day we’ll end up in that courthouse and someone will be standing there being prosecuted.”
Leazenby admits there have been moments he believed the team was closing in. (“A few of them, we got us wound up,” he said.) He doesn’t allow what those moments were. He assumes the stance investigators have taken nearly from the start – that of tight lips.
And he preaches patience in a case he initially thought would be solved in the first 24 to 48 hours.
“It’s not that I jump into a defensive mindset,” Leazenby said. “But I fall back into the fact that when we get that one piece of evidence – and we’re going to get it – we’re only going to get one shot at a conviction. For the most part, I think there’s an understanding about that.”
Until then, the daily scriptures in the face of the pressure help.
“Experience tells me there will be justice,” Leazenby said. “I have faith.”
THE 911 DISPATCHER: KILLER’S WORLD GETTING SMALLER EVERY DAY
Cassi Lane said she knew that finding Abby and Libby’s killer wasn’t going to be easy two days after the girls were found, when investigators installed a phone bank at the Delphi Police Department.
“The moment we set up a tip line with 10 phones with 10 lines each, I knew we were in for the long haul,” said Lane, lead communicator for Carroll County 911.
In those first days, dispatchers and Indiana State Police troopers from the region were called in to field tips around the clock.
A year and more than 11,000 leads later – collected through a separate FBI tip line established a week after the homicides or through the Carroll County 911 dispatch center – Lane said her office still gets at least one tip a day, either by phone or email, coming from across the country.
That number spikes every time a national media outlet retells the story, police release a sketch or bit of audio, or there is some other sort of jolt in the case – such as when police considered Daniel Nations a person of interest. (Nations, bearing some resemblance to a composite sketch of the suspect, was wanted in Indiana and had been arrested for making threats on a Colorado trail in September. Police have not said he’s considered a suspect in the double homicide, though Indiana police last week brought him back to Johnson County, where he was jailed for failure to register as a sex offender.)
“We get a lot of the same sorts of things,” Lane said. “Things like, ‘We’ve seen a person who looks like that.’ ‘We know this person who wears clothes like in that picture.’ When the audio came out, it was, ‘I know that person’s voice.’”
Still, she said: “We don’t have a bad guy.”
Have there been moments when she gets a tip and just feels it’s the one that could close the case? Lane said she hasn’t let that thought cloud her judgment or her job. She said she’s logged tips and let investigators decide what information fits into the puzzle.
“But I think (Libby’s) family says it best,” Lane said. “Whoever the killer is, his world is getting smaller every day. With every tip, with every phone call, his world gets smaller. … There’s still that one tip out there. It’s just a matter of the right tip.”
THE PRINCIPAL AND THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR: ‘THESE ARE OUR GIRLS’
Abby and Libby’s lockers – which turned into makeshift shrines through the end of the 2016-17 school year – remain empty this year, but look as plain as all the others in the hallways of Delphi Community Middle School. Really, there are few tributes or formal memorials to the girls in the hallways of the school, where they were eighth-graders at the time they were killed.
“That’s not really true, though,” said Sarah Gustin, Delphi Community Middle School principal. “With all the T-shirts here every day with Abby and Libby’s name and all the bracelets about justice for Abby and Libby, it’s like we have all these little, moving tributes walking around school all day.”
“What happened is always right there, right at the surface,” said Angela Bieghler, the middle school’s counselor. “Whatever the conversation is, it comes back to Abby and Libby. Every conversation – which has been totally understandable.”
The past year, Gustin said, has been a matter of protecting kids as much as possible in the school of 360, spread across sixth-, seventh- and eighth grades.
The past year also has been 12 months of firsts.
The first time a community of counselors and pastors felt compelled to ring the buzzer at the middle school’s main entrance, streaming in around lunchtime that Wednesday after police confirmed that Abby and Libby had been killed. (“They just knew to come,” Bieghler, the middle school’s lone counselor, said. “And we were glad they did.”)
The first time FBI agents came to the school to gently call grieving friends aside to find out all the eighth-graders could tell about the girls.
The first time kids brought cellphones to the principal’s office to show Snapchat feeds that might help in the investigation. (“Our kids were doing everything they knew how to do,” Gustin said. “They wanted to catch this guy.”)
More recently, the first swim meet without Libby racing with the team. Last weekend, the first state solo and ensemble band competitions. (Both girls played saxophone.)
The last of those firsts will come this week in the anniversary for a school small enough that Gustin calls it a family.
“At the beginning of the year we said it’s OK to not be OK,” Bieghler said.
Still, they saw students who wanted teachers to know they were angry and didn’t know why.
Bieghler set up a system so students could email her from their classrooms when they were feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and she could quietly ask them to report to the office to talk things out. And Gustin said teachers tried to emphasize just how much support the school had received from surrounding communities, including cards, visits, volunteers and even comfort dogs from schools in surrounding counties.
“Look at all the kindness from people who don’t really know us,” Gustin said. “The community’s been amazing, and that’s what we try to stress to the kids.”
There won’t be assemblies or memorials at the school Tuesday or Wednesday for the anniversary. Teachers will be on point just the same, Gustin said. Same goes for the day when police say they’ve caught the killer and all those emotions flow again. Whenever that is.
“We’re thinking about that all the time, too,” Bieghler said.
“I get that it’s ‘a case’ for a lot of people,” Gustin said. “This is our family. It’s not just something on the news. These are our girls.”
THE FAMILY PASTOR: ‘JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED’
Pastor Todd Ladd put his hand on a photographer’s shoulder last week as the two walked into the sanctuary at Delphi United Methodist Church, near the intersection of U.S. 421 and the Hoosier Heartland Highway. The pastor wanted to compliment the photographer for a small detail in a picture taken in that same room, nine days after Abby and Libby were first reported missing.
That day, Feb. 22, police from two dozen local, state and federal agencies displayed the investigation’s firepower and introduced audio of the suspect found on Libby’s cellphone.
Ladd said he’d struggled about whether the church should host the press conference. Not so much because of the media circus sure to arrive. Ladd said that was new territory, but something he knew his congregation could learn to handle.
But would it, Ladd wondered, compromise a worship space with memories so horrific that they might be impossible to wipe away in the minds of some in his congregation?
The sanctuary already had hosted a vigil for the girls on Feb. 14, the day Abby and Libby were found near Deer Creek, a half-mile from the Monon High Bridge. And a private funeral for Libby had been there the Sunday before, as he and the congregation started what Ladd called a time of questioning, listening and “trying to point the family to a path of peace.”
“But a press conference? About a double homicide? One that hit so close to home in so many ways?” Ladd asked. “Never would have thought that would happen when I was back in seminary.”
The picture from that day, the one Ladd liked, was taken at such an angle that it caught one of the high, tan walls that flanked that altar and, in shades of blue, displayed a host of references to Jesus Christ: Prince of peace, healer, comforter.
“I’m not sure everyone saw it. And maybe I saw it simply because it seemed so obvious to me,” Ladd said. “But that was the message we needed moving forward.”
On Feb. 13, Delphi United Methodist Church will hold a candlelight vigil for the girls. This one won’t be a police update. And it won’t have the media circus. (Ladd says the church will ask media to give everyone space that night.)
“We’re going to talk about how the girls lived and how we’re touched by their life and how we want to live and honor their life,” Ladd said. “So, this anniversary is less about the death as it is about the life. …
“I totally believe we’ll have justice for these girls,” Ladd said. “Whether that justice is on this side of eternity or on the opposite side of eternity, I do not know. But I do believe justice will be served.”
THE POLICE CHAPLAIN: FAITH IN FACE OF GRINDING INVESTIGATION
For the first eight months after Abby and Libby were killed, Pastor Ed Selvidge was in downtown Delphi nearly every weekday, offering a prayer at 9 a.m. sharp for investigators who wanted it and believed they could use it to start another painstaking day.
Selvidge still preached on Sundays at Radnor United Methodist Church, about six miles from Delphi. But his congregation essentially cut him loose much of the rest of the time to set up station at the command post for the double homicide investigation.
“I was the concierge,” said Selvidge, who had been chaplain for the Delphi Police Department and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department for 17 years.
That meant lining up meals, managing press requests when needed and being among those pointing the countless number of people who stopped by the REMC building on the courthouse square to ways they could help support the investigation without tripping up police doing their work.
That, and providing moral and spiritual support for investigators, many of whom were from other states, as the all-out blitz during the earliest days of the investigation – “There were hundreds of people there in that little, teeny spot,” Selvidge said – soon became, as he puts it, “more of a grind.”
His message to investigators then is his message to them now: The answer is there. God, with you at all times, just wants you to work it out.
“The resolve was never lost,” Selvidge said. “I don’t think this is a breach of confidence, I believe it’s just a word of encouragement, but in speaking to all the officers, they’re just more confident than ever. They just assure me that this is just the way it’s done. Slow and methodical and making sure you cover everything available to you.”
Selvidge said his work in a support role with the investigation is down to a matter of checking in weekly, given that the investigation team, at least locally, is down to a handful of people assigned to the case full time.
“For whatever reason, God put me in this place for that purpose,” Selvidge said, quoting from Esther in the Old Testament. “I really still feel that way. I believe everyone here since Day 1 has been put here for a purpose, too. It’s why I’m more confident than ever, too.”
THE TRAILS ADVOCATE: ‘COMMUNITY NEEDS SOME TIME, YET’
The trail Abby and Libby hiked to the Monon High Bridge the day they disappeared ends abruptly at a chain link fence that stretches into the woods and marked, “Temporarily closed for bridge repair and trail expansion.”
“I’m not sure how much good that does, but it’s there,” said Dan McCain, president of Delphi Historic Trails and president of the Wabash & Erie Canal Association. “There’s something about the bridge. There probably always will be.”
The Monon High Bridge, built in 1891 and abandoned by CSX in 1987, is touted as the second tallest trestle in Indiana, towering 63 feet above Deer Creek. For decades, it’s been a destination point, albeit an unauthorized one. At the end of the 1.5-mile Monon High Bridge Trail, part of 10 miles of trails inside and just out of Delphi, the bridge was the backdrop for some of the girls’ final photos, including one of a man police consider a suspect.
In April, Indiana Landmarks completed a deal that had been five years in the works and that eventually will put the bridge into the hands of Deer Creek Township. The township has a grant to shore up the piers, rework the decking and add safety features, including railings, to officially make the bridge an official continuation of the trail system.
McCain said that it’s taken some time, but foot traffic is back up on Delphi’s trails, which are in the midst of getting better lighting at five trailheads, better trail markers and security cameras. The association and the city have cooperated on the improvements on trails that have been a point of pride in Delphi.
“I know there was morbid curiosity when (the homicides) first happened,” McCain said. “I’d run into people who’d ask, ‘Is this where it happened?’ … I’m not sure what to say about that. But that’s dropped off.”
McCain credited community efforts with a “Take Back the Trail” day in May for taking some of the fear out of using the trails.
“That helped a lot,” McCain said. “But all of this is still in the minds of a lot of people. … I feel our community needs some time, yet, to come back to where it wants to be.”
BUSINESS OWNERS: TELLING ABBY AND LIBBY'S STORY ON T-SHIRTS
Tricia Mendel said the questions stopped her cold last summer.
Co-owner for Hometown Shirts and Graphix, a custom apparel shop on the courthouse square in Delphi, Mendel and her husband, Mark, were at a fair in Remington, 32 miles from the all-consuming news about the double homicide. She was wearing one of the shirts the shop had designed to honor Abby and Libby and raise money for a softball complex planned in their honor.
More than one person noted the shirt with some variation of: Who are Abby and Libby?
“Remington is, what, 30 minutes from Delphi? And people there didn’t know about the girls,” Tricia Mendel said. “I went back to Mike (Patty, Libby’s grandfather) and said, ‘We’re 30 minutes away and people don’t know. This is crazy.’”
That’s when she knew there was more work to do to tell the girls’ story.
The couple took the trailer from their Blue Moose Frozen Yogurt business on the road, loaded with FBI posters, fliers and the shop’s apparel in the name of spreading the word about Abby and Libby.
They went close: Fairs in Earl Park in Benton County, Brookston just across the White County line, Valparaiso in the Region. They went far: Home and trade shows in Indianapolis, Atlanta and Louisville. On each trip, someone from the families — Mike and Becky Patty, longtime friends of the Mendels and Libby's grandparents; Abby's mom, Anna Williams; Abby's grandparents, Eric and Diane Erskin — went with them. Same thing for girls from Abby and Libby's softball team. They went, too, to lend a voice for the girls.
“Just trying to branch out to get the girls’ story out there,” Mark Mendel said.
“We told (the families) from Day 1 that we will help as long as you need help,” Tricia Mendel said. “They’re all hurting. People say it’s getting easier. It’s not getting easier. The hardest thing is when we’re at a show, and somebody walks up and says, ‘Who’s Abby and Libby?’ You can’t help but tear up. … But that’s what the shirts are supposed to do.”
How many T-shirts will that take, does she figure? With thousands of shirts out there already, who knows, she says.
“There have been times we’ve had to regroup and remind ourselves that we won’t give up until the police come to us and say, ‘We’ve caught him,’” Tricia Mendel said. “I had someone come up to me in Indy and say, ‘You know, they may not catch him for 25 years.’ Then you’ll see us for 25 years. I mean, you can’t give up. I tell everybody, ‘If we give up, he’s won.’”
THE TRUE CRIME SOCIAL MEDIA ADMINISTRATOR
Stephanie Sommer has never been to Delphi. The office manager for a music company living 770 miles away in Westchester County, New York, saw coverage of the double homicide on ABC World News a few days after the girls were killed.
“It broke my heart, because I used to do exactly what Libby and Abby were doing – playing outside on a nice day with a friend,” Sommer said. “I honestly couldn’t get it out of my head because it was so shocking to think someone could do this.”
She said she couldn’t get enough about the search for the killer, which led her to a Facebook page, “Liberty German and Abigail Williams Case Discussion.” Nearly a year later, Sommer – she posts under the name Stephanie Summer – is one of eight administrators spread across the U.S. and Australia who monitor posts sharing news, timelines and background.
The page, one of several offshoots of something called the “True Crime Society” discussion, has more than 23,000 members – “the biggest group we have by far.” At its peak, Sommer said, managing the page was just as much work as a full-time job.
“We like to see different cases and victims get the attention and justice they deserve,” Sommer said.
“Initially, I thought this would be solved pretty quickly considering Libby got him on video,” Sommer said. “I was very hopeful that someone would have the golden tip, that police had tons of evidence, that the killer would feel guilty and confess – but none of that happened. There was such an interest in this case that it seemed impossible for it to go on, but as the months went by it seemed like they were looking for a ghost. ‘Bridge guy,’ as we like to call him, virtually disappeared.”
In the past year, Indiana State Police have made several pleas for people on social media to knock off amateur sleuthing. Sommer said she’s had conversations with state police and that administrators have worked to make sure the conversation doesn’t hinder the investigation.
“There are always rumors going around social media. ‘The Delphi killer is hitchhiking in Illinois!’ You know it's probably untrue but part of you always wonders, ‘What if?’” Sommer said. “The issue is more so with people posting random photos side-by-side with the suspect's and calling in tips they know nothing about just because they saw it in a Facebook group. The police have to investigate every tip, even if there's not much to it. People have to be smart with the tips they call in and we always remind them of that.”
Sommer said she expects interest to spike again this week, at the anniversary. She said newcomers will ask questions, and the devoted will be happy to explain the case all over again. Maybe, she said, it will stoke someone with a legitimate tip – maybe the final piece.
“The more I think about it rationally, if all (police) have is that video, it's not shocking,” Sommer said. “They need someone to come forward with the right tip. I truly believe someone recognizes him and they're not talking.”
ABOUT THE SUSPECT: Police continue to look for a white male between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-10, weighing 180 to 200 pounds, with reddish brown hair. The description was taken from images on Libby German’s cellphone of a man walking across Monon High Bridge that day – wearing blue jeans, a blue jacket and a hat – and from composite done by an FBI sketch artist, based on information from a witness who saw a man fitting that description.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
► Anyone with information about the case may call the Delphi Homicide Investigation Tip Line at 844-459-5786; the Indiana State Police at 800-382-7537; the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department at 765-564-2413; or by email to Abbyandlibbytip@cacoshrf.com.
► Donations to the Libby and Abby Softball Park Fund may be made in care of the Carroll County Community Foundation, P.O. Box 538, Delphi, 46923. Or online at: www.cfcarroll.org.
IF YOU GO: A community candlelight vigil for Abby Williams and Libby German will be held at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Delphi United Methodist Church, 1796 N. U.S. 421.