Kari Nunemaker's murder shook the community

Monday marks 17 years since Kari Nunemaker disappeared from downtown Elkhart. It also marks the start of a trial for 58-year-old Fred Mott, the career criminal who is accused of abducting, abusing and killing her. The 16-year-old's disappearance startled many across Elkhart County. The discovery of her body eight days later shook the community. Community impact Kari's parents, Don and Shirley

Posted on Jan. 26, 2008 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Jan. 26, 2008 at 1:38 a.m.

GOSHEN -- Monday marks 17 years since Kari Nunemaker disappeared from downtown Elkhart.

It also marks the start of a trial for 58-year-old Fred Mott, the career criminal who is accused of abducting, abusing and killing her.

The 16-year-old's disappearance startled many across Elkhart County. The discovery of her body eight days later shook the community.

Community impact

Kari's parents, Don and Shirley Nunemaker, love to talk about their daughter. However, on the eve of trial, they decided not to say anything, Shirley said.

"We don't want to jeopardize something with the trial."

Kari was a well-liked teen. She attended Bethany Christian, where Lloyd Miller served as campus pastor.

"I do mark Jan. 28 every year. I mark that day when we learned that Kari had not returned home and that she was missing. Of course, we didn't know that she was dead at that time," he said.

"I was in a carload of persons that went and scoured the county roads south of Elkhart, just wondering if maybe she went off the road into a ditch or into a field and had an accident. We found nothing."

A few days later, her car turned up.

"I continue to remember very vividly how this impacted students and teachers in the school and how tender those days were as students supported each other, as faculty, as community. It kind of just brought us together in a community response. It did not blunt the tragedy, it did not blunt the grief, but that support was certainly experienced."

It grabbed the attention of strangers.

"The funeral was huge, one of the larger funerals in Elkhart County," Miller said. "I remember talking with some folks who were not connected through church or family, but simply needed to be there, to show their support. It grabbed people in places where we normally aren't.

"It happened to an innocent person," he said. "Whenever something tragic as this happens to a person like this, I think it does touch a nerve or a soft spot in people -- the injustice of it, the surprise of it, just the tragedy of it."

The mysterious circumstances of Kari's disappearance and death led to far more questions than answers.

"There are some alternate stories that floated around, some conjectures, of what did happen," Miller said. "No one knows except for the murderer and Kari. There continues to be puzzling aspects of what we know. The pieces don't quite fit together at this point."

He continued, "There was some speculation that a fellow student may have been involved in this, but with the arrest and hopefully with the trial, we'll validate that this was not internal to school.

"The person who did this did not know Kari."

He voiced hope that the trial will explain why this happened, that perhaps Kari died because somebody reached some sort of breaking point, because "if there's no evidence of that, that this is a normal thing for this guy, that gets scary."

The investigation

From the start, the investigation was complex. Kari disappeared in Elkhart, and her car turned up in Elkhart. However, a truck driver spotted her body near Bonneyville Mill County Park east of Bristol.

That meant the sheriff's department and Elkhart police had to coordinate efforts.

"If you have one agency that's working a case, that's one thing. When you have multiple agencies doing it you're trying to coordinate things ... those things are a little bit more -- it's not difficult -- it's a matter of trying to get everybody's time together," said Clyde Brown, who collected evidence in the case as a detective at the Elkhart Police Department. He now serves as an investigator for the Elkhart County Public Defender's office.

"I remember when this case went down. The car was found, then she was found. We worked it, but then it got to the point where we were kind of done. It became an investigative case. It kind of bounced back between the city and the county who was going to talk to who. Then the state took it over," Brown said.

In 2003, then-Elkhart County Detective Capt. Jon Schoemann said the investigation probably hinged on DNA evidence, and there was very little of that remaining, so investigators were waiting on DNA technology to get to the point where tiny samples could yield results admissible in court.

Around the same time, Tom Cutler, then a lieutenant with the Elkhart Police Department, said he sent a letter to an inmate in a California prison asking for a response or an interview. Cutler, now retired from the police department, said he, too, didn't want to comment on the case, but lauded the work of Detective Tom Littlefield, who spearheaded the investigation for the Indiana State Police Cold Case Unit.

That unit took over the investigation in 2004. Its investigation led to Mott, who'd identified himself to The Truth as one of the suspects in the case early in the investigation -- and who left Elkhart County for California between Kari's disappearance and the discovery of her body. When police went to see him, he was serving multiple life sentences in California, and testing showed his DNA was a match for DNA evidence in this case.

Details of the crime

Shortly after prosecutors charged Mott in 2005 with Kari's slaying and the case moved from Elkhart Circuit Court to Elkhart Superior Court 3, they asked Judge George Biddlecome to seal the affidavit due to what was, at that time, an ongoing investigation.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Vicki Becker argued that the investigation could lead to additional evidence that might be tainted. Before that request was made and granted, The Truth gained access to the document, signed by Indiana State Police Detective Tom Littlefield. The information in that affidavit answers many of the questions raised over the years.

Kari attended a soccer game at the YMCA in Elkhart, then dropped off a friend at the North Main Street McDonald's so he could get his car. They agreed to meet at the McDonald's on South Main Street, but she got stopped by a train at the Main Street crossing and never arrived.

In that affidavit, Littlefield detailed statements from several witnesses, including Barbara Rensberger, who was stopped for the same train and saw Kari stopped in a car behind her.

"She observed a light-skinned black male approach the young girl's car and make a gesture to open the window. She then observed the driver's side door open. Ms. Rensberger looked away, and upon looking behind again, she observed the girl's car go in reverse, then forward again. Ms. Rensberger did not notice where the car went after that time," Littlefield wrote.

That evening, two people who lived in an upstairs apartment at 422 State St. -- Mott stayed in the downstairs apartment -- heard a chilling sound. Rita Snider, Littlefield wrote, "personally heard what she believed to be an assault upon a female coming from the apartment below."

Snider's live-in boyfriend, identified in witness lists as Robert Coggan but listed by Littlefield as R. Coggain, went downstairs and "pounded on the door and demanded to check on the welfare of the female. A male voice from the interior of the apartment advised, 'She is fine,' and refused to open the door," Littlefield wrote.

About 40 minutes after Snider started hearing the screams from downstairs, they stopped, according to Littlefield's affidavit.

"She personally observed Mott carrying out a large object rolled in something and Mott placed the large object into the trunk of a car. Ms. Snider specifically identified the taillights of the car into which Mott put the object as squared in an oblong shape. The taillights on Miss Nunemaker's car are also squared in an oblong shape. Mott left the apartment alone, driving the car away. Thereafter, Ms. Snider personally went to the door of the downstairs apartment and pounded on the door in an attempt to rouse the female which she had previously heard. There was no response."

Bessie (Hostetter) Fry, who ended a relationship with Mott around that time and who had the downstairs apartment he used, made a significant discovery after Mott left for California, according to the affidavit.

"She located a large sheet of plastic which had leaves and dirt wrapped up inside of it, abandoned in her apartment at 422 State St."

Littlefield noted the leaves and dirt in the area where Kari's body was found.

According to the prosecution's witness list, Clinton and Patricia Majors were friends of Mott and lived at 1527 Morton Ave. until they moved out a few weeks before Kari's disappearance. Mott -- who helped them move out -- visited them at times and parked in the back, which is where Kari's car was discovered Jan. 30, 1991.

Jurors may also hear from a woman who saw a car like Kari's on C.R. 131, south of C.R. 8, on Jan. 29 or Jan. 30, according to the witness list.

Mott isn't expected to testify, according to his public defender, Chris Crawford. The final decision is Mott's, however, and he remains on the defense witness list.

Crawford also listed a variety of people who may testify about other suspicious people and cars sighted at various locations connected with Kari's disappearance and death, though Becker wants to limit testimony about other suspects against whom there is no evidence.

Pre-trial publicity

Mott's attorneys asked to move the trial out of the county because of publicity, but Biddlecome denied the request -- unless they can't seat an impartial jury Monday and Tuesday. Potential jurors must answer several questions about whether they've heard of the case, whether they've formed an opinion about it or whether they can decide the case based only upon the evidence at the trial.

In another high-publicity case a few years ago, Biddlecome dealt with the same issue. That case was the murder trial of Dennis Leer, accused and convicted of killing Marie Kline.

Leer appealed, but the court of appeals wrote "a defendant must establish both prejudicial pretrial publicity and the jurors' inability to set aside preconceived notions of guilt and render an impartial verdict based upon the evidence."

In Leer's case there was prejudicial publicity -- meaning information made public that can't be considered by jurors, such as Leer's criminal history -- but the appeals court ruled that there was no partiality by the jurors.

In this case, Mott's criminal history may be part of the evidence jurors hear. He was convicted of attempted rape in Illinois in 1967, and of the same charge in Peoria, Ill., in 1974. In Elkhart County he was convicted in 1986 of rape with a deadly weapon and of criminal deviate conduct. He served in the Indiana Department of Correction until his release on parole July 20, 1990. He was on parole at the time of Kari's death and was placed back into an Indiana prison in March 1991 after skipping out on parole. He was then released to California authorities in late 1996, according to the Indiana Parole Board.

His life sentences in California came after convictions for rape, sodomy, oral copulation and kidnapping, according to a document by Becker, who argued that the evidence is relevant because Kari was confined and raped.

In the end

If Mott is convicted, he faces up to 60 years in prison.

Miller hopes that the trial can help close a long-open wound.

"There is something about marking the ending and knowing what or why it happened I think can help all of us move on, not forgetting, always remembering, but being able to resolve," he said. "Perhaps this trial and the information coming out of this trial may help some legitimate forgiveness in this case," he said.

Contact Justin Leighty at jleighty@etruth.com.

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