ELKHART — Jessica Starr's family and friends have fond memories of her life, but close to two months after she was stabbed outside her Elkhart home, still no answers about who caused her death.
Starr had just arrived home on Aug. 8. at 28765 Melody Lane in Elkhart when someone approached her car. A struggle ensued inside her car, and her roommate called 911 after she heard screaming. Elkhart County Sheriff's Department deputies found 26-year-old Starr lying in the backyard, having been beaten and stabbed, authorities said last week in the first details that have been released publicly about her death. Elkhart County investigators asked Lt. Cindy Kilgore, Michiana Crime Stoppers Inc. coordinator, to feature the crime in hopes of drawing tips, Kilgore said.
No suspects have been publicly named, and sheriff's department authorities had no updates to the case last week, other than saying it is still under investigation.
Starr's family's questions go unanswered. Their frustration is palpable.
“The brutality of it and the unanswered questions have been so hard,” Starr's sister-in-law, Barbie Starr, said Saturday in the first media interview the family has given since her death.
Starr's friends and family describe her as a happy, outgoing person who did whatever she could for people around her. The slim woman's long blonde hair won the affection of friends, who often were caught braiding it or twirling it in class at Ross Beatty Junior-Senior High School in Cassopolis, Mich., where Starr graduated in 2002. It earned her one of her many nicknames, “Blondie.”
Starr's best friend, Danielle Hembree of Elkhart, said the two “were always up to something together” in the 15 years they knew each other. That included childbirth. Starr slept on the floor next to Hembree in the hospital when she had her daughter eight years ago. She later helped Hembree coach her daughter's T-ball team.
“Jessica was always that person who everyone went to,” Hembree said. “If she told you it was going to be OK, you believed her that it was going to be OK.”
Hembree's children referred to Starr as their “aunt” and Starr would come home from work and eat lunch with Hembree's son during a time when they were next-door neighbors. His face “lit up” when he saw Starr, Hembree said.
Starr's father, Frank Starr II, described her as a “gearhead” who co-workers called if a car wouldn't start or had a flat tire. Hembree called her a “grease monkey,” an impression a stranger may not have gathered from Starr's pretty face.
“If daddy was under the hood and Jessica could be there, she'd be just as greasy as her dad would,” Hembree said.
Martin Lukaszewski, Starr's sophomore English teacher, taught her again by happenstance in an English composition class at Brown Mackie College. Starr worked hard and was “the life in a classroom,” he said.
“When she was in high school, she was more adult-natured than she was a kid,” he said. “She was mature for her age. She was the type of kid, it doesn't matter who, if you needed something, she was going to help you.”
When Starr was in high school, Lukaszewski was diagnosed with a physical ailment that gives him tremors. When he taught her again at Brown Mackie, he said, she remembered his ailment and asked him about his health.
“That amount of care, I wish more people in the world cared about people how she did.”
Lukaszewski recently returned to teaching after being out of the profession for a few years. He had doubts about his decision, but when he saw at Starr's memorial, a picture of her in his classroom, it was a validation for him to keep teaching. That moved him.
“To me, it was like being spoken to from God or from her,” he said.
‘It would break most people'
Starr had been working two jobs — as she had most of her adult life — at the time of her death. She was a line trainer at Dometic Corp. in Elkhart, and earned extra money at Kmart, a job she picked up while attending Brown Mackie. She graduated with an associate's degree in paralegal studies in 2007, a career path she took after she was attacked and injured in a harrowing home invasion as a teenager. Starr used that experience as a way to relate to victims at the Elkhart County Prosecuting Attorney's office, where she worked as a paralegal after graduation. She worked there for at least two years, said Chief Investigator Ed Windbigler. She also volunteered at a women's shelter, her father said.
“It would break most people,” Starr's father said of the attack. “Her, it just made her more determined.”
Starr's mother, Maria Sobieralski, said she and Jessica worked on forgiving her daughter's attacker. Now, she said, she has to work on forgiving her daughter's killer.
“That's a hard one right now,” Sobieralski said, as she fought back tears. “Because I see her everywhere. I do.”
She pointed to her couch and love seat, which she had given Starr, that were now back in her home. “And I realize that is exactly how I will see her, is lively, loving, forgiving and nothing but love.”
Starr would have turned 27 this November. Sobieralski keeps Starr's sketchbooks and looks at her drawings often.
“That's going to be a hard day,” Sobieralski said. “I want to forget August 8th. I won't, but I'm going to try. I can still see her in a white shirt, a pink bow, and I see her smile. That's how I'll see her.”
Starr's friends have questioned how this kind person could be killed so brutally, including Andrea Burt, who graduated from Ross Beatty with Starr in 2002 and who now lives in Pekin, Ill.
“We're from a little small town,” Burt said. “Everybody knows everybody. To have that happen, it happened to us. It happened to everybody.”
Nothing will bring justice to Jessica Starr, but her family members say they want her killer captured so that person can't devastate another family. Jessica would want them to protect any possible future victims.
“That's got to be the focus,” her dad said, “because that would be her focus the whole time.”
Michiana Crime Stoppers Inc. is soliciting tips about Starr's homicide. Crime Stoppers can be contacted at 800-342-7867 (STOP) or 288-7867 (STOP). Crime Stoppers does not ask for an informant's name, but rather assigns a code number to each tip. Informants can receive a cash reward of up to $1,000 if their information leads to an arrest.