A visit with local law enforcement led a Hope College documentary class to investigate the unsolved abduction and murder of one of the college's own a quarter century before.
The resulting 80-minute program, "Who Killed Janet Chandler?," will premiere at the college's Knickerbocker Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 28, and continue on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 29-30, at 7 p.m. Law enforcement representatives have indicated that they will be present at the Jan. 28 showing.
The public is invited. Admission is free.
The documentary will also be presented on WGVU-TV of Grand Rapids on Sunday, Feb. 1, at 1 a.m., 25 years to the hour of the discovery of Chandler's body.
Chandler, a Hope senior from Muskegon, was abducted on January 31, 1979, after 1 a.m. while working the night desk at the former Blue Mill Inn near U.S. 31 and 16th Street in Holland. Her body was found almost 24 hours later by a snowplow driver in a wooded turn-around on Interstate 196 seven miles south of South Haven. Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies all became involved in the investigation, but the crime was never solved.
The decision to explore the abduction and murder as a class project followed a talk with Captain Bob DeVries of the Holland Police Department in the spring of 2003. The conversation, according to the course's instructor, Dr. David Schock, focused on how reporters can best work with the police to get the facts to the public without harming an investigation.And then...
"He told me as we were preparing to leave that he was retiring," said Schock, an associate professor of communication. "I expressed my thanks for all his help and then asked about 'the one that got away' - the most frustrating case of his career that remained unsolved. Without as much as a second's pause he responded, 'Janet Chandler.'"
"He might as well have carved that on my heart," Schock said. "The idea of looking at a 25-year-old unsolved homicide - and this one in particular - called to me."
Schock proposed the story - of the crime, of Chandler, of the investigation and the aftermath - to his fall, 2003, documentary class. After first obtaining Chandler's parents' consent to pursue such a project, they worked on it together throughout the semester, with Schock and lead videographer Phil Blauw of the Hope staff continuing to collect material and edit the program through to the present.
"In the process we talked with those who served on and directed the original investigation, those who now carry the case as a part of their workload, some of those who taught Janet and knew a part of her, members of her family, and some who her murder affected," Schock said.
The result is a documentary that is "as complete as we can make it now," according to Schock. "There are still others we would have very much liked to have talked with."
Schock would also one day like to include details about the crime being solved. It is with that hope that he and the students have stayed with the project, as painful as it has often been.
"Every time I talk with Mr. Chandler, it seems we wind up crying together," Schock said. "On the other hand, police investigators have told me that they hope that the airing of this documentary will spark renewed interest in this case. Investigators that we've interviewed are optimistic that this homicide can be solved."
"We've done this - whether people think it's good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate - for Janet Chandler in the belief that her murder calls out for justice," he said. "Somebody literally got away with murder. Anything we can do to further bringing the killer to justice is what we ought to do."
The Hope communication students, all juniors, who participated in the documentary project included: Olim Alimov of Tajikistan; Tyler Basler of Auburn; Sarah Hartman of Richmond, Ind.; Wes Hollendonner of Akron, Ohio; Jonathan Johnson of Fremont; Amber Ross of Schiller Park, Ill.; Amy Schlusler of Lapeer; and Kyle Shepherd of Oak Forest, Ill.