Jennifer Schmidt was attending summer classes at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in August 1985. The 19-year-old, who had finished her freshman year at the university in the spring, was majoring in electrical engineering and had been taking summer classes to get a jump on her sophomore year studies. She was a conservative and religious teenager, so when she failed to return to her apartment on Tuesday, August 6, 1985, her roommate sensed something was wrong.

Jennifer intended to meet with one of her professors that afternoon, and a friend saw her around 5:00 pm walking in her neighborhood, most likely on her way back to her apartment. What happened to her after that was a complete mystery. On Wednesday, after 24 hours without any word from Jennifer, her roommate called the police and reported her missing.

Officials with the West Lafayette Police Department instantly recognized that Jennifer wasn’t the type of student who was likely to disappear on her own. Two days after Jennifer was last seen, Harry Martin, the department’s captain of detectives, told reporters, “I suspect foul play.” He noted that Jennifer had missed a final exam on Wednesday, as well as a scheduled flight to Wisconsin for a family reunion.

On Friday, a state conservation officer assisted the West Lafayette police in searching the Wabash River while a helicopter crew conducted an aerial search of rural Tippecanoe County. Investigators also searched through dumpsters and alleys in Jennifer’s neighborhood but found no clues to her whereabouts.

West Lafayette Detective Curtis Cunningham admitted that he had no idea what had happened to Jennifer. “Nobody knows anything or where she could have gone. She just disappeared.” The timing of her disappearance didn’t help the investigation; she had vanished right before the summer semester ended and her friends had all left campus once classes were over.

West Layfette Police Capt. James Withers said that Jennifer’s disappearance surprised everyone who knew her. “She appears to have been a more serious type with no transportation, living close to campus…she was well-liked by those who knew her and known to be dependable and reliable.” He noted that she was engaged to a young man who was currently in New York, and she didn’t drink alcohol or socialize much.

Jennifer was very serious about her studies and received a four-year scholarship to attend Purdue. She was also a member of the university’s Air Force ROTC and hoped to join the Air Force after she graduated from college. Her father said that she was very intelligent and aware of her surroundings; her family knew she would never have voluntarily run off but were trying to remain optimistic that she would be found soon. “We’re all praying for her safe return.”

Detectives created a timeline for what Jennifer had been doing in the hours leading up to her disappearance but found nothing unusual. David Dippon, who knew Jennifer through ROTC, was one of the last people to speak with the teenager before she went missing. He saw her around 5:00 pm at the intersection of Grant Street and Northwestern Avenue; he was heading to campus while she was walking away from it. “The only thing we were talking about was exams that were coming up on Wednesday.”

On August 16, 1985, Tippecanoe Crime Stoppers announced that they were offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to Jennifer’s location or the arrest of the person responsible for her disappearance. Detectives were hopeful that the reward would bring in some new tips, and Jennifer’s father noted, “Somebody out there has information that can help us get our daughter back.”

As far as Jennifer’s friends and family members were aware, the teenager hadn’t had any problems with anyone on campus and had been looking forward to finishing her summer classes and seeing her relatives before the fall semester started. She had a very close relationship with her parents and usually let them know where she going to be before she went anywhere.

Donald Schmidt saw his daughter the week before she went missing; the entire family had attended her older brother’s graduation from the United States Air Force Academy. She had been in a great mood at the time and was excited about going to a family reunion in Butternut, Wisconsin, after her finals the following week.

The previous April, Jennifer had organized a candlelight vigil at Purdue to raise awareness about Vietnam prisoners of war and members of the military who were still listed as missing in action. In August, a candlelight vigil was held for Jennifer, with friends and classmates praying for her safe return.

Jennifer had been active in the Arnold Air Society, an honorary student organization on campus. Major Vernon Zink, the advisor of the group, noted that Jennifer “was motivated, enthusiastic, and quick to volunteer for extracurricular projects.” Like everyone else, Major Zink hoped that Jennifer was safe, but acknowledged that time was the enemy. “It isn’t looking good. Every hour that goes by is to our detriment…and hers.”

On Saturday, August 31, 1985, a group of Purdue students who had just returned for the start of the fall semester spent the day hanging missing person posters all over Lafayette. In three hours, they distributed more than 500 posters, hanging them up on telephone poles and in bus stations. The students hoped that someone would recognize their classmate’s photograph and call police with new information.

West Lafayette police officer Gary Rockhold said he appreciated the students’ help. “It’s more exposure. It might jog the memory of somebody, someplace. Not everybody has television and newspapers.”

A month after Jennifer was last seen, investigators admitted that they were running out of leads. Officer Rockhold noted, “There’s nothing new on Jennifer…we need something to break the ice. In the past week, there have been helicopter checks and the river’s been checked again with the airboat…nothing.”

On September 11, 1985, Jennifer’s parents traveled to Lafayette from their home in Beavercreek, Ohio to make a public appeal for help finding their daughter. Her mother, Johnni, fought back tears as she spoke. “If anyone knows anything, please, let us have peace of mind. If she’s no longer with us, it’s important for us to know so that we can do what we can to have a Christian burial.”

A month later, police received a call from a man who claimed he killed Jennifer. After careful investigation, they determined that the man was mentally unstable and had nothing to do with Jennifer’s disappearance. Detectives said it wasn’t the first false confession they heard and it likely wouldn’t be the last. Capt. Withers noted, “We’ve had others try to confess to this in a roundabout way. In any crime, you’ll get volunteers who want to get the credit.”

West Lafayette Detective Harry Martin admitted that the case ate at him; he had three daughters and could understand the pain and frustration Jennifer’s parents were feeling. “You try to walk a thin line with the family between the reality of the seriousness of their missing loved one, and yet try to give them some ray of hope.”

Detective Martin stated that the odds of finding Jennifer alive were extremely slim, and her parents had accepted the fact that they would likely never see their daughter again. They were desperate to be able to bring her home for a proper burial. “The Schmidts were such a close family. I’m close to my children, but they were closer. It’s killing them. If the perpetrator of this crime only knew what he had done — but perpetrators never care.”

In March 1987, detectives looked into the possibility that Jennifer might have been abducted by William Michael Gable, a 31-year-old who shot and killed himself when police attempted to arrest him for kidnapping a young woman as she was leaving a stable on Purdue’s campus. Investigators searched his property and dug up his backyard but found nothing to connect him to Jennifer.

Seven years after Jennifer vanished, her case was the only unsolved missing person case in West Lafayette. Detectives admitted that they still had no idea what had happened to Jennifer; they never had any solid leads or suspects. Detective Martin had been promoted — he was now Captain Martin — but he never forgot Jennifer’s case. “It’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for the family and it’s a tragedy for the community.”

Capt. Martin said it was still hard to comprehend how someone could have completely disappeared from a busy street corner in broad daylight. With no evidence, detectives had nothing but theories. Jennifer might have been forcibly abducted from the street, but it seemed more likely that she accepted a ride with someone she knew. No matter what had happened that day, none of the detectives who worked on the case believed that Jennifer was still alive.

In May 1993, Jennifer’s parents filed a petition to have their daughter declared legally dead; the request was granted. Although the investigation into her disappearance remained active, there had been no new leads in years.

Capt. Harry Martin retired from the West Lafayette Police Department in November 1994, but he took the memory of a few unsolved cases — including Jennifer’s — with him. “You get involved with these…with the families. Sometimes, you’ve got to stand back because you’re too involved.”

Sadly, Jennifer’s fate remains a mystery. Detectives believe she met with foul play, but they have no suspects. They considered the possibility that serial killer Larry DeWayne Hall could have been involved but were unable to find any evidence connecting him to Jennifer nor placing him in West Lafayette at the time of her disappearance. Although her case remains open, it has been cold for decades; without a confession, it may never be solved.

Jennifer Lee Schmidt was just 19 years old when she went missing from West Lafayette, Indiana in August 1985. Jennifer was a sophomore at Purdue University and was taking summer classes there when she went missing. Police were never able to develop any suspects in her case but they believe she met with foul play. Jennifer has brown eyes and brown hair, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds. She was last seen wearing pink shorts, a white blouse, and white flat shoes. If you have any information about Jennifer, please contact the West Lafayette Police Department at 765–775–5200.

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