Halfway Across: The Delphi Murders

Two years ago, an unknown man murdered Libby German and Abby Williams below a decaying bridge outside Delphi, Indiana. Restoration of the historic trestle and the town’s identity is underway. Will resolution follow?

The original trestle over Deer Creek in Carroll County went up for the Monon Railroad in 1891 and was christened with the accurate if unassuming name of Monon High Bridge. It spans more than 850 feet and (at its peak) towers 63 feet above the water. The railroad was a defining characteristic of Delphi, Indiana, in the early 20th century, and Monon High Bridge its ultimate symbol. Trains ran across the bridge for almost 100 years, but the last of them to cross was in 1987.

Things change, but the past marks the present, always. Long after the Monon Railroad was relegated to memories and monuments, the Monon High Bridge remained, and attracted visitors seeking its beauty and dramatic vistas. Three decades after the last train rattled across the tracks, 14-year-old Libby German recorded an image that would make the bridge significant once more. The picture, extracted from a video clip, shows a man in jeans and a bulky blue jacket walking across it with his head down. It has appeared on FBI wanted posters around the country.

The man in the image is the suspect in the February 2017 murders of Libby and her friend Abby Williams, two teenagers who were just out for a walk near their tiny northwestern Indiana town. Two years have passed since his image was recorded, two years of exhausting investigation that have put Delphi (population 2,882) at the center of a national news story.

Libby recorded more than one picture on the last day of her life. Often shared alongside the suspect’s image is a picture of her classmate, Abby, who was 13 years old at the time of her death. The subjects of the pictures change, but the backdrop remains the same. Both photographs show individuals crossing the bridge alone, walking with their heads down. A victim and a suspect. One gone forever, one unidentified for two years and counting.

The photos that Libby took that day capture the area around Monon High Bridge in remarkable clarity. You get a glimpse of the isolated beauty of the spot, a sense of its history. You also notice the deterioration. Abby has her head down in that moment for good reason—the weathered railroad ties make for dangerous walking. Looking at pictures of the bridge, one thing is clear: You couldn’t run across it.

Not even if you needed to.

Structural repairs to Monon High Bridge are now being made. Fencing surrounds the area, limiting access while workers stabilize one of the supporting piers. In a few years, the site of the town’s greatest tragedy will become a striking highlight of its trail system. The community remains shaken, though, plagued by questions and uncertain of how to move forward without appearing to give up hope. Restoration is underway in Delphi. Resolution awaits.

“Social media runs wild with armchair sleuths and hurtful conspiracy theories, including YouTube videos with attempted “re-enactments” of the crime.

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Libby and Abby were discovered in a wooded area approximately one half-mile upstream from the Monon High Bridge on Valentine’s Day 2017. The specific cause of death remains undisclosed. What has been disclosed is that sometime between 2:07 p.m., when Libby shared on Snapchat the photograph of Abby crossing the bridge, and about 3:15 p.m., when Libby’s father arrived to pick up the girls, they were murdered in broad daylight near a public trail. For at least some period before—or possibly during—the brutal crimes, Libby recorded interaction with her killer.

Police and the victims’ families know more about what evidence is contained on her cellphone. The general public has seen just two photographs—the one of Abby, and the one of the man in the blue jacket—and heard three words, an audio clip played on loop and shared around the world in an effort to generate leads in the case: “Down the hill.” The voice is clear. The clip is short. A 14-year-old girl recorded it in the minutes before her death, prompting the Indiana State Police to call her a hero.

Libby’s sister, Kelsi German, didn’t worry when she dropped the girls off that day. The bridge was a familiar spot. She left the girls walking down the trail and drove to pick up her boyfriend. They both worked at the Dairy Queen in Delphi. Not long after, Kelsi’s phone rang, and her life changed.

“Honestly, that day and the entire week after is a total blur,” she says. “I would say what stands out most vividly is the feeling of fear coming from my entire family and all of our friends. The whole town felt different.”

She is not wrong. Outside of Carroll County, the town’s identity has become linked to the tragedy. Google searches for Delphi, Indiana, once returned stories about its historic courthouse square and native William “Dick the Bruiser” Afflis, a 1950s-era wrestler. Today, pages of Google results obsess about an unsolved double murder.

David McCain, a member of the Deer Creek Township Advisory Board and longtime advocate for the preservation of Monon High Bridge, says the slayings represented “a loss of innocence” for the community. “For me, it was overwhelming, because as a kid, I did the same thing that Abby and Libby did: I walked out there and enjoyed good days on the bridge,” he says. “That area is the cradle of Carroll County history. People have gone there for over a century to enjoy the beauty.”

In the wake of the tragedy, McCain and others were concerned about how the town would respond to the site. “My first question was: How does the community now feel about this spot?” he says. “I went up to the high school and talked to the kids, to a counselor, to the principal. They all wanted to see the preservation efforts continue. Abby and Libby really liked it, so I was encouraged by that.”

A few months after the murders, McCain and about 100 other locals took part in a walk and prayer near Monon High Bridge. “It was quite moving for me,” he says. “There were so many kids. You could see that they wanted to reclaim their trail.”

The tragedy has damaged Delphi, but the community is determined not to be defined by it.

Libby German's grandfather speaks at a press conference
At a press conference, Libby German’s grandfather spoke for the families and pleaded for anyone with leads to come forward.

Kelsi German was 17 when her sister was killed, a member of the Delphi Oracles swim team who was eager to swim with Libby the following year, when she would have been a freshman. Instead, she wore her sister’s goggles in the pool each day, carrying a memory into the water. Kelsi is 19 now, a freshman at Ball State University in Muncie. It’s only two hours from Delphi, but it feels farther. In Muncie, Kelsi is not immediately recognized. In Muncie, strangers do not approach her to ask questions about the case or express sympathies.

Grainy video from Libby German's cell phone
Shortly before the murders in February 2017, Libby German captured the now-infamous grainy video image above.

People, like places, can be marked by tragedy. In Muncie, Kelsi has an opportunity to choose who knows her story. To choose whether to spread the word of her sister’s unsolved murder and ask for help, or fade into the background. For a while, she admits, she enjoyed the anonymity. But to embrace it would be to sacrifice her mission. Kelsi wants justice.

She does not want people to forget.

“In the beginning, it felt good to be away from home and to get away from people who knew who I was,” she says. “At the start of the semester, I wouldn’t even tell people my last name because I thought the right thing to do was to distance myself from the case in order for people to treat me the way I wanted them to. About halfway through the semester, though, I realized that people didn’t know about the case. So, yes, it was a relief, but in the end, it only made me realize how important it is to keep the story out there.”

Early in her freshman year, she was asked to give a speech on the topic “This I Believe” for a public-speaking course. The room was filled with strangers. To this audience, Kelsi wasn’t associated with a tragedy. She could have spoken about faith, family, or politics. She could have vanished into the crowd.
Some of the text from her speech:

“At 1:35, we arrived at the entrance to the bridge, the girls got out of my car, and I never saw them alive again. Everything from that moment goes in slow motion, when I allow myself to actually go back over that day and the week that followed … I was asked to remember things that I had dismissed, interrogated by countless police officers and FBI agents, followed by strangers with cameras and news reporters in vans. For weeks, I tore myself down. Contemplating how I should have been with her. I told myself I could have saved them. I may not have made it, but at least my sister might be here. I wouldn’t be hurting. Asking myself if I would have been there, could I have really helped? Or would my sister be here mourning the loss of her big sister? Or worse, would my family have had to suffer a double loss and plan two funerals?”

With that, Kelsi removed the cloak of anonymity she had found in Muncie, and embraced an active role in the search for her sister’s killer.

“I was in denial for a long time,” she says. “I kept telling myself that it wasn’t real and that Libby would be walking through my bedroom door any minute to tell me about her day. Eventually, I realized how unhealthy that was and I began wanting to help more.”

Among her sources of encouragement was Michelle Cruz, who she met at a crime convention. Cruz’s sister, Janelle Cruz, was murdered by Joseph DeAngelo, known for years simply as the Golden State Killer, and finally arrested last April. He was found more than three decades after he murdered Janelle. “She gave me a ton of advice,” Kelsi says. “She was the one who helped me to get started and really get involved in the case via social media.”

Cruz’s Twitter handle is @JanellSister. Kelsi’s is now @libertyg_sister, and features a pinned Tweet that is a photograph of the passenger seat of her car with the following message: “The last time I saw my sister alive she was sitting in this seat. I watched her open the door, I told her that I loved her and I’d see her later. We were gonna have a movie night. But we never got that chance. Help us find the monster who took that from us. #abbyandlibby #delphimurders.”

Asked whether she feels her social media crusade has generated anything worthy of being passed along to the police, Kelsi says she shares everything she receives. While she tries to help in any way she can, she acknowledges that social media runs wild with armchair sleuths and hurtful conspiracy theories, from YouTube videos with attempted “re-enactments” of the crime to Reddit forums scrutinizing the victims’ families. Kelsi tries to balance all of this by remembering the sister with whom she once watched Criminal Minds. The girl who was good at reading people and wanted to be a pathologist. The one who had the presence of mind to make a recording of her own killer.

Kelsi has a tattoo that reads: “I can’t see you, but I can feel you,” in memory of Libby. Unfortunately, she also feels the presence of the man who killed her, a fugitive who may not have strayed far. This is true in Delphi, Muncie, or points between. “I always have that thought in the back of my mind,” Kelsi says, “that he might be right there.”

“We still have plenty of fresh information, leads coming in daily,” says Sgt. Kim Riley. “so we are nowhere near considering this a cold case.”

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Two years. Six thousand billboards requesting tips. Tens of thousands of leads. A quarter of a million dollars in a reward fund. Millions of clicks on photographs and audio clips of a suspect.

Police detectives released a sketch of the suspect more than a year later, based on several eyewitness accounts from that day.

Zero arrests.

It is easy to do the math and view the case cynically, to deem the investigation stagnant. Police on the inside and outside disagree emphatically, though.
“We all know it could have been our children; we feel the sense of urgency,” says Sgt. Kim Riley of the Indiana State Police. “But we still have plenty of fresh information, leads coming in daily. So we are nowhere near considering this a cold case.”

David Lambkin is one of the nation’s foremost experts in cold-case homicide investigations. Now retired, he was the officer in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s first cold-case unit, a then-novel approach that has since become common in large police departments. Lambkin has analyzed thousands of murder cases in his career. When it comes to the murders of Abby and Libby, his view is concise.

“No way that’s a cold case; it’s continuing and ongoing,” he says. “In L.A., we defined a cold-case homicide as any unsolved murder committed more than five years ago that has no significant leads and is no longer being investigated by area detectives based on solvability and/or workload.”

By that metric, the case certainly doesn’t fit. Riley says there are currently between three and five state troopers working it on a daily basis, and that the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department, Delphi city police, and FBI remain actively involved as well.

“We’re always working new leads,” he says, dismissing the idea that the investigation has gone dormant.

That work has involved a tight-lipped approach, though. On Libby’s cellphone, a video and additional audio exist but haven’t been shared, despite the prolonged period without an arrest.

“We continually evaluate that,” Riley says when asked about the possibility of releasing more evidence from the phone. “We talk about it once or twice a week. But at this point in time, no, we won’t be releasing more. We don’t want to put all of our cards on the table.”

Police also requested that the autopsy results be sealed, leaving a situation where the cause of death is identified as homicide, but the manner of the killings in unknown. In Delphi—and around the world on social media—people have grumbled about this approach, arguing that the more information is released, the better the chances of a successful tip leading to a conviction.

Lambkin, the cold case expert, disagrees with such complaints.

“If it was up to me, I’d have every autopsy sealed, because there’s always something there that only the perpetrator will know,” he says. “The location of the wounds is really important. I don’t want people to know injury information on a big case, because you’ll get people confessing who had nothing to do with it. Why does the public need to know?”

One of the greatest potential aids for the case is a resource that wasn’t available at the time of the murders. A state law change effective January 1, 2018—nearly a year after the slayings—allows police to take DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony offense. Those samples are then searched against national databases for matches, and recorded. Previously, DNA samples were taken only from those convicted of a felony. Within the first quarter of 2018, Indiana investigators got 72 hits from arrestee-sample DNA.

Lambkin credits this change to many successful prosecutions in California, which went to an arrestee-sample approach in 2009. “The case-to-case hits skyrocketed after we expanded who got into that system,” he says. Amid all of those hits was a startling realization to homicide detectives. “A lot of these serial rapists and killers float under the radar, and people always expect that if they’ve been arrested before, it’s for violent crime. That’s absolutely what we expected. But what we found out was that two-thirds of the matches we were getting on rapes and murders were people who had been arrested for property crimes, drugs, or white-collar crimes.”

Lambkin offers one other point of consideration for those who feel the pace of the case suggests hopelessness.

“There’s a chance they’ve got a suspect who is already in custody somewhere else,” he says. “I’m not saying that they do, but I can say from experience that if you believe that’s the case, then you don’t need to rush. Even if you’ve got DNA, you want to be able to prove your case independent of DNA. Prove your case and exhaust everything else.”

Wind sometimes tugs the handwritten notes to Abby and Libby into the air, along the bridge, and toward the water. Down the hill.

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The potential of DNA is limited to the presence of DNA. No one outside the investigation knows what cards the investigators hold, or whether the very idea of a DNA-guided conviction is a bluff. The details of what happened below Monon High Bridge on February 13, 2017 are known only to the person who murdered Libby and Abby. The 128-year-old railroad bridge stands sentry, a silent witness. Handwritten notes and flowers are still left near the bridge as memorials to the two girls. Wind sometimes tugs the notes into the air, along the bridge, and toward the water. Down the hill.

The Monon High Bridge in Delphi, Indiana.
The Monon High Bridge in Delphi, Indiana.

Meanwhile, restoration of the historic trestle continues. So far, approximately $100,000 has been spent for the first phase of structural repairs to Monon High Bridge. In the next phase, to be finished sometime later this year, new decking will replace the old railroad ties, and handrails will be added for safety so that visitors will be able to walk partway across to overlook the Deer Creek Gorge. Eventually, the bridge will be linked with Delphi’s existing 10-mile trail system. Indiana Landmarks is overseeing the project and expects to transfer the site to the Wabash & Erie Canal Association.

The effort suggests a theme—reclaiming, redefining, restoration. A tragedy occurred here, yes, but this land has also inspired. Not far from Monon High Bridge is an exit of the Hoosier Heartland Highway that honors the Indiana writer James Whitcomb Riley. Among his lesser-known poems is “From Delphi to Camden,” a portrait of the same terrain that now makes up the trail system. Among the lines in that work, written in 1884:

And now the night was on us,
and the lightning and the rain;
And still the way was wondrous
with the flash of hill and plain,
The stars like printed asterisks
—the moon a murky stain!
And I thought of tragic idyll,
and of light and hot pursuit.

The poem carries the reader through the woods of northwestern Indiana, along the banks of Deer Creek. It pushes ahead against weariness and finds triumph in darkness. The narrator rides with an unknown man, and ends the poem by revealing his identity.

After two years, the Delphi murders still need one of each—a name and an ending.