An Unsolved True Crime in Ovid, NY It was the summer of 2019. I was in the car with my fiancé (now husband) driving around his hometown of Ovid, NY, on our way home from the store. That is when I saw that sign. I turned to my fiancé and asked him, “There was a murder here, and it’s gone unsolved?” It was then that the story of Kristin O’Connell’s murder unfolded. As my husband spoke, my mind buzzed. How could this happen? This is such a small town, and no one knows what happened to her. There have been no arrests? My mind shifted to her family and how much pain they’ve likely endured since their beautiful daughter was found murdered. My inner investigator immediately launched into gear. I started to research the case and read many articles about the investigation. It was then that I saw the need for advocacy resources and tools to help solve cold cases and raise the profile of digital advocacy, and I wanted to join in Kristin’s family’s fight for justice.
Hitting close to home
At the time of Kristin’s murder in 1985, I was an 11-year-old living in Ithaca, roughly 40 miles away from Ovid. My research triggered memories of the killing of a classmate and her family in 1989 in my hometown. I was 15, and our town was suddenly plunged into a world of true crime. I felt sadness, fear, and helplessness. My young mind could not fathom living in a world where a whole family could be eliminated in a single night. Fear ran rampant in our community. My Dad, my hero, installed deadbolt locks on all of our doors. I realized that he felt a sense of helplessness. He knew he could not fully protect my family from such a horrendous act. This realization stuck with me for years. My abiding interest in understanding why someone kills, and the psychology behind the murder, was sparked. I now know this was how I tried to make sense of my classmate’s murder and find closure. While the crime was solved fairly quickly, the scandal surrounding the murders caused people to wonder if the investigation was handled correctly. Around this time, I started going to the library after school to research criminology. In college, I would study sociology and psychology years later and eventually choose a career after graduate school where I would provide counseling and case advocacy for youth and families affected by crime and violence. In a way, those early decisions about my education would lead me to Kristin.
Lack of progress and frustration happens all too often As I sat and researched Kristin’s case, my thoughts turned to her mother, father, and brother. How had they endured the last 36-plus years with no one being arrested or charged with the crime of her murder? It was clear that initially, there was a huge focus on the case from the New York State Police. A task force was formed, and multiple media outlets covered her murder through articles, TV interviews, and periodic updates on the case. I learned that they collected many pieces of physical evidence at the crime scene, items that could be DNA tested in the future.
Ovid is a small town in upstate New York, and this unsolved murder has lingered for decades. As you can imagine, many people in Ovid had their own theories about Kristin’s murder. Rumors abounded about specific people, the killer or killers being local, and the involvement of well-known, high-profile people with connections to local government and law enforcement.
My yearning to help led me to Kristin’s mother, Phyllis. When I first spoke to Phyllis, it was clear that she had a deep love for her beautiful, smart, and talented daughter. She had done everything she could over the years to assist with the investigation. Her husband, Michael, was equally invested. As time passed, the case fell to the wayside, with the NYS police citing budget cuts for the lack of ability to push the investigation forward. Not wanting to see Kristin’s case stall, Phyllis and Michael paid an independent investigator and worked with volunteers within the Justice for Kristin O’Connell Facebook group to gather the information that was passed on to the NYS Police. When I first spoke to Phyllis in the summer of 2021, she was unsuccessfully trying to reach out to the local district attorney’s office and NYS Police to get updates. Calls were not being returned, and her frustration with the lack of communication grew. Someone had offered to have evidence tested at a professional lab free of cost. This request was denied. This solution would have addressed the lack of resources and funds that the NYS police had cited as reasons for the case stalling for years! At that moment, I had a taste of just how frustrating and unfair this kind of inertia is for a grieving family to endure. I was angry and wanted to find a way to help. The O’Connells, like so many other families, needed a way to fight back.
Cold Case Digital Advocacy was born (more recently rebranded to Cold Case Advocacy).
I started my bootstrapped company Cold Case Advocacy in 2021. The term “digital advocacy” refers to using digital technology to educate, inform, and move people to action around a particular issue or cause. In order to propel people to drive change, I focused on specific tangible goals: gain increased news coverage, rewrite Change.org petitions in the hope of getting a fresh audience through recirculation, and research legislative solutions that might help other families in the future to avoid similar roadblocks. I knew social media would help to drum up new interest in Kristin’s case. I hoped that increased public awareness would result in the pressure needed to have the case re-investigated, including the testing of DNA evidence, something extremely important to Kristin’s family and absolutely crucial to solving their daughter’s murder. It was at that time that I reached out to Uncovered.
I sought tools and resources to help support my digital and legislative advocacy efforts. Uncovered is a cold-case platform unlike any other. The online platform has cataloged over 10,000 cold cases of the missing and murdered and other true crimes involving suspicious circumstances. What is the organization’s aim? Create a national database and get citizen detectives interested in these unsolved crimes with the hope that the interest leads to advocacy and new information arising on the case — turning true crime interest into advocacy. To that end, it has a growing community of members who use their special skills to review cases, create digital case files, and connect with others nationwide interested in learning more about being thoughtful citizen detectives. I knew I needed this community and platform to be successful in helping the O’Connell family. I hoped that the willingness of dozens of people, who are personally connected to the case and have a desire to help like me, could mean new evidence and subsequent closure of a 36-year-old cold case of the horrific murder of a beautiful young girl.
Results of Digital Advocacy to date for this case
- Case visualization on Uncovered. To date, over 6000 unique page views to that page.
- National news coverage via Dateline’s digital feature on the 36th anniversary of her death.
- Crimepedia Podcast episode about Kristin’s case
- Change.org petition rewritten and re-circulated. This campaign increased signatures by 140%
- National news coverage via Fox News article
- A petition for NYS to introduce a Homicide Victims Rights Act in 2022
The need for digital consultants and legislative advocates in relation to cold cases is growing, and Kristin’s unsolved murder is gaining new traction, bringing us closer to finding answers and justice for her grieving family.
Why This Matters
With every effort I make with CCA, I believe we are moving closer to making real change. Giving homicide victims a voice when they so often feel left out and unheard will spark a much-needed conversation about law enforcement resources and homicide victims’ family rights. To all homicide victims’ families: As I work to boost awareness of these very critical issues, I promise to continue to listen to you, lift up your voices, and champion you in any way that I can.
To all homicide victims' families: As I work to boost awareness of these very critical issues, I promise to continue to listen to you, lift up your voices, and champion you in any way that I can. Click To Tweet
To see how we are fighting today, please go here.
To learn more about the other cases CCA is working on, please go here
Previously published “How An Emotional Connection to a Cold Case Inspired a New Resource for Grieving Families” at https://medium.com/@JolynnRice