The weather was brisk but not quite freezing when, on a Monday in February, Liberty "Libby" Rose Lynn German, 14, and her friend Abigail J. Williams, 13, decided to spend the last afternoon of a four-day winter break hiking together in the woods. Their hometown of Delphi, Indiana, is a small agricultural city with a low crime rate, and the girls likely had no reason to worry about embarking on their journey at around 1 PM.
What happened to the girls in the roughly 23 hours that passed between that afternoon and their dead bodies turning up in a wooded area about a half-mile upstream from where they set out remains a mystery. It has cast a pall over swaths of the Hoosier State, spawning an obsessive wave of amateur detective work from strangers across the country. Among the spooky tidbits fueling a culture of obsession around the case is an audio recording German apparently captured on her phone before she died. On it, a man says three simple words that sound like an abbreviated ultimatum: "__Down the hill."
On Monday, five months after the two girls were found dead, police finally released an image of the man they believe to be the killer. The picture was the work of an FBI sketch artist, who based it on details provided by a witness cops say caught a glimpse of their chief suspect on the day of the murders.
The man is wearing a cap, as well as a hoodie, and has a goatee that slopes down from his broad nose.
The sketch, released after a blurry and distant photo of a possible suspect was put out back in February, injected a flurry of wild speculation into the Facebook group "Justice for Abigail Williams & Liberty German." Some users took to placing images of the sketch side by side with those of known sex offenders, encouraging one another to call a tip-line police set up for the case. A reward for information that leads to an arrest already exceeded $200,000 before a fundraising effort was held by a local Papa John's franchise in March. Donations also poured in from the likes of retired Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, as well as franchise owner Jim Isray.
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But the number of sex offenders in Delphi is relatively low in comparison to much of the rest of the state, and investigators have presumably been examining those possibilities inside and out since the deaths were first ruled a homicide. Detectives have sifted through 18,000 tips and have interviewed more than a thousand people so far in their investigation, according to one recent report in the Journal and Courier.
Meanwhile, residents say running into unfamiliar faces in Delphi is rare. More than 90 percent of the population of Delphi is white; about 73 percent of Carroll County, where Delphi is based, voted for Donald Trump. This racial and cultural homogeneity makes differences stand out to the people who live there.
Mike Patty, Libby's grandfather, has no theories about the case—at least none that he's revealing to journalists.
"Your guess is as good as mine," he told me Monday after the release of the sketch. "Why don't you take a guess?"
I replied that I couldn't imagine the killer hailing from—and living in—a city as small as Delphi without being caught after five months of scrutiny.
"Well, then that's your guess, that he's not from here," Patty said, hinting at the fog of mystery that surrounds the investigation.
He added that he has strong faith in investigators and is in regular contact with them. He also said that he views the release of the sketch as a "positive turn," rather than merely an effort on the part of authorities to keep the case alive in the public eye.
"Because I'm a family member, I have more information available about what [investigators] are up to than most other people," he told me. "I'm not worried about it. And believe me, our family wants this guy caught worse than anybody out there."
Patty, who said he also knew his granddaughter's friend Williams very well—describing her as being "part of our family"—said he and his relatives experienced an acute sense of shock after learning of the double homicide. That feeling hasn't subsided five months later.
Patty's wife, Betty, is a member of the "Justice for Abigail Williams & Liberty German" Facebook group and keeps tabs on speculation about her granddaughter's killer. She said strangers sometimes reach out to her to "ask questions and send condolences" through the group, and that in some cases, the conversations she's had have turned into online friendships.
"They were two beautiful girls—full of life—that didn't get to mark in life," she told me of the two victims.
For now, the release of the sketch represents the closest the families of the victims have come to gaining some semblance of closure in this case since it started. Media attention briefly fell on a man whose house was searched by police in March and who owns the property where the girls' bodies were found, but he is not considered a suspect in the case.
"We want you to be able see the face, to be able to look at the face and focus on the face, so that's what you're dealing with in this photo," Sergeant Kim Riley of the Indiana State Police said Monday at the press conference where the sketch was unveiled.
Police placed the blurry image of the walking man in the blue jacket and blue jeans that was released back in February beside the new sketch as a point of comparison.
"We're going to get to the bottom of this sooner or later," he said.
Mike Patty said that in addition to the faith they have in investigators, the family derives strength from the people of Delphi, who have been extremely supportive throughout this ordeal.
I asked him what stood out about his city, outside of the double homicide case that has now helped put it on the map.
"It's a farming community, some people work in livestock," Patty said. "But Delphi is just typical, average. This is really just small-town USA."
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