ST. JOHN — St. John police minimized the concerns of Molley Lanham's parents when they reported the teen missing earlier this year, the family's attorney said.
Days later, after police had dismissed Lanham's disappearance by calling her "just a runaway," the 19-year-old was found dead in Valparaiso, the victim of an alleged murder, the attorney told The Times.
Flanked by Lanham's parents Thursday night, Schererville-based lawyer Tara Tauber addressed the St. John Town Council, accusing the Police Department of displaying “disrespect” and “unprofessionalism” in Lanham’s case.
Lanham and Thomas Grill Jr., 18, of Cedar Lake, disappeared Feb. 25. Police later found their bodies March 2 in a burned-out car in a remote, rural location southeast of Valparaiso. Lanham was shot in the head, and Grill was shot and beaten to death with a pipe wrench.
Connor R. Kerner, 17, of Valparaiso, has been charged with two counts of murder, as well as intimidation and arson, in connection with the double homicide.
“From the very beginning, the family has felt like their own police department didn’t treat them and Molley’s disappearance like it deserved,” Tauber told The Times ahead of Thursday's meeting. “It was difficult, horrendous and unimaginable for them to go through.
“From their perspective, nothing we do or say to anyone is going to bring her back,” Tauber said. “But, they want to see some good come out of their situation.”
‘Not taken seriously’
When the family first realized Lanham was missing, they turned to the St. John Police Department and filed a report.
“From the moment they filed that report, St. John treated this as if it was not a serious situation,” Tauber said, adding that police told the parents they believed Lanham was “just a runaway.”
“The family didn’t feel like they were taken seriously at all," Tauber added.
St. John Police Chief James Kveton previously told The Times his department immediately reported the two teens' disappearance on a national database as soon as the case was reported to his department.
Immediately following filing a report with the police, Lanham’s family hired a private investigator to help them search for any leads as to where their daughter may have gone.
Within the first few days, a timeline, multiple text messages and tips were collected, including information that “Connor Kerner may be involved," Tauber said.
All of the information was turned over to the St. John police, and “none of the leads were followed up on,” Tauber said.
“They felt the department treated them unprofessionally,” Tauber told The Times. “The police officer they spoke with told them they were aware of Connor and said, ‘He wasn’t dangerous.’ One detective told Molley’s stepfather the department had ‘wasted too many hours on a runaway.’
“Imagine the insult and disgust they felt knowing that the police department shrugged them off and said it was all fine.”
In a previous Times report, Kveton referenced text messages presented to police, prior to the discovery of the victims' bodies. The messages were part of a computer slideshow presentation apparently created by friends concerned for the victims.
"When we received additional information, we acted upon it — whether with the technical ability to ping a phone or reaching out to other law enforcement agencies where we had information (on) where they might be. Cedar Lake, St. John, Valparaiso and Porter County were collaborating the entire time," Kveton previously told The Times.
On March 2, the family received a phone call from the St. John Police Department.
Police told them to “get in the car, drive to the Porter County Sheriff's Department and ask for a detective,” Tauber said. The Porter County Sheriff’s Department, along with Valparaiso and Cedar Lake police departments, were assisting in the case.
“The Sheriff’s Department seems dumbfounded why they are there,” Tauber said. “The St. John Police Department were supposed to handle telling the family Molley was dead and the circumstances. Rather than handle it, they push it off to Porter County.”
“Imagine the long car ride home after receiving that kind of news,” Tauber told the council Thursday after telling her client’s story during public comment. “That car ride never should have happened because the St. John Police Department should have gone to their house in St. John and delivered this information in person.
Since that initial phone call, Tauber said St. John police haven’t reached out to the family once to “offer condolences or any kind of support.”
“Not once. Not one apology for telling the family that their daughter’s murder was not dangerous. Not one phone call offering condolences,” Tauber said. “Not one. And that folks, I find completely unacceptable in any community, especially this one.”
Kveton expressed his condolences to the family at the end of the council meeting and offered to meet with them to further discuss the incidents they experienced with the police department.
"I am very sorry for anything that happened that made you feel uncomfortable or like you weren't addressed properly," Kveton said. "Any loss of life is a tragedy. ... I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a child."
‘Make sure this doesn’t happen again’
Lanham was a varsity high school soccer captain and graduate of Hanover Central High School.
In a statement issued in March, her family described the St. John teen as “a beautiful, loved daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece and friend. … Molley was so unapologetically herself. She was spunky, fashionable and unique in every way imaginable. Molley will be remembered for her love and kindness for all, especially animals."
Since her death, the family has asked for privacy and space to grieve. But the stress of how her case was handled has weighed heavily on them, Tauber said.
That’s why they turned to Tauber for help.
“The town of St. John likes to boast that it’s a safe place to live, but if this is how they treat residents when tragedy falls on them, this is a problem,” Tauber said.
“The Town Council needs to be aware. They are the overseers,” Tauber added. “I would think they would expect more from the department.”
Town Council President Mark Barenie echoed Kveton's remarks about the department looking into the case and said, "we all feel heartbroken and sad" for the family.