Published August 23, 2013
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – A northern Indiana man was arraigned Friday on murder charges in the 1993 strangulation of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend, five years after prosecutors got the break in the case that eventually led them to him.
Judge Tom Alevizos entered a not guilty plea on behalf of 38-year-old Jason Tibbs in the slaying of Rayna Rison and ordered the LaPorte man held without bond. He set a Sept. 13 deadline by which Tibbs must hire an attorney or have a public defender appointed to him. No one responded to a message seeking comment left at a phone number listed as Tibbs'.
Rison's disappearance on March 26, 1993, garnered widespread attention. It was featured on "America's Most Wanted" and it inspired former Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley to offer a $25,000 reward for her safe return. The day after Rison went missing, her car was found in a rural area several miles north of her hometown of LaPorte, which is about 25 miles west of South Bend. A week later, her boyfriend's high school letter jacket, which she had been wearing, was found hanging from a tree. About a month after she vanished, fishermen found Rison's body in a pond a few miles from where her car was found.
Prosecutors initially charged Rison's brother-in-law, Ray McCarty, with killing her. Three years before her death, he pleaded guilty to molesting her and was given a three-year suspended sentence that included 100 hours of community service, mandatory counseling and three years of probation. A newly elected prosecutor dropped the charge against McCarty the following year after determining there was insufficient evidence linking him to Rison's death.
It wasn't until 2008 that investigators got the break that led to Tibbs' arrest.
In a probable cause affidavit released Friday, prosecutors say Rickey Hammons, an inmate at the Wabash Valley Correction Facility, came forward that year to say that unbeknownst to them, he saw his sister's boyfriend at the time, Eric Freeman, and Tibbs with Rison's body right after she went missing. Freeman, who was 14 at the time, said he was smoking pot in the loft of a pole barn when Tibbs and Freeman pulled in driving his sister's Buick Century. He said they opened the trunk, revealing Rison's body inside, and they argued, with Freeman asking Tibbs why he killed the girl.
According to prosecutors, police interviewed Freeman in 2008 and he denied Hammons' account and refused to talk to them again. But they say that after being promised immunity from prosecution two months ago, Freeman told police he saw Tibbs kill Rison. He said Tibbs was trying to get back together with her, and they got into an argument that escalated to blows and eventually, to Tibbs strangling her. Freeman said he and Tibbs then drove to the pole barn with the body and later disposed of it in the pond.
Rison's father, Ben Rison, said he was relieved that an arrest had finally been made.
"We can't hold her in our arms anymore, but maybe we can get some satisfaction out of this," Rison said.
He said he never gave up hope.
"I made her a promise I would find whoever it was," he said.