Hannah Wilson’s death leaves lasting wounds
By Madeline Buckley | Sept. 18, 2016
The room at the Indiana State Police headquarters in Bloomington was cold and sterile, with folding chairs looping around the room in a semicircle. The first thing Robin Wilson registered was the dead quiet.
Robin had hurtled from Fishers down I-465, then Ind. 37 to Bloomington after receiving a call about her 22-year-old daughter, Hannah Wilson. The senior at Indiana University was missing.
She looked around the police station. Where were the frantic search parties? Why weren’t missing persons posters zipping through copy machines?
Robin sat in one of the folding chairs, with her aunt, who patted her knee while the two women waited.
After about 30 minutes, 1st Sgt. Paul Suding entered. He carried a picture of Hannah. Robin already knew what he was going to say.
“I’m so sorry to tell you, but we have her body,” the detective told her.
Hannah’s father, Jeff Wilson, arrived later. When Robin told him what had happened, Jeff slowly sank into one of the chairs.
He didn’t lose control until he went to the parking lot outside to talk to their other daughter, Hannah’s younger sister, Haley. He sprawled facedown on the pavement, crying while a light drizzle fell.
Graduation was around the corner for Hannah, who had just taken her last test. Then she was brutally beaten to death in the early morning hours of April 24, 2015.
Robin didn’t know it at the time, but at the same moment she learned Hannah was dead, her daughter’s killer was being booked in a room nearby. A jury in August convicted Daniel Messel, a 51-year-old Bloomington man, of murder. A judge will hand down his sentence Thursday.
The mysteries of the case still cling to those involved, even as life moves forward.
But the impact of Hannah’s life and death is clear to those who love her. In death, she helped lock up a dangerous man. In life, her laugh and warmth reached hundreds of family and friends.
A mother’s love
The kitten could fit in the palm of Robin’s hand.
As a veterinarian, Robin had been forced to euthanize the family’s old cat. Then an orange kitten came into her office as a stray.
She remembers picking up Hannah, then 8 or 9, and Haley, the younger sister by four years, at the baby sitter’s house after work. Robin held up the kitten to the window. Hannah's face brightened with a huge smile.
“She was crying, ‘Mommy, Mommy,’” Robin said of her daughter’s excitement.
They named him after what they ate for dinner that night: macaroni and cheese, or Mac for short.
Mac was Hannah’s cat. She was the one who snuggled with him in bed. Mac would leap to the front door when he heard her car approaching when she came home from college.
Now, Mac spends most of his time in Hannah’s room.
He loped around the bedroom on a recent afternoon. Robin crouched to rub his fur and murmured, “She’s not coming home, is she?”
Hannah’s favorite color — a bright lime green, or “this shocking green,” as Robin puts it with a smile — covers the bedroom walls.
The room is filled with pictures of Hannah posing and laughing with her sister and friends. It holds cheerleading medals from high school competitions, and her diploma from IU, bestowed to her posthumously.
Robin, 54, studied a framed group photograph of Hannah and her pledge class at Gamma Phi Beta, searching for her daughter among the group of college teenagers.
“Oh how could I not know she is the one with her hands up in the air,” Robin said after locating the girl with the long brown hair and arms raised in a celebratory pose. “She just had a joy for life that most people would wish they could have.”
It’s comforting to Robin that Hannah was happy the night before she died. She was celebrating with friends during the weekend of the Little 500 bike races, a time known for parties at IU.
Walking through her home, Robin talked about how she recently considered putting the house on the market and moving to a condo. She wants to downsize. But after Hannah died, Haley asked her mother not to sell.
“I just couldn’t do that to her because this is where she feels Hannah,” Robin said.
Robin sat in the benches each day of the August trial at the Brown County Courthouse. She watched as the prosecutor showed the jury photos of Hannah’s dark hair matted with blood, and a video of her daughter lying motionless in the grass.
She knew she had to keep her emotions in check, so the defense couldn’t argue that her tears might influence the jury. She stayed strong, kept quiet.
But one day, the prosecutor held up Hannah’s gray T-shirt, covered in blood. Wearing purple latex gloves, he displayed the stretchy black yoga pants stained with dirt and blood. Robin hadn’t realized what Hannah was wearing the night of her death.
“Those were her favorite yoga pants I got her for Christmas,” Robin said, her voice shaking. “Those were the Converse shoes she loved.”
That was when she cried.
A father’s grief
Jeff Wilson and Jill Troha, Hannah’s stepmom, recall the moment time stood still, when their journey to Bloomington came to a screeching halt because of construction traffic on Ind. 37.
They were already delayed on the trip down because Jeff was the only doctor staffed at an Avon clinic. Jill called after she heard from one of Hannah’s friends. Jeff pushed through, seeing the last few people as staff members locked the door so no new patients could walk in.
“We were sitting in traffic watching social media as people were sharing that picture of Hannah being missing,” Jeff said. “Every hour that goes by was creepier and creepier.”
Jeff sat in his Fishers home, fidgeting and shifting in his seat as he remembered the day he learned Hannah was killed. Photographs and collages of Hannah and Haley line the home.
At night, he sleeps on a pillow Jill made for him from one of Hannah’s shirts, a light green Indiana University tee.
On an afternoon in September, the pillow sat on the couch in their living room.
More than a year later, some days are easier than others. Jeff is usually OK once he’s at work, immersed in his role as a physician.
Recently, a patient plucked at the rubber bracelet that Jeff wears on his wrist in memory of his daughter.
“What’s this for?” the woman asked him.
Jeff wonders when people ask: Do they really want to know?
He told her: “This is for my daughter Hannah. She was the one murdered at IU.”
Often people cry, or gasp, or go silent.
But he likes talking about his daughter, the daddy’s girl with whom he would watch “Jersey Shore,” the Kardashians and “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
Growing up, after their parents divorced, Hannah and Haley spent weekends with Jeff.
“They’d come, and I would have to watch the shows,” he said, laughing.
He still struggles occasionally.
One day, Jeff was treating a teen girl while she fought with her mother. He snapped.
“Just stop,” he said to them.
He told the mother and daughter about Hannah.
“At least you have this,” he said.
The mother and daughter immediately stopped fighting.
He felt bad afterward. It’s not his job to wag his finger at people, telling them off, he said.
That time, though, he couldn’t help it.
A friend’s loss
Anisa Jallal remembers what she and Hannah wore when they met in a sixth-grade classroom at Hamilton Southeastern Junior High. Hannah wore white capris, a pink tank top and a button-up vest. Hannah teased Anisa for the white sweatsuit from Kohl’s that she wore all the time.
“It was embarrassing,” Anisa laughed, remembering that outfit.
The friendship followed them through the same high school, the same college and the same sorority house.
On a morning in September, the young woman sat in an Indianapolis coffee house and described how it’s hard to make new friends now.
To Anisa, 23, Hannah was irreplaceable. Her oldest friend.
“You can’t just meet someone you grew up with,” she said.
Anisa smiled when she spoke about Hannah, but her voice shook when she began recounting the day Hannah went missing.
For most of that Friday morning, her friends believed Hannah had gone to sleep at a friend’s house. Around 4 p.m., Anisa realized the situation was more serious when she received a text from Hannah’s aunt and learned that some of their friends had called the police.
She quickly headed to Hannah’s house. The yard was full of people. Hannah’s parents, her sister and police officers came to the house that evening. Anisa learned Hannah’s body had been found.
“I remember I fell on the ground,” Anisa said. “I was rocking and screaming that I can’t live without her.”
She was numb for a long time. She didn’t sleep for a week after Hannah was killed. The next week, she couldn’t stay awake.
Graduation was a haze. She was supposed to sit next to Hannah, but instead she fell asleep and didn’t stand when her group was called.
Anisa never again slept in the sorority house where she lived senior year. She retrieved her belongings, but she didn’t linger, instead sleeping at a friend’s house until graduation.
In the year after Hannah’s death, Anisa abruptly decided to go to medical school, even though she had never planned it. She took the MCATS and filled out an application.
She never turned it in. Now an EMT, she returned to her original plan of becoming a physician’s assistant.
“I think I could do it, but then I began thinking, ‘Do I even want this?’” Anisa said. “I’ve come to the realization that I was overcompensating for someone who didn’t get to live their life.”
Anisa remains close with Robin and Haley. In high school, she would drive over to their house, walk in the unlocked door and eat their food. She still drops in.
But sometimes Anisa finds herself driving to the Wilson house before realizing that only Hannah would have been home at that hour.
A detective’s quest
First Sgt. Paul Suding got a call sometime after 8:30 a.m. that Friday to assist the Brown County Sheriff’s Office because a woman driving down Ind. 45 had spotted a body.
Suding snapped into a businesslike mode when he walked into the brush. As investigations commander, he has learned to approach a grisly scene with a determination to learn what he can from what has been left behind.
Suding doesn’t want to say it’s like flipping a switch, but it sort of is. He focuses on the task at hand: obtaining justice for the victim before him. Otherwise, it’s too easy for officers to see their own children in the dead, to be distracted by the gruesome scene.
On that morning, the detectives were working for Hannah. Blood stuck thickly to her hair and pooled around her body, which lay prone in a field surrounded by tall trees. Settled into the grass near her feet was the key to the whole case: a cellphone.
Detectives didn’t know that yet, though.
The officers at first thought the phone belonged to the woman who lay before them. They quickly learned that the phone belonged to a middle-aged Bloomington man, a print shop employee who lived with his elderly father and was a stranger to Hannah.
Police tracked down Daniel Messel, the owner of the phone, around 5:30 p.m. They found Hannah's blood and hair inside and on the exterior of the driver’s side. Messel was holding a bag of his clothes when he was arrested. The clothes also had Hannah’s blood on them.
Messel was arrested and charged with murder. His case was fairly open and shut, with a jury convicting him after deliberating for about five hours.
Mysteries linger, though.
Hannah’s friends reconstructed her last night for the jury, telling of the bars and parties the group went to. Police and prosecutors puzzled together her final hours the best they could.
Hannah partied with friends until two of them put her in a cab outside Kilroy’s Sports Bar around 12:45 a.m. that Friday. The cab driver dropped off Hannah at her house at Eighth and Dunn. It was clear she made it into the home because her purse and cellphone were there.
But something made Hannah go back outside without taking her phone and purse. She left the door wide open. It remained open all night, until one of Hannah’s roommates noticed it swung open in the morning.
Somehow, Messel got Hannah in his silver Kia Sportage and drove her nearly 30 minutes outside Bloomington before he killed her. Police believe he beat her with a Maglite flashlight that he kept in his car.
No one knows what drew Hannah outside her house.
“Robin wanted, and still does want, to know every piece of what these last moments of her daughter’s life were,” Suding said. “You want to answer that for her.”
Police only have theories.
Hannah had lost her driver’s license earlier that night. One theory, Suding said, is that she left the house only momentarily to see whether she had dropped the license right outside her porch. Or maybe she heard something outside that caused her to open the door and step out.
And then there’s the question of how Hannah ended up in Messel’s car. Suding mused: Did she pass out? Did he grab her? Did she get in the car, thinking it was a friendly person who could give her a ride?
The answers remain elusive. Messel refused to talk to detectives when they hauled him into the State Police post, and he declined to take the stand in his murder trial.
Ultimately, though, it was Hannah who provided the most crucial piece of evidence, Suding said. Her injuries suggested she struggled with her attacker. Whatever she did to knock the cellphone away from Messel, Suding said, solved the case.
He often thinks about the chain of events that followed finding the phone. Would police have been able to zone in on Messel? Would he otherwise have had time to destroy the evidence on his clothes and car?
And would the case still be unsolved today if the phone hadn't been knocked out of Messel’s pocket?
“She was ours for a little bit,” Suding said. “She helped us put a very bad person away.”
A juror’s dream
Ashley Sylke had a recurring dream during Messel’s trial.
She stood in the dark in the brushy clearing where Hannah’s body was found. She saw Hannah and yelled at her to run. She walked toward her to try to help, but she couldn’t reach her.
Sylke, a 28-year-old Brown County woman, for seven days heard every known detail of Hannah’s slaying. She was one of the 12 jurors who decided whether Messel was guilty of murder. She saw bloody photos, and a haunting video of Hannah lying in the grassy field.
She heard about the woman’s hopes and dreams, about her friendships and about her laugh.
“I feel like I could have known this girl,” Sylke said.
Even now, weeks after the trial has concluded, Sylke thinks about Hannah. She has thought about driving to the field that plagued her in her dreams but hasn’t yet seen the place in person.
Sylke played a role that most people only see on television, and offered a glimpse into the jury room.
“There was a lot of people talking over each other,” she said. “Everyone wanted to give their opinion.”
The foreman was a man with a calming presence, she said. When they first began deliberating, he allowed each juror to offer initial thoughts. Ten people immediately thought Messel was guilty.
Two voiced some doubts.
The jurors discussed the DNA and the blood spatter evidence at length. They, too, wondered how Hannah ended up in Messel’s car.
Then, as the discussion wound down, the foreman called for a vote.
Around the table, one by one, 12 people said, “Guilty.” One woman, struck by the emotion of the moment, was crying.
After the verdict, Sylke stopped having the dream.
Seventeen months later
Suding first knew Hannah as a Jane Doe, but over 17 months, the State Police sergeant found out about her loud laugh, her bubbly personality, her dreams of going to graduate school for psychology. He grew close to the family.
When Robin sat through the trial, Suding remained beside her. When Haley locked her keys in her car, Suding found her help.
And when Suding learned that Haley was moving in August into the Gamma Phi Beta sorority house at IU — the same home where Hannah once lived, walked and laughed — Suding decided to stop by and say hello.
He also helped Haley lug a futon into her room.
“We will never forget Hannah,” Suding said.
Jeff sometimes has a hard time reconciling the public persona of Hannah — the one that has been recounted so many times on television and in newspapers — with his daughter, who was so multifaceted, a girl with a personality and sense of self that can’t be described in just a few words.
She was outgoing and loved people. But she also enjoyed having deep conversations with her dad about the afterlife and spirituality. She had her own fears and hang-ups growing up. She was a deep thinker.
She was everything people have she said was, Jeff said, shifting on his couch and staring ahead.
But Hannah also was more than that.
Robin often drives to Brown County to sit in the isolated field where Hannah died.
Hannah was found in a brushy clearing about 16 miles northeast of Bloomington. The area is wooded and rural.
Little memorials for Hannah sit in the field. It’s not the exact place she was killed. Only Robin and a few other people know exactly where her body lay.