Can 100 strangers solve a crime? ‘CrowdSolve’ to take up Ohio teen’s 39-year-old cold case death

100 strangers work together to solve Ohio teen’s 39-year-old cold case death

NEWBURGH HEIGHTS, Ohio — “We have the case file. We have the suspects. We have the experts. Now we just need you.”

That is the tagline of the CrimeCon event CrowdSolve, a convention-style gathering of true crime buffs slated for Feb. 21-23 in Chicago that will investigate the mysterious 1981 death of Kurt Sova, a Newburgh Heights 17-year-old whose body was found in a ravine five days after he vanished from an early Halloween party with friends. Participating in the event will be investigators from the Newburgh Heights Police Department.

“The NHPD will be participating in this unique event to help bring justice for Kurt Sova,” the department’s Facebook page reads. “Check it out!”

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The event is the latest effort by authorities to bring closure to Sova’s loved ones, who have wondered for more than 39 years what took place after that Oct. 23, 1981, Halloween party. VAULT Studios’ true crime podcast, “True Crime Chronicles,” this month devoted two episodes to the case.

In December, cold case investigators also announced they were teaming up with a group of 10 Tiffin University criminal justice students to take another look at the mystery.

Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County has offered a reward of $5,000 for information leading to an arrest in the case.

“Our thought process was to incorporate the brightest and best criminal justice and social science students to look at this case with a fresh set of eyes and a clear lens,” Michael Lewis, a TU criminal justice professor, told the Advertiser-Tribune in Tiffin last month. “It is our hope that the case can finally be solved and the loved ones can have a sense of closure.”

Sova’s brother is expected to be at the Chicago CrimeSolve event. Kevin Sova, the only surviving member of the family, said not knowing what happened to his youngest sibling has taken a toll over the decades.

“When somebody dies, we should know why,” he told WKYC in Cleveland earlier this month. “The hardest part of this whole case is not knowing why our brother and my mom’s son is dead (and) gone.”

According to CrowdSolve, Kurt Sova accompanied a friend to a party at a duplex the night he vanished and his parents and three older brothers never saw him again. The next morning, his mother began calling his friends and his father began searching the neighborhood.

His father, Kenneth Sova, told WKYC in the days after his disappearance that he knew immediately something was very wrong.

“I knew something was wrong with him because it wasn’t like him to be away from the house that long without calling or without getting in touch with somebody,” Kenneth Sova said in 1981.

On Oct. 25, the Sovas reported their son missing. His mother began placing missing posters in store windows, at which point she learned of the party her son had attended.

The woman who allegedly hosted the party denied seeing Kurt Sova or even having a party, the case briefing on the CrowdSolve website states. When a pizza delivery man confirmed to the Sovas that there had been a party, the woman relented and admitted the teen had been there.

“Guests later commented that Kurt had been drinking Everclear, the strongest alcoholic drink on the market at that time,” the case summary states. “One of Kurt’s friends later said that he’d taken an intoxicated Kurt outdoors for some fresh air, leaving him for a few minutes to run back inside for Kurt’s jacket. However, when he returned, Kurt was gone.”

Sova’s body was found five days after his disappearance in a ravine about 500 yards from the duplex where the party was held.

Though it appeared as though he may have fallen to his death in a drunken state, his autopsy revealed a startling detail: Sova had only been dead between 24 and 36 hours.

A classmate of the missing teen also reported seeing him three days after the party, walking toward a van with people he did not recognize. Sova reportedly called out to the boy by name.

“Unfortunately, the schoolmate did not suspect anything out of the ordinary as he was unaware of Kurt’s status as a missing person at the time of this occurrence,” the CrowdSolve summary states.

Further, Sova’s father told authorities he had personally searched the ravine where his son’s body was found -- two days before three young boys playing there stumbled upon him. He had found nothing out of the ordinary during the search.

Sova’s cause of death was never determined, though he still had alcohol in his body when he was found.

“Police could not find any sign of assault and his body revealed no major injuries,” the summary states. “Police could not locate his right shoe, although his left shoe was found wedged in a pile of rocks nearby.”

“Do we think somebody killed him? It’s possible,” Newburgh Heights police Chief John Majoy told WKYC. “But is it more plausible that he died and his body was later dropped there? Yeah, because that area was searched.”

Majoy is expected to be one of the experts at CrowdSolve, as is retired U.S. Marshal Art Roderick, who serves as chief investigator for the event. According to WKYC, Roderick suggested Sova’s unsolved case to the event organizers, who thought Newburgh Heights’ 345-mile distance from the event was within the parameters to make the case a suitable one.

Kevin Balfe, executive producer for CrowdSolve, told the news station they look at three things when choosing which case to take on: geographical relevance, solvability and support from law enforcement and the victim’s family.

At the first CrowdSolve event, held in October in Seattle, participants took a look at the March 2009 disappearance of Nancy Moyer, who vanished from her Tenino, Washington, home, and the murder of Karen Bodine, 37, who was found strangled to death in January 2007 near a gravel quarry in Thurston County.

“It’s a rare thing to find police departments that are open to what we do,” Balfe said. “Certainly, Newburgh Heights was.”

Majoy told WKYC the department is glad for the opportunity.

“We were also humbled to have this case selected because our thought process was that if we bring enough attention to the case, perhaps someone may come forward with information to help us solve it,” the chief told the news station.

Balfe said he anticipates between 300 and 400 attendees at next month’s event. Participants will work in smaller groups to pore over the case file and spitball ideas, and will then reconvene to present Newburgh Heights investigators with their findings.

The police chief said he doesn’t expect the case to be solved at the convention, but hopes it gets moved in the right direction. He also hopes to give Kevin Sova some peace after all he has lost.

Kenneth Sova died in 2001, followed by his wife, Dorothy, in December 2014. A second of the Sova brothers, Keith Sova, died in June 2014 at age 52 and a third, Kenneth, died in 2017 at age 57.

“We need to let them know their loved one mattered and we want to help solve their case,” Majoy told WKYC. “All too often, the victims and their families are not given the diligence or attention they deserve. Refocusing this will at least send a message that we do care about them and want to help solve their case.”

Kurt Sova, pictured in an undated family photo, vanished after attending a Halloween party with a friend on Oct. 23, 1981, in Newburgh Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. The 17-year-old’s body was found in a ravine 500 yards from the site of the party five days later. The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery nearly 40 years later.
Kurt Sova, pictured in an undated family photo, vanished after attending a Halloween party with a friend on Oct. 23, 1981, in Newburgh Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. The 17-year-old’s body was found in a ravine 500 yards from the site of the party five days later. The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery nearly 40 years later. (Newburgh Heights Police Department)