by Eric Stearley
On Jan. 24, the First Financial Bank in North Manchester was robbed at gunpoint. The suspect, David John Mills, rode a bicycle to a parked truck. He got in the black Ford Ranger and drove through town, eventually turning onto State Road 13. John Hammons of the North Manchester Police Department caught up to Mills and followed his truck for less than five miles. It was not a high-speed pursuit. Followed by Hammons, the black truck crossed into Kosciusko County, and as they neared State Road 14, the truck stopped. Moments later, Mills fired a .380 pistol, taking his own life.
The events of that day left many in shock, but none more so than those who knew David. His funeral was held on Jan. 31 at DeMoney-Grimes Countryside Park Funeral Home in Columbia City. His obituary reads like that of another person. It would cause anyone to do a double-take as they study the name and date of death to make sure that it describes the young man who cut his own life short after pointing a gun at a bank teller and fleeing with a backpack full of cash.
His list of achievements and lack of criminal record suggest a bright young man on his way to a successful, fulfilling life. He graduated from IPFW with a bachelor’s degree in business law in May of 2013. He had recently applied to join the Navy, hoping to become an aircraft carrier pilot. On several occasions, he worked with kids in the Manchester Community School District. No one seems to know what motivated him to do what he did on that January evening. Some things, however, are known about the life of David Mills. While they don’t offer any explanation or insight into the events of that night, they do tell us a bit about David.
In the years before his death, David attended Sugar Creek Fellowship. During his time at the church, he developed a strong relationship with Michael and Mary Beth Johnson, the church’s treasurer and administrative director, respectively. With permission from David’s mother, the couple shared their experience with the bright young man.
“He was like a son to me, to be honest,” said Mary Beth. “I still haven’t been able to get my head around it, because it’s not him. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Mary Beth said that when David first started attending their church, his only transportation was a motorized scooter, which he rode to church every Sunday, rain or shine. He was friends with the couple’s sons. He played basketball with them in the church basketball league at the Kosciusko County YMCA and hung out with the boys at church. He was the team’s MVP.
“He excelled at everything he did,” said Mary Beth. “He was very good and kindhearted. He was never afraid to try anything. He was really just an awesome kid to be around.”
David attended Roanoke Baptist School until his senior year, when he transferred to Columbia City High School. Mary Beth believes that at the time, David wanted to become a veterinarian, and the larger, public high school offered courses that he needed to take in order to be admitted into a suitable collegiate program.
“He was very knowledgeable about the Bible,” said Mary Beth.
The Sugar Creek Fellowship is involved in a series of events called Celebrate Life. David attended the district event and won the ping pong and hot shot free throw competitions, qualifying for the regional event in Illinois. He traveled to the Illinois with the Johnsons and his father, who went to watch David compete. Mary Beth said that David talked about his family often. Along with his father, he is survived by his mother, three sisters, and two brothers. His brother Terry preceded him in death.
In addition to basketball, David had a passion for golf. He won individual awards at the church’s golf scramble and other church-sponsored golf events. He could be spotted playing at Sycamore Golf Club in North Manchester, where he worked during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Owners Todd and Kathy Sandow remember him well.
“He was a very nice young man,” said Kathy. “We enjoyed having him work for us, and I’m just totally surprised. He was extremely polite, always nice to our customers, just totally different than anything you would think, I guess, would go along with what occurred.”
Todd got to know David well, giving private lessons on several occasions.
“David was a very good golfer. He was probably a three or four handicap,” said Todd. “He was serious about the game. I gave him some lessons. It seemed he was just a nice young man, you know?”
Though he stopped working at the golf course after the 2009 season, he continued to play at the course, usually 9 holes at the student rate of $6, up until last fall, when the course closed for the winter.
“Sometimes he would sit on the putting green and turn his car lights on and putt at night,” said Todd. “He loved golf.”
Todd said most of their conversation was about golf and that David was pretty quiet.
“Most of us golfers, like myself, we’re loaners,” said Todd. “He was like that, but that’s golfers. We’re thinking about our swing and trying to figure out the game. He was a lot like that, but I didn’t think that was a problem because there’s a lot of golfers like that.”
In addition to working at golf courses, Mills was employed through Region 8 Education Service Center, the company through which public schools in the area hire substitute teachers. Mills worked as a sub in Whitley County Schools, as well as Manchester Community Schools. During the fall of 2013, he subbed eight times at the school district in North Manchester. Neither Manchester Community Schools nor Region 8 recorded a single complaint against David.
The last time Mary Beth saw David was more than six months before the Jan. 24 incident. David’s mother told the couple that one of David’s professors at IPFW had convinced him that Christianity was a farce.
“One of the last conversations I had with him, he did tell me he had a lot of questions that he wanted to ask us about the Bible, and that he needed some clarification,” said Mary Beth. “I told him, ‘Bring those questions to church, we’ll sit down, we’ll talk to you, and if we don’t know the answers, we’ll try to find them.’ It wasn’t a defiance. Nothing like you deal with a lot of times. [He was] just one of the most well-mannered kids I’ve ever met. He was brought up well, I’ll say that.”
For Michael and Mary Beth, the story doesn’t add up. Mary Beth has lived in Columbia City her whole life. Through her church and her involvement with the YMCA, she knows a good portion of the community. She said that when something like this happens, she will usually encounter someone who says, “That doesn’t surprise me,” and tell her about things that were going on that she didn’t know.
“A lot of us knew David, whether it was through church basketball or the YMCA or through the golf course,” said Mary Beth. “I’ve talked to 75 to 100 people about this, and I’ve not run into one person who hasn’t been totally shocked because of who David was. Honestly, in my 47 years, I’ve never had that happen, where everyone has said, ‘no, not him, there’s no way.’”
Todd Sandow shares their feelings.
“He gave us no indication to think that he would have ever done anything like that, but you never know what’s going on in a person’s mind,” said Todd. “I did get to know him. It sits on my mind. It bothers me. Somehow, he needed money. I don’t know why he would even think of doing that. It doesn’t sound like him. I guess I wish I had spent some more time with him, getting to know him. I think he needed somebody to give him some guidance, maybe. But how do you know?”
The story of David John Mills is tragic. It’s a confusing story of apparent desperation, a series of incongruent events without a sensible ending. We may never know what prompted this young man with a promising future to rob a bank and end his life in a Ford Ranger on that January evening.