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The true crime case of April Millsap shows how technology can be used for more than luring victims to their deaths. Learn more about her case.

True crime: How did a fitness app help police catch this murderer?

In terms of social media, the internet, and true crime, it’s all sort of a double-edged cross section. In many instances, this can lead to more crimes being committed: the Craigslist Killer, the other Craigstlist Killer, the creation of the dark web, drug trade online, human trafficking online, you get it. It’s bad. On the other hand, however, these things have helped police solve cases.

Such is the case of 14-year-old April Millsap, who was murdered in 2014, and whose fitness app on her phone helped police catch her killer, James VanCallis. If you haven’t heard about this shocking true crime case, then hang on. It’s going to get heartbreaking, but also impressive in how technology can help police solve crimes in the age of social media & apps.

The basics of the April Millsap case

April Millsap was walking along a popular nature trail in Macomb County near Mount Clemens, Michigan. As she walked her dog along the trailer, 32-year-old James VanCallis attempted to abduct her. Millsap was able to get away and text her friend, “I almost just got kidnapped OMFG”. Minutes later, VanCallis ambushed her from behind. He beat the teenager to death during a failed attempt to rape her.

April Millsap was beaten to death with a motorcycle helmet. Witnesses remember seeing the teen talking to a man on a motorcycle minutes before her death. A sketch was drawn up, which led to Van Callis’ arrest. He was charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and attempted criminal sexual conduct. So how does April Millsap’s cell phone data fits into solving her case?

How technology helped

In an article on ClickOnDetroit, they describe the process in which FBI investigator, Agent Matthew Zentz, was able to use April’s cell phone to help bolster the prosecution’s case. The digital analysis expert said in testimony that he “extracted information from a Sports Tracker app on the Armada teen’s cell phone and combined it with location information on Google Earth to create an animation that shows the path Millsap took”.

Cell phone data, in the true crime community, definitely makes for interesting parts of cases. While many companies keep their client’s phones very private, they do share texts and location data with police along with call logs. It’s getting into a person’s phone following death that can be tricky. But that’s another article for another day. Either way, the app helped make the timeline leading up to her death.

What happened to James VanCallis?

VanCallis, thankfully, was convicted on all charges back in 2016. His defense team tried to argue their client’s innocence, saying that his DNA did not appear on the crime scene or on Millsap’s body. VanCallis said, after his verdict was read, “I don’t know how to have the Millsap family understand that I don’t know her, I never met her, I’ve never seen her before.”

Millsap’s mother, however, believes the right man is behind bars. She said, “I hope those steel bars are your only friends. I hope when you close your eyes you see only April, over, and over, and over again…I hope that the inmates know exactly what you did, because I hear their punishment can be very ugly.” Anyone who has harmed a child in any way? They do not do well in prison at all.

VanCallis was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time of his sentencing, he said that he planned to appeal his conviction. As of the time of writing this article, March 2021, nothing seems to have come of those appeals. Or, well, nothing that has made the news anyway. 

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