Two Michiana women went missing 50 years ago. Now their families feel answers are close.

Janis Sanders pictured with her children: James, left, and Dena Sanders
Janis Sanders pictured with her children: James, left, and Dena Sanders

NILES — James Sanders has known in his heart for decades what happened to his mother. He just hasn’t been able to prove it.

James was just 2½ years old when his mother, Janis Sanders, went missing in Niles after witnesses say they saw her ex-boyfriend, whom she had recently broken up with, follow her out to the parking lot of a local restaurant.

Janis was 24 when she went missing in 1975. Her body was never found.

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Also never recovered was the body of Janeice Langs, another young woman who was first thought to be a runaway from South Bend in 1973. Langs was briefly engaged to the same boyfriend as Janis Sanders before she went missing at 21 years old, and the connection led police to arrest Gerald Libertowski on suspicion of murdering both women.

James, and his sister, Dena Sanders, maintain that Libertowski killed their mother and buried her body alongside Langs. But Libertowski was never convicted and police have classified the disappearances of both women as missing persons cases since the 1970s.

For decades, James and Dena Sanders have searched for a way to confirm their suspicion, to no avail.

“The advice I kept getting was ‘To tell you the truth, if we can’t find new evidence, there’s nothing we can do.’ I was told that year after year, decade after decade,” James Sanders said.

Though James and Dena Sanders now live in Arizona and North Carolina, respectively, they never gave up searching for answers about their mother’s death. The siblings compiled extensive notes about the original investigation and other leads and even founded a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide information and assistance to other cold cases across the country.

That legwork, along with some help from students at Western Michigan University and scientists at the University of Notre Dame, dug up enough leads for the cases to be reclassified last fall. Based on new information received by Michigan State Police cold case detectives, investigators now believe Janis Sanders and Janeice Langs are homicide victims.

Armed with new leads and modern DNA technology, MSP detectives, the Sanders family and Janeice Langs’ only surviving sibling, Lori Langs Mann, are hopeful they will find their loved ones’ remains and gain some closure in the process.

“It’s always been in the back of our mind, we’ve always wanted to solve it,” MSP Det. Sgt. John Moore said. “We knew kind of who the players were, and the bodies have never been found and the community always wondered what ever happened.”

Two women gone

According to police reports and Tribune archival material from the time, Janis Sanders was last seen around midnight on the night of July 20 into July 21, 1975. Janis was getting off her shift as a waitress at Pete’s Patio Restaurant in Niles, and witnesses say Gerald “Jerry” Libertowski followed her out into the parking lot.

The week before she disappeared, Janis had ended her relationship with Libertowski and had moved back in with her parents in Niles. Tribune archives say Libertowski told police he talked with Janis after her shift but “he did not accompany her from the parking lot.”

That night was the last time Janis was seen alive. Days later, police found Janis’ car — a 1974 Matador — outside the Niles Holiday Inn.

Janis Sanders' disappearance mirrored that of Janeice Langs, who was reported as a runaway on Nov. 8, 1973. Langs had recently moved back in with her parents in South Bend after a brief engagement to Libertowski. That day, archives say, Langs worked her job for a finance company and gave a coworker a ride home.

She was never seen again. Lori Mann, who was 12 years old at the time, remembers her parents calling the police that night and telling them they suspected Libertowski was behind it all.

“Gerry did something with her," Mann remembers her mother saying that day. Archival Tribune coverage states police eventually found parts of Langs' car behind a barn downstate in Elwood, Ind., but that it appeared to have been dissected by a blowtorch.

Detectives quickly made the connection that both Janis Sanders and Janeice Langs had dated Libertowski before they were reported missing. In the weeks after Janis disappeared, Tribune archives show, police searched a farm belonging to Libertowski’s family but did not find the bodies of either woman.

Libertowski was eventually charged with the murders of both women, but in a turn that still frustrates the Sanders and Langs families, he was acquitted of Langs’ murder in Indiana in 1976, which led to the judge presiding over his case in Michigan to dismiss the charges regarding the murder of Janis Sanders.

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“It’s anger knowing that he was the guy; they had him,” James Sanders said. “The justice system failed. That’s where my sister and I try to filter it and try to focus back on getting the remains and having our closure and let the chips fall where they may.”

James Sanders and Det. Moore say it’s tough to know for certain why the jury acquitted Libertowski, though Tribune coverage of the trial shows his lawyers emphasized the fact that Langs’ body was never found and often raised objections to the admissibility of conversations Libertowski allegedly had with other people.

“If that case was tried today, you’d get a conviction,” Moore added.

In a bizarre twist, Libertowski’s primary defense attorney — Carl Leibowitz — was himself charged in an unrelated murder-for-hire plot, as well as for tax evasion, in the years after Libertowski’s trial and was disbarred.

Libertowski was never convicted of any crime related to the deaths of Langs or Sanders and died in 2010.

'It was frozen’

In the years since Libtertowski’s trial in the 1970s, the case went cold as police stopped actively pursuing leads in Janis Sanders’ disappearance.

James was 2 years old when his mother went missing and said it wasn’t until his teen years when he was clued in to his mother’s fate. At first, family members were wary of him getting involved because of concerns about his safety, but in his 20s, he contacted Michigan State Police and threw himself into reading old newspaper articles and investigative files.

For decades, there was little progress. Tips would come in periodically about an abandoned car or a bone that was found in the woods, but none of it was related to Janis Sanders.

“It was beyond cold,” James Sanders said. "It was frozen."

For Mann, investigating her sister Janeice's death was always “in the back of her mind,” but not something she became intimately involved in. Mann said her family moved from South Bend to Florida after her sister was killed to get away from it all and she’s lived there ever since.

When James Sanders contacted her out of the blue last year, Mann was surprised but grateful that someone was working on behalf of her sister many decades after Janeice was killed.

“It was in the back of everybody’s mind, would she ever show up or would we find her?” Mann said. “Did we start a nonprofit like James and all? No. It’s wonderful he has the strength and courage and that he thought of us.”

Eventually, improvements in technology, specifically DNA testing, gave Sanders and cold case investigators new hope.

In May 2022, when Sanders called MSP to check in after years of little progress, he was met with a renewed sense of vigor from Det. John Moore.

Moore told Sanders about another murder case out of Niles where a young woman named Roxanne Wood had been attacked and killed in her own home. Wood’s case had gone unsolved since 1987 until last year when investigators and outside consultants applied new advanced DNA tracing techniques to identify a suspect, who was convicted of Wood’s murder.

“Technology catches up to still make cases and gives new life to them,” Moore said.

Scholars' work makes investigations easier

MSP investigators also enlisted the help of Ashlyn Kuersten, a professor at Western Michigan University. Kuersten, along with a team of students, has been helping to digitize the original case reports from the Janis Sanders investigation so detectives can search the documents for words or phrases within seconds instead of combing back through thousands of physical pages.

Students with the university’s Cold Case Program worked on the Roxanne Wood case and have chipped in on 15 cold case investigations. Most of the time, that means putting together family trees of people involved in the investigation and scouring old newspaper clippings and the original case files to put together a timeline of who said what when.

“It’s unbelievable,” Moore said of the work done by the students at Western Michigan. “Previously, if we read through a report and got a thousand pages in and remembered something when we saw something else that rung a bell, we’d have to go back and try to find that. Now everything’s searchable. … It’s been awesome.”

The investigation into Janis Sanders’ death has been atypical, Kuersten said, because James Sanders had already pieced together a lot of material. That left Kuersten’s students free to focus on trying to figure out where Janis Sanders and Janeice Langs might be.

“We have to look all around South Bend, Niles, the Buchanan area. What was said at different trials, what was said in different interviews, where the bodies could be,” Kuersten said. “That’s where we spent most of our energy, trying to find these bodies throughout the fall.”

New life in Sanders case

The proverbial “big break” came in September when a series of tips came into Crime Stoppers that allowed MSP to change the classification of the Janis Sanders investigation from a missing person case to a homicide.

That change meant a lot to James Sanders, who had waited decades for significant progress in finding his mother’s remains.

Janis Sanders
Janis Sanders

“The reclassification seems kind of mundane to the average person, but to us it was just a relief,” James Sanders said. “A lot of times people get excited about it, but it goes dead in the water. This time, I felt like, with that reclassification, it’s going to keep going. If [MSP is] going to take that step for their own department, then it’s real.”

Moore declined to give details about what information MSP received that made them change the case’s classification but said his team is working on new leads that police hope will lead them to where the bodies of Janis Sanders and Janeice Langs are buried.

“We’ve done some interviews on some pivotal people that’s given us some information we’ve never had,” Moore said, while adding he feels there is “no other outcome for these two women other than homicide.”

With modern DNA technology, James Sanders is confident that once police find his mother’s remains, they’ll be able to prove definitively what he’s believed for years: That Gerald Libertowski killed his mother and Janeice Langs.

“We’re pretty confident that when that happens, his guilt will be 100% proven,” James Sanders said.


Beyond assigning responsibility for her sister’s death, Lori Mann hopes finding Janeice's body provides closure.

“She deserves [closure],” Mann said of her sister. “She did nothing wrong. She was just a young lady who had gone to work that day. It would finally bring closure to that, yes. It’s not justice because [Libertowski] wasn’t found guilty, but it would be closure.”

Mann remembers Janeice as very funny and a “cool older sister” who would take Mann and her friends to get ice cream and was always willing to play even though she was 10 years older than Mann.

Reaching out to Mann was itself a profound experience for James and Dena Sanders, who had never before had contact with members of the Langs family despite Janeice Langs’ death being inextricably tied to their mother’s.

“It was an out of body experience. We were both children of this trauma, same suspect. South Bend, Niles. It was bittersweet,” James said.

Now, with the support of the MSP, the prospect of finally confirming the truth of what happened to their mother is also a profound moment for Dena and James Sanders.

“It’s snowballed into this. And I’m glad it did, because now I’m thinking more along the lines of justice and truth and then we’ll get the closure,” James Sanders said. “It’s been a little cathartic.”

Email Marek Mazurek at Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek.

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Families of Janis Sanders, Janeice Langs have chased truth since 1970s