Persistent cold case fuels author’s book and documentary

There’s an unsolved homicide case that’s been keeping the River Valley detectives stuck for nearly 30 years. In 1994, 19-year-old Melissa Witt disappeared from the Bowling World parking lot after an ordinary day of school and work. Six weeks later, his body was found in the Ozarks. To date, the person who abducted and murdered her has not been identified or brought to justice.

LaDonna Humphrey hopes to rekindle interest in the decades-old case with her book “The Girl I Never Knew.” Released on April 8, the book contains more details about Witt’s case than were made public at the time, but not to the extent that it would impede further progress as it is still an open investigation. for the Fort Smith Police Department.

“The Girl I Never Knew” still floats around #10 on Amazon’s Top 100 Books list on Kindle and in paperback. Proceeds from book sales go directly to funding things designed to help solve the case, including notice boards and a hotline for people to relay advice related to Melissa – all what they may have seen or learned about his life and situation at the time. .

We chatted with Humphrey for this “Hidden Gems”.

What initially inspired you to work on publishing the story of Melissa Witt when you started about seven years ago?

I had an organization called Let’s Bring Them Home, a national missing adults program that provided coordination between agencies and the media, as well as resources for the families of the missing. I did this for about a decade until we saw that our services were not needed (in the same way) due to the rise of a federally funded program called NamUs.

We wanted to finish our job strong. … Many of us on the council had a background in journalism, so we talked about making a documentary (to draw more attention to the unsolved cases). During this meeting, they continued to discuss the case of Melissa Witt.

I agreed to call the Chief of Police (of Fort Smith), who had worked with our agency, and made an appointment with Jay C. Rider, Chris Boyd and a few other detectives who had worked on the Melissa’s case. Meeting the detectives, seeing their passion and how hard they had worked, I thought “This should be what we do”.

What was it about Melissa that stood out to you and pushed you to keep working in hopes of contributing in some way?

The detectives agreed to take me… to where his body was found. Going there that day changed my life. I have seven children, five are girls and my eldest was 19 at the time. This experience was hard on me as a person, that someone felt like they had the right to take her life and leave her on top of the mountain. I made a vow to do something about it. Put your story back in front of the media and tell it through a documentary.

And how is the documentary going now? Did it arrive before the book?

We are almost done; it took the past seven years to do so. We have billboards, we’ve done dozens of interviews, and it’s all come down to this.

During the pandemic, when we were confined to our homes, I couldn’t stand our progress being stagnant. The case was already over two decades old and I felt I had to do something.

Having written before, I decided to pitch the idea. I wrote a few chapters and had several publishers interested in the book. It’s phenomenally well done. The purpose of the book is to shed light on Melissa’s case. I never imagined he would reach the top 20, let alone do what he has.

We send it back in Melissa’s case: in the billboards, the DNA tests, all the things that we did out of our own pocket and now we have this tool, we have the book. All the information that has been analyzed over the years is all in there.

What is it in your book that touches those who read it?

I wrote it from my perspective, from a vulnerable place, hoping it will help someone find the courage to come forward (and provide information) to solve this case. The tip line is busy. We saw a spike in its usage when billboards went up in December (2021) for three or four months. And the hotline has been active since the book came out. …I’m sending everything to the lead investigator on Melissa’s case. She deserved hers (hotline). All we did was help this case.

How did you manage to write about an ongoing investigation, with some information about the case not yet able to be shared with the public?

Doing what I do as a civilian is unique in a cold case. Trust had to be established, as they were not going to divulge sensitive information. They shared enough pieces (with me) that weren’t going to jeopardize the case, things we can talk about and discuss openly on podcasts.

We also talked about things that others might not think about: the impact on friends, family and community. Nothing like this had ever happened there before. It changed the community very quickly. Melissa’s case set the precedent of (people) locking their doors at night.

We cover the number of crimes and behind the scenes that no one knew anything about. Melissa has lived and worked around horrible and scary things. We live sheltered in our everyday world and don’t know what’s going on in our backyard.

What were the basic details of Melissa Witt’s disappearance and what did you know at the time it happened?

Chris Boyd, Retired Fort Smith Detective: On December 1, 1994, Melissa disappeared. She was home that morning, went to school and then worked at a local dental practice. Nothing out of the ordinary happened that afternoon, except that when she was ready to drive home, she discovered that her car battery had died. She got banged by some guy from Beverly Enterprises, who was in the same complex as the dental office.

So she leaves, as usual, to meet her mother, who was in a bowling league. Melissa would meet her those nights to grab something to eat and go home. She goes bowling, but never gets inside. His mother of course does not know. She (just) thinks she won’t come.

There were witnesses to an incident involving him that day, weren’t there?

Boyd: In the Bowling World parking lot, there was a teenage girl and a kid or two who had been kicked out because they were loud. These children apparently noticed an altercation between a man and a woman; unfortunately they (didn’t take a good look) and only noticed a verbal altercation.

So Melissa disappears. Her mother comes home and starts calling relatives, friends and the police.

Melissa’s car was still there at the bowling alley, and there was blood on the sidewalk. She was abducted there and put up some sort of resistance.

What was so unusual or fascinating about this case?

Boyd: There was a lot of public attention because she wasn’t the kind of girl to disappear, not the kind of girl to be mad enough not to come home. She had no drug or alcohol problem.

Jay C. Rider, Retired Fort Smith Detective: It was just the fact that good people like Melissa (and her mother Maryann) had no intention of hurting anyone else by getting their whole thing ripped off. a day. You look back and see Maryann trying to raise her daughter, her daughter trying to take care of herself, and a [SOB] comes and kills her. This is what maintains the driving force.

Has anything changed since the Melissa case?

Boyd: Between 1995 and today, missing persons cases were handled very differently. Missing persons weren’t as prevalent as they are today at the NCIC, and now it’s taken much more seriously. Former Fort Smith Police Chief Randy Reed had every case entered into the NCIC – all of them, even the oldest ones. He was adamant about it; he’s the one who came in and helped modernize a lot of things that weren’t there.

And there are huge advances in DNA now, it can connect family DNA to all kinds of people, like 23andMe, even if you can’t identify a suspect, you can identify a relative.

When was his body found?

Boyd: January 13, 1995. I got a phone call… from Sheriff Ross. They had discovered a body in the Ozarks around White Rock above the Turner Bend area on Highway 23. He said, “I think that’s your missing daughter.” I had him describe the body and I knew he was right, it had to be her.

What is the role of the public here?

Boyd: The public can help develop new leads. Based on Jay C and my experience and LaDonna’s great ideas for different techniques that we didn’t have in the 90s, we can think about what can be done with it, and then meet the current investigator, Brad, and come up with a collective idea of ​​what we could do and next steps.

What would you say to people who can’t believe this would happen in our area?

Boyd: I’ve worked in investigations for 39 years, and I can tell people don’t know what’s going on around them. I have seen terrible cases. There are not enough people to dedicate them full time to cold business.

Humphrey: Be more aware of your surroundings. I would like them to see that she was not able to overcome the evil that confronted her that night and (hopefully) people get inflamed. Start with these conversations, educate yourself and be sure to pass this on to those you love and don’t be afraid to talk about the (very real) possibility of rape or other forms of violence.

Are the tips helping you? Will there ever be too much information from the public?

Boyd: We’ve followed countless false leads, and we don’t mind because one of them will be the right one.

Rider: We’ve been getting a lot more information since LaDonna’s book came out. He does a lot, keeps the business alive.

Detectives who worked on Melissa Witt’s case early say it stood out to others because “there was nothing in Melissa’s eye socket that anyone recognized that would have led to this. If there was a person around her who was capable of (kidnapping and murdering her), she didn’t know until the day it happened. (Courtesy picture)

Lola R. McClure