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A beloved teen vanished in Georgia 25 years ago. There was a murder, but no closure.

Florida congresswoman pushes petition to keep Shannon Melendi’s killer in prison

Then-congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen asked citizens to sign a petition to keep Butch Hinton behind bars in 2009. Hinton, who abducted, raped and killed 19-year-old Shannon Melindi in 1994, was up for parole.
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Then-congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen asked citizens to sign a petition to keep Butch Hinton behind bars in 2009. Hinton, who abducted, raped and killed 19-year-old Shannon Melindi in 1994, was up for parole.

Shannon Melendi was at the softball field as a scorekeeper. She left, and never returned.

The disappearance of the 19-year-old college student set off a search by police, the FBI and her Miami family and former classmates.

Melendi was a sophomore at Emory University. While her killer was eventually found, her body wasn’t.

Here is a look through the Miami Herald Archives at the March 1994 disappearance, and a family’s determination to find her and live with the pain.

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RENEE' HANNANS HENRY AP


A KILLER’S FUTURE

Published March 27, 2018

Shannon Melendi, a 19-year-old Emory University student from Miami, had just finished scorekeeping a Saturday afternoon softball game in Atlanta when she was abducted, raped and killed by a man who wouldn’t admit his guilt for another 12 years.

Now, with Monday marking the 24th anniversary of her death, Melendi’s family has begun a petition drive to keep her killer behind bars. Colvin “Butch” Hinton III, 57, was convicted of Melendi’s murder in 2006. He remains the only person in Georgia history to be convicted of the charge without a body or a crime scene.

Though he received a life sentence, under Georgia law Hinton is eligible for parole every seven years.

In 2011 the state parole board declined to even grant him a hearing. He has yet to be granted one in 2018, but he’s up for parole once again. At the time of Melendi’s death, Hinton was already a convicted sex offender, charged with kidnapping and raping a 14-year-old girl in the 1980s.

“This is what’s driving us. It’s something we live with every day,” said Shannon’s sister Monique Melendi. Shannon Melendi — a former junior and senior class president at Southwest Miami High, who as an Emory sophomore was on track for law school — was last seen the afternoon of March 26, 1994.

She was driving away from a DeKalb County softball field in her black Nissan 240 SX. The car was found the next day at a nearby gas station, its keys still in the ignition.

For two years, a five-member team of FBI agents searched for clues surrounding Melendi’s disappearance. Not long after the group disbanded, Hinton was sentenced to almost 10 years in prison — not for Melendi’s death, though he was a prime suspect in the case - but for setting his Clayton County, Ga., home on fire.

Investigators charged Hinton with arson and mail fraud and said he lit his home on fire to try and collect on a $185,000 home insurance policy.

For over a decade, her family agonized over Melendi’s death. Her body was never recovered.

Though it couldn’t be proven, the family blamed Hinton for Melendi’s disappearance. Finally, in 2004, charges were brought against Hinton for the student’s murder. Two years later, after exhausting all of his appeals, Hinton confessed during a prison interview to killing Melendi.

He said he met Melendi while he was umpiring the game she was scorekeeping and that he asked her to lunch. They ended up at his home, he said, where he raped and killed her. Then, he said, he burned her body with gasoline on the property.

onique Melendi doesn’t believe that final part of his story. She believes there are other victims.

Detectives searching Hinton’s property turned up clothing and other “treasures,” a term often associated with items that serial killers take from their victims. None of those items, Monique Melendi said, belonged to her sister.

Though she was murdered more than 600 miles away, Melendi’s death sparked a local outcry and action from Miami-Dade County commissioners. The 2005 Shannon Melendi Act requires vendors — like those at fairs or working in sports leagues — who come in contact with children to conduct local background checks on employees and volunteers.

As in 2011, the family has begun a petition drive to keep Hinton behind bars. Though there is no sign he will even be granted a hearing next year, the family isn’t taking any chances.

In 2011, with the help of U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 77,000 people signed a petition to keep Hinton in prison.

“We wanted to start the drive now to put pressure on the parole board. We didn’t have the social media platform before,” said Monique Melendi. “We are determined to keep him behind bars.”

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RENEE' HANNANS HENRY AP

THE CONFESSION

Published July 18, 2006

The Melendi family finally knows what happened to Shannon.

After 12 years of repeatedly denying any involvement with her death, Colvin “Butch” Hinton III confessed Monday to abducting, raping and strangling 19-year-old Shannon Melendi. Afterward, Hinton said, he burned her body and put her ashes in a bag.

But Hinton’s confession Monday to prosecutors and prison officials in a Georgia state prison reopened old wounds and made new ones for the family and friends who loved the Kendall teen.

“The video in my head of her last breath has never escaped my mind, never,” Shannon’s dad, Luis Melendi, said Monday night from his home in Key Largo. Calling Hinton “a psycho,” Melendi isn’t convinced that, even now, Hinton has come clean.

“What makes them think this is the truth?” Melendi asked.

Hinton, 45, is serving a life sentence for killing Melendi, an Emory University student, near Atlanta in 1994. His two-hour statement Monday was the first time he admitted his guilt in her death.

Although Hinton was a prime suspect for years after Melendi’s March 26, 1994, disappearance, he was not indicted in the case until 2004. A Georgia jury convicted him last year.

When the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the conviction in June, Hinton asked his lawyer to set up a meeting so he could confess the details of Melendi’s last hours. At Monday’s meeting: the DeKalb County police, the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, Georgia state prison officials and a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Luis Melendi said he rejected the DeKalb County district attorney’s invitation to sit in on the confession at a Georgia state prison about 60 miles west of Savannah.

“What, are you, crazy?” Melendi remembers saying to District Attorney Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming. “Basically, [Hinton] wanted to get us there to see the pain in our faces, because he enjoys that,” Melendi said. “Can you imagine me sitting in the same room with this animal? Why? Nothing he can say means a thing for us.”

Hinton was an umpire and Melendi was keeping score at a softball tournament on March 26, 1994. During a break between games, Hinton said Monday, he drove them both to Burger King for lunch. He faked a leg cramp so she would drive his car, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

He said he held Melendi at knifepoint and forced her to drive to his home. Hinton raped her and kept her there for 12 hours before strangling her with a necktie, the newspaper reported.

“I hate what I done,” Hinton reportedly said. “I know I’ll never, ever be forgiven by most people. And I accept that. But I am so sorry. I’ve hurt so many people with the lies I’ve told.”

Hinton’s defense lawyer, B.J. Bernstein, planned a news conference today, The Associated Press reported. The same day as Hinton’s confession, the Georgia high court announced the justices would not hear Hinton’s request to reconsider their June 12 ruling of his appeal.

Hinton’s confession also did little to comfort Angel Menendez, a father figure to Shannon Melendi who served as her political science teacher and cross-country and soccer coach at Southwest Miami Senior High.

Menendez was instrumental in keeping Melendi’s memory alive at the school. He retired her No. 19 soccer jersey in 1995 and helped persuade county officials to rename a portion of Southwest 48th Street — the road Southwest High is on — to Shannon Melendi Drive.

On Monday, Menendez was unable to speak about his emotions.

“This is a wound that will never heal,” said his wife, Maki Menendez. “Even though we’re happy [Hinton] confessed, thinking about what she went through is destroying Angel.”

Hinton told his small audience Monday that he burned her body and put the ashes in a bag.

“The FBI is looking for the bag,” Luis Melendi said. “They won’t tell me where.”

While serving time for an arson conviction in the late 1990s, Hinton allegedly talked to fellow inmates about the Melendi case and about disposing of a body. A former cellmate testified at Hinton’s 2005 murder trial that Hinton once awoke crying and sweating and said, “I didn’t kill her. The demon inside of me killed her.”

Before Hinton’s arrest, Melendi’s disappearance was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Friends, relatives and strangers assisted the police and FBI in their hunt for the truth about what happened to Melendi, a star athlete who aspired to be a lawyer and a Supreme Court justice.

Now, Luis Melendi said he feels like “we accomplished what we set out to do: Make sure that [Hinton] would never do it to someone else. He would die knowing Shannon was the last person he killed.”

Shannon Melendi’s parents moved to Key Largo three years ago to try to move on with their lives. Luis Melendi opened a photography studio and has become active in civic life. His wife, Yvonne, still commutes to her job at a Coral Gables bank. Monique Melendi, Shannon’s 26-year-old sister, lives in Sunny Isles Beach and works for a construction company.

“When you killed my sister, you also killed a part of me,” Monique Melendi testified at Hinton’s sentencing last year.

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Pater Andrew Bosh Miami Herald File

A FATHER’S SORROW

Published Aug. 1, 1997

On Luis Melendi’s office wall, beyond the bleached wood desk, above the blinking computer screen, hangs a pink-framed photograph of a 3-year-old girl in her nightgown. Her hair is disheveled, her smile faint. She sits in a rocking chair, holding her sleepy head.

A visitor’s eye cannot help but be drawn to it. It is one of many photographs Melendi shot of his eldest daughter Shannon growing up.

Photographs of another time, another place, certainly another life, they are interspersed with images that won him awards and a modicum of fame.

There’s a bride in an arched entranceway, sea gulls on the beach, a fisherman with his day’s catch and portrait after portrait of women, children, business people.

But it’s the many images of Shannon’s face, her auburn hair tossed back, eyes smiling, face trusting, that haunt you. They tell a story that has shadowed Melendi for three years.

His is a tragedy every parent fears.

Shannon, 19, disappeared March 16, 1994, while working as a scorekeeper at a softball tournament in Atlanta. An Emory University sophomore, she was last seen driving off in her car — a black Nissan 240 SX her parents gave her — to get a soda between games. She never returned.

The next day, her car was found at a local gas station with the keys in the ignition.

Twenty-two months after her disappearance, the FBI disbanded the five-agent team that had pursued the case full time.

Twenty-five months after her parents last talked to her, the prime suspect in the case was sentenced to nine years and nine months in federal prison — not in Shannon’s disappearance, but for setting his Clayton County, Ga., house on fire.

And after 30 months of sleepless nights and unrequited hope, Luis Melendi and wife Yvonne announced they were offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of their daughter’s remains.

“We need closure,” says Melendi, 49. “We need to go on with our lives.”

Getting on has been far from easy. Several months ago, Melendi decided to revive his ailing business, Melendi Photography, a portrait and commercial studio on Miller Drive that he has owned and operated since 1975. He is desperate to return to work, not only because he must pay bills, but also because he needs to quiet the pain.

“When I’m working, it is the only time I am not thinking of Shannon,” he says. “If I’m very busy, my mind just doesn’t go there.”

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Candace Barbot Miami Herald File

Yvonne agrees. Her husband’s only solace is his work.

“When Louie has business, he is fine. He is absorbed by it. He gives himself completely to it.”

Talking shop seems to be the only thing that brings a small, tentative smile to Melendi’s lips. His eyes light up when he displays what he does best — portraits — and when he recounts his early years as a press photographer for the Spanish-language newspaper Patria, shooting President Nixon, Sammy Davis Jr., Charlton Heston and other luminaries.

Like the framed photographs around the brick-floored entrance to his office, Melendi’s credentials are impressive. He has been editor of The Florida Photographer magazine and has received top honors from the Professional Photographers of America 15 of the past 20 years, including six first places, three of them consecutive. His images hang in the National Loan Collection and the Photography Hall of Fame. Work was secondary

Business, though, is far from what it used to be. Melendi knows why. After Shannon disappeared, he devoted himself entirely to the search. He did occasional jobs, and his friends completed the contracts that he couldn’t. Yet, he still managed to put out The Florida Photographer, a glossy, full-color quarterly, and run the annual Florida Photographers trade show, which has sold out every year.

But he didn’t look for work. How could he? When he wasn’t in Atlanta or trying to chase down leads, he spent much of the past three years in the Keys, trying to get away, to forget. He grieved for Shannon’s absence, and for the possibilities lost, the dreams missed, “everything she never got to do.”

Again and again, he would relive moments from her childhood. The vacations in Spain. The photo shoots he took her to. He worried — worries still — about Monique, 17, his youngest daughter, so defiant, so hurt, and what might happen to her.

“We had the American dream,” Melendi says in a shaky voice. “And we knew it. Our biggest mistake was that we thought it would never end.”

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Miami Herald File

Even when he got away to the Keys, he couldn’t run away from the nightmarish video that kept replaying in his head.

“Who knows what she endured in her last hours, if he raped her or asphyxiated her, or if he hit her with a bat?” he says. “It’s something that I have to work very hard to keep out of my mind.”

More than two dozen videos of Shannon — real videos, videos of happier moments — occupy a top shelf in the Melendi family room. One, produced in the first few weeks after her disappearance to help with the search, chronicles her life.

There’s Shannon as a baby, as a toddler, as a young girl, as a teenager. Shannon skiing. Shannon eating. Shannon with relatives. Shannon with friends. Shannon at college. “Wind Beneath My Wings” plays in the background. Melendi watches it, tears welling. “Why can’t this video continue?” he asks. “Why doesn’t it go on? That’s what I don’t understand.”

Too many mementos These are questions he asked himself when home alone, while his wife worked and his younger daughter went to school. Left alone, he repeatedly went into Shannon’s bedroom and wept into her pillow. He could not bear how her trinkets and school mementos reminded him of the loss.

For months, Yvonne locked the room. Now, it is open again. Most of Shannon’s keepsakes have been given away. Her closet is empty of her clothes. Purple sashes from her graduation — as senior class president and National Honor Society member — are draped over a framed No. 19 soccer jersey, a number that was retired by her alma mater, Southwest High.

Melendi bought an electric drum set — he was a rock-’n’-roll drummer in his youth — and set it beside his daughter’s bed to fill the empty space. He plays when he feels the need.

He now can enter the room without falling apart. And yet, he says in a whisper, “Some days, I don’t feel like a man. I feel cowardly. I ask myself, ‘If you cannot protect your family, what good are you?’ I know that if I really think about it, that is not true. This was out of my control. But, still, that is what is in my head at times.”

Yvonne understands her husband’s pain. Hers also has burrowed deep to change her life, the way she views her family, her future.

“Sometimes,” she says, “we will be both lying in bed, and it won’t seem real. It’s like a movie or a book. It’s the type of thing that happens to others. But, now, the others are us.”

Luis Melendi knew he had to do something , for his family, sure, but especially for himself.

“I knew I had two choices,” he says. “I could choose to die, or to live. I’ve chosen to live. So why waste my talent?”

When he first went back to work, business trickled in. He had one-man shows. He took on assignments. But it was too soon. When he shot a bride walking down the aisle, he imagined Shannon and what she might have looked like as a bride.

“It would be very emotional for me. I would get teary. Being at a party, families celebrating life, would create this incredible emptiness in my heart. I felt like I was in a tunnel being sucked in.”

At his wife’s suggestion, Melendi decided he would no longer photograph the sorts of events that would tear at his heart — the celebrations of life, such as baptisms, communions, bar mitzvahs, quinces, weddings. He’d stick to portraiture and other commercial work.

Yvonne, who works for a bank, is convinced work will serve as salve to his sorrow. It did for her.

“Work has helped me tremendously,” she says. “It has forced me to take my mind away from myself.”

But this business of starting-up has proven slow. It frustrates him.

“Why don’t my clients come back?” he asks. “My talent hasn’t left.”

Indeed, Melendi’s recent work has the sharp imagery he is known for. He thinks aloud: “I guess people thought whatever happened to us was contagious, that it could happen to them. Or maybe they don’t know what to say.”

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Candace Barbot MIami Herald File

He wants to press the shutter over and over again in the familiar way he knows how — but does anyone else want him to? Yes, his wife reassures him. Yes, yes, yes.

“Louie is a very artistic person, and I think now his emotions will show through more than ever,” she says. “You can have art as a gift, but to also be sensitive, to work from the heart as he does now, is something beyond that.”

Keeping his distance Melendi is a different man in other ways, too. He knows it. His wife knows it.

“He used to have a healthier outlook on life. He liked people more. Now, he shuts people out from getting to him. He works, and he does beautiful work. But he thinks, ‘I don’t want to get too close. If I lose her, I’m going to hurt so bad again.’ “

But Luis Melendi knows that losing is unavoidable, that life itself is about hurting, and sometimes about hurting bad. But life is also about putting a family and a career back together again — a feat that takes time and energy and patience. That may take the rest of his days.

“I am tired of suffering,” he says. “I pray to God, ‘Give me a break.’ “ - A SOCC

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CARL JUSTE Miami Herald File

SOCCER LIFE

Published April 5, 1994

The kids who play for Angel Menendez’s Southwest High girls’ soccer team have a slogan: “You can graduate from Southwest, but you can’t graduate from the Southwest girls’ soccer team.”

This is a team that has always been close off the field, a team that cared more about each other than winning or losing. Long after they play, they show up at weddings and births for each other.

It made so much sense that this group would show up for Shannon Melendi. That’s what happened Saturday when the Southwest girls’ soccer team hit the streets to raise money to help Melendi. Melendi, 19, a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, has been missing since March 26.

Melendi is a 1992 graduate of Southwest, and she played for the girls’ soccer team in ‘91 and ‘92.

“We had kids from the 1982 team through the 1997 team,” said Menendez, referring to eighth-graders who will play for his team when they get to Southwest. “This was a Southwest girls’ soccer production. These kids have always been so close. “It’s been hell since she has been missing. I can’t tell you what it’s been like. This wasn’t any kid you at your school, or just another kid you had in class. She was one of us.”

Maritza Diaz, a 1989 goalkeeper and graduate who came back and was an assistant coach when Melendi played, organized the drive. “I just started making calls,” said Diaz, 22, and a junior at Florida International University.

“I started with the 1992 roster. It was amazing. Everyone I called said yes. We had one girl who called in sick to her job Saturday so she could help. No one said no.

“Everyone felt so helpless. We wanted to do something. So we decided we could go out and raise money to help. My goal was to raise $2,000. Coach (Menendez) kidded me about being the eternal optimist.”

The group of more than 60 stood on five intersections in Southwest Dade Saturday, handing out “yellow ribbons of hope” and raised more than $9,000. Diaz said the idea was to raise money to help pay for a reward for information. She also said the money could be used if Melendi’s parents need help while the search continues.

“It was the most amazing day of my life,” Diaz said. “Everybody felt for Shannon and her family. The message was, ‘Let’s not be helpless. There is something we can do.’ “It felt good to do something. The not knowing is exasperating. Everyone who came out believes she is alive. Until someone proves to us that there is a reason to give up hope, we won’t.”

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Candace Barbot Miami Herald File

WHEN SHE DISAPPEARED

Published March 30, 1994

It is becoming a desperate script of modern times. A college student disappears. Her parents rush to the scene. And her friends don’t know whether to grieve or hold on to hope.

Shannon Melendi, 19, the junior and senior class president at Southwest High School in Dade County, the debate team wizard, the ambitious Emory University sophomore dreaming of becoming a Supreme Court justice, is now nowhere to be found.

She was last seen Saturday outside Atlanta. With no trace of her late Tuesday, DeKalb County police fear a kidnapping — or worse.

“We’re not ruling out that she went on her own free will, but the fact that the car was parked suspiciously ... and the fact that it would be very uncharacteristic for her to disappear makes us suspect foul play,” said Chuck Johnson, spokesman for DeKalb County Public Safety.

Another reason for worry: On Sunday, police found a body of a missing college student 30 miles north of Atlanta. Claudette Jennifer Ficik, 19, who attended Southern College of Technology, disappeared Feb. 16 near Marietta. An autopsy was performed Tuesday on her badly decomposed body, which was found in the Oconee River. Police have no suspects.

Detectives downplayed any connection, saying the only known similarities are that both are female, age 19 and attending college.

In the Melendi disappearance, police found no signs of struggle in her car. Johnson said Melendi was working at a part- time job as official scorer for the Softball Country Club.

At about 1 p.m. Saturday, in a 15-minute break before a second game, she left the field and never returned. Sunday, police found her black Nissan 240, unlocked, keys still in the ignition, at a Citgo station and convenience store about a quarter-mile away. It was parked away from the store’s front door.

If it was foul play, robbery wasn’t the motive: An expensive radio wasn’t touched.

On Sunday afternoon, a team of police checked a mile radius around the spot, including searches of abandoned apartments. A tracking dog hunted in the woods. A helicopter whirled overhead. Luis and Yvonne Melendi, Shannon’s parents, flew to Atlanta Monday to help with the search.

The FBI joined four DeKalb County detectives already on the case. And in Miami, Southwest High teachers offered to print fliers with Shannon’s picture.

“We’ll print fliers until hell freezes over,” said Angel Menendez, her former social studies teacher and soccer coach.

Shannon is five feet eight inches tall, 135 pounds, with light brown hair and brown eyes, and she is an intellectual “stud,” Menendez said — ranked 27th out of 441 in her senior class and a Silver Knight nominee for speech and debate.

“Although it’s a really worn-out expression, when you read it in the paper, it’s always someone else — like the five kids killed in Gainesville. I felt terrible about that,” Menendez said. “As a high school teacher, you picture kids sitting in a classroom. Those five kids sat in somebody’s classroom not long ago. Well, Shannon sat in my classroom.”

At Shannon’s grandparents’ house in Westchester Tuesday, the mood often sunk to despair. Grandmother Delia Melendi, who has a bad heart, wailed when the family showed a videotape of Shannon at Christmas dinner. Relatives escorted her to a back room, where she prayed.

Aunt Laida Melendi chain-smoked Virginia Slim Ultra-Lights, drank Coke, popped Valiums — and almost collapsed from sadness and from not eating anything solid since Sunday. She kept two portable phones with her at all times; scores called, including Patrick Sessions, the father of Tiffany Sessions, who disappeared in Gainesville in 1989 and still hasn’t been found.

Sister Monique, 14, an eighth-grader, wandered from room to room, stopping to show visitors Shannon’s yearbook — Aquila 1992, which displays photos of Shannon on 18 pages. “Shannon,” Monique said, “did everything.”

“She wanted to a lawyer, then a judge, then all the way up to the Supreme Court,” Aunt Laida said. “She was always on the right track. Always fighting for her rights. She was a sweet . . . “

The aunt paused.

“She is a sweet girl, lovely, warmhearted.”

No one knew of any troubles. No breakups with a boyfriend. No bouts of depression. No flights of fancy. No notes left behind. Last week, Laida Melendi talked with her on the phone. She was upbeat.

Two weeks ago, Anne Martinez, 19, who has known Shannon since seventh grade, ran into her during spring break at a club in Daytona Beach.

“She loved school,” Martinez said. “She said that everything was cool.”

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