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Proposed law may give a new look to case of missing girl
Rachel Mellon disappeared 12 years ago. Could legislation help solve the mystery?
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

Rachel Mellon, of Bolingbrook, picture near Christmas 1995.

 

Jeff Skemp, father of Rachel Marie Mellon, prays during a 10-year memorial service for her Jan. 28, 2006, at First Baptist Church in Maywood.

 

Rachel Mellon

 

Rachel Mellon

 

Rachel Mellon

 

Rachel Mellon

 

Rachel Mellon

 

Rachel Marie Mellon of Bolingbrook, age 12, the summer before she disappeared.

 

Rachel Mellon

 

Rachel Mellon, missing since 1996.

 

Lisa Stebic

 

Stacy Peterson

 

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Published: 8/11/2008 2:16 PM | Updated: 8/12/2008 8:14 AM

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Her name may not be as well known as Lisa Stebic or Stacy Peterson, but the similarly unexplained disappearance of a young Bolingbrook girl more than 12 years ago remains a haunting mystery.

Rachel Marie Mellon was 13 when she vanished Jan. 31, 1996. That bitter-cold morning, the bubbly seventh-grader stayed home from school sick with a flu bug, resting in a pink sweat shirt, yellow sweat pants and slippers.

That evening, she was gone.

Despite exhaustive search efforts on land, in the air and under water, no clues have emerged revealing her whereabouts.

State lawmakers on Friday sent to the governor's desk legislation that may affect the possible prosecution of murder suspects in cases such as that of Rachel, Stebic and Peterson in which authorities say they strongly suspect foul play but are limited by a lack of physical evidence without a body.

Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow pushed for the measure that would allow a judge at a pretrial hearing in a murder case to determine whether so-called hearsay evidence - testimony or documents that quote someone secondhand who is not in court - may be admitted at trial.

Prosecutors would have to prove in a pretrial hearing those statements are reliable and that the defendant's wrongdoing made the witness unavailable to testify. The legislation is less broad but similar to an earlier failed effort that grew after 16-year-old Erin Justice was killed in March 2004, less than a month after accusing her stepfather of raping her in Naperville. He now is on death row.

Glasgow is encouraging area police departments to review unsolved murder cases to see if the new proposal would apply.

Rachel Mellon's father, Jeff Skemp, said he long ago gave up hope that his hazel-eyed child is still alive. Still, he is buoyed by the legislation and hopes it may some day give him some measure of closure.

"To me," he said, "it would be a wonderful blessing if anything ever happened."

A life interrupted

Rachel would be 26 in October.

Skemp pictures his only child as a college graduate who fulfilled her dream of becoming a teacher.

Then, he is jolted back into a reality in which he harbors no such illusions.

"I haven't had any hope that she's alive for a long time," he said. "There's been no sign of her in 12 years, but there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about her."

Before she vanished, Rachel lived with her mother, Amy, and stepfather, Vince Mellon, who helped raise her since she was 3. They have two other children.

Skemp lived in Texas when Rachel disappeared, but he moved back to Illinois that same year to help find her.

From the onset, police have focused much of their investigation on the last person to have reported seeing Rachel alive ­- her stepfather.

They said Vince Mellon told them he stayed home with Rachel while between jobs. Mellon said the two played Nintendo before he ventured into wind chills of almost 20 below zero about 2:30 p.m. to walk the family's German shepherd, Duke, while Rachel napped.

Police said Mellon told them Duke slipped off his leash while chasing a rabbit. He reported returning home about 30 minutes later but didn't notice Rachel missing.

The family notified police later that evening. Authorities found no signs of forced entry to their home. Only a blue blanket and two pillows were missing.

Rachel's coat, shoes and her purse weren't taken.

The athletic, 5-foot-2-inch, 78-pound girl seemingly vanished in broad daylight.

Police monitored her bank account. Not even a penny was touched. A ransom note never came. There have been no phone calls from her.

Detectives could not find any witnesses who saw Vince Mellon walking the dog that day. He also had some scratches on his body, police said, which Mellon said happened while working on his car.

And then there's Rachel's journal, which authorities found tucked underneath her bed, in which an entry penned a couple of months before her disappearance alleges her stepfather inappropriately touched and kissed her.

Vince Mellon has a criminal history that includes convictions for drunken driving, resisting arrest, battery and domestic battery, according to Will County court records.

But despite numerous interviews, lie-detector tests, saliva and DNA samples taken, phone taps and the convening of a Will County grand jury in 2000, Vince Mellon never has been charged with Rachel's disappearance.

He maintains his innocence. He and Amy Mellon still are married.

"We've been through an awful lot," 41-year-old Vince Mellon said during a brief telephone interview from his home in Tennessee. "We appreciate you keeping Rachel's name out there and to keep the story going in the news, but we have nothing to say. They (the police) pretty much put us through hell and high water."

Reliable hearsay?

Lisa Stebic vanished April 30, 2007, just before her 38th birthday in Plainfield.

Stacy Peterson was 23 when she was reported missing Oct. 28 in Bolingbrook.

Both cases produced a media frenzy, with friends and family telling reporters each woman wanted a divorce and felt threatened by their husbands, neither of whom has been charged with harming his wife.

State Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi sponsored the legislation allowing certain hearsay testimony, which could include journal entries or alleged threats, to be heard in a murder trial.

Critics argue the Joliet Democrat's proposal is contrary to the 6th Amendment, which guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront his or her accuser in court. Earlier this summer, in a California murder case in which a man was accused of killing his girlfriend, the U.S. Supreme Court again reiterated hearsay testimony may be admitted into trial only if it is proven the accused's wrongdoing is the reason the witness is unavailable to testify. Still, Wilhelmi insisted his law is narrowly focused and includes several safeguards.

"There are going to be a lot of cases that this could affect," the senator said. "We need to make sure our laws are adequate to deal with these acts of violence. We need to make sure juries hear this type of evidence."

His bill passed July 10. Lawmakers sent it Friday to Gov. Rod Blagojevich for his consideration. Glasgow and Wilhelmi said they believe the governor will soon sign it into law. A spokesman for Blagojevich said Monday he is reviewing it.

Attorney Joel Brodsky, who represents Stacy Peterson's husband, Drew, said he doubts the legislation will affect his case and questioned whether it would withstand muster when reviewed by a higher court.

Ironically, Drew Peterson worked on the Rachel Mellon case during his tenure as a Bolingbrook police officer.

"It's really an emotional law rather than a well-thought-out law," Brodsky said. "I don't think it's a wise law. It has the potential to cause wrongful convictions, which Illinois has a history of, because it's going to allow in a lot of unreliable stuff."

Recalling Rachel

She has never been found, but police aren't giving up nor is the case closed.

Initially, police and the FBI searched for Rachel using helicopters, dogs, horses, dive teams, all-terrain vehicles, ground canvasses and thermal imaging.

Detectives traveled from Washington, D.C., to Montana and Dallas to chase possible leads. They even worked with Philippine national police, who circulated Rachel's photo long ago to see if she might have run away to her mother's birthplace.

"It haunts me," said Terry Kernc, a retired Bolingbrook police lieutenant who long investigated Rachel's disappearance. "I thought when I retired, I could forget, but I can't. People don't just disappear. I look at it as a failure because we never found Rachel, and no one ever got arrested. Rachel deserves better."

Bolingbrook police detective Mark Revis is the investigation's current case agent. He was the original evidence technician more than 12 years ago.

He called the hearsay legislation an "interesting avenue" that police plan to pursue. He said tips still slowly come in and searches, as recent as last year, are ongoing.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also has taken an interest in the case; a 24-year private detective, Cindy Georgantas, involved from the start, said the search for Rachel "never stops."

Volunteers such as Anne Bielby, who did not know Rachel but lived nearby, maintain the Web site www.rachelfind.com to keep her name out there, advertise other Chicago-area missing person cases, and link police with outside resources to help with searches.

Through the years, trees have been planted, time capsules buried, rewards offered, memorial services held and babies named in Rachel's honor.

"It warms my soul," Jeff Skemp said, later adding: "I'm glad I'm a believer in God because, ultimately, justice is waiting."