After she graduated from Emory with a degree in psychology, Athena Perez ’96C went home to Chicago and attended nursing school. She is now a school nurse in the Chicago public school system. Her favorite pastime is traveling to faraway places; this summer she took a trip to Ireland. Perez recently turned thirty.

As happy and whole as her life is, Perez is forever shadowed by a dark memory. On a spring day in 1994, Perez and two friends went out looking for her sophomore year roommate, Shannon Melendi, who had not been home in twenty-four hours. They found only Melendi’s car, abandoned at a gas station near campus, unlocked, and with the keys hanging in the ignition.

“It was like a bad dream,” Perez says now. “We saw her car, we knew it was her car, and I said, I am going over there. I was almost expecting to see a body, but I didn’t. It was probably the worst moment of my life.”

That moment has never ended for Melendi’s family, who still do not know what happened to her; a body was never found. March 26, 2004 marked the tenth anniversary of her disappearance.

“The tenth anniversary was absolutely awful,” said Luis Melendi, Shannon’s father, from his home in Miami. “I didn’t think we could be in so much pain ten years later and still be alive.”

The day was made harder by the knowledge that three months earlier, the man suspected by many to be responsible for the crime, Colvin “Butch” Hinton, was released from federal prison in North Carolina, where he had served a nine-year sentence for insurance fraud. He worked as an umpire at the now-defunct Softball Country Club on North Decatur Road, where Melendi had a job as a scorekeeper, and is thought to be the last person to see Melendi when she took a lunch break on the day she vanished. Hinton also drew police suspicion because he had a history of kidnapping young women.

Melendi’s case, which drew intense publicity, has been tracked by both local and federal law enforcement agencies and featured on television more than ten times. DeKalb County Police handled the initial investigation but were unable to gather enough evidence to charge anyone.

When the federal government prosecuted Hinton for fraud, Emory’s General Counsel Kent Alexander was the United States Attorney in Atlanta. “My office knew all about Hinton’s suspected role in Shannon Melendi’s death, which made his conviction and lengthy prison sentence especially gratifying,” Alexander says. “We could not bring Shannon back to her family, but we were at least able to make sure some justice was done.”

This August, the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office, which took over the Melendi files last year, pursued charges against Hinton and had him arrested for Shannon’s murder, based on a new development: Hinton may have talked about the crime to other inmates in jail.

The Melendis are grateful that they may finally see some closure in their daughter’s case; Shannon’s father described his reaction to the arrest as “ecstatic.” But justice is bittersweet for Melendi, who has become a public advocate for victims and their families, lobbying for tougher criminal laws against sex offenders. “I have knocked on every door that is humanly possible,” he says. “I have asked for help from everyone who would hear me. I have nothing to gain. I can’t bring Shannon back. The only thing I can do is prevent another family from going through what we went through. That’s the most important thing.”

Melendi came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1961 with his parents, who were seeking freedom from communism. He and his wife, Yvonne, met in 1970, when he was a rock musician and she was working as a flight attendant. Soon afterward, Melendi became a professional photographer and opened his own studio. The Melendis have another, younger daughter.

“My daughter won’t have her sister there on the day of her wedding,” Melendi says. “Her kids won’t have an aunt. It’s been ten years, but it’s taken a lot more than that out of my life and my family’s life.”

If Shannon were still here, she, like her classmate Athena Perez, would be thirty years old. According to those who knew her, she most likely would have entered the Navy and completed law school by now. After that, she had set her sights on Washington, politics, and her dream, the Supreme Court. Despite her youth, she had concrete plans and a determined spirit. “She had reached many of her goals up to the point she was murdered,” her father says. “I don’t doubt that she could have reached many, many more.”

“Shannon was very social and outgoing,” Perez says. “She was well liked, and she knew everyone. I still think of her as Shannon at eighteen. In my mind she has not aged.”

Although Perez has gone on with her life, she says she was changed forever the moment she came upon her friend’s empty car.

“I am certainly not very trusting,” she says. “When it came time for my graduation from Emory, I found I needed to go back home, and that’s what I did. But I do still think about Shannon. She is always in my thoughts.”–P.P.P.



© 2004 Emory University