Overview of Melinda McGhee
Spring is often regarded as the season of rebirth, renewal, hope, and most, of all, promise.
As tender buds and young shoots tentatively emerge from their winter slumber, they seem to foreshadow the colorful riot of flowers and lush greenery of a vibrant Alabama summer. But for one couple and their children, all promise was abruptly and cruelly ripped away when a young mother mysteriously went missing from her rural Atmore, AL home. It was here - in her own home at the end of a dirt road in a rural area near Poarch, Alabama - that the endless possibilities of a sunny March morning grew dim, and eventually faded away. Meanwhile, a heartbroken family is left with an empty, aching void and nothing more than memories to comfort them.
In March of 2003, Melinda Wall McGhee was juggling her multiple responsibilities - wife, mother, nursing student, licensed practical nurse in the prison system, and caregiver at a nursing home - with apparent ease. If lives were measured with yardsticks, Melinda’s would come out far beyond average - and she would land on the side of the angels every time. Lively, bubbly, and eminently capable, the 31 year old mother was excited about her life and seemed to relish it all, regardless of the challenges. She wore her many concurrent roles like a comfortable robe she could easily slip into and out of, as the situation required. Despite working a demanding schedule, Melinda and her husband Malcolm Troy McGhee (typically referred to as Troy) made it look effortless, and it appeared to work well for them. The couple had two children together, and Troy also had a son from a previous relationship; they lived together in their snug Kent Road home in rural Atmore. Happily married for seven years at the time of her disappearance, Melinda worked rigorous 12-hour overnight shifts from early evening to early morning as a caregiver in a Bay Minette nursing home, while Troy worked days at Masland Carpets, a local carpet distributor. The couple had opposing schedules; Troy was typically already at work when his wife arrived home from her shift, and it was her habit to call her husband upon her return to let him know she’d arrived safely before going to sleep. As if these challenges weren’t enough, in addition to her overnight duties at the Oakwood Nursing Home, Melinda was a nursing student who was near graduation, and she also worked as a licensed practical nurse at area prisons. Much of her family was local as well, and she was very close to her sisters and her mother.
On the morning of March 24, Melinda returned from her shift at the nursing home as usual, at around 8:00 am.
She had stopped at a convenience store after getting off work at approximately 7:00 am. This was the last known sighting of Melinda, although she would be heard from later than this. When she arrived at her home - which was situated on a dead-end dirt road with only three other houses on the street - the house was empty; their two children were at the babysitter and Troy’s son was at a dental appointment. As she did every day upon returning from work, Melinda called her mother, Ouida Wall, to let her know she’d arrived home safely. She also called her husband to discuss who would pick up the children from the babysitter, since it was the first day of Spring break. Troy considerately offered to collect the children so that Melinda could sleep a little later into the afternoon. This would be the final time anyone heard from Melinda. Sources vary as to the exact timing as well as the order of these calls; most reference either approximately 8:00 or 8:30 am as the time anyone had final contact with Melinda.
After picking up the boys from the babysitter, Troy arrived home at approximately 3:45 pm (some sources put the time at around 4:00 pm), with the children in tow. As they exited the car and approached the house, one of the kids ran ahead inside. The kids typically alternated who got to wake up mommy when they got home, but this time, something was ominously different. The child who had run in ahead came back out to tell his father that there was blood in the house and that mommy was nowhere to be found. Troy entered the residence to find his wife had vanished, and there was blood and evidence that a violent struggle had taken place inside the home. Back outside, he noticed that Melinda’s car was parked near the house with her keys locked inside. She had also left behind her purse and cell phone; they were found inside the residence.
Panicked after discovering his wife missing and observing signs of a violent, bloody struggle in their home, Troy called his mother-in-law to see if she knew where her daughter might be. When he described the scene, Ouida Wall speculated that since Melinda had experienced issues with varicose veins, he might want to contact hospitals to see whether anyone had been admitted with that problem. When his inquiries turned up no new information, he promptly called the authorities to report his wife missing at 3:59 pm. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, the agency of record on Melinda’s case, immediately suspected foul play in Melinda’s disappearance. Authorities believed she had been assaulted and abducted while sleeping after her long overnight shift. Melinda’s sisters agreed that there was no innocent explanation. Accidentally locking her keys in her vehicle was not unusual behavior for Melinda; however, she would never have left her purse or cell phone behind had she gone anywhere voluntarily. Her sister Amanda further volunteered that in their close-knit family, anytime she left the house to run to the store, Melinda always checked in with her mother and sisters first to see if they needed anything.
Police and the neighboring community were galvanized, and a volunteer search was held under the direction of the Escambia County Sheriff’s department. In addition to hundreds of volunteer citizens, officers from Mobile, Monroe, and Baldwin counties' sheriffs' departments, as well as Escambia County, Fla., Atmore, and Pritchard police departments, Atmore, Perdido, and Walnut Hill fire departments, the Alabama Bureau of Investigations, and the Marines joined in the search. Unfortunately, the search did not result in any trace of Melinda. In April a local fundraiser was held to raise money for a reward, drawing huge crowds in support of Melinda and her family. In June 2003, Alabama Governor Bob Riley announced he was offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for Melinda’s abduction. This incentive - added to the $10,000 already raised by family and friends - brought the reward to $15,000.
Conventional wisdom dictates that when a wife is murdered, the husband is often the prime suspect.
But this time, authorities quickly determined that Troy was not involved in his wife’s disappearance and had no hand in any foul play that may have befallen her. Melinda and her husband had been happily married for seven years and had, in fact, been planning a weekend trip to the beach at the time she vanished. No one could recall witnessing any signs of strife or tension in the marriage. Instead, in late April, Escambia County deputies turned their attention to attempting to connect Melinda’s abduction to a series of murders that were currently terrorizing the Baton Rouge area. Suspecting a serial killer was loose in the area, Alabama authorities traveled to Louisiana to investigate this theory. In May 2003, DNA linked a man named Derrick Todd Lee to the series of murders and rapes in the area and police issued an arrest warrant, but he had fled to Chicago. Police took note that Lee had been operating only a few hundred miles from where Melinda resided, and that his route likely would have taken him through Atmore. Authorities caught up with him in Atlanta in late May and extradited him to Louisiana, where he stood trial and was convicted of the rape and murder of Charlotte Pace in October 2004 and subsequently given the death penalty. However, authorities were unable to make any connections between Lee’s reign of terror and Melinda’s disappearance, and Lee died of heart disease in 2016.
In November 2003, expectations were briefly stirred when skeletal remains were discovered in a cotton field near Atmore. However, hopes were dashed when the bones turned out to be those of an elderly male victim. Law enforcement continued to work the case, eventually zeroing in on another target, a suspected serial murderer who was operating through the south and southeast as his killing field, and who had spent time in Georgia and Alabama. This brutal killer mostly preyed upon Caucasian females, which matched Melinda’s victim profile. However, in October of 2004, authorities announced that Jeremy Bryan Jones, who had been charged with the capital murder and rape of a Mobile, AL woman and who was also suspected of additional crimes in the area, was not involved in Melinda's disappearance. Jones had an airtight alibi for the time of her abduction; his timecard placed him at his job in Georgia during the timeframe Melinda went missing in Alabama.
In 2006, Sheriff Grover Smith announced that a cold case investigator had been hired by the Escambia County Sheriff's Office in an effort to revitalize the investigation. By now, hundreds of interviews had been conducted with little result, and authorities needed fresh eyes. To the relief of the Wall-McGhee families, the case had remained open and was still being handled as a murder investigation, but there had been little movement on the case and no new information had been released. Recognized as one of the top investigators in the state, Tommy Calhoun was responsible for reviewing the case file and developing a new direction for the investigation. The hope was that the retired Commander of the Criminal Investigative Division for the Mobile County District Attorney's Office might be able to solve the mystery of Melinda’s disappearance and finally offer some resolution to her bereaved family members. In February 2008, a tip was provided by an inmate at the Escambia County Detention Center in Brewton. Information led deputies to the site of an abandoned and burned home on Jack Road. It was rumored that Melinda’s body might be found in a septic tank off Atmosphere Road behind the ruins of the house. Using a backhoe, deputies from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, FBI agents, and officers from the Bay Minette Police Department joined forces to dig up and drain two septic tanks in an attempt to locate Melinda’s remains. However, the tip proved fruitless, as there was no indication that she had ever been there. Nearly a year later to the day, deputies from Escambia and Baldwin counties partnered with the FBI to search a water-filled gravel pit off Jack Springs Roads near the Judson Cemetery between Atmore and Poarch, but again they came up empty. A little over a month later, they conducted a new search for Melinda’s remains about three miles north of the Alabama/Florida line, targeting an area off Perry Lane in Wawbeek. However, as with the previous searches, no new information emerged, much to the sorrow and frustration of her devastated family.
Where the case stands today.
After the seven-year waiting period required by the state of Alabama, authorities issued a death certificate for Melinda Wall McGhee in 2010. With this declaration of her death, law enforcement continued to work her abduction as an open case and search for her remains. In 2012, the Escambia County Sheriff's Department employed cadaver dogs to search a septic tank on Ewing Farm Road, just a short distance from Melinda's Kent Road home. Again they turned up nothing of evidentiary value and were unable to find any trace of Melinda after draining the tank.
Melinda Wall McGhee was 31 when she vanished in 2003; this coming June she would be 52 years old. At the time of her disappearance, Melinda stood 5’4” and weighed 130 lbs, with brown hair and brown eyes. There is a $15,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts. Throughout the many long, painful years that Melinda’s husband, children, parents, and siblings have endured without her, Escambia County officials have never relinquished hope in finding the missing woman. Periodically, the somber anniversary of the day she vanished is still commemorated in the local media with articles, blog posts, and interviews with her family. Her sister Lisa no longer believes that Melinda is alive; instead, she now dreams of attaining justice for her sister and a resolution to her family’s pain. Melinda’s sister Amanda spoke of the change in outlook she underwent after the loss of her sister. She became wary of trusting too easily, and no longer automatically assumed the good in people. She even stopped listening to music, because she and Melinda shared a love of music and the reminders were too painful. She became acutely aware of others in the same situation as her family, and intently studied missing persons' flyers and reports of anyone who has gone missing. Knowing that another family is going through what her family has suffered drove her to scrutinize them, in the hope she might be able to offer any information. She would want the same done for her family.
Somebody out there knows something that may finally help uncover the mystery of Melinda’s disappearance and bring her loved ones some measure of justice and solace. In the minds and hearts of her family - as well as those of the good citizens of Atmore, AL - Melinda has not been forgotten. With a life as full of promise as a sunny Spring morning, this loving daughter, sister, wife, mother, nurse, and neighbor will never be forgotten, as she awaits her long-overdue season of justice.