What I would give to relive those days of playing with our collection of cheap drugstore makeup sprawled on the bedroom floor as we plotted our outfits and gossiped about boys. Shannon Melendi and I became fast friends at the cusp of adolescence, when you dream of days still decades away and fantasize about chapters in your life you’ve yet to write.
Tears still sting my eyes when I think of the final chapter of Shannon’s short life: At 19, a sophomore at Emory University, she disappeared on a Saturday afternoon after going on a lunch break from her part-time job as a scorekeeper at a softball field in suburban Atlanta.
The year was 1994, 20 years ago this week. It would be another painful 12 years before the man long suspected of kidnapping Shannon confessed.
Shannon’s body was never found. There was no funeral, no official moment to mourn. Instead, the last 20 years have unfolded in surreal fashion, where life goes on for Shannon’s closest family and friends even as we’ve struggled to fill in the blanks, a search for answers that never come.
Only now, as I reflect on the twists and turns of my life, do I realize the imprint that Shannon’s story has left on my soul, a silent narrative that has molded my evolution as an adult and, ultimately, as a mother. The underlying lesson lingering in my subconsciousness: If evil can strike on a Saturday afternoon -- snatching a smart 19-year-old with quick wit, the president of her high school senior class, an aspiring lawyer, a champion debater, the daughter of present and caring parents – it can happen to anyone, anywhere.
I woke up on Tuesday morning, March 29, 1994, with my father handing me a small clipping buried inside the Local section of The Miami Herald. I found the concerned look on my father’s face puzzling, until I read the brief article, just a few lines long, saying Shannon’s parents had flown to Atlanta after learning she had gone missing.
The rest of the week was a blur until I went to see Shannon’s younger sister, Monique, who was staying with her aunt and grandparents. She turned 14 years old five days after Shannon disappeared, and I wanted to bring her a present. I sought to revisit happier times, when the Melendi family would invite me to join them on their vacations to the Florida Keys. Endless summer days where I first learned to water ski, jump waves and conquer my fear of treading open water.
In the weeks and months – even years – that followed, Shannon regularly paid me visits in my dreams. In many, I would replay our last chance encounter, which took place just a couple of weeks before Shannon disappeared.
A complete fluke, I had spotted Shannon among a sea of Spring Breakers in Daytona Beach, a rare place for either of us to visit. I walked in her direction until she came into clear focus. Yes, it was Shannon. For a few fleeting minutes, we laughed and reminisced. We caught up on where our college lives were taking us. We made plans to see each other a few weeks later when she would be back in Miami visiting her family. Then we hugged and went our separate ways.
It was the last time I saw Shannon. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my chance to say goodbye. She would be gone before the month came to a close.
Fighting the monster
As the years went by without word of what became of Shannon, my dreams began to reflect the anger I bottled deep inside.
In one recurring dream, it’s late in the evening in some unnamed town in the middle of America. I walk into a restaurant for a bite. The room is dark lit and bustling with customers. I take a seat in a booth and see Shannon sitting across from her captor. Her hands are not tied, but she’s not moving, not trying to escape. She’s scared or drugged or both, I reason. I approach their table, see a spark of hope in Shannon’s eyes and quickly find others who help me hold down the man who had stolen Shannon from her family. We pummel him. Shannon returns home.
My anger also manifested itself in other ways.
I made decisions determined not to cede power to the monster. I fought the fear that evil could lurk behind any corner.
I jumped at the chance to intern at The Boston Globe rather than spend the summer at a local paper. I walked to and from my apartment many late evenings holding a stun gun wrapped in a newspaper. Years later, as a reporter for The Miami Herald, I’d live and work in Sao Paulo, Brazil for several months, riding the subway and making my way in another language in an unknown city five times the size of New York City.
I moved across the country to Northern California, where I worked and lived for seven years. A visit to Yosemite, on assignment in Mexico or vacationing in Vancouver, I’d imagine crossing paths with Shannon and putting an end to the tragic mystery.
Anger turns into fear
Then I became a mother and the anger gave way to fear.
My firstborn was just shy of two years old when Colvin “Butch” Hinton III, a man with a history of harming young girls, confessed to kidnapping and murdering Shannon. Hinton, an umpire at the softball field where Shannon kept score, said he had set out to commit murder on March 26, 1994. He had targeted another woman but changed his plans when he spotted Shannon.
Hinton said he held Shannon at knifepoint, tied her up in his home, repeatedly raped her -- in between catching a movie at a local theater in an effort to create an alibi -- and ultimately strangled her in the early morning hours of March 27.
The unspeakable details resurfaced my dormant pain.
As my son’s independence blossomed – and with that his ability to walk away from me at a department store or at a park – I found myself fighting a constant unease. I wanted -- needed -- to know where he was at every moment.
Most parents take their children to the park to relax, sit back and let their kids play. That will never be me.
I’ll never forget spending one afternoon at a local water park with several of my son’s friends. The other mothers positioned their chairs in the shallow water to chat and sunbathe. They didn’t fuss, completely confident that their kids were safe. I stood the entire time, sloshing through the knee-high water to make sure my son emerged from the labyrinth of slides.
Dealing with my vigilant watch is a reality my children have learned to accept: My nine-year-old son understands why last summer I had him skip a field trip to the water park. My four-year-old daughter recites to me how I shouldn’t speak to strangers. I live in constant battle with myself, wrestling with a deep-seated desire to fuel my children’s independence while also fighting a fear that harm may come their way.
Both of my children know, to varying degrees, Shannon’s story. They know the world can be cruel, but they also exude a spirit of boundless optimism. They see themselves as the superheroes who can change the world.
I hope they do.
Anne Vasquez is an associate editor at the Sun Sentinel. She oversees a newsroom of reporters and editors who create content for print, digital and mobile audiences.