By Christy Gutowski
Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer
Posted Friday, January 27, 2006
Jeff Skemp pictures his only child, Rachel, as a college graduate starting a family and fulfilling a childhood dream to be a teacher.
Then he is jolted back into a reality in which he harbors no such illusions for Rachel, who's been missing since age 13.
"For a very long time, I have known Rachel is dead," he said, his voice full of emotion. "There's been no sign of her in 10 years. But there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about her."
Rachel Marie Mellon vanished Jan. 31, 1996. The bubbly 13-year-old seventh grader stayed home from school with a sore throat, lounging around her Bolingbrook house in a pink sweatshirt, yellow sweatpants and slippers.
By night, the 5-foot-2, 78-pound girl was gone â€” never to be seen again.
Although Rachel's body still hasn't been found, police are all but certain she was murdered. They cling to their long-held theory that Rachel's stepfather was involved, but despite numerous interviews; lie detector tests given; saliva and DNA samples taken; phone taps made and the convening of a Will County grand jury, he has not been charged with any crime.
Tuesday will mark the 10-year anniversary of her disappearance. Many friends and family members say it's time they said good-bye to the outgoing, theatrical girl.
They plan to gather Saturday at her father's church in west suburban Maywood for a public memorial. Unless his daughter's remains are discovered, the 47-year-old Forest Park man said this will be the last service for Rachel.
"Her friends and family need to gather together and share a good cry, some happy memories and say goodbye," said Skemp, a taxi cab dispatcher. "I think Rachel wants us to move on and realize she's in a better place."
Rachel was an honor's student at B.J. Ward Middle School in Bolingbrook.
Her two closest friends, Carrie Johnson and Jenny Sulkson, recall a cheerful friend who spent her spare time dancing, singing, reading, playing video games, practicing guitar, shopping, acting and listening to music.
Today, the friends are 23 years old. Johnson has a 14-month-old daughter, whom she named Isabelle Rachel. Sulkson is engaged to be married while she studies criminal justice and psychology â€” a career path also envisioned by Rachel.
Sulkson keeps treasured photos, poems and other mementos of her lost friend. Each Oct. 13, Rachel's birthday, Johnson still buys a present for her friend.
"I guess it's just my way of kind of still celebrating her," she said. "I always get a little something and put it in a box and if, one day, she were to come back, I would have that for her."
Sulkson also kept presents for Rachel. She has stopped, though. As does Jeff Skemp, the young women accept that day most likely will never come.
"Obviously, I've had to come to terms with it," Sulkson said. "I know there's no chance, but sometimes, maybe I'll see someone who looks like her, and for a second, I think it might be Rachel."
A bitterly cold day
Rachel lived with her mother, Amy, and a stepfather, Vince Mellon, who helped raise the missing girl since she was 3. The couple have two children, a son and daughter, whom Rachel often babysat.
Vince Mellon, between jobs that fateful day, told police he and Rachel spent the morning playing Nintendo in their home on Derbyshire Court.
Police said the stepfather told them he braved the near 20-below zero temperature about 2:30 p.m. to walk the family dog, a German shepherd named Duke. Rachel was napping, he said. The dog slipped off his leash while chasing another animal, Mellon told police, and he returned home 30 minutes later assuming Duke would find his own way back.
Her family didn't notice that Rachel was missing until that evening. Police found no signs of forced entry to the home. Only a blue blanket and two pillows were missing. Rachel's coat, shoes and her purse weren't taken.
Amy Mellon called Rachel's friends, including Sulkson, whose home Rachel had run away to several months earlier. Unlike that time, Rachel did not return the next morning.
"No one had heard from her," Carrie Johnson recalls. "So, we know something was wrong."
Police monitored her bank account, but not even a penny was touched. A ransom note never came. There's been no phone calls from her.
"The theory that a 13-year-old girl with no resources would be able to up and disappear on her own is pretty far fetched," said Bolingbrook Police Lt. Tom Ross, one of the detectives involved in 1996 case. "Do we believe she is a victim of foul play and probably has died? Yes."
A community reacts
The teen's disappearance sparked a huge community response.
People turned out by the dozens to do shoulder-to-shoulder searches; business owners displayed posters of the smiling, hazel-eyed girl in storefront windows, and volunteers passed out thousands of fliers.
Police and the FBI searched the area using helicopters, dogs, horses, dive teams, all-terrain vehicles, ground canvasses and thermal imaging. They searched a dozen houses, conducted thousands of interviews, polygraph and DNA tests.
Detectives traveled from Washington, D.C. to Montana to Dallas, Texas to chase possible leads. They also worked with Philippine national police, who circulated Rachel's photo to see if she might be in her mother's birthplace.
Rachel was never found. Without a body, police have hit a dead end. They aren't giving up, though, nor is the case file closed.
"This is a case in three-ring binders and boxes that sit on a detective's desk," Lt. Ross said. "The leads slowed down over the years, but this is still an active case with a detective assigned to it."
Vince Mellon, 39, married Rachel's mother, Amy, in 1986. He is the last person known to have seen Rachel.
Amy Mellon, who passed a lie detector test, held a news conference in February 2000 defending her husband and admonishing local police for focusing their investigation on Vince. She contends Rachel was abducted by a stranger.
Her show of support came one month after police obtained a court order to get Vince Mellon's blood, saliva and hair samples. A judge also gave police permission to secretly monitor the family's home phone conversations.
Vince and Amy Mellon appeared before a Will County grand jury, where the stepfather invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. He has never been charged with the girl's disappearance. He and Amy Mellon could not be reached for comment this week.
Vince Mellon's attorney, Gene Ognibene, said he is unaware of any current movement in Rachel's case.
"He's always maintained he had nothing to do with her disappearance," Ognibene said. "He's presumed innocent and has not even been charged."
A dad's undying love
Jeff Skemp, who was living in Texas when Rachel vanished, moved back to the Chicago area 10 months later to be close to the investigation.
"I couldn't handle being that far away," he said. "I felt really helpless and hopeless, like I couldn't do anything, not that there's much you can do."
In 2001, he founded a group in his daughter's honor. Today, it has a couple dozen volunteers and operates the Web site, www.rachelfind.com.
Besides keeping Rachel's name out there, another goal is to link police agencies with resources such as canine search teams and volunteers to help with ground searches. The site also publicizes other missing cases.
Anne Bielby, who did not know Rachel but lived nearby, maintains the site and is the behind-the-scenes organizer. Carrie Johnson and Jenny Sulkson contribute their personal memories to the site.
Many others also do their part. Leroy Mardenborough, a Florida man touched when hearing Rachel's story, hosts the site for free. He vows to keep it running until there is resolution. Ann Dralle, a Will County board member, paid for a tree that was planted for Rachel at a local park. Neighbor Leroy Brown helped re-canvas Rachel's old neighborhood with others to dig up new leads.
Many volunteers came together for the May 25, 2002, tree planting and to bury time capsules for Rachel. They'll be dug up in 100 years.
From the onset, Skemp believed Rachel met with foul play. Time has brought the father some solace, especially when realizing how much his daughter was loved. But the razor-sharp pain he felt in the early days of her disappearance often returns without warning.
"Rachel was a beautiful, beautiful girl," he said. "She did not deserve this."
The last time he spoke to his daughter was Christmas Day 1995 â€” just weeks before she vanished. Rachel informed her father she had graduated from listening to pop music to the likes of Alanis Morissette.
After Rachel disappeared, Skemp wandered into her bedroom. A portable compact disc player hung from her bedpost. Skemp placed the headphones over his ears and hit the power button.
Morissette's voice blared at full volume into his ears. He often listens to it today. He said it makes him feel close to her.
Despite the sad reality, Jeff Skemp said he hasn't lost all hope that someone knows something but for whatever reason has remained quiet. He asks that they find the courage to come forward.
Skemp also has a message to his daughter, whom he knows he'll see again some day.
"Rachel," he said, his voice quivering. "I miss you so much. I miss your smile. I miss your laughter, and I'm so sorry I didn't fight for you harder." http://www.dailyhera...y.asp?id=147638