Trenton missing baby case haunts lone investigator 24 years later
Published: Tuesday, March 06, 2012, 8:20 AM Updated: Tuesday, March 06, 2012, 11:34 AM
Alex Zdan/The Times
TRENTON — The trail appears to have gone completely cold, except for a lone investigator still working the case. Twenty-four years ago this morning, 7-month-old Melissa Diane McGuinn disappeared without a trace.
On that day back in 1988, a mentally handicapped housemate of Melissa’s mother first asked permission before taking the baby outside. When she returned with a neighbor shortly afterward, the baby was not with her.
A huge search ensued, and though police quickly determined that the housemate, Wanda Faye Reed, was responsible, the child’s body was never found. Reed initially said she threw Melissa into the Delaware River, but years later changed her story to maintain she sold the baby for $200 worth of drugs. Neither scenario could be trusted. Police later found that, due to Reed’s mental state, she could be led to say virtually anything.
In all the time that’s passed since that cold morning, the key question of what happened to Melissa has never come close to being answered.
“That’s our missing link: What happened to her?” asked New Jersey State Police Detective Sgt. Wanda Stojanov.
Stojanov has been searching for the answer since 2008, when she was assigned the case while working in the Missing Persons Unit. Despite a transfer to the Stolen Auto Unit, she’s still trying to make progress on the case, knowing that nobody else is available to do it.
“Part of that is being a mom myself,” she said in Trenton yesterday, outside the home on the 600 block of Lamberton where the McGuinns and Reed used to live. No parent would want law enforcement to drop the case, no matter how long it takes. “I’d like to know ... there’s someone who’s still looking.”
Two days after the child’s disappearance, Trenton police arrested Reed and charged her with kidnapping, but they couldn’t levy a murder charge without Melissa’s body. Reed’s mental capacity, described as that of a 7-year-old child, made a conviction even more daunting, and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office dropped all charges in December 1989.
Despite three days of initial searching and a psychic leading city police and firefighters on a fruitless search of the Delaware River in August 1988, no trace of Melissa was ever found. Her mother, Rebecca, and father, Robert, moved to Arkansas and Reed headed to Louisiana.
In 2008, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children contacted the State Police to ask if they would take on the case. The national center later produced an age-progressed image of Melissa, using the faces of her mother and two brothers born after her disappearance to theorize what Melissa would look like in her early 20s.
Stojanov is hoping someone will come forward with new information that Melissa is alive somewhere, possibly unaware that she is the person who generated front-page headlines in Trenton in 1988.
“There’s still leads,” she said.
Even today, the McGuinn case is a web of motivations, secrets and lies. The McGuinns and Reed and her common-law husband were bonded by a shared home, Stojanov said.
“There’s so much to this story, I don’t know where to begin some days,” she said.
The neighbor whose home Reed went to and who walked her back home and several witnesses put Reed in the vicinity of Lamberton and Coates streets, but gone for just eight minutes. Because of that, Stojanov thinks the theory that Melissa was thrown into the river is implausible. Standing behind the family’s former home and looking at Waterfront Park across Route 29, Stojanov said it would be difficult to make it to the Delaware and back so quickly.
“I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like it’s possible, but we don’t rule it out,” she said.
If Melissa died but her body was not tossed into the river, it could have remained undetected on land, Stojanov said.
The city detective who handled the abduction is dead, and most of the men on the force are since retired or passed away as well. Robert McGuinn died in 2008.
To rule herself out as a suspect, the girl’s mother, Rebecca McGuinn, came to New Jersey this past August to take a polygraph. McGuinn passed the review, popularly known as a “lie-detector test,” leading authorities to believe she didn’t participate in any potential conspiracy.
“If there was anything, she didn’t know about it,” Stojanov said. “I think if there was, they wouldn’t have called the police so fast. Because they didn’t like the police, and the police didn’t like them.”
“She seemed credible,” Stojanov said.
Reed remains the most likely suspect, as she had the strongest possible motive.
“She might’ve been jealous,” Stojanov said. “There was a party the night before … and people were paying attention to Melissa instead of her child, (2-month-old) Jimmy.”
Reed claimed it was the neighbor with whom she came back who bought the baby in exchange for drugs, but Stojanov has interviewed the woman twice and she’s been cooperative. Polygraphing her is an option, though.
Rebecca McGuinn is still invested in the case, watching and hoping from far off.
“The mother cares,” Stojanov said. “The mother does care, otherwise she wouldn’t have tried to come back to New Jersey.”
Anyone with information on Melissa McGuinn should call the New Jersey State Police’s Missing Persons Unit at (609) 882-2000, ext. 2893, or toll free at (800) 709-7090.