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A Tragic Conviction : How Justice System Can Go Wrong

March 17, 1985|RICHARD E. MEYER | Times Staff Writer

"I'm going to try hunting for him," Melvin replied. He searched everywhere he could think of--doorways, alleys. After two or three hours, he walked to a friend's house, where he spent the night. On Sunday, he saw in the paper that Eric's body had been found--and that the police suspected foul play.

On Monday, he read that Eric was thought to have been molested.

Melvin's stomach tightened.

"No one but a homosexual would kill a kid and do what he did," he remembers saying to himself. He thought of the stories around town about him and his nephew. He began to tremble, and he thought he might throw up. If he left home, he thought, the police would pick him up. So he stayed inside.

Something told him that his arrest was inevitable.

Police Knocked at Door

Four days later, two policemen knocked at his door. They took him downtown to the police station for questioning.

An anonymous caller had said that Melvin was at the mall the day Eric had disappeared.

That was not the only tip authorities had gotten. One resident, Carl Simpson, reported seeing a man and boy walking west on MacArthur Drive the afternoon of the kidnaping. He said the man was 50 to 55 years old. Another resident, Jeffrey Davey, a plumber, said he had been loading dirt into his pickup truck that afternoon from the bluffs near MacArthur Drive when he saw a boy who looked like Eric Christgen walking with an older man about six feet tall who weighed about 190 pounds and had streaky, gray hair.

Melvin was only 25 years old. He was of average height, much leaner--and had brown hair with a hint of red. But Sgt. Robert E. Anderson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, assigned to help lead the investigation, had heard the story about Melvin and his nephew. Had Melvin been at the mall on the afternoon of the kidnaping?

Melvin said no.

Eight-Month Investigation

Anderson was not satisfied. Again and again over the next eight months, as police from the entire region kept coming up empty handed, Anderson and two other officers, police Sgt. John Muehlenbacher and Detective Skip Jones, returned to Melvin's house and picked him up for questioning.

Twice, they gave him lie detector tests. He passed one, and the other was inconclusive. Just as he had when he felt threatened as a youngster, Melvin tried to please. He said he had not killed Eric Christgen, but he offered to confess if they wanted him to. They asked why. At his trial, Melvin said it was because he had been scared.

On one occasion, they administered sodium amytal--truth serum.

"I didn't have anything to do with it," Melvin said, when the drug took effect. "I saw the boy on the mall. I didn't have anything to do with it.

"Before I killed--before I went to the unemployment office. . . ."

Misstatement Nearly Fatal

The misstatement in Melvin's account of his whereabouts was nearly fatal. Anderson testified that he took it as an admission. But when the officers questioned Melvin again, he denied killing Eric. The tone of the questioning frightened him beyond anything he had ever felt before. The simple truth no longer seemed sufficient. He told a tale about borrowing a friend's car to run errands for her because she was ill.

By now Christmas had come and gone, and the police were still coming up empty handed.

They checked out Melvin's story about the car and discovered that it was not true. On Valentine's Day, Muehlenbacher telephoned Melvin and told him that the police wanted to talk to him again. He was petrified. And his desire to please went beyond good sense. He did not even consider consulting a lawyer. He was waiting for the police when they arrived. This time, they took him to Anderson's office in the basement of the highway patrol headquarters.

They turned on a tape recorder and asked him to waive his rights.

Why had he lied about the car?

"I was scared," he said.

Anderson bore down.

Threat of Prosecution

"I don't want to come up there every month and pick you up," he said. "Melvin, I don't want to do it, but I'm going to, if we're going to have to do it the hard way. There's a multitude of things we can charge you with. I don't want to do it. But I'll bring them up just to show you."

He accused Melvin of stealing. "We're going to keep following what you've been involved in and what you aren't," Anderson said. "Now I want you to get your head on straight. I want the truth. I don't want to slap all these charges against you. But if you are going to make it tough for us, then that's what we're going to do."

Then Anderson hit a nerve. "You're going to get married," he said, raising his voice. "You've found a girl you've apparently fallen in love with."

"Yes," Melvin replied, tentatively.

"You want to get married. And how in the hell are you going to do all this if you're going to start telling lies and getting involved in these other burglaries and thefts and stealing? How you gonna do it?"

"There's no way," Melvin replied, softly.

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