DARKE COUNTY — On Sept. 24, 1970, Phyllis Nichols of Wayne Lakes drove to the Greyhound station in Richmond, Indiana to pick up her niece, Jeanne Marie Melville, who was due to visit from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She waited, but her niece never showed. A few hours later, Nichols returned to the bus station with a friend, a local pastor, thinking that perhaps Jeanne’s bus had been delayed, but still the 18-year-old recent high school graduate never appeared. Nichols consulted the police, but was told that nothing could be done, as Miss Melville was a legal adult, and missing from another state besides. Family members in Wisconsin were allegedly told pretty much the same thing.
Jeanne Marie Melville’s disappearance would not be officially investigated, as such, until almost 40 years after her death.
On October 11, just 17 days after Jeanne failed to show up at that bus station, the nude body of a young woman was found in a cornfield near Arcanum. She was found about 60 feet from Frazers Road, by two teens wandering the area on horseback. A wig – maybe red, maybe brown – was found near the body, along with a strange ring, silver in color, with raised studs lining the outside.
The ring has gone missing over the ensuing years, along with bundles of clothing found beneath two nearby bridges, one just over the line in Preble County. The clothes were sent out for testing, but if any results were received, there’s no record of that either. Even the body itself was lost for years, as proper burial records of unidentified persons were not always kept at that time.
In 2006, a Cold Case Task Force was assembled. A grant from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office allowed the Jane Doe to be exhumed, once she was found, and DNA to be extracted. A forensic reconstruction was done in an attempt to recreate the woman’s facial features, and the results were published in The Daily Advocate on Oct. 14, 2008, 38 years and three days after the body was found. Not long after that, Nichols came forward, saying she thought the reconstructed face resembled that of her missing niece. DNA would later confirm the match, though sadly, not until after Jeanne’s mother and brother had passed away.
This belated identification answered a lot of questions, but raised just as many others. Back in Wisconsin, family suspicions had fallen on Jeanne’s stepfather, but according to Darke County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mark Whittaker, that’s mostly because it was widely believed that Jeanne never actually made it Darke County.
“Now we know she obviously did,” Whittaker said. He inherited the case in the 1990s, after the retirement of former Darke County Sheriff James Irwin, and later was instrumental in helping to locate Melville’s remains.
Whittaker believes that Melville’s bus probably arrived in Richmond either early or late that day, though Greyhound records no longer exist to confirm or disprove the theory. Having missed the planned meeting with her aunt, Melville may have accepted a ride from a friendly-seeming stranger, perhaps even someone she’d met and spoken to on the bus. Someone familiar with the local area, Whittaker believes, as Melville was found in Darke County, not far from her original destination.
“I’ve always suspected the perpetrator is someone from our area,” Whittaker said. “And we’ve spoken to people who were around back in 1970, people who might’ve met the profile to do something like this. A few suspects have cropped up, but never with anything solid to connect them.”
Whittaker recently got a call from Valerie Browning, a childhood friend of Jeanne Melville who lost touch long ago, and only recently discovered that her former best friend had been murdered. Browning remembers Jeanne as a strong girl who “ran the household,” often taking care of her younger siblings while their mother worked.
“It’s not just a regular death in the family,” Browning said of the discovery of her friend’s fate. “It has all this other stuff that goes along with it. Questions that come up.”
Jeanne’s brother, Jimmy, never gave up hope of finding out what happened to her, according to Browning. She says he kept searching for her until the day he died.
“They were really a wonderful family,” Browning said. “Despite all the tragedy, they had it together as far as family.”
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