Reflections On The Ripple Effect of Violent Crime, Michele Wallace, and Serial Killer Roy Melanson In The Mountains of Colorado
In March, I had the great privilege of presenting lectures to several sociology/criminology classes at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and then giving the keynote speech for the 9th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at the university. The class lectures centered on a power point presentation I’ve developed called “SERIAL
KILLERS: A True Crime Author’s Experiences and Reflections,” as well as interviewing techniques; the keynote address was “The Ripple Effect of Violent Crime from a Crime Writer’s Perspective.” One of the lectures and the keynote address were video-taped, and I’ll get some of it uploaded here in the near future.
The symposium was attended by sociology and criminology students from four Colorado colleges and universities: Western State, Fort Lewis College, Colorado Mesa University, and Adams State University. On the second day of the symposium, the students each presented ten-minute synopses of undergraduate research they’d been conducting on a wide range of topics from “restorative justice” to public perceptions of police use of physical force to wage gaps. Many of the students are planning careers in the justice system, including as police officers and working with troubled youth, and I have to say I was impressed with their choice of topics, the quality of their research, and their vision of contributing to society in the future.
However, there was another aspect of my first trip in many years to Gunnison, a small, rural town located in a high valley surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains in Colorado. With a population of less than 6,000, it seems peaceful and untroubled by the modern world, and yet 41 years ago it was rocked by the sort of crime that shook its citizens and their perception of the town they called home. I found it ironic that I’d been asked by Professor Cindy Whitney to speak to her class on serial killers, and give a keynote address on the ripple effect of violent crime, where both subjects had come home to roost with tragic consequences.
In late August 1974, amateur photographer and Gunnison resident, Michele Wallace went camping in the mountains near Crested Butte, a ski town twenty miles from her home. On the way back to Gunnison, she picked up two men whose vehicle had broken down. One of them was Roy Melanson, a drifter who’d recently been released early from a Texas prison where he’d been sentenced for rape, made his way to California and from there to Colorado.
Dropping one of the men off at a bar in Gunnison, Michele agreed to take “Roy” to his vehicle. She was never seen alive again. Although Melanson became a suspect, he claimed that she’d dropped him off and left. A massive search found no trace of Michelle and the case went cold.
In 1979, hikers on the Kebler Pass gravel road, a high-mountain pass outside of Crested Butte, found a full head of human hair, including two braids. But another search proved fruitless. Not until August 1992, were the forensic grave-hunters NecroSearch International able to find Michele’s remains where Melanson left her body 18 years earlier. With proof of her murder, as well as other evidence gathered by Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office deputy Kathy Ireland (nee: Young), Melanson was convicted in 1993.
The “Michele Wallace Case” put NecroSearch International, which at the time was just beginning to gain a well-deserved reputation with law enforcement both in the United States and internationally, on the map as one the premier forensic investigation teams in the world. The history of the group, as well as some of its early successes, including the incredible detective and forensic work that resolved this case, became the material for my 2002 book NO STONE UNTURNED. The Michele Wallace case, and NecroSearch, has been the subject of several television shows including on HBO and Forensic Files. (Click Here For More About The Book.)
A common refrain I hear when interviewing people for my true crime books is “that’s the sort of thing that happens in the big city; we never thought it could happen here.” The Michele Wallace case was a prime example of that and what I call the ripple effect of violent crime. Cast a stone into a pond and you get the picture of the impact of violent crime: the first ripple overtakes the victim and witnesses, then the victim’s family, then friends, then those who deal directly with violent crime, such as first responders and police officers, and onto attorneys and victims advocates, and eventually the community and even true crime authors.
Two weeks after Michele disappeared, her mother couldn’t take waiting for the inevitable answer to what happened to her daughter and committed suicide, compounding the tragedy. But many other people were affected as thousands turned out to look for her body, and many years later while working on the book, I often heard “we didn’t think it could happen here” added to sad realization at the time that Gunnison would never again be such an innocent, idyllic place to live, where a young woman could go backpacking on her own, or give a lift to a stranger in need of help.
After the symposium ended, I decided to drive up to Crested Butte and the Kebler Pass road. It had been many years since I once drove the pass on my own, stopping back then to reflect that such a beautiful place could have been the site of such a horrible crime. But I’d forgotten that the road is closed in winter so I could only look up towards those high, snow-covered mountains and say a little prayer for Michelle, her family and friends, and those others impacted by the ripples caused by the stones thrown by monsters like Roy Melanson.
I’m updating and revising NO STONE UNTURNED to release for the first time as an eBook and audio book (the original publisher still has the rights to the print version) in late April. It’s available now. Included in the updates will be the latest on those affected by the ripples, as well as the stone-throwers such as Roy Melanson who, suspected of causing the murder and disappearance of many women over the years, was again convicted in 2011 of the murder of a California woman fifty days before he killed Michele.
I also plan to write a second book on NecroSearch International, whose reputation and record for assisting law enforcement agencies has grown by leaps and bounds in the years since NO STONE UNTURNED was released. Be looking for it in late 2015 from WildBlue Press.
New York Times bestselling author Steve Jackson has written twenty-one non-fiction and fiction books, including nine in true crime, and is the co-founder of indie publishing company WildBlue Press. A long-time, award-winning journalist, he has also taught journalism and writing at the college level, and is currently available for speaking engagements, lectures and symposiums on a wide-variety of topics including crime and writing. He can be reached at [email protected]