A Tragic Conviction : How Justice System Can Go Wrong

Times Staff Writer

Every day he fears that another child will be killed. He fears for the children, and he fears for himself.

He and his family and friends have kept lists, some down to the minute, accounting for his whereabouts and his activities. These lists are for the police, should they come back, knocking.

But there is no safeguard against the nightmares. Cells slamming. Keys rattling. Prisoners shouting. And the sounds echoing across the walks and down the halls. Rapes. Beatings. And worst of all--a cold-sweat terror that he will wake up back in prison.


Rumor and Rejection

Melvin Lee Reynolds, 31, got married the other day. He has a tentative job offer. His new wife, Brenda Cunningham, and the possibility of work at a gasoline station, are the only signs that his life, devastated by nearly five years in jail and in the penitentiary, might be improving. Otherwise, it is a shambles of rumor and rejection.

He is haunted by the fact that, despite a court order setting him free, the St. Joseph police chief still considers him a murderer. His mother and stepfather are so afraid of reprisals that they do not let anyone but their closest friends know where they live. Often, when people see them--or their son--they point and stare.

The reason is tragic. Melvin Reynolds was convicted of molesting and murdering a 4-year-old boy. It is a crime he did not commit.

He is but one of what some experts fear is a growing number of people who are wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. With the resumption of executions, these experts say, virtually anyone accused of a capital offense--even someone who is innocent--can be persuaded to plead guilty to a lesser but still serious crime. And 90% of all convictions in the United States, the experts note, are obtained through plea bargains.

13 Innocents Executed

At least 6,000 persons are wrongfully convicted every year of serious crimes, including murder, rape, robbery and burglary, said Ronald Huff, an Ohio State University criminologist. Because of wrongful convictions, 100 innocent persons have been condemned to death in cases documented since the turn of the century, said Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet, criminologists at Tufts University and the University of Florida.

They count at least 13 who have been executed.

“There’s a saying, ‘It’s better to let 12 guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man,’ ” said Buchanan County Circuit Judge Frank Connett, who presided over the trial that convicted Melvin Reynolds. Connett also signed the order that set him free. “I’m certain many more than 12 guilty people simply don’t get caught,” Connett said. Nevertheless, he is not happy that Melvin Reynolds was convicted and sent to prison.


Sometimes, Connett said, the justice system just does not work. He believes in the system. But, he adds, there’s belief--and then there is belief. He tells this story: “There was a tightrope between two tall buildings. One man asked another whether he believed that the first man could push a wheelbarrow across the tightrope. ‘Yeah,’ said the second man. ‘I believe it.’ And the first man said, ‘Well, then get into the wheelbarrow.’ ”

Prosecutor Mike Insco, who persuaded a jury in Connett’s court to send Melvin Reynolds to prison, is not completely happy with the way the system worked, either. “But I feel fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to straighten out my own mistake,” he said. “Not everyone gets the opportunity, at the end when it’s all over with, to say, ‘We did it right--finally.’ ”

Reynolds is considering a lawsuit seeking damages for false imprisonment. But only five states--California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee and New York--have legal machinery to compensate the wrongfully punished. Winning such a case in Missouri might be impossible, said Lee Nation, Reynolds’ lawyer.

State Could Pay Him

The Missouri Legislature could pass a bill compensating Reynolds individually. But that seems even less likely. In any case, Reynolds would not know how much to request. “I think I deserve something,” he said. “I lost five years out of my life. But how can a person say what five years is worth?

“Or the cost of what I went through in prison?”

Or the price of fear? Melvin Reynolds has not been acquitted. His conviction was only set aside. Technically, he could be retried without double jeopardy.

“Besides, there are plenty of crazy people out there,” he said. “There’s not just the one that they finally got in my case who kills kids. There could be other killings, and they could come back to me.


“I don’t trust the police. The police can do anything.”

Based on court documents, tape-recorded confessions and extensive interviews with Melvin Lee Reynolds and his family, his friends and the authorities, this is the story of his tragedy. It is the story of a heinous crime, a community’s effort to solve it--and a case study of how the system can go wrong.

Ever since most people could remember, Melvin Lee Reynolds had been different.

As a child, he contracted rheumatic fever. It left him skinnier than most kids. His parents divorced before he started school. He ran away, came back; and once, in anger, he set his closet afire.

When he was 10, his mother decided she could not handle him. He was sent to a boys’ home. At night, older boys demanded sex and threatened to beat him if he refused. Too small and frail to defend himself, Melvin gave in. Two years later, after his mother remarried and he moved back home, he found himself troubled and sexually confused.

In school, Melvin became known as a lanky, tousle-haired youngster who acted effeminate sometimes, and he got teased for it. He also was a slow learner. And that bothered him too. He wanted desperately to keep up. But he was placed in special classes--and got teased some more. Finally, as a high school freshman, he dropped out.

He Began Shoplifting

He chose friends who were troubled as well, and he began shoplifting. They stole; and he stole more--to best them if he could. But his sense of rejection was so strong, and he wanted so much to be accepted and liked, that most often he stole for others. He took automobiles, for instance, so he could give rides to his friends. And sometimes he got caught. Melvin was never in any serious trouble, but he came to be known as a troublemaker.

Occasionally he wore dresses. At times it was because it made it easier for him to steal--it gave him somewhere to hide what he had taken. At other times it was because he liked to. But it always made him uneasy. St. Joseph was a traditional town of about 77,000. It was difficult enough to be confused about one’s sexual identity, but even harder here.


People talked and made it worse. When he was still a teen-ager, a story swept through town that he had molested his 3-year-old nephew. Melvin and his family, including the little boy’s mother, denied it. But the story seemed to persist.

Visited Mental Hospital

At one point, Melvin’s sexual confusion and the trouble it was causing prompted him to visit the state mental hospital in St. Joseph for help. On another occasion, a judge sent him there for counseling. With help from a staff psychologist, Melvin concentrated on becoming heterosexual.

He took job corps training to be a cook. Although he had trouble holding onto work, he sought new employment every time he lost a job. He cooked in a nursing home; pressed clothes at a dry cleaner’s; tested and packaged wires at a cable company; took blood tests for a veterinarian; poured cement for a grain elevator; boxed hats at a Stetson factory, and baby-sat for his two sisters and for several friends.

He settled down with a steady girlfriend, Rita Anderson, who worked as a nurse’s aide at Methodist Hospital. Rita knew about his sexual struggle, but it did not bother her. “If you love one another,” she told herself, “you should be able to trust one another.” They got engaged and planned to be married on Oct. 6, 1978--Melvin’s mother’s birthday.

Melvin wanted a son.

A Boy Was Kidnaped

But that spring, a young boy was kidnaped from the downtown mall in St Joseph.

Shortly before 3 p.m. on May 26, a man led the youngster off the mall and out of town on foot to wooded bluffs along MacArthur Drive, near the Missouri River. In a washed-out ravine, hidden from the road, he sodomized the boy and choked him to death. Carefully, he placed his body on a small ridge of brush and weeds with his feet pointing west toward MacArthur Drive and his head pointed east.

A bird’s nest lay next to the body, where it had fallen.

St. Joseph mounted a search the likes of which its residents had never seen.

Well-to-Do Family

The city would have hunted for any missing child, but this was no ordinary youngster. His name was Eric Christgen. He was 4 years old, the blond-haired, blue-eyed son of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin B. Christgen. His father ran St. Joseph Woods, a walnut lumber business. The family was prominent and well-to-do.


Edwin Christgen offered a $10,000 reward for the return of his son.

That afternoon, Melvin busied himself sweeping and dusting at the house where he lived with his family, about a mile from the mall and even farther from the bluffs. At 3:25 p.m., Etta Louise Anderson, no kin of his fiancee, saw him on the front porch. She and her son had gone to pick up the newspapers for his route. The route manager always dropped them nearby, and Mrs. Anderson noticed Melvin near the door with a broom and a dustpan. He and Mrs. Anderson chatted for a minute.

Later that evening, Melvin went downtown.

Not far from the mall, he encountered Bunny Terry, a friend.

“Hi,” he said. What was she doing downtown?

Looking for Missing Boy

She replied that she was looking for a little boy who was missing. She said his name was Eric Christgen. She described him and told Melvin what he had been wearing.

“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.

“There’s no way,” Anderson agreed. “Unless you get married in jail. Do you think that woman loves you enough to get married in jail or wait for you?”

No, Melvin did not.

‘We Want the Truth’

“I don’t either, Melvin,” Anderson said. “Now I’m telling you, we want the truth about this and everything else. Just wipe the slate clean and be done with it. Let’s don’t come back to your place . . . and pick you up and bring you in. Do you understand?”


After all this time, Melvin recalls, he was beginning to wonder whether he had in fact murdered Eric Christgen. In his own mind, he knew he hadn’t. But at the same time, he thought: “Well, maybe, you know, maybe I did.” That worried him. What could have made him do it? He knew he liked children. He had baby-sat a number of them. And they liked him. Could it be that he. . . . ?

They took a break. Muehlenbacher went for coffee. Melvin and Anderson talked more about Rita Anderson. If they charged him with stealing, Melvin remembers thinking, he’d go to prison--and he’d never marry her. If he confessed, then he’d go to prison too. But they were urging him to wipe the slate clean. He wanted to please them. If he confessed, would it go easier on him? The pressure was dizzying.

Thought He Needed Help

Melvin put his head down. “Do you think that I’ll go to the penitentiary?”

“Melvin,” Anderson replied, “I’m not your judge or jury. I don’t know whether you will or whether you won’t. Do you think you need to go to the penitentiary?”

“No, I don’t think I do. I think I need help at the state hospital.”

If he had killed Eric, he certainly did need help, he recalls thinking. And it might be a way out of going to prison. Maybe if he were sent to the state hospital, he would get out quicker--and maybe he’d be able to get married after all.

“Melvin,” Anderson asked, “are you willing to talk to us, get this off your chest, tell us what really happened?”

Pressure Was Too Much

Now the pressure was too much. After what the police later calculated to have been nearly 40 man-hours of interrogation, Melvin felt himself start to collapse.


“You know,” he said, “it’s awfully hard to talk about it.”

“I can understand that,” Anderson replied. “It was a serious crime.”

“Do I have to talk to all three of you?”

Muehlenbacher and Jones stepped outside. Anderson talked Melvin into letting them come back. “Melvin,” Jones pressed, “would you let us fill out six questions and furnish them to you? Then you can write the answers. They’d be very short.” He put the six questions on a piece of yellow paper. Melvin looked at them. “When you’re done,” Anderson said, according to the trial transcript, “knock on the door, and we’ll come back.”

Now Melvin was alone.

‘When Did the Boy Die?’

The room felt cold and damp. It was quiet. The questions glared at him.

“When did the boy die, time?”

Melvin picked up a pencil. He wrote: “Don’t remember just what time.”

“How did the boy die, accident, on purpose?”

Melvin wrote “yes” beside accident.

“Where did you first meet the boy?”

“Mall,” Melvin wrote.

Had he sodomized Eric Christgen?

“Yes,” he wrote.

The die had been cast. Now all the officers needed were details. Although it was late afternoon, they reminded Melvin he had waived his rights. Then they turned the tape recorder back on.

Problems With Answers

But there were problems with Melvin’s answers.

He said he had watched Eric for 35 minutes on the mall before kidnaping him. The boy had not been at the mall for half that long. He said he had not seen anyone as he led Eric from the mall to the bluffs--and particularly had not seen anyone loading dirt into a pickup truck along MacArthur Drive.

And, unlikely as it sounded, Melvin said that he and Eric had not exchanged a word--at any time.

When Anderson pressed him for details about the sexual assault, Melvin pleaded: “How can I speak to doing this when I didn’t do it?” Then, when the officers mentioned a cut on Eric’s cheek and asked Melvin whether he had hit him, Melvin flared.

“I wouldn’t hit no kid!” he said.

“You think you might have inadvertently hit him?”

“I didn’t hit him, though.”

Officer Wrote Account

Anderson wrote an account of what Melvin had said. He told Melvin to read it and correct it, then initial the corrections. Melvin did. He signed the statement. Then Anderson told him to write the account in his own words and sign it. Melvin did.


Insco, the prosecutor, was summoned, along with the city’s new police chief, Robert Hayes, and a highway patrol commander. They decided that Melvin should make still another statement. At 8:03 p.m., the tape recorder went back on again. Melvin dug himself in deeper--but his answers posed still more problems.

He could not say whether Eric had worn briefs or boxer shorts. He said he had left Eric with his head pointing toward MacArthur Drive. But when the boy’s body was found, his head was pointing the other way. And Melvin had not seen any bird’s nest.

Insco remembers wanting to know if Melvin could find the crime scene and telling the officers not to take him into custody until he had done so. Nearly 15 hours after they had picked him up, the police drove Melvin home. They told him they would pick him up at 7 a.m. so he could take them to the bluffs.

A Valentine Arrangement

Melvin walked quietly into the living room and tiptoed across the white tile floor. Everyone was asleep. On a small table, he saw a Valentine arrangement his mother had made, including a card to her from Melvin and his fiance.

Melvin took a piece of Valentine candy.

Then he went upstairs to his room. He was too scared to sleep.

The next day, he used what he knew from reading the paper to take the officers to the bluffs. He walked out on a small plateau, and according to the trial transcript, said: “I think this is the spot.”

It was not the washed-out ravine where Eric’s body had been found.

“Melvin,” Detective Jones said, “can you show me the exact spot for sure where you last seen the boy?”


Melvin walked to the south lip of the plateau. “It’s right there.”

Started to Cry

When he heard where Melvin had pointed, Insco said he realized that it was the wrong place. To end up down in the ravine, Eric’s body would have had to roll uphill to the top of the lip, then down the crown of the plateau and through two tree trunks. But Insco assumed that Melvin had simply forgotten the exact spot--or had not wanted to point it out, just as Melvin had never admitted strangling the boy. Insco figured that he was willing to tell 95% of what had happened, but would never reveal the last 5%.

Melvin stood for a minute on the plateau. He felt himself starting to cry. Eric had been just a kid. What a horror his parents must have gone through! What would they think of Melvin once his name was in the paper? He got weak.

“How stupid could I be?” he recalls thinking. At the same time, he felt framed.

He was arrested. Chief Hayes congratulated everyone involved.

Somebody threw a brick through the living room window. It slammed into the glass like a rifle shot. Then somebody hurled a rock through the kitchen window. It shattered the pane and sprayed shards across the room. People started breaking windows in the garage, one by one. Melvin’s family decided to move. They found an old house on several acres at the edge of town, and they told no one but relatives and close friends where they were.

Bail was set at $50,000--guaranteed to keep Melvin in jail. But that hardly seemed a lot safer. Now that they thought they knew who the killer was, some people in St. Joseph seemed to be bent on vigilante justice. Somebody telephoned the sheriff and threatened Melvin’s life. His jailers heard about a number of other threats. They isolated Melvin, even from trusties--and decided to move him to jails in other, smaller towns nearby.

But at least two persons besides Melvin’s mother, Wanda, his stepfather, Bill O’Meara, and his fiance, Rita Anderson, thought that Melvin was innocent. One was Etta Louise Anderson. She did not particularly like Melvin--but she had to live with herself. So she told the police and the St. Joseph News-Press that she had seen and talked to Melvin on the front porch of his own home at about the time that Eric was slain. A reporter asked Chief Hayes about it. He refused to comment.

‘We’ve Got the Wrong Man’

The other person who believed that Melvin was not the killer was police Detective Robert Eaton. He had directed the search for Eric Christgen and had participated in the early investigation. He remembered that witnesses had said the man they saw with Eric was older. Eaton told Hayes: “We’ve got the wrong man.”


The chief would hear none of it. Soon afterward, Eaton quit.

Eventually, Melvin was returned to the county jail in St. Joseph. Ever eager to be liked, he began painting the cells. The county supplied him with two colors: yellow and gray. He used the yellow on the cellblocks and catwalks and the gray to trim the bars.

Month of Mental Tests

He spent a month at a state hospital in Fulton taking mental tests. Every other day he received a long letter from Rita. When he was found competent to stand trial and returned, she went nearly every day to a parking lot on the uphill side of the jail just below his cell. They talked early and late about their plans for the future. Both of them felt sure he would be found innocent. They would leave St. Joseph.

Rita wrote to tourist bureaus and chambers of commerce in several communities, including some in Canada, to find a pleasant place to live where Melvin would be safe.

Trial Went Quickly

The trial of Melvin Lee Reynolds went quickly. It took only four days. Prosecutor Insco introduced color photographs that showed how Eric Christgen had been injured. A pathologist testified that there were no marks of strangulation. He said Eric Christgen was choked to death through forced oral sex.

Although Melvin sat in steely silence, he worried that the photos would convince the jury. Worse, he realized, the judge had agreed to let Insco play the third tape of his interrogation first. It contained his most detailed confession. Only then would his attorney be allowed to play the first and second tapes, which contained Sgt. Anderson’s threats.

That sequence, Melvin remembers thinking, meant that the confession would stick in the jury’s mind much more firmly than the threats.


What angered him most, however, was Anderson’s denial under oath that he had threatened to charge Melvin with stealing--and Anderson’s recollection that he had never told Melvin this would mean that he could not marry Rita.

Angry at Officer

“I’d like to get a hold of him!” Melvin thought. For a moment, he considered it.

Why hadn’t he been stronger? “I shouldn’t have admitted it,” he said to himself. “If it wasn’t for that, they could never find me guilty. What an ass I made out of myself.”

He glanced at the jurors. They were looking at him.

“I’m gone for sure,” he thought.

On Melvin’s behalf, his attorney, Lee Nation, called Bunny Terry to show how Melvin had learned that Eric Christgen had been kidnapped. And he called the polygraph operator to show that Melvin had offered to confess to please the police. But, for fear that their testimony would not stand up, he did not call Etta Louise Anderson or any of the witnesses who had said Eric had been with an older man.

Instead, Nation called Melvin to the stand. After some preliminary questions, Nation asked: Did he kidnap, sodomize or kill Eric Christgen?

“No,” Melvin said softly. “I did not.”

“Are you sure?”


Led Out of Courtroom

Two deputies led Melvin out of the courtroom. Outside in the parking lot under Melvin’s window, Bill O’Meara shouted up to his stepson: “We’ve got a highball waiting for you over in the car as soon as you get out. Pack your stuff and get ready.”

“I’m gonna be found guilty,” Melvin replied. “You might as well drink it yourself.”

At 6:45 p.m., after seven hours of deliberation and a single ballot, the jury returned. Judge Connett read the verdict: “We find the defendant, Melvin Lee Reynolds, guilty of murder in the second degree. . . . We fix the punishment at life imprisonment.”


Melvin’s memories of prison are detailed:

He rode to Jefferson City in an unmarked car. It took the circular drive around the Missouri Capitol. Two blocks away stood the buff-colored stone walls of the prison. His mind whirled with what he had heard. “If you go in on a child molesting case, then most of the time you do not live.” Melvin also had heard about shanks. The inmates made them at the tag plant, where they stamped out license plates. Shanks were strips of discarded metal, which they sharpened to a knife’s edge and fitted with wooden handles. That, he feared, was how he would get it: with a shank.

Child molesters who do not die, he had heard, were turned into punks, sissies, wives.

Tears came to his eyes. “Maybe the Lord has got his reason for putting me down here,” he recalled thinking. “My mother has did a lot for me in her life, and, well, so has my stepfather, as far as that goes. And all I’ve ever did was cause her trouble.” He wept. “I love my mother with all my heart. It is just the way I mistreated her. . . .”

Sprayed for Lice

Inside the gate, he placed his wallet, watch and rings on a table. He stripped, got his shoulder-length hair cut down to stubble, shaved and showered with cold water, got sprayed for lice and put on state clothes. They were called “grays.” He was fingerprinted and then he was photographed and numbered. His number turned out to be 37973. It was the same, he noticed, backward and forward.

A guard took him to H-Hall, where he would stay by himself in a cell for three weeks until he was evaluated by the prison classification board. It would decide whether he would be put into the Special Treatment Unit, called STU, which provided protective custody, or whether he went into the general population. He would appear before the board. He spent hours trying to decide which he wanted.

In STU he’d stay alive, he thought. But could he stand a life sentence in isolation?

As the day of his appearance neared, he decided. Even a little freedom was too precious to give up.

‘I Didn’t Do It’

The board noted that he had been convicted of child molesting. “Let met tell you something,” Melvin interrupted. “I don’t give a damn what my case--what it says. I didn’t do it.”


Regardless, the board thought he should go into STU.

“I’ll take my chances,” he replied.

He was released from H-Hall and taken to C-Hall, 8-Walk, Cell 234. It turned out that his cell mate was an Indian from Oklahoma who weighed more than 200 pounds, all muscle. Melvin prepared for the worst. But his cell mate, whose name was Tim, offered protection--and with no strings attached. So did an inmate who boxed, named Willie.

But within months they got transferred to a prison farm, and Melvin was on his own.

Prisoners Jumped Him

By now, he had gotten a job in the kitchen. One morning, as he walked into a storage room to get spices for chili, six prisoners jumped him.

They gagged him and, one by one, they raped him.

He was gang-raped again, this time in a trash bin. Then again, in the gym. Each time he was attacked by six or seven inmates. Each time the inmates were different. Melvin grew frantic. If he reported the attacks, he knew he would be hunted down and killed. Was it organized? Were snitches going through his records at the captain’s office? Were they spreading word that he was a child molester?

An inmate raped him in the shower--and claimed him as his own. Melvin accepted the protection, but he hated the arrangement. He complained to the captain of the guard, who ended it.

Told He’d Be Killed

But that brought more trouble. A snitch told him that several inmates had decided to stab him to death.

Just weeks before, Melvin had seen a prisoner get his throat cut. He considered holing up in his cell and never coming out. He thought about asking for STU. Then he remembered how confining protective custody seemed. He had turned it down once. He would not make a fool of himself by begging for it now.


He had made it this far. He would stay out.

He got a job on the garbage detail. At 6 a.m., Melvin, an inmate named Vince and four other prisoners were riding a trash truck past the hole, where inmates who broke prison rules were punished with solitary confinement. Vince said he thought Melvin had killed Eric Christgen. He said he had a 4-year-old boy himself.

He said Melvin would not live long.

“I don’t give a damn,” Melvin shot back. “I didn’t do it.”

Pushed Off Truck

They grappled on the side of the truck. Melvin felt his grip start to slip. Vince pushed him hard.

The truck was moving at 5 or 6 m.p.h.

Melvin fell backward. He felt his head hit first--then the impact of his entire weight on the back of his skull. He awoke in the prison hospital. Doctors found no severe injuries, and he was released.

Not long afterward, five inmates confronted him at the athletic field, where he was watching baseball practice. One accused him of being a child molester. “I’m sorry to tell you I’m not,” Melvin replied. The inmate argued. Melvin tried desperately to convince him.

But it did no good.

The five prisoners kicked him in the stomach, then in the head and in the back. They kicked him in the groin. And they raped him. This time he was in the hospital for three weeks.

It was becoming more than Melvin could bear.

One evening he skipped dinner and went to his cell. He sat on the edge of his bunk.

Began to Shiver

The guards had told him that the worst thing to be was a child molester. They said that most served 30 to 40 years before they got parole. If he served 40 years, he would be 60 years old when he got out. “I probably won’t have any people left,” he thought. “No relatives. Maybe nephews and nieces, but whether they will care or not, that’s a different story. If I’m in here that long and they give me parole, I just won’t take it.


“After 40 years in the penitentiary, that’s your home.”

Melvin began to shiver.

He had heard of four escape attempts since he’d arrived, and none had succeeded. The Missouri Supreme Court had denied his appeal. He had seen the boxes that hospital attendants put prisoners in when they died. That, Melvin thought, was how he would leave.

His mother visited often, but not Rita. They had quarreled about it, and her letters had long since stopped.

He lay down on his bunk. He blamed the police and Insco, the prosecutor, for his plight. But mostly he blamed himself. “I didn’t have to answer those questions,” he said to himself. “I could have said I wanted a lawyer . . . I could have said, ‘No, I didn’t do it.’ ”

Melvin crawled under his blankets.

There was a small television in the cell. He thought about the electrical cord and how he could use it to kill himself.

On July 29, 1982, almost 2 1/2 years after Melvin Reynolds had gone to prison, an 11-year-old girl disappeared two blocks from the downtown mall where Eric Christgen had been kidnaped. Her name was Michelle Steele. Her body was found near the Missouri River less than two miles downstream from the bluffs where Eric had been discovered. She had been raped, beaten, then choked to death. There were no marks of strangulation.

Police arrested a 54-year-old man named Charles Hatcher, a drifter born in Mound City, about 35 miles north of St. Joseph. Hatcher turned out to be a serial killer with a history of sexual assaults and slayings across the nation that authorities came to believe totaled at least 16. A year later, while he was awaiting trial for the Steele murder, Hatcher told an FBI agent that he had killed Eric Christgen.


It seemed to bother him that someone was serving time in prison for nothing. “You are smart enough to know,” he said to the agent, “that these bastards in St. Joe will do anything for a confession, even if they have to frame someone to get it.” Hatcher also seemed anxious to show how he had tricked the system for three years. He boasted that he could strangle people with his hands in a way that did not show.

“I don’t leave marks,” he said.

Insco Was Stunned

The agent consulted a pathologist at a children’s research hospital in Kansas City. He satisfied himself that Hatcher could indeed have strangled Eric and Michelle without leaving any marks. Then he took Hatcher’s confession to the St. Joseph police and the prosecutor.

Mike Insco was stunned.

Hatcher’s confession matched the facts in Eric’s slaying much better than Melvin’s confession had. Weeks before Melvin confessed, the FBI had provided the police with a psychological profile of Eric’s killer, based on what was known about the death. That, too, seemed to fit Hatcher better. The description from witnesses who had seen an older man with Eric seemed to fit Hatcher much better, as well.

The FBI agent and Insco’s investigator took a photo of Melvin to one of the witnesses.

That’s not the man, he said.

Finally, Insco took Hatcher’s confession to the scene of the crime. Hatcher described the terrain and the position of the body perfectly.

Wanted to Plead Guilty

Hatcher said he wanted to plead guilty.

In prison at Jefferson City, Melvin began to hear rumblings that something was afoot.

By this time, a prisoner had sold him to an elderly inmate for a carton of cigarettes. It made him feel like a piece of meat. But his new owner, whose name was Lem, left him alone. And because he belonged to Lem, other inmates had begun to leave him alone.

Melvin still felt frightened enough to carry the jagged end of a broken broom handle under his jacket. He got caught with it once and was sent to the hole.


But otherwise things were improving. Lem had gotten him a job at the furniture factory, which paid well by prison standards, and Melvin had outfitted their cell with African art, a hanging lamp, a stereo, a new TV set, a coffee pot, a mirror, a gold carpet and 100 brown towels that he had fashioned into wall hangings, scalloped curtains and a dropped ceiling. He had opened a two-for-one barter store in a corner of the cell.

Took In Two Pets

And he had taken in two pets. One was a kitten he had found in the yard, which he named Brownie. The other was a garden snake. He called it Goofy.

Now some of the prisoners were telling him that they were hearing from their friends and families that, indeed, he had not killed Eric Christgen.

A letter arrived from his mother.

Wanda O’Meara told her son that she would be down to visit on Saturday--and that she had some news which would tickle him pink.

The pale yellow visiting room was packed.

Weekend visitors and the prisoners they had come to see occupied nearly every seat. Prison matrons in uniforms eyed everyone warily. Wanda waved. She was smiling. Melvin walked across the tile floor and sat down beside her on a brown leather sofa. On a chair behind them sat an inmate friend of his, who turned to say hello. Wanda interrupted.

Learned of Confession

Someone else, she said, had confessed to killing Eric Christgen. She paused. It was a man, she said, named Charles Hatcher.


Melvin stared.

His mother snapped her fingers in front of his eyes. “Wake up,” she said.

“Melvin!” the other prisoner said.


“What did your mom just say? Something about you coming home?”

“Yeah, I think that’s what she said.” He turned to his mother. “Is that what you said?”

“Yes,” Wanda O’Meara replied.

The next Thursday, on Oct. 13, 1978, nearly four years after Melvin had been convicted, Charles Hatcher appeared before Judge Frank Connett to enter his plea. “I did take the boy,” he said, “and I did kill him.”

Connett reviewed the evidence. He accepted the plea and sentenced Hatcher to life in prison without possibility of parole for 50 years--or until Hatcher was 104.

The next day, Melvin Lee Reynolds left the penitentiary. It was sunny, Indian summer. He inhaled. He remembers thinking:

“God, this air smells good.”

Last Dec. 3, Charles Hatcher received a second life sentence, this time for killing Michelle Steele. Four days later, he was found hanged in his cell at the Missouri penitentiary at Jefferson City--with an electrical cord. Some say he killed himself. Others speculate that Hatcher died at the hands of inmates.

Sgt. Robert Anderson tells people that he still thinks Melvin Reynolds killed Eric Christgen. It bothers him that Melvin is out of prison. Because of similar views, Police Chief Robert Hayes has been ordered by the St. Joseph city manager not to talk about Melvin Reynolds. But Hayes responds to questions with a wink and a nod that make it clear he too still thinks Melvin is a murderer.

Hayes got a note from Hatcher before he died contradicting his plea. Most other authorities, including Insco, consider it Hatcher’s last attempt to trick the system. But Hayes has not destroyed the tape recordings of Melvin’s confessions.


He keeps them in a safe in his office.