Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Shortly after starting this journey in 2015, I asked the then current detective on Melissa Witt's case (there have been over a dozen detectives assigned to this case over the years) and the original lead detective, Jay C. Rider, to take my team out to Franklin County to the site where Melissa Witt's body was discovered on January 13, 1995.
I was in no way prepared for the impact this decision would have on my life.
I remember every minute of that day vividly. There was a chill in the air as we left Northwest Arkansas. My team was excited and looking forward to the filming schedule we had planned in the Ozark National Forest that afternoon.
We met the detectives at the Fort Smith Police Department. Once we arrived, it was suggested that our team follow the detectives in our own car to the "dump site".
The words "dump site" made me cringe and it caused my stomach to lurch. I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of dread.
As we began to make our way to Franklin County, I closed my eyes and those words replayed over and over in my head. I slowly opened the folder that was perched precariously in my lap. I shuffled through the contents until I found what I was looking for: the fresh-faced smiling photos of Melissa Witt. As I clutched Melissa's photo, I asked the rest of the team if they felt overwhelmed by the task ahead.
I only partially heard their answers as the words "dump site" played over and over in my head.
"Yes. This drive is impossibly long," someone remarked.
"I don't see how he could have possibly kept Melissa subdued for this entire car ride," someone else said.
I vaguely remember half way nodding my head in agreement with both their statements
"Dump site." Those words just kept playing over and over. The term "dump site" was just too much for me to process. What a horrific and tragic end to such a beautiful life.
We sat in silence for the next half hour. There were no words worth exchanging. The mood had shifted drastically. The realization of what Melissa must have felt and endured in that car ride to Ozark hung heavy in the air.
Despite the shining sun and our armed escorts, once we turned onto that remote logging road, I distinctly remember feeling panic. Can you imagine what Melissa Witt must have felt? After an hour long drive under the cover of night, one could only feel sheer terror and helplessness.
"He never planned to let her go," I said.
I turned to Josh, our driver, and said flatly, "He chose this spot to kill her."
He turned off the ignition and we slowly stepped out of the car. One detective looked at me squarely in the eyes and immediately said, "Nobody would be able to hear you scream out here."
I took a deep breath. I knew he was right. There was nothing on this remote logging road except for dense trees, brush and rough terrain.
"Nobody to hear you scream."
Melissa's smiling photos.
"He brought her here to kill her."
I wanted to run, but like Melissa on that cold December night, I had nowhere to go. I was trapped.
As the camera crew began to unpack their gear, Jay C. Rider motioned for me to follow him. My steps felt heavy. He pointed to a large rock that loomed ahead on a small incline.
"Is that it?" I asked.
I walked ahead. Alone. I remember watching my steps. My thoughts were tainted with horror and despair. I remember being surprised at how rough the terrain was... how the rock was on enough of an incline that it would have caused someone to struggle to reach it in the dark... how this exact location was no accident... how Melissa's killer had been here before.... this location meant something to him.
My jumbled thoughts halted as soon as I realized that I was standing right in front of that rock - the very place where 19-year-old Melissa Witt faced down the monster that killed her.
I stood silently trying to contain the sobs that I feared would overtake me. At some point, I could sense that the detectives were standing next to me. Once I acknowledged their presence, they began to take turns somberly explaining details of the crime scene.
One detective mentioned the autopsy findings -- how those findings had revealed that Melissa Witt had been strangled at that exact location.
"Are you are sure?" I asked.
"We're sure," he said, as he pointed to the place where Melissa Witt's life was stolen.
I had to look away... but I could not walk away.
My life was forever changed that afternoon.
As I stood on uneven ground, in the very spot where Melissa Witt fought for her life, I began my own fight: A fight for justice.