A younger Christina, not fairly three years previous, sat within the backseat of the automobile watching her mother sing as she drove alongside the Atlanta streets within the early 1990s.
It’s the one reminiscence she has of her mother.
Christina Garrett and her brother Joey have been solely toddlers when their mother, Melissa Wolfenbarger, was found brutally murdered after she had been lacking for months. According to the Atlanta Police Department, the 21-year-old mother was found decapitated, dismembered and stuffed into black trash luggage within the spring of 1999, not removed from their dwelling in Atlanta, Georgia.
But it could be years earlier than the stays have been recognized. And even now, 22 years later, Melissa’s homicide stays a thriller.
Her daughter Christina, now across the identical age her mother was when she was murdered, has joined her grandmother and aunt of their decades-long search for solutions about Melissa’s brutal homicide and the household’s vow to get justice.
Melissa Patton Wolfenbarger grew up exterior of Atlanta, Georgia together with her mother and father and her sister, Tina Patton. In highschool, she met and fell in love with Christopher Wolfenbarger. They later married, had two kids, Christina and Joseph, and moved to a duplex in Atlanta.
Melissa’s household instructed Dateline they’d their considerations about their daughter, who they described as being candy however too trusting and sometimes naïve about life.
Her sister, Tina Patton, who was seven years older, instructed Dateline that whereas they weren’t extraordinarily shut as they have been busy elevating their very own households, she all the time felt very protecting of her child sister.
“She knew she could call me anytime she needed me,” Tina mentioned. “I wanted to be able to protect her. I wish she had called me, but that call never came.”
Tina mentioned the final time their household spoke to Melissa was on Thanksgiving Day in 1998. She had a really particular request for a Christmas reward: She requested her mother, Norma Patton, for a photograph of herself together with her grandfather.
“It’s what she wanted for Christmas that year,” Norma instructed Dateline. “It was something very sentimental.”
But when Christmas arrived, there was no phrase from Melissa and he or she didn’t proven as much as rejoice the vacations. Concerned, members of her household tried to succeed in her, however have been unsuccessful.
After the vacations, Melissa’s mother and father determined to drive to Atlanta from their dwelling in Locust Grove, Georgia, and verify on her in particular person. Her mother Norma instructed Dateline that once they arrived, the duplex on Brookline Avenue had been utterly cleaned out and a neighbor knowledgeable them that all the things had been moved out throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
Melissa’s household grew to become much more involved when Norma’s birthday got here and went on February 24 and nonetheless no phrase from Melissa.
“There was no call, no card, no visit, nothing,” Norma mentioned. “That just wasn’t her. She was my baby girl. So I knew something was wrong.”
Sergeant Raymond Layton with the Atlanta Police Department has been on Melissa’s case for years. He instructed Dateline that Melissa’s husband, Christopher Wolfenbarger, by no means reported her lacking. Instead it was her mother, Norma, who filed the lacking individuals report in January 2000, after hitting a number of roadblocks.
When Christopher Wolfenbarger was questioned by police, he instructed them Melissa had left on her personal. He then refused to cooperate with the investigation, Sgt. Layton instructed Dateline. The sergeant added that Wolfenbarger has an in depth legal historical past with a historical past of household violence and that witnesses said throughout the investigation that he had been abusive to Melissa.
Dateline spoke to Christopher Wolfenbarger, who insists he had nothing to do with Melissa’s dying and desires nothing greater than to assist with the investigation.
“Yeah, I have a criminal history,” Wolfenbarger instructed Dateline. “But I’m not a murderer.”
He mentioned Melissa’s disappearance on the finish of 1998 wasn’t something out of the unusual.
“We’re not talking about one day she was there and the next she was not,” Wolfenbarger mentioned. “I just figured she’d come back when she was able to.”
He defined that Melissa took on a number of shifts on the Waffle House to make more money and would keep at a resort as an alternative of commuting dwelling. Wolfenbarger added that she additionally had been creating pretend IDs and social safety playing cards with the aim of their household shifting away and beginning a brand new life in California.
“I’m not denying I have criminal history,” he mentioned. “We were, you know, like Bonnie and Clyde, just small-time criminals, but we didn’t do anything bad, bad. We were just trying to build a better life… in California. California was the dream.”
And when Melissa by no means returned dwelling, he instructed Dateline he figured she modified her identification and went on to reside her dream with out him.
“That’s the reason I didn’t report her missing,” he mentioned. “She wanted to get away from her parents and from this place. So she had to become someone else. I just thought she’d come back when things settled down.”
Chris and Melissa’s daughter, Christina, instructed Dateline the story her mother simply leaving on her personal is one she heard for years. After her mother disappeared, Christina’s subsequent reminiscence was of dwelling together with her grandmother on her father’s facet, in Locust Grove, Georgia. She added that her father was gone for a very long time and when he returned, she didn’t even know who he was.
“I called him Chris because that’s what everyone called him,” Christina mentioned. “I didn’t realize he was our father. I still don’t really think of him as my father.”
Years later, when Christopher Wolfenbarger re-emerged in his kids’s lives, he instructed them their mother left their household and that he didn’t know the place she was.
“I didn’t know her, but she’s my mom and I know she would’ve never walked out without us,” Christina mentioned. “I’m a mom now and I can’t imagine doing that to my child.”
Back in 1999, Melissa had been lacking 5 months when, on April 29, 1999, authorities with the Atlanta Police found a severed human head in a black trash bag, on Avon Avenue close to Hartford Avenue, in line with Sgt. Layton. The grisly discovery was made in shut proximity to the glass firm the place her husband Christopher Wolfenbarger labored, and from which he was fired after the suspected theft of a reciprocal noticed, Sgt. Layton mentioned.
When Dateline spoke to Christopher Wolfenbarger, he mentioned the suspected theft was a misunderstanding and that he by no means stole something from the corporate. He added that after he was fired, he moved out of the duplex and in along with his uncle, whereas his children went to reside along with his mother.
On June 3, 1999, extra dismembered human stays have been found in black trash luggage in a wooded space between Hartford Place and Avon Avenue. Sergeant Layton instructed Dateline the stays found have been legs, arms and ft, however a torso was by no means found.
“I think it demonstrates that the murder was well planned,” Sgt. Layton mentioned. “ And that the killer had the equipment to dismember and transport her remains.”
At the time, the stays have been unidentified. Melissa Wolfenbarger was nonetheless lacking.
But her mother Norma mentioned she knew it was solely a matter of time earlier than the stays could be recognized as her daughter. So she continued to observe the information every single day for 4 years.
“The fact that my baby girl was cut up just shows it was done by someone evil,” she mentioned. “No normal person is going to cut up a human body.”
It would take years earlier than the stays found on Avon Avenue could be recognized as Melissa.
In 2003, Melissa and Tina’s father, Carl Millard Patton Jr., was arrested and later convicted for the 1977 murders of Fred Wyatt, Liddie Matthews Evans, and Evans’ boyfriend, Joe Cleveland. The case, often known as the “Flint River murders,” gained nationwide media consideration and introduced higher consideration to Melissa’s case.
The household instructed Dateline it was Carl Patton Jr.’s case and the testing of DNA that finally led investigators to verify the stays found in 1999 belonged to Melissa. Norma, who testified in opposition to her husband in 2003, mentioned his arrest was what made it attainable for somebody to concentrate to Melissa’s case.
Norma remains to be married to Melissa’s father, who was questioned however shortly cleared in connection to Melissa’s dying. Melissa’s sister Tina instructed Dateline she nonetheless talks to their father at his present residence in a Georgia jail the place he usually talks about bringing his daughter’s assassin to justice.
Tina added that from the start, there was little doubt of their thoughts who killed Melissa. And it was by no means their father.
“There’s no doubt in my mind who did this to my sister,” Tina mentioned. “And it’s been more than 20 years and he’s still walking free.”
Sergeant Layton instructed Dateline that Melissa’s husband Christopher is taken into account an individual of curiosity within the case. An post-mortem decided that Melissa’s neck had been severed with a noticed, in line with Sgt. Layton. He added that proof was collected from her dwelling on Brookline Avenue, however didn’t match different hint proof collected from the scene and no arrests have been made.
Christopher Wolfenbarger instructed Dateline he has all the time cooperated with the investigation and submitted his DNA years in the past when requested by the detectives on the time.
“I’ve got nothing to hide,” Wolfenbarger mentioned. “I had absolutely no reason to kill her. There was no insurance money. We didn’t have any assets. There was no reason in the world for me to hurt her like that.”
As for the stays being found in such shut proximity to his job, Wolfenbarger instructed Dateline the attainable connection to him is absurd.
“Who in their right mind kills somebody and dumps the body at their job – it just doesn’t make sense.”
He added that nobody has contacted him lately, however instructed Dateline he’s keen to do something and communicate to anybody to assist remedy Melissa’s case.
“It damn near destroyed me,” Wolfenbarger, describing what it was like when he found out Melissa was useless. “At the time I really believed she had changed her name and left for a better life. And that she’d come back eventually. Sometimes I thought I’d see a glimpse of her here and there. But it was never her.”
After years of what she says was being stored at midnight, Christina started asking questions on her mother’s dying.
Christopher Wolfenbarger admits he all the time stored his emotions bottled up and had a tough time speaking about Melissa with their two kids, Christina and Joey.
Christina, who lived together with her father for a short while whereas in her late teenagers, grew pissed off. “I’d ask my dad and he would tell me a different story every time – or he would get mad,” mentioned Christina “It just didn’t make any sense so I started investigating on my own.”
To do this, Christina felt she wanted to attach together with her long-lost relations on her mother’s facet to get some solutions.
While she was scrolling via Facebook as a teen, Christina’s mother’s title popped up as a “someone you may know” alert. It turned out to be a Facebook profile Melissa’s household had created as a solution to share details about her case. It wasn’t lengthy earlier than she reached out to Melissa’s relations.
Christina was 18 years previous when she bought in touch together with her mother’s household and was capable of reunite together with her Aunt Tina and Melissa’s mother, who she lovingly calls “Gran.”
“I had so many questions,” she instructed Dateline. “And my own theories about what happened. Turns out, theirs were the same as mine.”
From the second they reunited, Christina mentioned she felt an instantaneous bond to her Gran and her aunt. They’ve been inseparable ever since as they work collectively to get justice for Melissa.
“It’s just another piece of the puzzle,” Christina mentioned. “And it’s another step closer to solving my mom’s case.”
Melissa’s case continues to be labored by the Atlanta Police Cold Case Homicide Unit together with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office Cold Case Unit.
Assistant District Attorney Adriane Love instructed Dateline they’re hoping that with developments made in DNA know-how, they may have the ability to check small surfaces in proof for DNA with the aim of shifting the investigation in the precise path and eventually fixing the case.
“We want to solve this case,” she mentioned. “We want answers for the family and justice for Melissa.”
Both Assistant DA Love and Sgt. Layton instructed Dateline they imagine there are individuals who have info that would transfer this case ahead and urge them to name police.
“It’s been 23 years… it’s time,” Melissa’s mother Norma instructed Dateline. “People talk about closure, but I’m not sure I’ll ever have that. We still have so many questions… and no answers.”
Two decades have handed since Melissa’s homicide, however her household isn’t giving up. As their crew of supporters continues to develop, in addition to curiosity within the case, they inform Dateline they really feel new hope there’ll quickly be justice.
The case was featured on the 2020 CrimeCon “House Arrest” by CSI Atlanta, a crew made up of crime scene investigator Sheryl McCollum, CBS 46 anchor, Karyn Greer and Sgt. Raymond Layton.
“Her family alone have kept her case alive but now they have a team,” Sheryl McCollum instructed Dateline. “An extraordinary team of remarkable people. To me, there is only one suspect and I want him to know we are coming for him.”
In an effort to deliver extra consideration to the case, Sheryl McCollum and her non-profit group, the Atlanta Cold Case Research Investigative Institute (CCRI), is providing “cold case wines.” Melissa’s picture was featured on the primary bottle of wine to be launched, which is able to assist elevate cash to assist remedy unsolved crime instances.
Christina instructed Dateline that for years she felt a component of her was lacking, however reuniting together with her mother’s household has stuffed some of that void. She hopes she has accomplished the identical for them.
When her son was born a couple of years in the past, it was Melissa’s mother “Gran” who was there to chop the twine. And she’s the one he runs to once they present up on her doorstep for a go to.
“Nothing will ever bring my mom back, nothing will bring Gran’s daughter back – but it’s like a second chance for her,” Christina mentioned. “It’s a second chance for our family.”
Anyone with details about Melissa’s case is urged to name the Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477.