Murderer Details Crime to ABC News

Missing

Shortly after noon on the sunny Saturday morning of March 26, 1994, Melendi left field No. 1 at the Softball Country Club complex in Atlanta on a lunch break.

She was never seen or heard from again.

Friends found Melendi's Nissan 240SX in a Citgo gas station parking lot the next morning -- the keys in the ignition and the door unlocked -- and called police. They were stunned when police told them to drive it back to campus. They called Melendi's parents, who flew in from Miami.

Skeptical and with no evidence of foul play, police questioned Melendi's friends, suggesting she'd run off to Cancun, Mexico, on a whim.

"She'll turn up,'' Luis Melendi said one officer told him.

With the clock ticking and little law enforcement support, Melendi's friends and family mobilized quickly. A collection was taken up, and $10,000 materialized. Dozens of "missing" billboards -- many donated by local advertising companies -- popped up all over Atlanta. Thousands of posters were printed.

Luis Melendi reached out through friends to Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia and pro football and baseball player Bo Jackson. Both taped public service announcements seeking help in finding his daughter.

The family turned to Carter and then-Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who got the FBI involved. Still, 11 agonizing days passed before the first solid lead came in.

'Safe' But 'Lonely'

A phone call was placed to the Emory University Counseling Center. A man claimed to be holding Melendi hostage. He said she was safe but "felt lonely,'' according to news reports. He promised proof and hung up.

When police traced the call to a phone booth outside a Burger King near Rex, Ga., they found a blue topaz ring Melendi's godmother had given her. It was wrapped in a cloth bag that in turn was wrapped in masking tape.

The "missing" billboards came down. "Kidnapped" billboards replaced them.

The South Florida Congressional Delegation and Sens. Graham and Connie Mack of Florida wrote a letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and an FBI task force was formed to work in conjunction with DeKalb County authorities on the case.

A full-scale investigation was finally under way, but precious time had been lost. Key evidence was compromised in the crucial first few days after Melendi's disappearance. Hinton's eventual murder conviction would be the first in Georgia state history without a body.

When the law enforcement focus on Hinton sharpened after the ransom call, the nation took notice. The case was featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "America's Most Wanted" and other programs.

There was a search of Hinton's home that April and another in May. Then in September, Hinton allegedly set fire to his own home. He was jailed for arson and insurance fraud from 1996 to 2003 for setting the fire after police repeatedly searched it looking for evidence in the Melendi case.

No evidence of Melendi's remains surfaced during the searches. But what police did find turned their stomachs: women's sweaters -- none of them belonging to Hinton's wife at the time or Melendi -- plastic pants normally worn at crime scenes, wire ties, cleaning products, a sleeping bag.

Within a year, a federal grand jury was questioning Hinton's relatives. But there was not enough evidence for an arrest.

'He Was Obsessed With Her'

In retrospect, Hinton's role in the murder is achingly obvious.

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