It is Halloween season in New England, and the quiet streets of Woburn, Mass., are decorated with the ghosts and goblins that are the stuff of children's nightmares.
But this year also marks the 20th anniversary of a macabre local mystery that is terrifyingly real: the sudden disappearance of Melanie Melanson. Melanie was last seen at a high school party in the woods on the outskirts of town.
Det. Mike Pandolph has been on the case since the very beginning. "Melanie walked down the path to meet her girlfriends and other kids that were several years older than her, and that was the last time that she was seen," he told ABC News. "That was 20 years ago."
Melanie Melanson, 14 at the time, was the youngest of a dozen kids gathered in the woods that October night, most of them older teens who had been there many times before.
"Kids would gather, kids would hang out, and um, and drink," said Pandolph.
Melanie, just a freshman, was very flattered to have been included in the gathering. It was just days before her 15th birthday, and the young, pretty girl had much to look forward to, said prosecutor Marian Ryan.
"Her birthday was coming. She was getting her braces off. All kinds of things that were very exciting," said Ryan.
But the police and her family believe Melanie never saw her 15th birthday, and never came out of the woods that night. One of Melanie's aunts, Ruth Townsend, is still waiting for answers.
"It's too many years, too many years," said Townsend. "It's heartbreaking ... to feel that she is out there. We know she is out there ... 20 years is just too long -- way too long."
Life hadn't always been easy for Melanie. Her parents were both substance abusers who fought constantly. Melanie had even run away from home once before, going to live with her aunt Mary Ann and her grandmother in Woburn.
"Melanie had a challenging upbringing, but it wasn't without people who loved her," said Woburn District Attorney Gerry Leone. "She had cousins, aunts, and it was a very nice upbringing, despite her own biological parents having problems."
Renewed Push to Find Melanie
This spring, authorities announced a renewed push on the case and offered a $5,000 reward for information to solve it.
On the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 27, 1989, Melanie and her friend Carmen Gonzalez left high school after class and walked home for the last time. That night, Melanie told her grandmother she was going to sleep over with a friend who lived next door. What Melanie didn't say was that she'd been invited to join a late-night gathering in the woods next to an industrial park.
Other kids at the party would later tell police that the party slowly dwindled down in the early hours of Saturday morning, and everyone drifted home.
But when dawn broke, Melanie was nowhere to be found. Her grandmother became very worried. By mid afternoon, Melanie's family had learned about the party, and made a series of frantic phone calls to almost everyone who had been there. The family called the Woburn Police Department and reported her missing.
Leone said the police set out on a massive manhunt for Melanie with cadaver dogs and helicopters, but the searches all came up empty. Melanie's family was devastated.
"You know, it's the most difficult thing in the world," said MaryAnn Masciulli, another of Melanie's aunts. "Trying to find her, knowing that when you find her, it's not going to be a good thing. It's heartbreaking. It's hard to describe."
Police eventually zeroed in on the people they believe were last seen with Melanie on the night she disappeared. They say everyone at the party agreed that she was the last girl left at the party. "It went to five boys and Melanie, and two boys and Melanie," said Leone.
Authorities at the time interrogated the two boys in question, but they were never charged. They continue to live in the area.
'A Secret Like That for 20 Years'
Leone believes there was foul play involved. "We have reason to believe that more than one person over the years has not only concealed Melanie's body, but may also be involved in further concealing it or even moving it," he said.
Over the years, there have also been rumors that Melanie was seen that night walking in a parking lot, through the darkened neighborhood, and down a street toward the next town.
The Melanson family has never given up, and neither have the police. Pandolph has chased leads and returned to the scene of the crime many times over the years. After the reward was announced, finally, just weeks ago, investigators returned to the woods acting, they said, on information they had just received.
Gonzalez has heard about the possibility of new information.
"They're looking for her body, you know, watching it, watching it on the news, it gives me goose bumps 'cause I'm like, they're looking for my friend's body," Gonzalez said.
Lawson said the family is hoping police do find a body. "For now we just want to bring her home," she said.
Everyone touched by Melanie's disappearance says an end to their torment cannot come quickly enough. On Nov. 1, Melanie would have turned 35 years old.