REIDSVILLE, Ga., July 17, 2006 — -- In brutally specific detail, his pale hands trembling, a Georgia inmate admitted Monday for the first time that he kidnapped and raped a 19-year-old college student in 1994, then strangled her with a necktie as she lay handcuffed to a bedpost and burned her body in a bonfire in his backyard.
"I can't live like this no more," Colvin "Butch'' Hinton told a Georgia prosecutor and the detective who led the investigation into the murder of Shannon Melendi, at a jailhouse meeting at Georgia State Prison attended by ABC News' Law & Justice Unit.
"If I have to stay in a cell for 23 hours a day for the rest of my life, at least I can breathe,'' Hinton said. "She can't.''
"The prison that I am in is no comparison to the prison inside of me,'' Hinton, 45, said a few minutes later.
Luis Melendi, Shannon's father, who fought for more than a decade to see his daughter's killer charged, turned his ire on the police.
"He is a more professional criminal than the police are professional policemen,'' Melendi told ABC News. "He killed her and burned her body in the backyard? The police were out there and they could not find a trace of my daughter. I don't believe that. I'm sitting here, and I don't believe that."
Melendi, who has long criticized the police who investigated the case, had little to say about Hinton, who wasn't charged with the murder until 2004.
"He destroyed my family,'' Melendi said.
Hinton was the first defendant in Georgia history to be convicted of murder without a body or a crime scene. But it took law enforcement officials a decade to build a strong enough case.
Until Monday's jailhouse meeting, Hinton had steadfastly denied any involvement in the murder. When his final appeal was rejected last month by the Georgia Supreme Court, he said, he broke down and confessed to his father during a prison visit.
Hinton said he had planned to rape another woman that day, but she'd refused to meet with him. He said he met Melendi for the first time at a softball game where she was the scorekeeper and he was the home plate umpire.
He said he invited her to lunch and she agreed. They ate at a local Burger King. As they were driving in his car back to the softball field, Hinton said he faked a wrong turn, pulled onto a state highway and headed for his home in nearby Rex, Ga. Then, he said, he faked a leg cramp and asked Melendi to drive.
Hinton climbed into the backseat where he had a knife hidden under the floorboard. He held it to her and forced her to drive to his home.
"What are you doing?'' she asked him.
"Don't argue, just drive,'' he told her.
He said he tied Melendi up, convincing her that he simply wanted to steal her car, and that she'd be released unharmed as soon as he could sell it. Throughout the ordeal, he said, he would leave Melendi tied up and go downstairs to make phone calls -- to his wife, his relatives and friends -- in order to establish an alibi.
Hinton then went back to the softball field and drove Melendi's car to a gas station parking lot, where he left the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, hoping someone would steal the car and throw police off his trail.
He returned to his home, untied Melendi and raped her -- a process he would repeat that night, he said.
After the attack, Hinton handcuffed her, face down on the floor, to a bedpost.
"I was trying to ask her if she needed or wanted anything,'' he said, adding, "I am sitting there trying to think. ... 'I am already into this thing,'" he told himself.
"You want the radio on?'' he said he asked asked her.
"Yeah,'' she replied calmly.
Hinton said he recalls Melendi asked for 97.1 FM, a local rock station, and he left to see the movie "Mighty Ducks'' with his niece and nephew and the children's parents.
After the movie, he returned home around 10:30 p.m. to find Melendi where he'd left her. He said he was becoming increasingly frightened about what he'd done.
Hinton said Melendi was calm and cooperative throughout and never once lost control of her emotions, even during the attacks.
"She didn't ever try to scratch -- no hitting," he said. "I kept telling her, 'As soon as I get your car sold or rid of, I will let you go,' and she said 'All right.'''
"I raped her around 11, 11:30, then I started thinking ... what am I going to do?''
He went to bed.
"About two in the morning, I came out of my bedroom. ... I stood at my bedroom door. ... I saw she was laying there [on the guest room floor]. ... I stood there staring, thinking about how I was going to take her life,'' he said.
He said he noticed the tie rack in his bedroom. He grabbed one and walked into the guest room and stood there, staring down at Melendi.
"She didn't even know I was standing there,'' he said. Hinton said he believed she may have been asleep. "I came over on top of her real quick. ... I took the tie and put it around her neck. ... I think I crossed it, and I strangled her right there.''
"She stopped moving,'' he said. "It happened a lot quicker than I ever thought. ... When it happened that quick, I was so scared. I thought she was unconscious.''
Hinton said he can still remember "as clear as day'' how Melendi's body grew pale and began to stiffen.
He went downstairs. "For an hour and a half, I didn't do nothing but sit on my sofa and walk and pace."
He moved Melendi's body to a rollaway dumpster on the side of his house. Around 6 a.m., he said, he laid her body on a bed of logs and brush and set it on fire with some gas he had in the garage.
It began to rain, and Hinton said he feared the rain would extinguish the fire. He went to a local grocery store and bought more gasoline to fuel the fire.
About 7 a.m. Sunday morning, Hinton called his father and asked to borrow his bow saw. He told his father a tree limb had fallen on his car. His father offered to bring it over, but he said he'd go get it.
"I didn't want him to come and see what I was doing,'' Hinton said. By the time he returned, he said, the fire had completely incinerated Melendi's body.
He went inside, dressed and went to church.
About 2 p.m., his wife, Michelle, returned home. Terrified she would begin to question his activities over the weekend, he tried to divert her attention.
He took her to an Olive Garden for dinner and gave her one of the two rings he took from Melendi's fingers. He said he claimed to his wife that he had bought the ring from a friend who had recently separated from his fiancée.
"I'm sorry it came off another lady,'' he told his wife. "Don't think of it like that.''
Privately on Monday, Hinton told authorities where he eventually disposed of the second ring.
Increasingly terrified that police were "on their way to my house any minute,'' Hinton got out of bed at 11 p.m. Sunday night, dressed and cleaned the ashes from the fire. His wife unwittingly held the bag as he poured the ashes in. He had told her he needed to clean up the yard before a landscaper came over the next day to give him an estimate. He left his house late Sunday night and dumped the bag of ashes in a ditch near some railroad tracks in Rex.
Hinton went on to detail his growing paranoia as police and the FBI targeted him as a prime suspect, how he came to believe he had "gotten away with it,'' even as he was convicted of arson and insurance fraud for setting fire to his home in 1995 and filing an insurance claim. Hinton insisted yesterday that the fire -- for which he was sent to prison until 2003 -- was an accident.
"I'm coming clean on this here sin,'' Hinton told DeKalb County Detective Raymond Ice. "I did not burn down my house.''
Calling himself a "coward,'' Hinton claimed he finally confessed to his father in a jail visit last month.
Last week, his attorney, B.J. Bernstein, called DeKalb County authorities and requested a meeting with Hinton, indicating he had something to tell them. ABC News' Law & Justice Unit was invited to witness the meeting.
DeKalb County Deputy Chief Assistant Attorney Don Geary said that no deals were offered to Hinton in order to obtain a confession.
Melendi's disappearance unnerved Atlanta and tore through her hometown Miami community. One writer compared her to Persephone, the mythic Greek maiden who was picking flowers one day when the earth opened up and swallowed her into Hades' underworld. Only Zeus and the all-seeing Sun noticed.
Melendi seemed poised on the brink of a promising life. President of her junior and senior classes at Southwest High School, she was captain of her debate team for three years, arguing cases at the Dade County Mock Trials Competition. She graduated cum laude in the National Honor Society.
Her life's plans were as complete as they were specific. She turned down Georgetown in favor of Atlanta's Emory University, which promised her $15,000 annually for all four years of school, and majored in Spanish and political science.
Melendi would graduate, she'd tell her family, attend law school and then join the Navy. From there, she was aiming for a life in Washington politics and eventually a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
She'd fallen for the Capitol on a senior class trip where she had addressed Congress as a student representative. She'd spoken before a body of student delegates at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and in college she'd worked for the Carter Foundation -- the first freshman to win a paid internship to former President Jimmy Carter's nonprofit organization.
At a street-naming ceremony for Melendi in Miami, her debate coach, Angel Menendez, called her plans "dreams ... based on a lifetime of preparation."
The softball job was just a moneymaker.
She'd learned to aim high at home. Her father, Luis, fled communist Cuba in 1961 with his parents. He met her mother, Yvonne, in 1970, and the couple married and bore two children, Shannon and her sister Monique, who turned 14 the month her sister vanished.
Luis Melendi became an award-winning photographer and opened his own portrait studio, rising with his success into the upper strata of Miami's Cuban community.
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.
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.
In retrospect, Hinton's role in the murder is achingly obvious.
The day before her disappearance, Hinton told his boss at the softball complex that he'd need to leave early on Saturday. Family problems. Police learned only later that it was a lie.
Hinton's interest in Melendi was apparent to others. One of the pitchers at the softball game later testified at Hinton's trial that the umpire "wouldn't pay attention to me while I was pitching.''
"I would throw a pitch, and then midstride he would turn around and look at the scorekeeper behind the fence,'' Jerry Chastain testified, according to court transcripts.
"It was like he was obsessed with her," Chastain said. "He went to her between innings. He went to her while I was pitching. He was interested in her more than he was the ballgame."
According to Bernstein, Hinton's attorney, his criminal record extends back several decades. He was charged in Kentucky in 1977 with criminal attempt to commit rape after he and his brother attempted to kidnap their boss' wife. The case was handled in juvenile court, and he received counseling.
Then in Illinois in 1982, he pleaded "guilty but mentally ill" to charges of unlawful restraint and indecent liberties with a child for kidnapping Tammy Singleton, a 14-year-old who was dating his brother.
Bernstein said that after convincing the girl to meet him at a cemetery with a ruse about lottery winnings, Hinton abducted her, put her in his car and tied her up in his basement before attempting to sexually assault her. She was freed when Hinton's first wife walked in and heard her screams, and they took her to their pastor. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Hinton served two years in prison for assault. And there were other alleged assaults on women.
Mistakes were made in the handling of the Melendi case, it was revealed in court. Police hadn't swept Melendi's car for fingerprints -- they'd asked her roommate to drive it back to campus instead.
The March 26 security camera videotapes from the Citgo station had been erased by the time authorities got to them. After initially claiming she'd seen Melendi that day, the store clerk changed her story and then changed it again.
When an FBI agent unraveled the ring from the masking-taped bag, he didn't wear gloves, he acknowledged in court.
And there was bad luck. No recording devices were available at the counseling center to record the caller's voice. Had there been, police could have quickly arrested Hinton.
But there was evidence that implicated Hinton. Melendi's topaz ring was discovered near Rex, Ga., where Hinton lived, near a Waffle House he was seen in regularly.
The cloth bag authorities found the ring in was unique to Delta Airlines, where he worked in the machine shop. Metals particles found on the masking tape were unique to the industry. The type of tape matched nine rolls found at Hinton's home.
Prosecutors continued to pursue the Hinton leads while he sat in prison for arson and insurance fraud and after his release in 2003. In 2004, using electron microscopes, they located microscopic specks of metal and matched them to Hinton's Delta Airlines workplace.
Prosecutors located five jailhouse informants who testified in 2005 -- more than a decade after Melendi's disappearance -- that Hinton had repeatedly implicated himself in her murder.
A jury convicted Hinton of the murder of Shannon Melendi in September 2005. He was sentenced to life in prison. Without a body or a crime scene, prosecutors were reluctant to seek the death penalty.
Hinton, 45, will be eligible for parole in 2019, when he is 58. He appealed the conviction all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, where it was rejected last month.
Geary, the prosecutor, said he was gratified to see that "without a body, without a murder scene, the case put together was so factually accurate.''
He added, "It's a testament to the hard work, diligence and professionalism of Georgia law enforcement and the FBI."