Jan. 31, 2012 -- Tracy Melton's family is still in shock days after learning that the remains of the California woman who went missing 14 years ago were discovered and identified last spring in a case that "fell through the cracks."
Melton was last seen May 6, 1998, in Stockton, Calif. She was 32. Evidence pointed to "Speed Freak Killers" Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog as suspects. Melton disappeared a few months before the disappearance of Cyndi Vanderheiden, who was killed by the duo, and investigators have never ruled out the pair in Melton's case.
Parolee Herzog was found dead by parole agents a few weeks ago in an apparent suicide, and Shermantine is still on death row for several murders committed throughout the '80s and '90s, including Vanderheiden's.
Melton's daughter, Bobbie Carter, who was 8 when her mother vanished, said the case has been difficult for her and brother Darren. "All they said was that my mom's case fell through the cracks, they didn't tell us anything else, no explanation," she said.
A road-side crew found human remains near a Stockton highway in 2003. A bone was given to the California Department of Justice for analysis. It wasn't identified as a positive match until April of last year as belonging to Melton. And detectives didn't call the victim's sister, Sharon Melton, to notify the family until last Tuesday.
Sheriff Steve Moore of the San Joaquin County Sherriff's Office has accepted full responsibility for the failure to properly notify Melton's survivors last year when police had confirmation that the partial remains belonged to her.
"There are no excuses forth coming, only the pledge that we will do whatever we can in support of the Melton family in this case," Moore said at a Monday afternoon news conference. "An internal review is being conducted and new procedures are being developed to make sure this very unfortunate incident does not occur in the future."
Carter, now 20, said she and her family don't believe detectives' phone call to notify the family about Melton's remains was coincidental. Her aunt, Sharon Melton, has long suspected that her sister was murdered by serial killers Shermantine and Herzog. Melton reached out to famous bounty hunter Leonard Padilla about two weeks ago. He has been active in the case and has worked closely with retired FBI agent and investigator Jeff Rinek.
Rinek conducted an interview with Shermantine regarding locations of victim's remains, police said. After learning about the interview, Padilla phoned Herzog at his trailer by the High Desert Prison to inform him Shermantine was speaking out. Herzog committed suicide shortly after that phone conversation.
Melton's family says Padilla suspected Herzog's suicide was the result of Shermantine's willingness to share information with investigators, including a location of multiple victims' remains. Melton called Padilla and asked for his help, hoping her sister's remains would be excavated if Shermantine's information were true.
She also called detectives on the case and spoke with them, she said. They told her she'd be informed of when the search would be conducted, she said. Almost a week after that conversation, she added, she received the phone call about her sister's partial remains being identified last April.
"They should've let us know so that we can come to peace with what happened," Carter said. "If it wasn't for my aunt reaching out to them and bringing my mom to their attention, we probably wouldn't have known."
The San Joaquin Sheriff's Office will also resurvey the scene where Melton's partial remains were discovered for any further evidence, police said Monday.
After unsuccessful searches of places Shermantine has identified to officials as potential burial sites, the San Joaquin Sherriff's office, along with other law enforcement agencies, had previously considered taking Shermantine to the locations so he could personally identify them. But Moore nixed the idea in fear that Shermantine might attempt to escape.
In the meantime, Carter said she and her family are bitter about the way authorities have handled the homicide investigation.
"I don't know what else to say," Carter said. "I want an apology for everything we've been through, for them not notifying my family after they positively identified her and I want to make sure this doesn't ever happen again."