Melissa Was a Prostitute on Craigslist. And Then She Was Gone.

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July 9 2013 5:42 AM

First Lost, Then Murdered

Melissa moved to New York to cut hair. Then she became a prostitute. Then she was gone.

(Continued from Page 2)

Without Blaze knowing about it, Melissa switched almost entirely to Craigslist. She wasn’t the only one. Kritzia had another friend, Fabulous, who did it, too. In the few years since the website had caught on, Craigslist had done more to delegitimize the age-old system of pimps and escorts than a platoon of police officers could. Why sign on with a pimp when it was so easy to take a picture and let a guy call you—way easier than walking the streets and looking for a guy and then trying to convince him and then waiting forever at the ATM while he tried to sober up enough to remember his PIN. With Craigslist, johns came to you, and you didn’t have to share the money with anybody.

Melissa asked Kritzia to join her. Kritzia refused. She was scared. The streets weren’t easy, but you could see a guy first. You couldn’t get to know him well, but at least you could make a snap judgment, look in his eyes, check out his clothes, see his cash, and assess his body language. As far as Kritzia was concerned, with Craigslist, you were completely in the dark. Every time you met a client was another roll of the dice, with only a few seconds on the phone to suggest if the person was for real—not a cop, not a crook, not a psycho.

As Chloe, Melissa advertised outcalls only: She’d only go out to a john’s place. She charged $100 for 15 minutes, $150 for a half-hour, $250 for an hour, and $1,000 for overnight. She was openly breaking her arrangement with Blaze. She made enough money to come home to Buffalo at Christmastime in 2008 and take Amanda and Lynn to a spa for massages. “You deserve to be pampered,” she said. On Christmas morning, Amanda and all the cousins each unwrapped an iPod Touch.

There were consequences. A few weeks after she returned, Melissa got jumped by a group of women with one man nearby. A witness heard the man say something like: “This is what you get for disrespecting me.” He later identified that man as John Terry—Blaze—from a photo the police showed him.

***

On the last night of the Christmas visit, Jeff and Lynn got Melissa so drunk that she got down on the floor and started playing with Emily, his dog, barking at the top of her lungs. They’d been out at Neighbor’s pub on Cleveland Drive, just down the street from Jeff’s parents’ place, and Melissa had been putting away 7 and 7’s. When they came back, she had some beers. Now it was 2 a.m. Jeff tried to shush her, but she wouldn’t stop: “Come here, Emily! Woof! Woof! Woof!”

That night at Neighbor’s, Jeff had tried, as usual, to introduce the idea of Melissa coming back to Buffalo. There seemed to be a little more urgency in Jeff’s view: Melissa wasn’t acting like herself. Something was bothering her. She just was not happy. After the barking fit ended, she lay down on the couch, resting her head against Jeff, and he tried again.

“Come home,” he said. His sister-in-law ran a cosmetology school. He could get her a job there.

“Not yet,” Melissa said. “I’m almost ready, though.”

***

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On July 11, 2009, Melissa sent a late-night text message to Amanda to firm things up for another visit to New York. The next day, the security camera of her local bank recorded Melissa depositing $1,000 into her account—the proceeds, it is believed, from a date she’d had earlier that night. She withdrew $100 before heading out the door.

Melissa was seen alive that afternoon, July 12, sitting on the curb outside her building on Underhill Avenue in the Bronx. Her phone records show a call to Blaze that evening, under a minute long. It might have gone to voice mail. Blaze would later say that he knew Melissa had lined up another $1,000 date the next night, somewhere on Long Island. He even said he knew the place and knew of the john. But he said that Melissa was working on her own; he’d offered her a ride that she’d declined.

The next day, when Melissa stopped returning all calls and texts, Lynn and Jeff called off Amanda’s trip and began phoning local hospitals. They tried to file a missing-person report. But for three days, the police deflected them. They said Melissa was 24 years old with no history of mental illness and no psychiatric prescriptions; just because her family couldn’t find her didn’t necessarily mean she was missing. Only 10 days later would the police start to investigate. Only then would they subpoena Melissa’s phone records, canvass the neighborhood, and pull a DNA sample from her toothbrush. That was when they learned that her phone records showed access to her voice mail on the night of her disappearance and that the calls were traced to a cell tower in Massapequa, Long Island. Only after that—nearly two weeks after she went missing—would the police visit two nearby motels, Budget Inn and Best Western, to speak to the staff and review security tapes, and find nothing.

It would be 18 months until, in December 2010, Melissa Barthelemy’s body would be the first of four uncovered close by one another in the sand dunes of Gilgo Beach, Long Island, wrapped in burlap. The Long Island serial killer case remains unsolved even now, and six more sets of remains have been discovered and still await identification. The first four bodies were identified as women in their 20s — just like another woman, Shannan Gilbert, who had mysteriously disappeared three miles from where the four were found. Like Melissa, Shannan Gilbert, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello all took part in a modern age of prostitution in which clients are lured with the simple tap of a computer keyboard. The method is easier than street walking, seductively so, almost like an ATM—post an ad, and the phone rings seconds later—but the dangers are less transparent.

Each of the dead women made the decision to have sex for money for intensely personal reasons: acceptance, adventure, success, love, power. They kept working, often, for reasons even they didn’t comprehend. And they traveled in worlds that many of their loved ones could not imagine. Marginalized worlds the authorities would just as soon overlook.

In fact, in those early days in 2009, long before the bodies were discovered, the police in Buffalo might not have been stirred into action at all if, on the fourth day of Melissa’s disappearance—July 16—Amanda’s cell hadn’t rung in Buffalo. When she saw her sister’s number on the caller ID, Amanda rejoiced. “Melissa?”

Instead of her sister’s voice, she heard another: controlled, comfortable, soft-spoken. Male.

“Oh, this isn’t Melissa.”

Robert Kolker is a New York magazine contributing editor and the author of the new book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, from which this piece is excerpted.

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