Produced by Marcie Spencer and Ira Sutow
This story originally aired on Jan. 21, 2006.
Shannon Melendi was a 19-year-old college sophomore at Emory University when she disappeared without a trace on March 26, 1994. Shannon's parents immediately told police their daughter had been kidnapped but authorities dismissed that theory until a mysterious phone call and a clue would take this investigation to a whole new level.
Correspondent Troy Roberts reports.
It was just a week before Easter, and nearly everyone in Atlanta had heard the news that Shannon Melendi had vanished without a trace.
Authorities eventually launched an extensive and frantic search throughout the city, combing the ball park where Shannon was last seen, the backwoods and the rivers, but found nothing. The young woman had disappeared without a trace.
Shannon grew up in Miami with her parents Luis and Yvonne and her kid sister Monique. Shannon loved the outdoors, especially water skiing in the Florida Keys.
"We were an extremely happy family. We had two beautiful children and we loved it," remembers Shannon's mother, Yvonne Melendi. "We were happy. We went places, we shared things. We lived the American dream."
It was a dream especially sweet for Shannon's father, Luis Melendi, a Cuban immigrant who is an award-winning professional photographer and owns a successful portrait studio.
The Melendis, who had become high profile in the Miami social scene, say they knew their daughter was born to be a leader. She was class president, captain of the debate team and maintained a high GPA.
When it was time for college, she chose Emory University in Atlanta. Her long-term goal was to become a Supreme Court justice. As part of her commitment to public service, Shannon worked at The Carter Center, the non-profit organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter.
Shannon even found time for a part-time job working at a softball field. She was working as a scorekeeper on the day she disappeared.
Shannon's roommate, Athena Perez, became worried when Shannon didn't return to her dorm room that evening. Hours later, Athena and her friends discovered Shannon's car, a black Nissan 240 SX, abandoned and called police.
Athena remembers a female officer arrived at the scene. "She took all of our information, but was very laid back about it. She said, 'Okay, go ahead, drive it, the car, back to campus.' That's what we did."
It would become the first of many mistakes authorities would make.
As the hours passed, Athena became even more frightened and decided to call Shannon's family.
"I remember dialing that phone number," she says. "And just dreading that moment because I thought, 'How do you tell someone's parents you can't find their child? You don't know where she is?' "
Shannon's father, Luis, remembers getting an "eerie feeling." "I fell to my knees and I said 'It's Shannon. We'll never see her again.'"
Shannon's parent's immediately left for Atlanta, arriving dazed and devastated. All they knew was that their beautiful 19-year-old daughter had vanished. What they couldn't have imagined was the reception that they got from the very people they had expected to help them: the police.
When the Melendis talked to police, they say they told officers their daughter was not missing but kidnapped. What stunned them even more was what authorities told them had happened to their daughter.
"Ah, 'She ran away, she's a college student, don't worry about her. She'll show up,' " Yvonne recalls police telling her.
Yvonne and Luis couldn't believe what they had heard and insisted that the police had it all wrong. Luis says police were dismissive and disrespectful.
Investigators not only believed that Shannon had run away, they were convinced that those who knew her best knew exactly where she was. So they zeroed in on Shannon's friends.
"I was pulled out of class," remembers Shannon's roommate, Athena, who says police questioned her for more than eight hours. " 'Shannon ran away, you guys know where she is, you know, you're hiding her.' I was like, 'You are crazy, you've got to be kidding me. I'm not hiding her,' " she recalls.