- Associated Press - Monday, April 17, 2017

WEYMOUTH, Mass. (AP) - Behind the tree line along Route 18 in South Weymouth, dozens of posh new apartments and condominiums are taking over the wooded area where police once conducted a massive search for a missing 30-year-old mother from Taunton.

Seventeen years ago, police used officers, dogs and a helicopter to comb the closed 1,400-acre South Weymouth Naval Air Base, now the Union Point development, in search of Debbie Melo. There was no trace of her on the air base or the area around Hartstone florist across the street where her husband told investigators he dropped her off after an argument.

Investigators say the search in June 2000 missed nothing, and there are no plans to repeat that effort as the air base property is developed. Even Melo’s family, who once held vigils along Route 18, say there are likely no answers in Weymouth.

Instead, the family and investigators are left with the same question they had 17 years ago: What happened to Debbie Melo?

Statistics suggest they may never know.

The FBI’s National Crime Information Center, contains a missing persons database of 88,040 names, including 54,334 adults and 33,706 children. While most missing persons are found within weeks, many aren’t. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System reports that 4,400 unidentified human remains are found each year and more than 1,000 remain unidentified after a year’s time. Nationwide, there are upwards of 40,000 human remains that have continued to go unidentified, the agency reports.

“I never in a million years thought it was going to be this long. Every year that passes by I say please don’t let it be another year,” Debbie Melo’s sister Patricia White, 45, said during a recent interview at her Taunton home.

Debbie and Luis Melo lived on Baylies Road in Taunton and managed a Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant on Ivory Street in Braintree. They had a son and daughter, then 10 and 13.

They had been married for 14 years, but family members described their relationship as rocky, and said that Debbie Melo was planning to file for divorce. In 1996, Debbie Melo filed a restraining order against her husband saying she was fearful of him.

On June 20, 2000, her husband picked her up from a dermatologist appointment on Route 18 in South Weymouth. The couple headed south towards home in Taunton. Luis Melo, told police she got out of the car on Route 18 in Weymouth near the flower store during an argument. He told police he continued a short distance down the road before turning back for his wife, but she wasn’t there. He figured she would go home, so did not report her missing until the following day, investigators said at the time.

Luis Melo was questioned by police and searches were conducted behind the couple’s home in Taunton and near the Taunton River, but no one was ever arrested and a suspect was never named. Luis Melo did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

White said she and other family members have questioned the chronology of events the day her sister vanished.

“She did go to the doctor’s appointment. That was the last place she was seen,” White said.

Even now, White hopes that a hunter, hiker or construction worker, whether in Weymouth, Taunton or elsewhere, will stumble across a clue.

Thoughts of her sister are with her constantly, White said. “You’re driving and your constantly thinking ‘Could she be here? Could she be here?’ What happened? How come I don’t know? What has she said to me in the past that I’m not remembering that could help me with finding her?”

Investigators also hope for fresh clues.

“Cases like this one, and this isn’t the only one, are very frustrating. I meet with my state police detectives regularly on unsolved cases, asking what more can be done. I don’t use the term cold case, because they are not cold for the families left behind and they shouldn’t be cold to us,” Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey said.

The disappearance of Debbie Melo remains under the jurisdiction of the Weymouth police department as a missing persons case, but information and resources are shared between the Norfolk and Bristol county district attorney’s offices and Weymouth and Taunton police, officials said.

Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn said his office continues to assign a State Police investigator to the case.

Weymouth police Capt. Richard Fuller said the disappearance of Debbie Melo - the only unsolved missing persons case in the department’s files - continues to frustrate detectives.

“Over the years we have received several tips. We investigate each tip and also share the information with the other jurisdictions. I have to believe that there is someone out there that knows something and I hope that person will come forward,” he said.

Back in Taunton, White and her former husband, Steven DeMoura, said they too have never stopped searching. They do not believe Debbie Melo would have left her children or family to start a new life.

DeMoura, who was still married to White when Melo went missing, said he has searched hundreds of locations, trudging through swamps, forests and abandoned properties.

“It was a full-time job during the first three years.” DeMoura, 45, of Taunton said. “We followed up on leads. The police can’t usually follow up on a lead unless they have some kind of evidence. Not just because Joe Schmoe says it’s in your backyard or it’s over behind that house over there. They need search warrants and everything else. We’ll go out at 2 o’clock in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning just because somebody said something.”

They’ve been approached by countless psychics and mediums who claim to know where Melo is or where her remains are located.

“So what do you do? Do you ignore it? Deep down your thinking ‘Oh God, here goes another one.’ But you have to follow up with it. You’ve just got to go and look and at least see the place where they’re saying,” White said.

Through it all, Melo’s family has never given up hope. White said she constantly watches murder mystery documentaries and TV shows to make sure there’s no angle she hasn’t thought of or considered.

Each year they gather together outdoors to hold signs with Melo’s picture and the word “Missing” in big bold letters. Last year the family gathered at the Taunton Green. In year’s past they’ve stood out on Route 18 in Weymouth.

Stephanie Hartwell, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, said she understands the Melo family’s grief.

“In a case like this closure would be incredibly important as the family would ultimately find out what happened to their beloved. They likely have a million scenarios or maybe just one, but closure would mean they can put their loved one to rest,” she said.

Missing persons expert Monica Caison, founder of the national Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons in North Carolina, said Melo’s family is doing the right thing by keeping her story before the public.

“I’ve seen both sides, where families just totally give up and they don’t talk about it anymore and they’re bitter and they turn against law enforcement and I’ve seen others that embrace law enforcement and the next detective to come in and the next detective to come in,” Caison said. “It depends on their ability to endure it.”

White said the family will never give up the search, a feeling White and DeMoura passed down to their daughter, Olivia, 19, who was 2 when her aunt disappeared.

“Within the community it hasn’t been forgotten. A lot of people ask me if we’ve heard anything about my sister. Any news? Anything? I’ll always say no,” White said. “I want it out worldwide. I want people to know that she isn’t forgotten, because she’s not.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2pa09pL

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Information from: The (Quincy, Mass.) Patriot Ledger, http://www.patriotledger.com

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