The following account of what happened on December 1, 1994, is based on information from LaDonna Humphrey and published reports about this unsolved case.
words: Marla Cantrel images:courtesy LaDonna Humphrey
Thursday, December 1, 1994, began unremarkably in Fort Smith, Arkansas. At five that morning, the temperature hit the freezing mark, 32°F. At three in the afternoon, it had warmed to 63°F, the day’s high. The sun rose at 7:07 a.m., and set at 5:05 p.m. When the moon came up, it was a waning crescent, sometimes called an old moon, just one day shy of being new.
Melissa “Missy” Witt spent the first part of the morning with her mom, Mary Ann. She’d head to Westark Community College next, where she was an honor student. And after that, to her job as a dental assistant. But before she stepped out the door, she had a minor disagreement with her mom. Missy asked to borrow money, Mary Ann said no, and the pair went on with their day.
The two were especially close. Missy was born the year Mary Ann turned forty, and by 1994, Mary Ann had been a single mom for years. They had the same good looks, the same winning smile, the same kind heart. That day, Mary Ann left a note for Missy. In it, she told her she loved her. She also said she’d be at Bowling World (she bowled on a league) in Fort Smith, by the time Missy read the message.
At five o’clock, when Missy left work, she sat behind the wheel of her 1995 Mitsubishi Mirage and turned the key. After a few more tries, she gave up, waiting with a friend until a kindly soul from a nearby business gave her a jump, and she was on her way.
There was a chill in the air, and Missy went home to ditch her uniform and put on a V-necked top and jeans. She wore gold hoop earrings and a Mickey Mouse wristwatch with a brown band that was all the rage in the mid-1990s.
She must have seen her mom’s note, because authorities believe she headed next to Bowling World, arriving between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m., and parked in the northwest corner of the lot. There were no cameras there, but two witnesses would later tell police they heard a woman screaming.
Her car keys were found in the parking lot, and someone took them inside at 7:45 p.m., an act of goodwill, and yet no one noticed the splatters of blood that clung to the metal.
The tip line for anyone who has any information investigators could use to solve Missy Witt’s murder is 479.221.9393.
A $5000 reward has been offered for new information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the Missy Witt case.
Since Missy never entered the bowling alley, Mary Ann did not know she’d been on the property. Mary Ann went home, and as the hours passed, began to fret, calling everyone she could think of. Midnight came, turning Thursday into Friday, and still no word. By three in the morning, she was driving the streets, looking frantically for her daughter. At nine o’clock, she reported her missing.
On Saturday, Missy’s friends were passing out fliers, hoping that someone somewhere knew something they did not. By the time they’d finished, they’d handed out over 6,000 pleas for information.
Days later, Missy’s car was discovered in the parking lot of Bowling World, and beside the car was one of her hoop earrings, a broken hair clip, and blood stains.
Missy’s story lit up the news channels. Her picture seemed to be everywhere. Worried parents watched their children closer, assigning early curfews or not letting them out of the house at all.
Christmas passed, and the new year rang in as it always had, but still no sightings. And then, on January 13, 1995, in the Ozark National Forest near the Turner Bend community in Franklin County, two trappers found Missy’s unclothed body in front of a rock that looked like a tombstone, a few yards from a mountaintop logging trail. The site is forty-five miles from Fort Smith, remote, hard to find unless you know where you’re going.
Everything she had was taken, including her watch.
For those who loved Missy, the pain of losing her was a physical thing, their grief rising like floodwaters. When Mary Ann died on March 20, 2011, at the age of seventy-five, she’d spent sixteen years, three months, and nineteen days with a broken heart.
The Facebook page, Who Killed Missy Witt, was created in December 2015. Since then, more than 1 million people have visited the page. There have been thousands of shares. Most posts have between 100,000 and 500,000. The page has generated several hundred tips. There is also information about the case at whokilledmissywitt.com.
If Missy had lived, she’d be in her early forties. She’d probably have a family to tend to, and she’d be a dental hygienist, just as she’d planned. The thought of that ordinary life causes another wave of heartbreak. So much was lost that night in 1994, and someone knows what happened.
That’s where LaDonna Humphrey, president and founder of Let’s Bring Them Home, an organization whose mission is to help find missing adults, comes in. She and her team are making a documentary about Missy called Uneven Ground: The Melissa Witt Story. They’ve hired a local production company, and have experts from across the U.S. who are helping. There’s also a Facebook page and website called “Who Killed Missy Witt?”
Even though Missy isn’t missing, LaDonna knew her case needed attention. She’s now in close contact with Fort Smith Police Detective Troy Williams, who’s assigned to the case. She talks several times a day with retired captain J.C. Rider, who was the lead detective on Missy’s case for years and is now a consultant for the documentary.
“J.C. still loses sleep over this case to this day,” LaDonna says. “Overwhelmingly, we hear, ‘This case should have been solved.’ I tell them, ‘You have no idea.’ Police turned over everything they could. I’ve seen the case files; I know what they did. They gave it their all and then some.”
Since she and her team began this project a year and a half ago, she’s written the script for Uneven Ground, due to be released in July, and is serving as its producer. She’s also authored a book with the same title that will be available on Amazon at the same time, and interviewed more than 115 people. When they began, the team thought their work would be methodical, like piecing together a puzzle. But they’ve become emotionally involved, having good days and bad. At times, when she posts to the Facebook page, tears fall, the sorrow of what happened too much to hold back.
“I go over and over the case files. Some days it feels like it was the perfect crime. And other days I feel like, No, there must be something we missed.”
To find that, she’s corresponded with prison inmates, some of the worst of the worst, men she believes could be possible suspects, one of whom is on death row for a murder that is eerily similar. On her lunch breaks, she scrolls through sites like Ebay, where she hopes to find Missy’s Mickey Mouse watch for sale. If she finds it and the serial number matches, she may have found a thread that unravels the mystery of what happened.
Beyond interviews and tangible evidence like the watch, there is hope in science. New advances in DNA testing could hold a key. LaDonna says in 2008, when the TV show, America’s Most Wanted, picked up Missy’s story, re-testing was done. Now there’s something called Touch DNA, which can analyze minute samples of DNA found at a crime scene, such as skin cells left on an object that had been touched.
Which leads us back to the site in the Ozark National Forest where Missy was found. Cigarette butts were collected there, and while they may have been dropped by someone innocent before the crime was committed, they could also have a connection to the case.
There’s also a recording of a phone call left for area law enforcement two days before Missy’s body was found. In it, a woman with a strong Southern accent urges a man believed to be her grandson, to tell police what he’d discovered. But the phone call cuts off abruptly, and the two never called back.
The call is critical because it’s believed the grandson moved Missy’s body from behind the tombstone-shaped rock so that it would be found. Hearing from him could be crucial.
It seems remarkable that in all this time, the killer hasn’t been outed. Could he be dead? LaDonna believes he is very much alive. She also has a theory about what happened, which she’s quick to say is hers alone, and not law enforcement’s.
“I believe that Missy argued with someone she knew that night, and someone who had a connection to the area where her body was found. There are rumors of several people being involved, and I just don’t think that’s the case. Statistics show us that if more than one person is involved in a crime, the chances of solving that crime go up. It doesn’t just double, it quadruples. Somebody always talks. After twenty-two years and there’s nothing new coming in lead-wise, it tells me it was someone she knew. We hope this project puts enough pressure on that person to confess.
“It may have been someone who felt jilted by Melissa. Someone who has problems with women. Checks up on their women, follows them. She was a beautiful girl. She never really had any enemies. But something happened that they couldn’t handle, in my opinion.”
If the killer is one of the inmates LaDonna can’t rule out, how did his path cross with an innocent girl like Missy? LaDonna says it could have been as simple as a chance meeting, the kind you and I might have a dozen times a day, when someone we don’t know comes to our office, passes us on the street, walks past us as we head to our car and says hello. After that, the killer could have set his sights on her.
This brings us back to the crux of who Missy was. LaDonna has read her last diary twice, the words sacred now, given the weight of how her life ended. “She was a kind, sweet girl. The first to jump in to help someone. Very generous and loving. She loved music; she loved jewelry. She loved makeup. She was boy-crazy. She was a typical teenager. She had the kindest, most pure heart. Your diary is the most intimate thing. That’s your true thoughts. She saw the world through rose-colored glasses. She was trusting and naïve to the evil in this world. She was the daughter any mother would dream of. I’ve laughed when reading her diary, and I’ve cried. The last entry was about some boys she liked, and how she was buckling down at college.
“Everybody loved her. We’ve never found anyone who had one bad thing to say about her. There were some horrific rumors, putting her character into question, that she was putting herself in harm’s way, and I can tell you that’s just not true. I’m not going to say Missy didn’t do things her mom didn’t know about; every teenager does. But it was never to the degree that was painted about her.”
The documentary will serve as a call to action to anyone who might be holding onto a secret. It will also be a tribute to the sweet girl Missy was. As a mom to seven kids, LaDonna’s heart is broken by this story.
But LaDonna doesn’t come to this story only as a mother. When she was in the fourth grade, living in southwest Oklahoma, she was in a bowling alley with her dad, who played on a league, just as Missy’s mom had. While her dad bowled, the man, who they later learned had already abused one girl, started a conversation with LaDonna. And when her dad went to the restroom, he tried to lure LaDonna and her sister outside. “We got all the way to the door, and my dad came out of the restroom and screamed, ‘Wait!’ The next thing I remember were people chasing that man with pool sticks. And my next memory was being in court, identifying him.”
When she moved to this area a few years after, she first lived in Greenwood and became friends with kids who would later become Missy’s friends. The connections are many, and complex. LaDonna presses her fingers into her forehead, “This could have happened to anyone,” she says.
“I’m just so sad Missy’s life was taken from her. We owe her justice, as a community and a state. She deserves to rest in peace. It bothers me that we’re still here, and still looking for answers.”
When Uneven Ground is released on Netflix and Amazon Prime, it will reach a wide audience, and possibly someone watching will reach out, sharing something about this case that they’ve kept to themselves all these years. It could be the push they need to do the right thing, to bring justice to a girl whose life was stolen, just as it was getting started.
For additional information, visit whokilledmissywitt.com, or visit the Facebook page.
If you have information, call 479.221.9393.
A $5,000 reward has been offered for new information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the Missy Witt case.
Uneven Ground: The Melissa Witt Story is set to be released in July 2017, as is LaDonna’s book of the same name. Follow the group’s social media for updates.