Originally created 09/13/99

Teen's violent death still haunts friends, neighbors



Long after Melanie Richey's killers were sent to prison, April Reese had nightmares of being at the "scary bridge" the night her 15-year-old classmate was killed.

The rusting bridge, built in 1927, spans the muddy water of Stevens Creek separating South Carolina's Edgefield and McCormick counties. From there, Melanie's killers dragged her into surrounding woods and detonated a pipe bomb in her mouth.

"I had nightmares for two years that they had me tied up on that bridge," Ms. Reese said. "I kept asking them, `Why are you doing this? You're my friends."'

Ms. Reese, now 22, was at the Evans party five years ago where Melanie was last seen alive.

Three Columbia County teens drove Melanie home from the party and into McCormick County, where they killed her.

Ms. Reese is still haunted by how different things could have been if she had only insisted on driving her classmate home.

"It's just gotten to the point in the last year where I can walk into a room and people don't ask me about that night," said Ms. Reese, who offered to take Melanie home the night of July 12, 1994, a Monday.

"I always think, what if I had made her go home? There was probably nothing that I could have done, but the thought of that has been tremendously hard to deal with."

Ms. Reese remembers asking Lakeside High School classmates Joe Kelsey and Geoffrey Payne and Evans High School student Jammie Lee the morning after the party if they had taken Melanie home. They told her they had. But they lied.

It wasn't until weeks later that she discovered what really happened.

"I didn't believe she was dead until they found her, and I didn't believe they killed her until I heard it in court that day," she said. "I thought they helped her run away."

Betty Webb Hathorn, now a student teacher at Lakeside High, remembers giving her neighbor, Melanie, a ride home from band practice, helping her count votes for band awards and buying carnations for the winners.

"I remember when I first saw the missing signs and I thought she had run away," said Ms. Hathorn, now 22. "You would never have thought of something so morbid. When I found out what happened, I was shocked. It was sick. But it also made me feel bad that I first thought she had run away."

A LOCAL AUTHORwho writes under the pen name Abigale Austin has spent endless hours interviewing Melanie's killers over the past five years while writing her book, The Hand of All.

The book, which is not yet published, takes its title from the legal theory that "the hand of one is the hand of all," and that the boys' guilt was collective in Melanie's case.

Mr. Kelsey is the only defendant who has shown even a hint of remorse, said Ms. Austin, adding that when she spoke to him and Mr. Lee on anniversaries of Melanie's death, neither knew the significance of the date.

While at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, S.C., Mr. Kelsey participates in Operation Behind Bars, where he talks to young people about jail life.

Mr. Lee, at Goodman Correctional Institution in Columbia, said he hopes time has allowed everyone involved to heal.

Mr. Lee was convicted of accessory to murder after he admitted helping Mr. Kelsey and Mr. Payne drag Melanie into the woods where she was killed. He said in a letter Aug. 14 that he didn't want to reopen old wounds by discussing Melanie's death.

"Out of respect for the deceased, I see not ... any reason why the story of her death needs to be retold again," he wrote. "No one will ever truly know what took place that night except for Geoffrey, Joe and myself. Everything else is just misled educated guesses at best."

Mr. Lee was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Under South Carolina law, which allows inmates to earn 20 days credit for every 30 days served with good behavior, he could be released from prison Feb. 28.

If released, he will be free to live wherever he wants, including Columbia County.

"THE HARSH REALITYis that Melanie Richey will forever be 15 years old and for the rest of eternity will reside in a narrow cell in the damp Georgia clay, serving a sentence covered with dirt that the defendants helped heap on her," Ms. Austin said.

Mr. Lee, whose testimony helped convict Mr. Kelsey and Mr. Payne, has shown little remorse, she said. "I asked him once if he would have done anything differently, and he said, `I would have kept my mouth shut."'

Mr. Payne, held at Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer, S.C., did not respond to a letter seeking his views of the case. His record in prison lists numerous disciplinary offenses, ranging from obscene language to marijuana possession.

Mr. Payne is serving a life sentence for murder. His first parole hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22, 2015.

"These boys were opportunistic killers," Ms. Austin said. "Had they not all been together, I don't think they would have taken this opportunity to kill. It's like dogs. One by himself behaves, but all three together become a pack."

FIVE YEARS AFTERMelanie's death, high school students throughout Columbia County have received money for college through Platt's Funeral Home, which handled Melanie's funeral.

After her death, Platt's founded a scholarship at Lakeside High School in her memory. The annual scholarship is awarded to band students.

"The purpose of the scholarship is to remember Melanie and to help keep in everyone's hearts and minds what a tragic and senseless death this was," said Al Jackson, Platt's general manager. "Melanie was a very active band student. This scholarship goes to help someone with the same aspirations."

Melanie played the alto saxophone in the band during middle and high school.

"Melanie was very dedicated," said Robert Jarrell, Lakeside High band director. "Her death was an unbelievable thing for the entire band program. It devastated the kids and it was difficult for several years. What happened was not easily forgotten around here."

Melanie inspired Platt's to establish scholarships at the county's other three high schools in memory of students who died, Mr. Jackson said. All four scholarships were founded in 1994, following Melanie's death.

"We wanted to give back to the community and really make a difference," Mr. Jackson said. "These kids who died were just getting ready for college themselves."

MELANIE'S LEGACYreaches beyond the scholarship bearing her name.

Though most young people reported to police as missing turn out to be runaways who show up within 24 hours, all reports are taken seriously -- especially after what happened to Melanie, Columbia County authorities said.

When Melanie was first reported missing, police did not suspect foul play.

"We are always concerned when we receive a report of a missing person. But in most cases, they're located within 24 hours," said sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris. "After 24 hours, we begin to worry. The Melanie Richey case is a reminder that no community is exempt from tragedy."

Now, when deputies see young people out late at night or in the early morning hours, they call parents and let them know their child is not at home, Capt. Morris said.

Melanie's parents did not return telephone calls over several days.

Jennifer Jagoditsch, 22, who was Melanie's neighbor at the time of her death, said she still thinks about Melanie's murder whenever she drives past the Richey family house.

"It makes you think about your life and where you are because it can all be gone in a second," Ms. Jagoditsch said. "No matter how safe you think you are, you're not. Those were people that she knew and trusted. It was the ultimate betrayal."

"I thought I had better sense to choose better friends," Ms. Reese said. "To this day, I am more afraid to get close to people. They could be crazy. You never know."

REACH

Scotty Fletcher at (706) 868-1222,Ext. 111, or ccchron@augustachronicle.com.