ST. PETERSBURG — On July 27, 1980, Melinda Harder walked into the night and never came back.
Her whereabouts were unknown for 29 years.
In October, St. Petersburg police solved part of the mystery when a DNA test found that skeletal remains stored in evidence were those of Harder.
Her skeleton had been found buried in a park in 1989 — nine years after she disappeared and several years before DNA became a common police tool.
It was a relentless search by family members and investigators that brought her home.
Now, her family has scheduled a memorial service for Saturday.
After nearly 30 years, it will finally get to say goodbye.
• • •
For decades, Nikki Wacker never talked about her mother's disappearance. Wacker was 6 when she vanished.
Since she was a teen, people have marveled at how alike they seem. She has the same eyes, the same thick brown hair and full face. The similarities spooked some of her mother's friends. When she walked into a room, they thought it was her mother.
Wacker suffered through their exclamations and double-takes. She was trying to forget. But she saw the resemblance every time she looked in a mirror.
• • •
Harder, 21, left her home that night on foot, perhaps to head to a boyfriend's. She had been to a bar earlier that night.
Media accounts of the disappearance quoted people who described her as a party girl who dressed provocatively.
One police officer told the St. Petersburg Times he was certain Harder had just partied too long.
"We aren't even looking into it," the officer said. "The whole thing has been exploited by the news media."
Other people suggested she likely put herself in harm's way.
"You know it's not true," said Joan Wells, Ms. Harder's mother. "But it still hurts."
• • •
They do not deny that Melinda was headstrong. True, she liked to party, but she enjoyed dancing more than the drinking.
She married at age 14 and divorced five years later. She lugged her three children around the neighborhood in a red wagon and took them swimming in her mother's pool.
Once, when they bought a new refrigerator, Harder told her daughter to imagine that the new box was a castle and that she was a fairy princess.
• • •
After the disappearance, Wells kept an eye out for her daughter wherever she went. She looked for a grave on the shoulder of the interstate Melinda was thought to have crossed that night.
She also searched for meaning. She took a photo of Harder to the statue of the Virgin Mary at St. Paul's Catholic Church, where her daughter was confirmed. Sometimes she sat in a rocking chair at home, asking God where Melinda had gone and why.
• • •
Several months after the disappearance, they got bad news. Dental records the family provided to police had been lost.
The family perked up whenever they heard of a body being found somewhere.
"Every time they find a skeleton, you wonder — is it her?" Wells said.
Three bodies turned up in Weekie Wachee on property connected to confessed serial killer William Mansfield.
A year after the disappearance, a St. Petersburg police detective told Wells that Mansfield, now in prison, was saying he knew where Harder was buried.
Mansfield never would say where.
• • •
In 1989, authorities found a body in Maximo Park, just north of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Again, Harder's family watched as bulldozers scraped the earth, uncovering a skeleton, its wrists bound with stockings.
An analysis said the body was probably that of a young black woman. Disappointed, they put it out of their mind.
• • •
Wacker dropped out of high school at age 17. She got an apartment and worked two jobs, including one at a car dealer.
In 1995, a female customer at the dealership saw her name tag and noted the resemblance to Harder. She tried to offer her condolences. Wacker told the woman she was mistaken.
"I didn't want her pity," she said. "I was trying to move forward, I thought. But really I was just avoiding."
The same year, a co-worker's child was abducted. Wacker helped him distribute fliers, but never told him about her mother.
• • •
In 2001, she thought about how guarded she had become. It seemed connected to her mother.
"I never addressed it, I never faced it," she said. "And I knew if I didn't resolve it I would never be able to move forward."
She unearthed the newspaper clippings the family kept about the disappearance.
For the first time, she read them.
Wacker brought on an investigator to reignite the search. The investigator persuaded police to take DNA samples from Wells and Wacker.
• • •
On the afternoon of Oct. 9, a police van with two detectives pulled up.
"Are you Nicole Wacker?" one officer asked. She said yes.
"We have found your mother."
The officers had come to tell Wacker that her DNA had been matched to a body.
The skeleton unearthed in Maximo Park was her mother.
• • •
Wacker keeps the story in a white binder. On Thursday, she sat at her grandmother's dining room table with all the news clippings and police reports. Included in the stack is a letter from the state telling the family it is ineligible for victim's assistance money to help pay for Harder's funeral. The compensation period has expired, it says.
The family will pay for the funeral with a credit card.
As Wacker sat at the dining room table, her cousin walked by the table with a laundry basket. She gestured to a black and white photo on the table.
"Is that you?" she asked.
"No," Wacker replied. "That's my mother."
"Oh, my god, she looks just like you!"
Wacker laughed. At long last, it was okay.
• • •
The murder investigation of Melinda Harder remains open. Wacker wonders if Mansfield, the serial killer, is her mother's murderer. Mansfield remains in prison.
The family has since had Harder's skeleton cremated. On Saturday, a priest will bless the ashes.
Said Wacker: "She will finally have some dignity."