ST. PETERSBURG — Melinda Harder, 20-year-old mother of three, walked to her boyfriend's home in the early hours of July 27, 1980, and was never heard from again.
Her disappearance bedeviled investigators and family for nearly three decades.
Now, with the help of DNA technology, police have positively identified her body, saying she was murdered and then buried in a city park.
"In my heart of hearts, I knew my mother would never leave me,'' said Nicole Harder, now 34. "She would have fought her way back to us if she could.''
Although DNA was crucial, the discovery also illustrates the value of old-fashioned police work, and a bit of serendipity.
The big break in the case: a flier at a gas station that caught the eye of a police investigator.
• • •
Melinda Harder left her children with her ex-husband in July 1980 and headed to a favorite bar, the Stage Stop on Roosevelt Boulevard.
Afterward, Harder headed first to her home near Interstate 275 and 22nd Avenue N and then on a half-mile walk to her boyfriend's house. She never showed up, according to police.
When her ex-husband arrived the next day to drop off the kids, Melinda Harder had vanished.
Family members filed a missing person's report. Police, family and friends searched without success.
Investigators thought they had a break a year later, when police uncovered the bodies of four young women buried on the Weeki Wachee family farm of serial killer Billy Mansfield.
Investigators became fixated on Mansfield in 1981. Already in custody, he even confessed to the Harder murder. But that was in exchange for leniency and the description of Harder's disappearance sounded wrong.
Moreover, existing technology could not identify the bones at Mansfield's farm as Harden's.
And so Harder's family waited.
• • •
In spring 1989, a bulldozer at Maximo Park at the southern end of St. Petersburg uncovered a skull and bones in a shallow grave.
The woman was a homicide victim but investigators weren't sure how. Her hands were tied behind her back with stockings and her body wrapped in a rug.
Police said the bones probably belonged to a black female between the ages of 15 and 21, 5 feet 3 inches tall who likely died between 1986 and 1989.
Investigators made a clay mold of the skull, hoping for leads.
For years, no luck.
• • •
The woman found at Maximo Park was one of six unidentified bodies police investigated. Not every one was murdered. One John Doe drowned. A homeless man died after a fall.
Brenda Stevenson, a 12-year civilian investigator with the homicide unit, started sorting through the cases two years ago.
About the same time, Harder's family was looking for closure. A family friend who runs the CUE Center for Missing Persons offered to help.
The family plastered neighborhoods and businesses with fliers and held a candlelight vigil in Crescent Lake Park.
Stevenson saw a flier at a gas station one day. Harder's picture reminded her of the clay model in one of the Jane Doe files, particularly the distinct jaw line.
"I had a hunch," Stevenson said.
• • •
DNA technology wasn't available in 1980 or 1989. But now police investigators had hope.
First, they ran DNA collected from Harder's daughter Nicole and mother against the woman found at the Mansfield farm.
Then, about a year ago, Stevenson asked the FBI to compare the Harder DNA to the woman found in Maximo Park.
The results arrived last Thursday. Harder, who was white, was the woman police initially suspected was black.
Harder hadn't simply left or drowned in a lake, as some suggested. Someone killed her.
Harder's daughter Nicole says she has memories of her mother from 28 years ago.
She remembers them feeding ducks together at Crescent Lake and her mom letting her eat ravioli in the bath tub.
She remembers sneaking a peak of her mom practicing a clown routine for Nicole's 6th birthday, which was the Friday after Harder disappeared.
Nicole Harder now has a 3-year-old daughter, Danielle.
Nicole lets Danielle eat ravioli in the bathtub and they feed the ducks together at Crescent Lake.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2273.