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ATLANTA � Call it CSI Atlanta. In what could have been a page from a script of the popular TV crime-scene-investigation shows, DeKalb County, Ga., prosecutors recently ordered an examination of forensic evidence in the 11-year-old disappearance of Emory University student Shannon Melendi that they say points to her killer. What they found were microscopic clues that a DeKalb prosecutor said directly ties Colvin “Butch” Hinton III � the man long suspected, and now charged, in Melendi’s kidnapping and murder � to Melendi’s 1994 disappearance. Forensic experts hired after DeKalb prosecutors last year began reinvestigating Melendi’s disappearance have focused on a cloth bag and masking tape in which investigators in April 1994 found a ring belonging to Melendi. The materials were a perfect match to samples of masking tape and fabric bags seized by the FBI in 1994 from Hinton’s home, his car or his work station at Delta Air Lines’ technical operations center, DeKalb Assistant District Attorney J. Michael McDaniel told a jury hearing the case against Hinton. Agents had found the ring after an anonymous caller to Emory’s counseling center � 11 days after Melendi disappeared � told them that Melendi was with him and that he had left her ring as proof. “The scientific evidence directly connects [Hinton] to the scene where you know the kidnapper was,” the prosecutor said. Hinton’s attorney, Brenda Bernstein, cautioned the jury that, despite the state’s bold assertions, the new scientific evidence “does not show an identical match.” The analyses of evidence include a subjective component, Bernstein said. An expert, she said, “has to look through the microscope and interpret.” It’s anybody’s guess whether the jury will be persuaded by a new microscopic examination of old evidence. But McDaniel has bolstered his forensic case with incriminating statements Hinton allegedly made to eight felons with lengthy criminal histories who had shared his prison cell. Hinton allegedly talked with them, often in grim detail, about Melendi’s apparent murder. Hinton has spent most of the decade since the 19-year-old Emory sophomore’s disappearance in prison for arson and insurance fraud. Federal authorities � who had used the circumstances surrounding Melendi’s disappearance to deny Hinton bond in 1995 in the arson and fraud cases � were content to leave him there. But since Hinton’s release in December 2003, DeKalb prosecutors have augmented an admittedly thin package of circumstantial evidence with what they say is strong physical evidence linking Hinton to Melendi. REVIVING A COLD CASE Until Hinton’s release, Melendi’s disappearance had become just another cold-case file. But once Hinton returned to Atlanta and took a job as a butcher, DeKalb prosecutors revisited the old FBI investigation. It was then that an independent expert was asked to compare microscopically those items found with Melendi’s ring to samples of masking tape and to bags seized by the FBI from Hinton in 1994, McDaniel said. Eleven days after Melendi disappeared, FBI agents had found the ring, which Melendi’s father later identified as belonging to her, behind a phone booth near Rex in Clayton County, not far from Hinton’s home. The phone booth was next door to a Waffle House that Hinton frequented in the weeks before Melendi vanished, McDaniel said. The ring had been placed in a small cloth bag that, in turn, had been wrapped in masking tape and hidden in a wall cranny. Investigators had located that phone booth by tracing an anonymous call to Emory’s counseling center that was made after Melendi vanished. The caller had insisted Melendi was with him, that she was unharmed and that he “would make demands later.” He also said he had a ring that had been given to Melendi by her aunt. The bag in which Melendi’s ring was found matches those bags specially ordered by Delta to store small aircraft parts during maintenance and repair, McDaniel said. The bags were identical in size, shape, fabric type and stitching, McDaniel said. Their weave, thread count and drawstring fibers also matched microscopically, the prosecutor said. At the time, Hinton was a Delta worker who assisted in the repair of aircraft engine cases, the prosecutor said. Delta was the only company in Georgia that purchased that particular brand of cloth bag, the prosecutor said. A microscopic analysis of masking tape seized from Hinton’s home and car about the same time also proved to be a match in width, thickness, adhesive composition and paper composition to the masking tape around Melendi’s ring, McDaniel told the jury. The independent analyst hired by the prosecution also discovered traces of certain “specialty alloys” on the ring tape and on tape seized from Hinton. Those alloys � a tungsten-cobalt blend, lead bismuth and molybdenum � were used in maintaining aircraft parts and lubricating tools at Delta in the maintenance facility where Hinton worked, McDaniel said. “The scientific evidence directly connects the defendant to the site where Shannon’s ring was left,” the prosecutor said. “He had Shannon’s ring. He knew it came from Shannon’s aunt.” The microscopic comparisons have some complications. In 1994, when Georgia Bureau of Investigation laboratory technicians first examined the cloth bag containing Melendi’s ring, the chemicals they applied seeking fingerprints bleached the fabric from purple to beige, McDaniel acknowledged. Bernstein said the defense has its own metallurgists who disagree that the presence of trace metals on the masking-tape samples is rare. Without Melendi’s body and with no evidence of a crime scene where she might have been slain, “all these things that the state puts together are not beyond reasonable doubt,” Bernstein said. A HISTORY OF ATTACKS Melendi was last seen on March 26, 1994, keeping score at a softball game that Hinton was umpiring at the Softball Country Club near Decatur. A teenager who was close to her family and talked with friends and her college roommate several times a day, Melendi vanished without a word shortly after noon. She has not been heard from since. Early in the investigation, Hinton became a suspect when authorities discovered he had a criminal record that included an attempted rape when he was 16 and, five years later, the kidnapping and sexual molestation of a 14-year-old girl whom Hinton also had held hostage in his basement. But without a body, and with little physical evidence to tie Hinton to Melendi, authorities were reluctant to prosecute him for Melendi’s murder. After Hinton made a $185,000 insurance claim for a fire at his Clayton County home, federal authorities successfully prosecuted him for arson and fraud. He served nearly 10 years. During his prison term, Hinton allegedly confided in cellmates about Melendi’s disappearance. “Police will never find her,” Hinton allegedly said of “that girl at the Softball Country Club,” McDaniel told the jury. “She’s scattered to the four winds.” Hinton allegedly told another cellmate, “I have a weakness for young girls,” and “Shannon was a tease. She’ll never tease again,” McDaniel told the jury. Hinton allegedly confided in cellmate Ronson Westmoreland the gruesome details of how one disposes of a body: “You skin ‘em. You cut ‘em up. You crush their bones and throw their remains in the Chattahoochee [River],” according to McDaniel. Another cellmate, convicted bank robber and gangster Adonis Cornwell, told authorities that he had witnessed Hinton awake from a dream, screaming, “I didn’t kill that girl. The demon inside me killed that girl,” McDaniel recounted for the jury. Those chilling words echo a confession that Hinton made to Illinois police in 1982 after he kidnapped, held captive and sexually molested a 14-year-old whom he had taught at Sunday school. That victim is expected to testify against Hinton during the Melendi trial, according to court records. “Something just came over me,” Hinton told authorities after his wife discovered the girl in a storm cellar of the couple’s house. “And like a different person came inside me” that made him want “to go do some bodily harm to someone,” he said. SOMETHING TO GAIN Bernstein argued that statements attributed to Hinton are being made by convicts with something to gain. Court records show that among the witnesses testifying against Hinton is Cornwell, a member of the violent Morning Glory bank robbery gang that, during a crime spree from 1994 to 2000, committed more than a dozen carjackings and stole more than $3 million from 16 metro banks. Other felons expected to testify against Hinton are repeat offenders, including a gunrunner who robbed post-office clerks with a machine gun; a fraudster; and drug traffickers serving sentences ranging from 15 to 33 years. According to court records, many owe thousands of dollars in restitution to the federal government. Melendi’s father for years has offered a $10,000 reward for information about his missing daughter. He told the student newspaper at Emory University last year that he would pay inmates at Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina � where Hinton was incarcerated � for information. Bernstein warned the jury that Melendi’s disappearance, for years, remained a high-profile case in the national media, including multiple features on “America’s Most Wanted” that singled out Hinton as the primary suspect. “They knew this was something the government wanted to know,” Bernstein said. “Early on in this investigation, the state had a target, and the target was Butch Hinton.” “You will not like Mr. Hinton,” she told jurors. “I’m not asking you to like Mr. Hinton.” But, she said, “don’t close your mind.” R. Robin McDonald is a reporter with Fulton County Daily Report, a Recorder affiliate based in Atlanta.

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