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Column

Hosey: Getting away with murder? Cops say they know who's the killer, just can't prove it

It was just a few days after they found a mother of three stabbed to death in a field along Broadway that the cops named her boyfriend as their prime suspect in the killing. That’s going to be 12 years ago in a little more than a week. The police have never charged him or anyone else with the murder.

“Unfortunately, it’s just one of those cases,” Deputy Chief Rick Ackerson of the Will County Sheriff’s Office said of the investigation into the July 2005 death of Melissa Mitchell.

“We know who did it,” Ackerson said, “but we can’t prove it.”

The police named Mitchell’s boyfriend, Julio Alex Montenegro, as their suspect in her murder less than a week after her body was found. Over the years, they stuck with that theory, at one point saying he was the only one they were looking at.

Reached by phone a few days ago, Montenegro said he hadn’t given much thought to Mitchell lately, even with the anniversary of his former girlfriend’s sudden and violent death looming.

“I have no thoughts on anything due to the fact that my life has been pretty much ruined by what you’ve been writing,” Montenegro, 46, complained. He did say, if he had the chance, he would tell Mitchell’s family, “Sorry for your loss.”

The last time she was seen alive, Mitchell was drinking at Zelmo’s Full Moon Saloon on Plainfield Road with her friend and roommate, Josie Earling, Earling said in 2006.

Earling said Montenegro pulled up to the bar on his motorcycle about midnight. Earling also said she didn’t recall talking to Mitchell when she left Zelmo’s for the night, But she did remember how Montenegro, just a few hours later, started calling her cellphone and asking her whether she had seen Mitchell. Montenegro informed her, Earling said, that Mitchell tried walking away from him down the street, but he followed her on his motorcycle.

Montenegro supposedly persuaded Mitchell to get on his motorcycle near the Mobil station a few blocks away, Earling remembered him telling her, but then she suddenly leaped off the back of the bike and “went running behind the houses.”

The next day, Montenegro reported Mitchell as missing to the Lockport police. According to the police report, Montenegro claimed that after Mitchell got off his motorcycle, he “stopped his bike, put the kickstand down, and went after his girlfriend, but ... she disappeared in between two houses, and that is the last he [saw] of her.”

A worker from Midwest Generation found Mitchell’s body while he was inspecting the power plant’s railroad tracks where they run through the Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve a couple of days later. She was face-up in a field of cattails a few hundred yards from the state police headquarters on Broadway. She had been stabbed five times in the neck and once more in the shoulder, and her arms were bruised. She was 31.

Ten years later, Montenegro was charged with shoplifting from a Menards. When Mitchell’s daughter, Melanie Mitchell, found out, she called the police to see what they could tell her about her mother’s case.

Melanie Mitchell and her family hadn’t heard from the cops in a while, and detectives weren’t too interested in talking to her then either. One left a voicemail saying they “have had zero new leads” and “no further information” to give her. But when Melanie Mitchell requested the police reports for her mother’s case, she was told she can’t have them because the investigation is still active.

“It’s been 12 years,” Melanie Mitchell said. “It doesn’t seem they’re working on it.”

Ackerson said that, about the same time Montenegro was charged with shoplifting, someone came forward and claimed to have information on Mitchell’s murder. The unidentified informant was interviewed, Ackerson said, and this led to a great deal of old evidence getting sent for additional DNA testing.

None of the tests have so far shown anything helpful, Ackerson said, but some of the evidence still has yet to be re-examined. And while there hasn’t been much done with the case in recent years, he said there are plans to assign two new detectives to it.

“It’s active but it’s not,” Ackerson said of the investigation’s current status.

Melanie Mitchell remembers her father telling her how detectives said Drew Peterson’s murder case might be the key to making an arrest in connection with her mother’s slaying, that if hearsay testimony could be used to convict Peterson of drowning his third wife, Kathleen Savio, then it could be used against her mother’s killer as well.

Peterson was found guilty on hearsay in 2012. Melissa Mitchell was only dead seven years then.

Melanie Mitchell said she and her family have been frustrated by the lack of action and detectives’ reluctance to let them know what they have been doing for the last 12 years.

Montenegro also seemed less than pleased, unhappy that his name comes up in connection with Melissa Mitchell’s murder. It was a long time ago, he said, and he doesn’t “have any idea” who might have killed her.

“If I did,” he said, “would anyone believe me?”

• Joe Hosey is the news editor at The Herald-News and can be reached at jhosey@shawmedia.com or at 815-280-4094.

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