Jeffrey Mellott figured he’d seen the worst of life’s horrors as a child abuse detective in Baltimore. Then one Christmas Eve, a nurse handed him the dead baby Rose.
Some days you never forget as a cop. The detective won’t forget, not on any Christmas Eve hereafter, his awful duty to carry out her little body as evidence of a felony.
In the child abuse unit of the Baltimore Police, there’s neither the slap-the-cuffs action of narcotics nor the prestige of homicide. The work means coloring beside a 4-year-old girl and praying to God she names the bad man who touched her, so you can haul another pervert off the street. Here, detectives have cracked cases with crayons.
It is a quiet counterpoint to policing a city consumed by the homicide count. These are the unspoken crimes: not mentioned in speeches, unknown to the people. But for a small, devoted band of detectives, these are the cases that haunt their days, that they see at night when they shut their eyes, that make them believe in real evil. In this darkness, Mellott found his purpose.
One year after he met Rose, he stands up in a Baltimore courtroom to speak for her.
Cops don’t usually make a victim impact statement. That’s for families to tell the judge how a crime has affected them. In hundreds of cases, Mellott never spoke until now.
He says the nurses sent him off with Rose in a Tupperware-like bin, her body still warm.
“After I submitted baby Rose to evidence control, I go home,” he tells the judge. “I can’t even go in my house. I can’t face my children. I can’t face my grandson. I’m crying. I’m beating the stuffing out of my steering wheel.”
The prosecutor bows her head; Mellott’s trying to stay composed. In silence sits a 37-year-old house painter who raped and impregnated his own daughter. Doctors found birth defects in their baby and worried the child would die without costly, long-term care. The teen mother made a wrenching decision to abort her baby Rose.
“These cases rip the guts out of everybody,” Mellott tells the judge. “I’m begging you, please. This court needs to make a statement — the maximum. The absolute maximum needs to be handed to this man.”
Finished, he sits. Was it enough?
At 58, Mellott looks like a cop: flattop haircut, broad shoulders and those busy eyes. Out at lunch, he notices who walks in.
He’s a talker, without question, and fluent in that blend of banter, shoptalk, wisecracks, charm and wit that’s dished by barbers and barkeeps. The detective moonlights as a Baltimore Police hostage negotiator. Still, he’s tender with a tortured kid. Leave the Joe Friday just-the-facts routine for a homicide detective. “Papa Jeff” has a bedside manner.
Police work was a second, third — no, fourth — act for him. The father of four had been an engine mechanic, stay-at-home dad, graphic designer and patrol officer. In the academy, they called him “the old man.” Then a freak accident ended his days as a street cop.
According to the police department account, Mellott was chasing a suspected drug dealer in late 2011 and plunged through some bushes. He never saw the electrical wires. BOOM!
When he measures the past, he sees life has a way of leading a man to where he’s most needed. By spring of 2014, he was walking again — a surgical device implanted in his back for his damaged nerves — and he had decided, almost on a whim, to try another sort of police work. Mellott drove up Charles Street, parked and stepped inside an old college dorm: the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
The center opened in 1985 after officials realized that a barrage of questions by social workers, nurses, police and prosecutors dragged a child through abuse again and again. Now, there’s one interview. A specially trained social worker wears an earpiece to ask the questions. Detectives watch on closed-circuit TV down the hall. In one year, they may see 1,800 kids.
Mellott hadn’t faced anything like this.
The detective learned that when a baby is shaken to death, tiny blood vessels burst around the eyes. His clues became not fingerprints or bullets, but this telltale red spotting.
He learned toddlers don’t burn their bottoms by falling into the tub; they’re lowered into the scalding water. Spiral bone fractures don’t come from tumbles, but yanks.
Mellott learned children suffer unthinkable acts, like the 18-month-old girl tortured nearly to death by her mommy. The woman who suffocated her daughter with a dry cleaner’s bag, hanged her with a red extension cord, then sent the videos to taunt her ex. The detective won’t forget the video — a bag over the little girl’s face, her tiny gasps fogging the plastic.
Worse yet, the sex cases. Some things you can’t unsee.
The detective sat with child molesters for hours — stifling his anger and disgust — to tease out a confession, even holding one perp’s hand as the man broke down, sobbing, saying he couldn’t resist the little girl who climbed on his lap. One more predator locked up.
Mellott learned to slow down and be meticulous. There’s no statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
Years after a 13-year-old girl was impregnated and whisked off for an abortion, Mellott got the case. He subpoenaed her medical records, then drove to the hospital and found, stashed away, a lab specimen of the fetus, enough for a DNA test and rape charges against her stepfather.
His captain nominated him for an award.
“He’s a hell of an investigator,” Capt. Keith Harrison said.
Still, child abuse cases wear on the soul. Mellott didn’t bring home silly stories, not anymore. When asked about his day, he was vague. A bad guy hurt a little girl, that’s all. Once his daughter Audrey was fundraising for children in Haiti, and she left her money box on the kitchen table. The cover showed a bone-thin girl, her hands cupped, begging for rice. Mellott turned it face down.
Another day, he sat Audrey down to ask for her blessing, and later, for his wife’s approval. He wanted to foster a little girl sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. It would be a big change, he said. But social workers turned them down because they live outside the city.
Some nights he would come home but seem far away. How many times did his wife Shelly wake to hear him rumble off on a midnight motorcycle ride?
She always wanted him to do something else. “But he loves it so much, I feel bad asking him.”
He found escape on the farm where Shelly boards horses. A man can switch off his mind while mowing fields for six hours: Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring in his ears, John Deere thrumming under his legs, or when he’s in the quiet presence of a horse.
Then came the awful months — one dead kid after another. The detective had enough; he wanted out of child abuse. His transfer papers were approved “pending suitable replacement,” which never came. The bullies and rapists had not gone away, but the detectives had. The squads had been battered by attrition. The child abuse unit had shrunk by two-thirds, down to about eight cops, too few to leave.
“As a commander, you look at burnout,” said Maj. Steve Hohman, who oversees child abuse and other special-victims units. “What takes it out of them the most is the close relationship with the victims and the suspects. Cops can wrap their heads around some deranged jack--- stranger who’s going to hurt somebody. It’s real hard to wrap your head around when it’s an uncle or father.”
Mellott trudged on. When the office phone rang, they checked a clipboard on the wall. It held the roster of detectives, the batting order of a dwindling team. “Who’s up?”
Detectives drop everything for a “red ball” case. That’s cop slang for an urgent call. Usually, they have 120 hours — five days, that’s all — to collect DNA evidence from an abused child, so the other cases must wait. Some weeks, they can only keep up with the red balls. It’s police work as triage.
Each shift brought the chance for some fresh horror, and Sept. 11, 2017 was no exception.
The phone rang. Who’s up?
A 14-year-old girl had told her grandmother that her estranged father was taking her inside a boarded rowhouse near Carroll Park and raping her. The girl had hid her pregnancy for six months.
Her baby risked birth defects — children do when conceived by incest — and doctors found a hole in the baby’s spine. They told her it was spina bifida; her daughter likely wouldn’t survive. The teen disapproved of abortion but couldn’t afford lifesaving care. She decided there was no other way, so they made the plans. Doctors would give her pills to stop the heartbeat. The little body would become police evidence.
When the time came and the hospital called, Mellott was home asleep. Down the hall slept his grown children, all back for their holiday tradition to spend the night and sip mimosas at breakfast. The detective dressed in the dark and slipped out. It was about 3 a.m., Christmas Eve.
His partner and sergeant got the call, too. As they each drove downtown, the doctors induced labor. In the maternity room later, the young mother — just a child herself — was cuddling her dead baby, Rose. Nurses had wrapped the tiny body in swaddling blankets anyway.
See my baby Rose? the girl asked, crying.
Mellott froze. She was rocking the body, just like any mother.
“I’m thinking, I can’t do this,” he remembers. “What are you supposed to say?”
He blurted, it’s a beautiful name. The police officers backed out to wait in the hall.
In a grim reality of law enforcement, little Rose was evidence of a felony crime. Mellott must follow procedure; he must chaperone the dead baby.
He stood by as a minister came to baptize the little body, then he followed the nurses when they pushed the bassinet down the hall, when they dabbed the baby’s foot in ink and rolled a print. They wrote not a birth, but a death certificate.
One year later in January, Mellott stands in the Baltimore courtroom saying he won’t ever forget the nightmare. He wants the judge to know what happened next, when time came for him to collect the evidence.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life: They hand me the child!” His voice rising, pleading, he went on. “I said, ‘I cannot walk out of this hospital with this. Are you kidding me? Please.’”
The nurses tried to help; they brought him something.
“The container, your honor, was almost like a large tub of french fries. It was a plastic, translucent, Tupperware."
He eased the baby into a white pillow case. Then carefully, so carefully, he carried out the tub into the cold December sunrise; the little body inside felt warm. The cops drove to the evidence lab only to find it closed for a few hours. Mellott spent Christmas Eve morning waiting in his office with a dead baby in a tub on his desk.
“I know this isn’t about me,” he tells the judge, “but these cases impact so many people.”
Now the grandmother is crying in the back of the courtroom. The teen mother, who can’t bear to listen, waits in the hall. And the father-rapist — bald and bearded, in a yellow jumpsuit and shackles — stands to ask for mercy. As his lawyer says, he himself was abused at age 6 by his mother’s boyfriend.
The judge must decide between 20 and 60 years.
Circuit Judge Jeffrey Geller had frustrated police recently by ordering a young man with a gun to probation instead of prison. Prosecutors worried the judge would be soft on the rapist.
“This is one of the more horrific things that I’ve seen on the bench,” Geller tells them.
He hands down the full 60 years. Satisfied, Mellott walks out.
His partner, Det. Shawntad Randall, is waiting with the car. “You did it, partner,” she says.
It was one of his last acts as a cop.
Now he’s six months into the early retirement he didn’t ask for. When the surgical device began to fail — the battery burning up, his lower back inflamed — retirement was not a choice but an order.
“Can you please listen to what the universe is telling you?” Shelly told him. “It’s saying, ‘Stop.’”
So he’s mending horse fences, laying tile in the basement, taking the newspaper up to the elderly widow on the street. He stashed away his detective's notebook, the one he kept on his nightstand. He’s sleeping well, the first time in years. And yet, his days feel empty.
Mellott thought of the tired detectives, the crush of red ball cases, the beaten babies and grisly sex crimes, all warranting no mention — as if they never happened — in a murderous city. He knew police and prosecutors hire civilian investigators, too. He made up his mind.
He thought of one little girl — scared and sexually abused, the one he tried to foster — and how she reached up to take his hand. How tiny her hand felt. How tightly she held on.
He has applied to go back.