Today Anna shares the insane story of Melinda Elkins and her fight to free her wrongfully convicted husband Clarence Elkins.
Today I am going to talk to you about one bad ass women, Melinda Elkins. Hannah’s previous TC101 reminded me of this story. She is not the victim in our story or the murderer. Let me start from the beginning.
Now this part does not relate directly to the crime, but it does come into play, and it’s just another insane element of this story.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, Dr. Thomas Hicks, a doctor in McCaysville, Ga., sold babies out of the back door of his office. As part of his practice, Hicks performed abortions, which were illegal at the time. But sometimes, when women came to him for an abortion, he instead coaxed them to carry their babies to term — then took the infants and sold them any where from $100 to $1000 to couples who couldn’t afford the traditional methods of adoption as it can be quite expensive. You would also be rejected for adoption if you were divorced or did not own a home. He sold nearly 200 babies this way, and most of the families were clueless to his dark methods. There was also some evidence that he told some birth parent’s babies died and then sold them to the desperate couples looking to adopt. Dark shit.
Judith (Judy) Johnson and her husband were one of those couples, and in the 1960s the couple applied for adoption through a work colleague and the clinic in McCaysville, Georgia.
Their instructions were to get to Georgia in 12 hours, come in pick up the baby, sign the birth certificate and head out the back door and leave town immediately.
Dr Hicks told them that the fee for this was $1000 to cover the birth mother’s expenses. Off they went to Georgia and brought home baby Melinda.
It was not until many years later when these crimes came to light that they realised Melinda was a “Hick’s baby” as they became known.
In April 1998, Judy and Melinda appeared on the Maury Povich show on a episode featuring the Hick’s babies. Unfortunately, Judy would not get to see her episode air.
Let us fast forward to June 7, 1998. Six-year-old Brooke Sutton was spending the night with her grandmother, Judy Johnson. Melinda also had a sister and Brooke was her daughter. Brooke stayed with Judy a lot as she helped look after her after school and she would stay the night. Brooke later said it was a normal evening, she watched a show with Judy and then went to sleep in her grandmother’s bed. However, she was awakened in the night. An intruder had entered the home and was attacking Judy. Brooke heard the noise and creeped out to the kitchen and saw a man. She ran back into the bedroom and got under the covers. Sadly, Judy was very brutally attacked, raped and killed. The intruder then went to the bedroom and found Brooke and attacked her as well. Brooke lost consciousness. She regained consciousness a few hours later at 7am with no memory of the attacked she suffered. She then went to the phone and called her neighbour; the neighbour did not answer so she left the following message.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but my grandma died, and I need somebody to get my mom for me. I’m all alone. Somebody killed my grandma. Now please, would you get a hold of me as soon as you can. Bye.”
Brooke then walked to her neighbour’s house. She knocked on the door of Tonia Brasie. The neighbour answered the door and looked at the child and said she was cooking breakfast for her children and left bruised and bloody Brooke standing on the porch for 45 minutes in her nightgown. Remember that. She then finally takes her home and the police are called. When the police questioned Brooke, she said that the killer “looked like Uncle Clarence” – Mrs. Johnson’s 35-year-old son-in-law, Clarence Elkins. The police interpreted this to mean Elkins himself was the attacker. Brasiel also reported to Brooke’s mother that Brooke had identified Elkins as the attacker. Years later, Brooke said she had grave doubts about the identification at the time but went along with it. “I just wasn’t sure it was Uncle Clarence or not,” Brooke said. “But I was too afraid to say anything”.
This is when Melinda’s life changed forever. The Police came to her house and in at the same time she found out her mother had been brutally attacked and murdered, her niece attacked, and then they arrested her husband for the crime. “That pain was unbearable, and I just screamed, you can’t wrap your head around that,” Melinda said.
“They had Clarence in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car. At that point they took him, and he never came back home.”
Brooke later described the situation on Larry King: “I woke up and I found my grandma dead, I went to a next-door neighbour’s house and I told her that it looked like my uncle Clarence and it sounded like him. So, she took me home and she told my mom that — what I told her and then everyone just started freaking out. And then my mom and dad called the police, and my mom and dad told the police that it was my uncle Clarence who did it.” When asked how the identification could go so wrong, she replied, “Well, I told people that it looked like him and they just went like it was him. They did not even listen to what I was saying.” We must remember she was 6 years old.
But Melinda didn’t buy it. Clarence had a solid alibi – he was never alone that night, there was no physical evidence and she just couldn’t believe, after almost two decades of marriage, that he could be responsible for such a devastating act.
At the time, both Judy and Melinda had received strange phone calls calling for punishment after going public with the Hicks Baby controversy and Melinda was terrified, she was next.
At trial, the prosecution theorized that Elkins killed his mother-in-law due to frustration because she was meddling in his then-contentious marriage to her daughter, Melinda. The case against Elkins was largely based on the testimony of Brooke. Investigators did not find signs of forced entry, or fingerprints or DNA linking Elkins to the scene. Hairs recovered from Johnson’s body were excluded as having come from either Elkins or Johnson. He insisted he was drinking with friends until about 2:40 a.m. Sunday morning, a timeline that Melinda corroborated. She testified that she saw Clarence return home, and knew he remained there, as she was awake most of the night caring for a sick child. The attack occurred sometime between 2:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.; Johnson’s residence is more than an hour away by car. Elkins’s alibi was also corroborated by his neighbours and friends.
Based on the testimony of Brooke identifying him as her attacker, he was convicted on June 10, 1999 of murder, attempted aggravated murder, two counts of rape by force or threat of force, and felonious assault, and sentenced to two terms of life-imprisonment.
Melinda found herself all alone. Her mother had died. Her sister and family completely turned their backs on her and wanted nothing to do with her at all as they though she was lying and covering for Clarence.
“For a minute I may have flopped into a ball, but I had two sons. That was my main objective, to take care of my children. I don’t think I processed it for a long time, I went into survival mode.” Said Melinda
She made a vow to find out who had actually killed her mother.
3 days after Judy’s murder, she made a list of suspects and she came up with 12 total. She knew she was going to have to find a DNA match, as Clarence’s DNA was already cleared and did not match.
Over the next six years she set about getting DNA samples from her list of 12. She flirted with men at strip clubs and pull-out strands of hair directly from their head without them knowing. She went to bars and would chat with them.
Everyone’s DNA was preserved, either from a discarded beer bottle, cigarette butt or hair root. Melinda wasn’t sure how she was going to get the specimens tested, or how long it would take, so her freezer became a laboratory of DNA samples.
She realised she needed some help. She contacted private investigator, Martin Yant. Yant was known to help with the exonerations of numerous wrongfully convicted defendants. He also urged Melinda to reconnect with her sister.
Melinda finally went to her sister’s house after 4 years and at first her sister turned away, but then came back to the door. A reconciliation began.
Brooke – who was now 10 – confessed her uncertainty, stating, “It couldn’t have been Clarence. The person that hurt me and me-maw had brown eyes. And Clarence has blue eyes.”
Clarence’s attorney interviewed Brooke on camera where she recanted her earlier implication of Elkins. Clarence appealed his conviction with this new evidence. The judge believed the child had been coached by relatives after the reconciliation; the appeal was denied.
After the failed appeal, they decided to retest the evidence for DNA. The court ruled that Melinda could have access to DNA recovered from the scene, but she would have to pay the costs of DNA testing. Melinda raised almost $40,000 on her own before asking the Ohio Innocence Project for assistance. They convinced a laboratory in Texas to test two samples for $25,000, half their normal price. The results excluded Clarence Elkins. Clarence appealed the conviction again on the basis of the new DNA evidence. The court ruled that because a jury convicted him without DNA evidence, they would have convicted him even if it didn’t match. That appeal was denied.
Melinda was livid. Clarence had been in prison for six years by this stage.
One morning, Melinda picked up a copy of Ohio newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal on the way to work.
There, on the front page, was the neighbour whom Brooke had run to all those years ago. The neighbour who had made Brooke wait 45 minutes on the front porch before letting her in: Tonia Brasiel. The story gave Melinda red flags. The neighbour, along with partner, Earl Gene Mann, were charged with child rape of their own children.
Melinda had never heard Mann’s name before and as they weren’t married didn’t realise Braisel had a common law husband. She realised it had been forgotten that Braisel had actually left the bloodied and brusied child who was in need of urgent medical care outside for 45 minutes.
Upon further investigation, Earl Mann was a convicted rapist and had previous convictions for attacking the elderly. Earl Mann had been released form prison on the 3rd June. Melinda says Earl went “AWOL” on June 4 and disappeared. Judy was murdered three days later, on June 7.
Melinda began to track Earl Mann and discovered the terrifying realisation that he was incarcerated at Mansfield Correctional Institution, a mixed-security state prison for men in Ohio.
It was the same prison where her husband Clarence was being held for Judy’s murder. She could not prove it yet, but she was sure she had her killer.
Melinda had been still collect DNA up until she realised it was Mann who was the killer. SO she started trying to write him letters in prison to get him to write back and get his DNA on the envelope, but that was unsuccessful.
One day she finally came face to face with Mann. She went to visit Clarence in prison and told him she was sure it was him who was the real killer and asked if he knew him. Clarence motioned that he was sitting right across the room.
Earl Mann had tried to buddy up to Clarence in jail.
He’d say, ‘I know that you’re innocent’ and try to shake his hand and be a buddy to him. Clarence said there was always something about Earl that bothered him. He wouldn’t have anything to do with him.
But this strange coincidence turned out to be a life-changing opportunity for Clarence. Melinda knew he had to somehow get a sample of Earl Mann’s DNA.
“I said to Clarence, ‘you’ve got to get something from him’,” Melinda said.
Clarence was sceptical, but Melinda insisted and convinced Clarence to steal one of his cigarette butts.
One day, he walked into a common area, and there was Earl Mann, smoking a cigarette. When he walked away, Clarence got his sample. He hid it in his bible for two weeks, wrapped it in paper and sent it to his lawyer. The day after Clarence got the sample, Earl Mann attacked another inmate with a lock inside of a sock. He was moved to another prison.
The DNA was tested against the crime scene DNA. It was a perfect match.
Earl G. Mann was born in Melbourne, Florida, before relocating to Ohio. He had an extensive criminal record for crimes ranging from a racially motivated assault on another man to robberies. During 2002, Mann was convicted of raping three girls, his daughters, all under the age of 10. He had three children with Tonia Brasiel, who lived next door to Judith Johnson. Brooke frequently played with their daughters.
In 2005, after Mann was identified as a suspect, Barberton police officer Gerard Antenucci brought to the attention of the prosecution the existence of a memorandum from 1999, four months before Elkins’ trial. Antenucci arrested Mann for an unrelated robbery. During the process of his arrest, a drunk and belligerent Mann asked why he hadn’t been arrested for the murder of Judy Johnson. Per policy, the arresting officer sent a memo to the detectives working the Johnson murder. This statement was never disclosed to the defence.
After Mann was identified, Brasiel admitted during questioning that Mann returned home the early morning hours after the murder with deep scratches on his back. When she questioned him, he claimed he’d been with a “wild woman”. According to Brasiel, when Brooke knocked on the door following the attack, he became angry and insisted that Brasiel not let her in nor call police.
Melinda Elkins has stated that she suspects Brasiel may have influenced Brooke’s identification of Clarence. Brasiel was the first person to hear the six-year-old’s alleged identification of Elkins. Despite Mann’s suspicious behaviour that morning, Brasiel reported to Brooke’s mother, after driving Brooke home, that the child had named Clarence as the attacker. Brasiel testified at Elkins’s trial that the child had told her that Clarence was the perpetrator.
Despite the DNA evidence connecting Mann to the murder, the district attorney refused to release Elkins. Elkins’s attorney contacted Ohio State Attorney General Jim Petro. Petro personally contacted prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, on several occasions, regarding the case. He similarly discovered that she was not interested in reviewing the case. Petro then took the unorthodox action of having a press conference, in order to publicly pressure the prosecutor to dismiss the charges. The prosecutors performed more DNA testing of hairs found at the scene, and again, Mann was identified.
On December 15, 2005, the charges against Elkins were dismissed, and he was released from prison.
Melinda and her whole family, including her sister and niece, picked Clarence up that day.
In 2008, ten years after the crimes were committed, in a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty, Mann pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated rape and aggravated murder for the death of Johnson, as well as aggravated rape of Brooke. He was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison, and will not be eligible for parole until age 92.
It took Melinda seven and a half years to clear her husband’s name.
Unfortunately, Melinda and Clarence did later divorce. She said “ It was a lot to come back from”. They have since remarried other people.
Clarence went on to received settlements from the Barberton Police and the state of Ohio. They’ve both also gone on to work on criminal justice reform, and Clarence speaks around the county.