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Columbia Daily Tribune
Mother questions police officer’s death
By T.J. Greaney Columbia Daily Tribune
Sunday, November 14, 2010
On the evening of March 1, 2008, Melissa Winnie, a Holts Summit police officer with a promising career, reportedly walked into the backyard of an Audrain County farmhouse and took her own life.
The weapon she used was the service revolver of her girlfriend, Karen Giboney, who was a Mexico, Mo., public safety detective. Giboney was asleep upstairs at the time, sick with the flu. She said she did not hear the single shot Winnie dispatched into her right temple.
It appeared to be a clear-cut suicide and a tragic end to the life of a 29-year-old woman who had been diagnosed with major depression and panic disorder.
But more than two years later, the investigation into Winnie’s death remains open. It has been declared a suicide by the coroner and stated as such by the county sheriff. Still, two county prosecutors have examined the case and found neither enough evidence to charge a suspect nor enough certainty to close the case.
Audrain County Sheriff Stuart Miller said the case will remain open for the foreseeable future.
“The evidence that we have leads us to believe that Melissa Winnie killed herself,” Miller said. “Her mother, like most parents, doesn’t want to believe that, so we’ve left the case open. If more evidence develops, we’ll follow through with the leads. And if that evidence leads us to a suspect and we can tie that suspect to the crime, we’ll change our thinking from a suicide to a homicide.”
But the victim’s mother, Joanna Winnie, is firm in her belief that her daughter’s death was a murder and part of a larger conspiracy. She is planning to sue both the Audrain County sheriff and the coroner for “not doing their jobs.”
Giboney, who still lives in the rural home where the death occurred, said a cloud of suspicion hangs over her head because the case was never closed. She said she is treated like a murderer by people in her town.
“I go into the hardware store and people ask, ‘Are you out on bail?’ ” Giboney said.
After losing her job in the aftermath of the death, Giboney said she has been effectively black-balled from finding another job in law enforcement.
Bob Westfall, a former highway patrolman and friend of Winnie’s, said the investigation was “botched.” He points particularly to the lack of an autopsy on the victim as evidence of a careless, superficial job. Lee Elliot, the prosecutor now charged with examining the case, said he does not have any active leads to follow, but he concedes there are numerous unusual aspects to the case.
“There are a thousand unanswered questions,” said Elliot, prosecuting attorney for Montgomery County. “But I can’t make a case out of unanswered questions.”
So what really happened in the days leading up to Winnie’s death and the investigation that followed? The Tribune was granted access to the case file and reviewed hundreds of pages of interviews and investigative reports. That, in combination with independent interviews, revealed the following account.
Melissa Winnie grew up in Miami, Okla., one of four children. A rosy-cheeked, outgoing girl, she was a self-described “wild child” before enrolling in the Southeast Missouri State University Law Enforcement Academy. Once there, she outperformed her mostly male counterparts and graduated as valedictorian in 2004.
After the academy, she joined the East Central Drug Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional operation including Audrain, Montgomery and Pike counties. The work involved long stretches of time undercover and association with unsavory characters. The first year on the job, Winnie was virtually alone in Pike County, developing contacts in the narcotics world.
“You’ve got to understand, 80 percent of the life of a narc is spent in the bars and partying,” Giboney said. “It’s not for everyone.”
Winnie told her mother she found the work very lonely.
“She said, ‘Mom, the only people I meet are buying drugs from me, or I’m buying drugs from them,” Joanna Winnie recalled. “I can’t meet any nice people.”
But she was also one of the most productive members of the task force. At the time of her death, there were 30 cases involving 45 defendants that had to be dropped because of the loss of her eye-witness testimony, according to published reports.
“She was making more dope cases then the rest of the task force combined,” said Westfall, a former investigator for the Audrain County prosecutor’s office.
But straddling the line between right and wrong proved difficult. According to multiple accounts, Winnie drank heavily and engaged in casual sex with other task force members. Near the end of 2007, Winnie filed a sexual harassment complaint against a superior officer, saying he had instructed her to have sex with an informant in exchange for the man’s testimony.
In an interview with the Tribune, Sheriff Miller acknowledged the harassment complaint but declined to state the specifics of the charges. Miller said the superior officer was forced to resign.
Winnie told friends and family that, after the harassment complaint, the work environment became hostile. Task force members shunned her, and she was assigned long, arduous hours. In early 2008, Winnie decided to leave the task force and joined the Holts Summit Police Department as an overnight road officer.
But she kept one contact from her old job. During her time at the task force, Winnie had become involved romantically with Giboney, a Mexico Department of Public Safety detective who specialized in child abuse cases. They had met professionally and had started going to movies together to unwind. The two had cemented their bond by buying a house together in Mexico that they were planning to rehab and “flip” for a profit.
But in the months preceding Winnie’s death, their relationship had become strained. Giboney said Winnie had become convinced that she was being unfaithful to her, focusing on Dallis Shangraw, an ex-girlfriend of Giboney’s.
Joanna Winnie said that during a Thanksgiving visit to Oklahoma, Giboney appeared possessive and didn’t want Winnie spending time with her childhood friends. Their relationship had become off-again, on-again and, according to a friend’s statement to police, the two women had agreed to break up in the near future if things didn’t improve.
The stressors in Winnie’s life came to a head on Feb. 16 when she abruptly left her shift at Holts Summit in the middle of the night and drove to her parents’ home in Oklahoma. Joanna Winnie said her daughter arrived in the early morning hours in a state of panic.
“I’ve never seen her like that. She was afraid,” Joanna Winnie said. “She wouldn’t tell me who she was afraid of. She said, ‘Mom, it has to do with work, I can’t get into it.’ ”
But records of Winnie’s psychological care at that time reveal a woman deep in the throes of panic attacks. On Feb. 22, reports indicate, she drove to the Ozark Center in Joplin for a “crisis appointment.” There Winnie told a doctor she had suffered panic attacks since she was a child but recently found the combined weight of uncontrollable panic and obsessive compulsive tendencies affecting her job.
“It hits me so hard,” she told the doctor.
The doctor diagnosed her with major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder. He prescribed two drugs: fluoxetine and clonazepam. Under the brand name Prozac, fluoxetine has been shown to produce suicidal impulses in some rare cases. Joanna Winnie, a trained psychiatric nurse, said Melissa Winnie had taken Prozac in the past without any problems.
Doctors determined Winnie was not a threat to herself or others and allowed her to continue treatment on an outpatient basis. She made an appointment to see a Columbia doctor three days later but never followed through on it.
Instead, Winnie’s life continued to spin out of control.
On Feb. 25, Winnie spent six hours testifying in a Warren County courtroom in drug cases. While driving home on Highway 54, another bizarre incident occurred when, according to a Missouri State Highway Patrol report, Winnie crossed a lane of traffic in her Honda Accord and rammed into a semi truck. Winnie’s car became lodged underneath the truck between the cab and the trailer and both vehicles came to rest on the shoulder.
Westfall, who reconstructs accidents professionally, said Winnie hired him days later to investigate the crash. She seemed obsessed with it.
“Melissa seemed to place more emphasis on that accident than what any officer should place on an accident,” Westfall said. “She was rattled by it.”
Giboney now believes this was Winnie’s first suicide attempt. Joanna Winnie believes it is evidence someone was trying to harm her daughter.
Still, in the final days of February, Winnie’s family noticed her mood had improved. Winnie received a $10,000 check from her grandfather, a wealthy leather manufacturer, and her mother made plans to come up the next week and celebrate her birthday together. Giboney said the couple had talked about using the money to pay for in vitro fertilization to have a child.
Another close friend from Oklahoma reported that in one of her final phone conversations, Winnie was tearful over her relationship with Giboney, which she believed was crumbling, but she was still looking toward the future. The friend told police that Winnie discussed moving back to Oklahoma, entering beauty school and “starting over.”
On March 1, a Saturday, Giboney was ill. It was still a wintry cold morning, dipping several degrees below freezing before warming up to 50 degrees that afternoon. Giboney spent most of the day under the covers with a fever of 103 degrees, drifting in and out of a sleepy haze. At midday, Winnie brought a television from downstairs up to the bedroom, and the two watched the film “American Gangster” together.
Giboney said sometime between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. she awoke and Winnie told her, “I’m sorry you’re sick.”
“It’s not your fault,” Giboney responded.
Both women said, “I love you.” Those were the last words she said she ever heard from her girlfriend.
At about 5:30 p.m. Giboney said she woke up to the sound of the phone ringing incessantly. Giboney said it was odd in her house for the phone to ring more than once or twice.
“The only way I can explain it is Melissa was like a teenager when it came to the phone,” Giboney said. “She was the type to hip-check you so she could get there first.”
It dawned on Giboney that something was wrong. After taking a cell phone call from her son who was checking on her, she walked downstairs and came upon the horrific scene. Winnie was lying in the yard just steps from the back porch, her bare toes curled and caked with mud. Lying at her right side was Giboney’s .40-caliber semiautomatic service revolver.
“It was one of those things where you’ve got the reality of what you know versus the reality of what you’re seeing,” Giboney said. “And you don’t want it to mesh.”
From that moment, the straightforward suicide took some detours. Giboney called 911 at 5:34 p.m. and, although she was told by the dispatcher to stay on the line while police were routed there, she hung up the phone. She later told investigators that she was wearing “only shorts” at the time and needed to get dressed before emergency workers arrived 13 minutes later.
At 5:39 p.m., Giboney’s ex-girlfriend Dallis Shangraw called without knowledge of the death. Hospital records show Shangraw was suffering from pneumonia and was discharged from the Audrain Medical Center at 4:45 p.m.
Shangraw drove to the scene and called a mutual friend, Westfall, who also arrived. Westfall, a former highway patrolman who said he has worked numerous homicides, said Giboney was distraught.
“Karen was sitting on the front concrete porch when I arrived,” Westfall said. “Now, I don’t want to insult you, but she’s more of a man than you and I put together. She’s great in a bar fight. But she was extremely upset when I got there. And I’ve never seen her that shaken before.”
Audrain County sheriff’s deputies interviewed all present. They tested the hands of both Giboney and Shangraw for gunshot residue. Both came back negative. Winnie’s right hand came back positive for gunshot residue.
But there were question marks. In a police report, Sgt. James Shrader noted that he found it unusual that there was no blood on Winnie’s body, something typically found in the case of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. An investigator with the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office later said this likely occurred because Winnie fell backward.
Another officer, Maj. Don Uhey, later noted “stippling” around the wound. This is typically seen in wounds where the gun is held 6 inches or more away from the head.
A “trace metals” analysis conducted on Winnie’s hands came back negative. The trace metals detection technique is used to determine whether a subject has handled a gun recently, but because Giboney’s Springfield Armory pistol had a polymer frame, the analysis might have been useless.
Another officer, Cpl. Amy Clark one of the first on the scene who took dozens of photos of the body said in a report that it appeared “the body had been there for quite some time.”
But Miller said reports from his deputies said the wound on Winnie’s head was unequivocally a “contact wound.” The Montgomery County investigator said there was a partial powder burn around the wound, evidence Winnie might have pulled it back from her temple at the last moment.
And Audrain County Coroner Pat Farnen believed from the beginning that it was a straightforward suicide. Farnen did not conduct an autopsy on the body, and no ballistics tests were ever conducted on the gun to prove definitively it was the weapon used in Winnie’s shooting. Not even the bullet was ever recovered from the scene.
Farnen’s decision to forgo an autopsy has drawn harsh criticism from some quarters.
“I don’t care if she’d have left six suicide notes around her head, you still should do” an autopsy, said Boone County forensic investigator Dori Burke, who has spoken with both Joanna Winnie and Farnen multiple times since the death. “We err on the side that everything’s a homicide until you tell me different.”
But Miller defended the decision, saying the cause of death was clear-cut.
“The only thing an autopsy would tell us is that Melissa’s death was the result of severe trauma to the brain caused by a gunshot wound,” Miller said. “There was an entry and an exit wound. Nothing of any material value would be obtained in an autopsy.”
Farnen did not respond to requests from the Tribune for an interview.
In the days afterward, matters became more complicated. Giboney agreed to submit to a Voice Stress Analyzer Examination to evaluate her truthfulness.
According to report prepared by Audrain County Sgt. James Enlow, Giboney showed deception on two crucial questions. “Did you shoot Melissa?” and “Did Dallis shoot Melissa?”
Giboney answered “no” to both questions. The results of the test were ultimately determined to be “inconclusive” when a computerized scoring system indicated “no deception” to those two answers.
When an investigator asked Giboney to return for a second test, she refused. Giboney, who was trained to administer the test, now says Enlow did not know how to administer the test and, in fact, asked her for help setting it up.
Further raising eyebrows, Dallis Shangraw, Giboney’s ex-girlfriend, refused to cooperate with police or submit to an interview, even hanging up the phone when called by an officer.
The case attracted some statewide media attention. Victor Pitman, the chief of the Holts Summit Police Department, appeared to fan the flames of conspiracy when he told multiple news outlets that criminals were “celebrating” after Winnie’s death, realizing she’d no longer be able to testify against them in court.
It was also revealed that Giboney had been involved in another shooting several years earlier. She shot her adult son in the lower leg during a physical altercation. Giboney said her son attacked her and that her life was in danger. She was never charged with a crime in the shooting.
Because of her lack of cooperation, Miller revoked Giboney’s commission as a reserve deputy days after the shooting. On March 10, Giboney was officially terminated from the Mexico Department of Public Safety by Director Michael Jerichow, who cited the revocation of the commission, which meant she no longer had access to the county jail. He also cited her “poor attitude” in relation to the investigation.
In an interview at her farmhouse, Giboney twirled a lighter between her thumb and forefinger as she looked out at the pasture where a caramel-colored quarter horse grazed. Giboney hasn’t worked full time since the death. She does part-time investigative work for RMRI Inc., a private investigative firm, but said she has virtually given up looking for work in the law enforcement field.
She said the last job interview she sat for, the first question the interviewer asked was, “So, your girlfriend shot herself with your service weapon?”
Giboney walked over to a metal shed where she believes a hole was left by the bullet that ended Winnie’s life. Police never recovered the bullet, and she has no interest in looking. Trailed by her two dogs, one a Rottweiler and the other a border collie mix, Giboney said the smart thing for her to do would be to leave the county and try to start over.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to stay here?” she said. “But I raised my son here. My mom died here in 1991. It’s my home, and I’m not leaving.”
And Joanna Winnie seems to have similarly been stuck in time by the tragedy. Receptionists at the Attorney General’s Office, the sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office all know her by first name. She has called them hundreds of times in the past two years begging for any crumb of new information. She lost her job in the aftermath of Melissa’s death, and she has read through the gory case file and examined the stomach-churning photos of her daughter untold times in hopes of finding something. She firmly believes there is more to it than she is being told.
“She put her life on the line every day,” Joanna Winnie said in an interview. “She changed her whole lifestyle. There were times I couldn’t even know where she was. Then when she died, nobody gave a flip. They didn’t even grant her the courtesy of an autopsy or the investigations that any citizen should get.”
Reach T.J. Greaney at 573-815-1719 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.