A young Christina, not quite three years old, sat in the backseat of the car watching her mother sing as she drove along the Atlanta streets in the early 1990s.
It’s the only memory she has of her mother.
Christina Garrett and her brother Joey were only toddlers when their mother, Melissa Wolfenbarger, was found brutally murdered after she had been missing for months. According to the Atlanta Police Department, the 21-year-old mother was found decapitated, dismembered and stuffed into black trash bags in the spring of 1999, not far from their home in Atlanta, Georgia.
But it would be years before the remains were identified. And even now, 22 years later, Melissa’s murder remains a mystery.
Her daughter Christina, now around the same age her mother was when she was murdered, has joined her grandmother and aunt in their decades-long search for answers about Melissa’s brutal murder and the family’s vow to get justice.
Melissa Patton Wolfenbarger grew up outside of Atlanta, Georgia with her parents and her sister, Tina Patton. In high school, she met and fell in love with Christopher Wolfenbarger. They later married, had two children, Christina and Joseph, and moved to a duplex in Atlanta.
Melissa’s family told Dateline they had their concerns about their daughter, who they described as being sweet but too trusting and often naïve about life.
Her sister, Tina Patton, who was seven years older, told Dateline that while they weren’t extremely close as they were busy raising their own families, she always felt very protective of her baby sister.
“She knew she could call me anytime she needed me,” Tina said. “I wanted to be able to protect her. I wish she had called me, but that call never came.”
Tina said the last time their family spoke to Melissa was on Thanksgiving Day in 1998. She had a very specific request for a Christmas gift: She asked her mother, Norma Patton, for a photo of herself with her grandfather.
“It’s what she wanted for Christmas that year,” Norma told Dateline. “It was something very sentimental.”
But when Christmas arrived, there was no word from Melissa and she did not shown up to celebrate the holidays. Concerned, members of her family tried to reach her, but were unsuccessful.
After the holidays, Melissa’s parents decided to drive to Atlanta from their home in Locust Grove, Georgia, and check on her in person. Her mother Norma told Dateline that when they arrived, the duplex on Brookline Avenue had been completely cleaned out and a neighbor informed them that everything had been moved out during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
Melissa’s family became even more concerned when Norma’s birthday came and went on February 24 and still no word from Melissa.
“There was no call, no card, no visit, nothing,” Norma said. “That just wasn’t her. She was my baby girl. So I knew something was wrong.”
Sergeant Raymond Layton with the Atlanta Police Department has been on Melissa’s case for years. He told Dateline that Melissa’s husband, Christopher Wolfenbarger, never reported her missing. Instead it was her mother, Norma, who filed the missing persons report in January 2000, after hitting several roadblocks.
When Christopher Wolfenbarger was questioned by police, he told them Melissa had left on her own. He then refused to cooperate with the investigation, Sgt. Layton told Dateline. The sergeant added that Wolfenbarger has an extensive criminal history with a history of family violence and that witnesses stated during the investigation that he had been abusive to Melissa.
Dateline spoke to Christopher Wolfenbarger, who insists he had nothing to do with Melissa’s death and wants nothing more than to help with the investigation.
“Yeah, I have a criminal history,” Wolfenbarger told Dateline. “But I’m not a murderer.”
He said Melissa’s disappearance at the end of 1998 wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
“We’re not talking about one day she was there and the next she was not,” Wolfenbarger said. “I just figured she’d come back when she was able to.”
He explained that Melissa took on multiple shifts at the Waffle House to make extra money and would stay at a hotel instead of commuting home. Wolfenbarger added that she also had been creating fake IDs and social security cards with the goal of their family moving away and starting a new life in California.
“I’m not denying I have criminal history,” he said. “We were, you know, like Bonnie and Clyde, just small-time criminals, but we didn’t do anything bad, bad. We were just trying to build a better life… in California. California was the dream.”
And when Melissa never returned home, he told Dateline he figured she changed her identity and went on to live her dream without him.
“That’s the reason I didn’t report her missing,” he said. “She wanted to get away from her parents and from this place. So she had to become someone else. I just thought she’d come back when things settled down.”
Chris and Melissa’s daughter, Christina, told Dateline the story her mother just leaving on her own is one she heard for years. After her mother disappeared, Christina's next memory was of living with her grandmother on her father’s side, in Locust Grove, Georgia. She added that her father was gone for a long time and when he returned, she didn’t even know who he was.
“I called him Chris because that’s what everyone called him,” Christina said. “I didn’t realize he was our father. I still don’t really think of him as my father.”
Years later, when Christopher Wolfenbarger re-emerged in his children’s lives, he told them their mother left their family and that he didn’t know where she was.
“I didn’t know her, but she’s my mom and I know she would’ve never walked out without us,” Christina said. “I’m a mom now and I can’t imagine doing that to my child.”
Back in 1999, Melissa had been missing five months when, on April 29, 1999, authorities with the Atlanta Police found a severed human head in a black trash bag, on Avon Avenue near Hartford Avenue, according to Sgt. Layton. The grisly discovery was made in close proximity to the glass company where her husband Christopher Wolfenbarger worked, and from which he was fired after the suspected theft of a reciprocal saw, Sgt. Layton said.
When Dateline spoke to Christopher Wolfenbarger, he said the suspected theft was a misunderstanding and that he never stole anything from the company. He added that after he was fired, he moved out of the duplex and in with his uncle, while his kids went to live with his mother.
On June 3, 1999, more dismembered human remains were found in black trash bags in a wooded area between Hartford Place and Avon Avenue. Sergeant Layton told Dateline the remains found were legs, arms and feet, but a torso was never found.
“I think it demonstrates that the murder was well planned,” Sgt. Layton said. “ And that the killer had the equipment to dismember and transport her remains.”
At the time, the remains were unidentified. Melissa Wolfenbarger was still missing.
But her mother Norma said she knew it was only a matter of time before the remains would be identified as her daughter. So she continued to watch the news every day for four years.
“The fact that my baby girl was cut up just shows it was done by someone evil,” she said. “No normal person is going to cut up a human body.”
It would take years before the remains found on Avon Avenue would be identified as Melissa.
In 2003, Melissa and Tina’s father, Carl Millard Patton Jr., was arrested and later convicted for the 1977 murders of Fred Wyatt, Liddie Matthews Evans, and Evans’ boyfriend, Joe Cleveland. The case, known as the “Flint River murders,” gained national media attention and brought greater attention to Melissa’s case.
The family told Dateline it was Carl Patton Jr.’s case and the testing of DNA that eventually led investigators to confirm the remains found in 1999 belonged to Melissa. Norma, who testified against her husband in 2003, said his arrest was what made it possible for someone to pay attention to Melissa’s case.
Norma is still married to Melissa’s father, who was questioned but quickly cleared in connection to Melissa’s death. Melissa’s sister Tina told Dateline she still talks to their father at his current residence in a Georgia prison where he often talks about bringing his daughter’s murderer to justice.
Tina added that from the beginning, there was no doubt in their mind who killed Melissa. And it was never their father.
“There’s no doubt in my mind who did this to my sister,” Tina said. “And it’s been more than 20 years and he’s still walking free.”
Sergeant Layton told Dateline that Melissa’s husband Christopher is considered a person of interest in the case. An autopsy determined that Melissa’s neck had been severed with a saw, according to Sgt. Layton. He added that evidence was collected from her home on Brookline Avenue, but did not match other trace evidence collected from the scene and no arrests have been made.
Christopher Wolfenbarger told Dateline he has always cooperated with the investigation and submitted his DNA years ago when requested by the detectives at the time.
“I’ve got nothing to hide,” Wolfenbarger said. “I had absolutely no reason to kill her. There was no insurance money. We didn’t have any assets. There was no reason in the world for me to hurt her like that.”
As for the remains being discovered in such close proximity to his job, Wolfenbarger told Dateline the possible connection to him is absurd.
“Who in their right mind kills somebody and dumps the body at their job – it just doesn’t make sense.”
He added that no one has contacted him in recent years, but told Dateline he’s willing to do anything and speak to anyone to help solve Melissa’s case.
“It damn near destroyed me,” Wolfenbarger, describing what it was like when he found out Melissa was dead. “At the time I really believed she had changed her name and left for a better life. And that she’d come back eventually. Sometimes I thought I’d see a glimpse of her here and there. But it was never her.”
After years of what she says was being kept in the dark, Christina began asking questions about her mother’s death.
Christopher Wolfenbarger admits he always kept his feelings bottled up and had a hard time talking about Melissa with their two children, Christina and Joey.
Christina, who lived with her father for a short time while in her late teens, grew frustrated. “I’d ask my dad and he would tell me a different story every time - or he would get mad,” said Christina “It just didn’t make any sense so I started investigating on my own.”
To do that, Christina felt she needed to connect with her long-lost family members on her mother’s side to get some answers.
While she was scrolling through Facebook as a teenager, Christina’s mother’s name popped up as a “someone you may know” alert. It turned out to be a Facebook profile Melissa’s family had created as a way to share information about her case. It wasn’t long before she reached out to Melissa’s family members.
Christina was 18 years old when she got in contact with her mother’s family and was able to reunite with her Aunt Tina and Melissa’s mother, who she lovingly calls “Gran.”
“I had so many questions,” she told Dateline. “And my own theories about what happened. Turns out, theirs were the same as mine.”
From the moment they reunited, Christina said she felt an instant bond to her Gran and her aunt. They’ve been inseparable ever since as they work together to get justice for Melissa.
“It’s just another piece of the puzzle,” Christina said. “And it’s another step closer to solving my mom’s case.”
Melissa’s case continues to be worked by the Atlanta Police Cold Case Homicide Unit along with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office Cold Case Unit.
Assistant District Attorney Adriane Love told Dateline they are hoping that with advancements made in DNA technology, they will be able to test small surfaces in evidence for DNA with the goal of moving the investigation in the right direction and finally solving the case.
“We want to solve this case,” she said. “We want answers for the family and justice for Melissa.”
Both Assistant DA Love and Sgt. Layton told Dateline they believe there are people who have information that could move this case forward and urge them to call police.
“It’s been 23 years… it’s time,” Melissa’s mother Norma told Dateline. “People talk about closure, but I’m not sure I’ll ever have that. We still have so many questions… and no answers.”
Two decades have passed since Melissa’s murder, but her family isn’t giving up. As their team of supporters continues to grow, as well as interest in the case, they tell Dateline they feel new hope there will soon be justice.
The case was featured at the 2020 CrimeCon “House Arrest” by CSI Atlanta, a team made up of crime scene investigator Sheryl McCollum, CBS 46 anchor, Karyn Greer and Sgt. Raymond Layton.
“Her family alone have kept her case alive but now they have a team,” Sheryl McCollum told Dateline. “An extraordinary team of remarkable people. To me, there is only one suspect and I want him to know we are coming for him.”
In an effort to bring more attention to the case, Sheryl McCollum and her non-profit organization, the Atlanta Cold Case Research Investigative Institute (CCRI), is offering “cold case wines.” Melissa’s photo was featured on the first bottle of wine to be launched, which will help raise money to help solve unsolved crime cases.
Christina told Dateline that for years she felt a part of her was missing, but reuniting with her mother’s family has filled some of that void. She hopes she has done the same for them.
When her son was born a few years ago, it was Melissa’s mother “Gran” who was there to cut the cord. And she’s the one he runs to when they show up on her doorstep for a visit.
“Nothing will ever bring my mom back, nothing will bring Gran’s daughter back - but it’s like a second chance for her,” Christina said. “It’s a second chance for our family.”
Anyone with information about Melissa’s case is urged to call the Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477.