The Last Ride: Michele Melander

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9th April 2024  •  7 min read

Vickie Melander left her two children alone in the car with a man she had just met at a bar. When she returned, they were all gone...


The Last Ride: Michele Melander

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Vickie and Michael Melander had been enjoying drinks at the Silver Saddle bar in Parker, Arizona, since midday on July 31, 1981. In the late afternoon, they were joined by a man who introduced himself as Don Donovan, known to most as “Panama Red.” The group shared several beers and played some rounds of pool. By 7 PM, Vickie mentioned needing to head home because the babysitter for their two children, five-month-old Michele and five-year-old Michael Jr., had to leave.

Panama Red offered Vickie a ride home, while Michael opted to stay at the bar. However, neither Vickie nor Michael were ready to call it a night just yet. They decided that Vickie would go with Panama to pick up the children and then return to the bar together.

They ushered Michele and Michael Jr. into Panama’s pickup truck, but instead of heading directly back to the Silver Saddle bar, Vickie and Panama made a detour to another establishment, the Turtle Barn, for a drink. While they were inside, Michele and Michael Jr. remained in the truck. Upon returning to the vehicle, Michael Jr. reported that someone had apparently reached in and taken a .22-caliber rifle that was lying on the floor. However, he later confessed that he had actually discovered the weapon, pointed it at a man in the parking lot, who then confiscated it.

Panama’s anger flared, prompting Vickie to flee in fear, leaving her children behind in the pickup truck. Panama chased after her and managed to persuade her to return to the vehicle. Together, they drove back to the Silver Saddle, leaving Michele and Michael Jr. in the truck in the parking lot once more. Vickie and Panama briefed Michael about the rifle theft, and they collectively agreed to report the incident to the police.1

Panama drove to the Parker Police Department and waited in the pickup truck with the children while Vickie went inside to report the theft. However, upon returning outside with a police officer, they discovered that the pickup truck, along with Panama and the children, was nowhere to be found. Vickie suspected that Panama had returned to the Silver Saddle bar, so she was escorted there by a police officer, but neither Panama nor the children were at the bar.

Vickie and Michael described Panama as a white man in his early 20s, around 6 feet tall and weighing around 170 pounds with shoulder length brown hair. They said to detectives that he was dressed “like a cowboy” and he had been driving a 1976 Chevrolet or Ford pickup truck with California license plates.2

The search for Michele and Michael commenced promptly. Michele’s medical condition, which prevented her from consuming milk without a special formula, added a critical dimension to the search efforts. Detective Ronald Hill emphasized the urgency, stating: “We need help finding this girl. She’s not supposed to drink milk, and without the special formula, her condition could become real bad.”3

At about 10:30PM that night, Michael Jr. was discovered walking along an isolated road around 11 miles north of California 62 on the Parker Dam Road. He was alone and visibly distressed. When police were called to the scene, he told them that Panama had dropped him of and promised to return shortly, but when he never returned, he began walking along the road. Despite his evident trauma, Michael Jr. was unable to provide further details about the events that transpired. However, he did mention that Panama had been “nice” and had “acted like a cop.” Additionally, he remembered his sister being frightened and in tears during the ordeal.

The Last Ride: Michele Melander
Parker Dam Road.

Following the evident kidnapping, an extensive manhunt was initiated, mobilizing resources from the Parker police, Yuma County Sheriff’s Department, Yuma police, Colorado River Indian Police, and the FBI. Despite concerted efforts, detectives found themselves grappling with the perplexing abduction of Michele. Detective Hill remarked: “We’re still digging around. The man apparently was a transient, possibly in town just two days before it happened.” However, he added that this information hadn’t been substantiated, they had just heard he was a transient by word of mouth.4

Despite extensive efforts, including the thorough search of the area where Michael was found wandering, involving 40 to 60 individuals scouring the 17-mile desert strip, no significant findings emerged. The days continued to pass and on August 10, detectives announced that they believed Michele may be dead.

While Panama had told Vickie and Michael his name was Don Donovan, this had been a fake name. Detectives couldn’t find anybody with that name, but they heard from some locals who had encountered Panama in the days leading up to the abduction. Most had met him in a bar, but none could provide any information about his identity, where he lived or where he worked.5

That evening, in San Bernardino County, California, a man was on his way to the dump at Black Meadow Landing. As he approached, something about four to five feet from the road caught his attention: an infant’s child seat. However, as he drew closer, a putrid odour assaulted his senses. His gaze scanned the surroundings, and what he saw next would haunt him indefinitely. There, amidst the desolation, lay the badly decomposed body of Michele.6

The examination of Michele’s body by the pathologist unveiled a disturbing narrative. Among the findings were multiple injuries, including a fatal crushing blow to her skull. However, it was evident that Michele had endured a series of brutalities prior to her death…

The examination revealed specific details of Michele’s injuries, painting a grim picture of the violence she endured. A bruise above and to the left of her eye indicated pressure from a smooth surface, inflicted while she was still alive. Furthermore, Michele suffered a fractured collarbone in two locations, along with three broken ribs on her left side. Additionally, tears were observed in the skin around her left nipple and armpit. Moreover, her upper left arm bore a fracture near the elbow, suggestive of either blunt force trauma or twisting of the arm.

The autopsy revealed even more horrifying details. Michele bore a long incision stretching from her ribs to her groin, with her uterus being removed through this opening. Additionally, two small incisions were found over her left groin, along with an oval incision between her legs where her vagina and anus had been removed. Due to the extensive trauma to Michele’s body and the nature of the injuries, determining whether she had been sexually assaulted proved impossible.

The missing person investigation transformed into a murder investigation, and in mid-August, an arrest was made. 19-year-old Brett Pensinger was arrested in his uncle’s truck in Midland, Texas, after his family called police and said he mat have been the man involved in the murder. He matched the description, and the description of the pickup truck matched his uncle’s pickup truck, which he had stolen.7

When Pensinger was arrested, blood was observed on his pants, shirt, belt and boots, but these were not typed or compared to his or Michele’s blood. There was also blood found inside the pickup truck, but Pensinger suggested it was his own.

In September, Pensinger was extradited to California, where he was charged with first-degree murder.  His murder trial began on July 7, 1982,  and his defence-attorney, Donald Fed, suggested that his client was innocent, and that Vickie had killed her own daughter.

The Last Ride: Michele Melander
Brett Pensinger during trial.

He referred to the delay in her reporting the kidnapping, stating: “Was the delay to give her time to find a guy to rub out of her kid?” He revealed that at the time of the murder, Vickie was pregnant with her third child, despite the fact she had spent the entire day drinking. The defence attorney also mentioned that neither she nor Michael worked, and had no place to stay.8

However, the prosecution presented three inmates who were incarcerated with Pensinger following his arrest. These three men testified that he had admitted to killing Michele to them. One of them, Gary Howard, testified that Pensinger had driven off with the children at the police station because the truck he was driving had been stolen. He admitted he had been drinking all day and shooting Quaalude.

According to Howard’s account, Pensinger said he drove around for a while and wasn’t sure what to do, but when Michele started crying, he punched her in the ribs. When the crying didn’t stop, he threw her around the car. Pensinger said that Michael Jr. was in the vehicle when this happened, and said that when he pulled over to relieve himself, Michael Jr. got out of the truck and took off running. Pensinger then said that he tried to have Michele orally copulate him, but when she couldn’t, he cut open her stomach and cut her private parts out.

Afterwards, Pensinger admitted to driving Michele’s body to a dump and disposing of her. In another confession, however, Pensinger said that a companion named Paul had assisted in the murder. He said that Paul had slapped Michele, threw her out at the dump, and cut her with a knife. However, Pensinger later admitted that he didn’t have an accomplice. Pensinger had also told fellow inmates he was going to “play a dummy act” to get to Patton State Hospital, where he planned to claim he had a split personality and blacked out.

The defence suggested that the inmates were lying, and presented a woman who testified that she had heard Vickie talking about borrowing money from a man named “Panama” around a week before the murder. Vickie’s mother-in-law also testified that Vickie didn’t appear to love her daughter, while another witness told the jury that Vickie was annoyed over her life the day of the murder. She had allegedly complained about her living situation, and was fed up that Michael wouldn’t get a job to support them.

Michael Jr. testified during the trial, telling the jury that it was “just me, Panama and Michele” the last time he saw her alive. He testified that Pensinger drove him and his sister to a remote area of the desert where he ordered him out of the car and drove off with Michele. However, under cross-examination, Michael Jr. failed to pick Pensinger out as the man he knew as Panama.9

The Last Ride: Michele Melander
Michael Jr. testifying at trial.

The jury ultimately found Brett Pensinger guilty of the first-degree murder of Michele Melander. The same jury that convicted him deliberated for 12 hours, before deciding that he should be sentenced to death. The jury foreman, Helen Mowll, stated: “The man is a danger to society.” However, that sentence was never carried out. In May 2019, 56-year-old Brett Pensinger died of natural causes on San Quentin’s Death Row.

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Footnotes:

  1. People v. Pensinger”
  2. Arizona Republic, 8 August, 1981 – “Desperate Hours”
  3. Arizona Republic, 8 August, 1981 – “Kidnapping of 5-Month-Old Girl Triggers Massive Search”
  4. Arizona Daily Sun, 9 August, 1981 – “Authorities Seeking Man in connection of Missing 5-Month-Old”
  5. Arizona Republic, 10 August, 1981 – “Officials at Odds Over Baby’s Fate After Kidnapping”
  6. Arizona Daily Sun, 11 August, 1981 – “Body of Missing Arizona Infant Found in California”
  7. Arizona Republic, 25 August, 1981 – “Suspect in Killing of Baby Identified”
  8. The San Bernardino County Sun 30 July, 1982 – “Lawyer for ‘Panama Red’ Suggests Mother May Have Killed Infant”
  9. The San Bernardino County Sun, 13 July, 1982 – “Boy Testifies About His Sister’s Death”

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Heather
Heather
1 month ago

This was a TOUGH read. WOWOWOW. Nothing could have prepared me for Michele’s injuries.
Vickie doesn’t sound like she was the greatest mother, not by a long shot… but what are the horrific odds that her children ended up in the hands of such a vile human??!

So, so heartbreaking.

AusAsh
AusAsh
1 month ago

Far out..5 months old. Read that while feeding my 4 month old. I hadn’t heard of this case before. What an absolute monster

Sha
Sha
1 month ago
Reply to  AusAsh

Literally feeding my 5 month old as I read this. This was so heartbreaking.

Mae
Mae
1 month ago

He’s 6 feet tall and weighs 70lbs???? Jesus how?

Heather
Heather
1 month ago
Reply to  Mae

I think it’s a typo… I assume it was supposed to say 170 lbs

CherCee
CherCee
1 month ago

Bad parenting + sicko killer = tragedy.

Valerie Slater
Valerie Slater
1 month ago

What a truly shocking and very sad story, why can’t the world look after its’ children ? RIP Michele….

Nicola Farmer
Nicola Farmer
1 month ago

Absolutely heartbreaking, however, who the hell leaves their kids in someone’s car they hardly know???? Crappy parenting and sadly he was an A1 predator

Izzy
Izzy
2 days ago

I’m nap trapped with my 3 month old reading this…ugh. makes my heart hurt to think this monster could so violently prey on someone so innocent and defenseless, and that a mother could really care so little about her babies.

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