Nearly a year ago, authorities in California identified partial skeletal remains found in 2002 as those of Tracy Melton, a woman missing since 1998. The identification would have been a great milestone in the case, were it not for one small problem -- it was not until last week that the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office notified the victim's family members.
"They said they never notified us because it slipped through the cracks," Melton's sister, Sharon, told The Huffington Post. "It's just been devastating. All these years we had been waiting for answers and they had known for nearly a year and never notified us."
San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore said he accepts full responsibility for the oversight.
"There are no excuses forthcoming, only the pledge that we will do whatever we can in support of the Melton family in this case," Moore said at a press conference on Monday. "An internal review is being conducted and new procedures are being developed to make sure this very unfortunate incident does not occur in the future."
Leonard Padilla, a well-known bounty hunter who was involved in the Casey Anthony case, has been assisting the Melton family. He did not mince words about how he feels about the mistake or Sheriff Moore. "It's total incompetence. That's just how f***ed up this sheriff's department is," Padilla told HuffPost. "The blame lies at the feet of Sheriff Steve Moore. He is running the department in an incompetent manner."
Not everyone, however, is so quick to point a finger.
"[I'm] not excusing any oversight, but there are thousands of missing and unidentified persons. In the best of circumstances, it is hard to balance investigative matters and case management. Communication with families and the community are an extra layer of effort," said Todd Matthews, regional system administrator for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).
"I have seen human error over the years that [has made efforts fall] short of what should have been done. More often than not, it wasn't due to a lack of caring," Matthews said. "The cause of the missing and unidentified is extremely over-burdened. ... I can't say how often these things happen, but they do happen."
Melton was a 32-year-old mother of three when she disappeared in June 1998. According to police, she was last seen visiting a clinic in Stockton, Calif.
"Nobody could find her," Sharon Melton said. "We called the authorities and told them we had a loved one missing, but they said she was an adult and they would have to wait and see. Her son was 11 and her daughters were 6 and 7. They did not understand. We tried to go to the media, but they would not help us. We kept looking for her -- conducted searches -- but never could find her."
Melton added, "I can't even describe what it was like. It was a never-ending torture. Every day I woke up and wondered what happened to her."
In 2002, authorities contacted Melton and requested a DNA sample. She said they told her they wanted it so they could put it in a national database. It was not until last week that Melton learned authorities had suspected partial human remains found that same year in Linden belonged to her sister.
"When police spoke with me last week, they said they had compared my DNA to the remains in 2003 but they did not have a 100 percent positive identification," Melton said. "They tried again in 2008. It was the same thing: they had a percentage, but not 100. Finally, in April of last year, they confirmed it was my sister."
Melton said she is angry not only because police waited nearly a year before informing her of the match, but also because they never informed her that for all those years they suspected the remains found in 2002 were those of her sister.
"All these years, they had suspected it was her and never even notified us," she said.
Melton is also upset because, she claimed, authorities did little in 2002 to find the rest of the remains and, despite their recent promise to do so now, have yet to take action.
"They said they did a perimeter search in 2002 and have been meaning to go back with a backhoe. My sister could have been buried in that area. We don't even have my sister's skull or anything and it hurts that now, 10 years later, they say they're going to go back and do this but won't tell us when or anything else. I am starting to think they just told me that to pacify me," she said.
According to San Joaquin County Sheriff's Deputy Les Garcia, investigators are out searching today for additional remains belonging to Tracy Melton.
"They are doing a [foot search] with the aid of cadaver dogs," Garcia said. No remains have been found yet, but the deputy said investigators are still hopeful.
It remains unclear why Sharon Melton was not informed about the search.
While it still remains unclear what happened to Tracy Melton, authorities have categorized her as the victim of a homicide. They are also investigating a possible tie to Wes Shermantine and Loren Herzog, two men who were dubbed the "Speed Freak Killers" during their serial murder trials.
"We have no evidence that links her to those two, but she has also not been ruled out as a possible victim," Garcia said.
Shermantine and Herzog were accused of killing several women in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties in the 1990s. Shermantine is currently on death row for four murders. Herzog, who was out on parole, committed suicide last month inside a trailer outside the High Desert State Prison in Susanville. According to Padilla, Herzog killed himself after the bounty hunter informed him Shermantine was going to lead authorities to additional victims.
Padilla has offered the inmate more than $30,000 for information on where he may have placed the bodies of additional victims. Shermantine has been speaking out about where the bodies are buried, but it is difficult to follow his directions, Padilla said. As a result, he has been trying to get authorities to allow Shermantine to lead detectives to an alleged burial ground. Sheriff Moore, however, said on Monday that he is reluctant to do so.
"[I] have grave concerns that, should Mr. Shermantine be brought out of death row, there exists a great potential of an escape attempt or potential suicide by cop," he said.
Meanwhile, Shannon Melton said her sister's children are still trying to come to grips with the recent news of everything that has happened since their mother's disappearance.
"It's hard for them," she said. "All this time they didn't think their mom was deceased. They felt she had gone somewhere else. Now they are struggling with the knowledge that she was a murder victim."
Melton added, "The only [good] thing I can say that has come of any of this so far is that my sister has been identified. It's torture when day after day of not knowing turns into year after year of not knowing. Now that we know she has been found, that part of it is over. Now we would like to know how and why."