Many women are beautiful during years of luminous youth, but Melissa Halstead was beyond beautiful, with the kind of exceptional look that commanded attention.
She was highly intelligent, self-centered at times, a friend for life, someone you could love and hate all in the same minute. She was fearless, too, those who knew her say, to the point of a dangerous sense of invincibility.
Her beauty attracted attention from all types — good and bad.
Police believe she was slain in 1990 at the age of 33 by suspected serial killer John Sweeney. After the murder, her hands and head were cut off to thwart identification. It worked for nearly 20 years. The killer dumped her first into a duffel bag and then into a Rotterdam canal in The Netherlands.
Melissa’s body was not identified until 2008 after a cold case squad used advanced DNA testing. Her older brother, Jack Halstead, and other family members did not know until then absolutely what had happened to her after she disappeared from her Amsterdam residence.
Charges in Halstead case for suspected serial killer
In late April, Sweeney was charged in London with her murder after both British and Dutch television aired broadcasts about unsolved homicides. The broadcasts begged for fresh information, offering a reward.
Sweeney is also charged in the death of Paula Fields, 31, found in north London’s Regent’s Canal in 2001, also dismembered. Additionally, authorities are suspicious about him in connection with the body of a woman found in an Amsterdam canal in 1992. Missing head and fingertips, that body has still not been identified.
Authorities stepped up their case against Sweeney because he was eligible for release in 2011 from prison for attempted murder. At the time of the Halstead/Fields charges, Sweeney, a carpenter, was in custody serving life sentences. In 1994, he tried to kill an ex-girlfriend, a nurse named Delia Balmer, with an axe. The incident left her maimed. At the time, he was out on bail from a previous attack on her.
The Daily Mail dubbed him “a sadistic axeman,” and “one of the most dangerous men in Britain.” When arrested, he had an arsenal of loaded weapons, a hoard of grisly violent drawings, and a trail of missing ex-girlfriends including a Brazilian named “Leani” and a Columbian named “Maria” that police have tried to track down without success.
“We can’t exclude that he is responsible for other murders,” Jeichien de Graaff, spokeswoman for the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rotterdam, Holland, said in a telephone interview.
The Daily Mail article on Sweeney’s 2002 sentencing for the Balmer attack went on to quote Recorder of London Judge Michael Hyam saying Sweeney was an unstable character and prone to commit “offences likely to be injurious to others, especially women with whom you form an association.”
Perhaps most importantly, Sweeney told Balmer before the attack “that he had killed a previous U.S. girlfriend known as Melissa in Amsterdam,” according to legal arguments before his trial.
Memories of Melissa
Jack Halstead knows his sister Melissa is dead, her ashes occupy an urn at his home in a Dayton suburb. Still, he speaks of her vividly, as though she’s still alive. He has a DVD crammed with her images.
There’s an appearance on the Mike Douglas show modeling Oleg Cassini clothes before she became an international model. There’s her with the birthday cake that says “Melissa” along with Jack kissing his five-year-old sister.
There are class photos from Harman Elementary in Oakwood. Melissa lived in their Oakwood home until her father Dr. Jack Halstead, who had a dental office in Dayton, divorced her mother.
The divorce took Jack and Melissa with their mother, Francis, to a Riverside apartment and joined brother and sister “at the hip,” Jack recalled. The two remained exceptionally close until Jack joined the Army and deployed to Berlin, leaving home when Melissa was 16.
Melissa attended Stebbins High School for a time, but left sometime before graduating. She worked as a waitress at a steakhouse. Jack recalled she lived life with passion and a mix of qualities unlike those found in anyone else he knew.
“She was egocentric at times, but she was magnanimous too. She’d give you everything she had. There was nothing mundane about her. She could have fun in a phone booth sober. Once you were her friend, you were her friend for life,” Halstead said.
International fashion model by 19
As a teen, Halstead modeled locally and at one high point, had her turn on the Mike Douglas show. By 19, she was a “high fashion model” in Europe, said a profile in the Journal Herald. Daytonians Arthur and LaVerne Shone sponsored her early training and helped get her started. She was discovered on a day visit with a photographer friend to New York City by Ford Models owner Eileen Ford, who found her sitting on a sofa at the agency.
Ford hired her on the spot. Ford took her to Europe and bought her a wardrobe. Soon, she was working in Paris and Italy.
“I feel I don’t have any right to act sophisticated because I don’t feel I have accomplished what I’m after,” she told the Journal Herald. Her goal was to be “a top model,” she said.
One of those who knew her in that period was Paul Blizzard, 56, a Miami Valley native who had a two-year relationship with Melissa. He moved to New York City when she went there. He’s now the owner of a Long Island business.
“It was all very thrilling,” Blizzard recalled of her early career being “whisked” into the modeling world. “You get paid well.”
He recalled Melissa as “slow to trust people. Always wary. She was a beautiful woman and people tried to con her too many times because of her looks. She had really stunning, classic beauty looks. She had perfect features, was perfectly proportioned, and had great poise.”
The two didn’t stay together as Melissa got so many overseas assignments, many in Milan. The last time Blizzard saw her was in the late 1970s to early 1980s. He didn’t know she had been murdered until recently after trying to find out what happened to her by searching online.
“I was just shocked,” Blizzard said. “How she ever got mixed up with (Sweeney), I don’t know.”
In London, Amsterdam as photographer
Red-haired British carpenter John Sweeney met Melissa Halstead in 1988 while she worked as a photographer in London. How a woman like his sister, who could have had relationships with any number of eligible, prosperous men, could have taken up with Sweeney is a mystery to Jack Halstead. She only spoke to him of Sweeney on a couple of occasions.
“She was living with a monster and had no idea,” Halstead said. “She told me he wasn’t all there and was a little slow. She never mentioned it again.”
Police say the two had a volatile relationship but nevertheless moved to Austria together at some point. Sweeney was convicted there of assaulting her with a hammer and spent six months in jail.
Jack Halstead said his sister didn’t cooperate in the prosecution. She moved far away to Amsterdam. But when Sweeney was released, she picked him up and took him with her back to Amsterdam. Sweeney moved into an apartment in the same building, around the corner, Halstead recalls.
At that point, Halstead said he had an angry conversation by telephone with his sister. “I told her, ‘How could you let a man beat you, and then you let him back in your life?’ She hung up on me and I never saw her again. It’s haunted me my entire adult life.”
Television show statements that suggest drug abuse by his sister are false, Jack Halstead said. “Police departments don’t have evidence of Melissa being a drug addict,” he said.
In April 1990, Melissa went missing from her home on Kromme Waal street in Amsterdam, a neighborhood rich with museums, restaurants, discos, theaters and coffee shops. Her father hired an attorney in Europe to search for her. By the chronology that’s emerging from law enforcement, Melissa Halstead was possibly Sweeney’s first murder victim.
Jack Halstead Sr. died two years before his daughter was identified, her fate haunting her family for two decades.
Jack Halstead, who now works as a carpenter, said he plans on being in the court room the day John Sweeney is sentenced.
If a victim’s statement is allowed, he said he’ll be there to deliver it.
“It took me 20 years to find out what happened to her,” he said. “I hope this guy suffers. If there is a hell, I hope he’s on the hot seat for an extended period of time.”