Murder Mystery: The Pursuit to Solve the Missy Witt Murder
On Dec. 1, 1994, 19-year-old Melissa Witt drove to Bowling World in Fort Smith but never made it inside.
After some time, Witt’s mother filed a missing persons report, and police found her car still parked at the bowling alley days later. Next to it was a trail of blood from the back of her car to the place where another car had earlier been parked — a car we would later find out belonged to the person who abducted her.
An arduous 45 days after Witt disappeared, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office called Fort Smith police to let them know that a couple of trappers traveling an Ozark National Forest trail found a body. The lifeless, nude body found in the forest 50 miles from Bowling World was that of Witt, who police later determined was brutally strangled.
Witt’s case is still unsolved, 27 years later. Both of her parents are deceased. Two people witnessed the kidnapping, yet no one has been able to provide a description. One of the top suspects was on death row and executed in Texas in 2019. Many say her story has become something of a legend. How close are we to getting justice for Witt? It depends on who you ask.
If you ask LaDonna Humphrey and Connor Holmes, it’s right around the corner.
The duo came together last summer to begin creating the documentary Uneven Ground: The Melissa Witt Story, which is planned to release at the end of August.
Humphrey is a mom of seven with a background in journalism who, before coming onto Witt’s case, founded and ran the national nonprofit Let’s Bring Them Home. The organization helped provide resources for families with missing adults but phased out after about 10 years with the development of new technology, including government database NamUs.
Holmes is a 22-year-old, almost-graduated double major in film production and broadcast journalism at the University of Central Arkansas. He befriended Humphrey’s daughter at a thespian festival years ago when they were both in high school and has since maintained the relationship with the family.
The conversation about a documentary came up for the first time six years ago as a part of Humphrey’s nonprofit.
“My team got together, and we just kept coming back to Melissa Witt’s case, and although she wasn’t missing, it was like a case that we all grew up with,” Humphrey says. “I didn’t know Melissa, but we have friends in common, so it felt really personal in a lot of different ways. So we decided that this is it. This is the case.”
She said they simply made a phone call to the Fort Smith Police Department and asked to meet. Humphrey’s team was invited to a meeting with retired detectives of the case including the original detective, JC Rider, whom she now talks to on a daily basis. That meeting eventually led to Humphrey asking to see the case file — a request she expected would be denied because the investigation is still open. To her surprise, they said yes.
“Melissa’s case file, in addition to what’s on the computer, is about 15 full notebooks worth of information and loose-leaf paper,” Humphrey says. “I’ve read everything in the case file at least six times. I would say I’ve spent five, six, maybe 700 hours in the case file. … I organized all of it, I found some information about some things we needed to follow up on, and then I took all of the old media for them and our team helped transfer it to something more modern that they could play. We did everything we could to make Melissa Witt’s case file as easy and accessible as possible. There’s a lot of information in her case file, because they’ve interviewed over 330 people as potential suspects in the case, so it was really overwhelming for me.”
As Humphrey became more invested and passionate about the case, her original production team dissolved, and she started crafting a much more specific vision for the documentary.
“I’m so close to this that I feel like the story has to be told a certain way to preserve Melissa’s memory, and I ended up meeting Connor,” Humphrey says. “Connor is incredibly talented, so I feel really proud that he’s working on this project, and honestly I can’t imagine trusting anybody else with it.”
In the middle of the summer following UCA’s campus closure due to COVID-19 in 2020, Holmes was working 40 hours a week delivering pizzas and doing freelance video editing on the side. Exhausted from the long hours of work, he decided to quit his delivery job, and two days later, Humphrey called.
“[Humphrey] kind of took a big risk on me, because I want to make documentaries for the rest of my life,” Holmes says. “That’s kind of what I’d known what I wanted to do for the past three or four years. And this is my first feature, my first documentary ever. I think it was perfect. I think it’s exactly what should have happened. Because if I hadn’t quit, I would not have had time to do any of this.”
Holmes agreed to help with the film, and their partnership as indie documentarians began.
After Holmes was caught up on the details of the case, the two of them were exposed to the part of the investigation that would be a turning point for them both. Detective JC Rider asked if they’d like to visit the place where the body was found.
“I said, ‘OK, this needs to be a part of what we’re doing, so let’s go out and see where they found Melissa,’” Humphrey says. “And I remember that day. It was cold, and we were standing in front of the Fort Smith Police Department so we could decide who was going to ride with who. And he said, ‘Well, let’s go to the dumpsite.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Dumpsite. Wow. You don’t think of it like that.’ The entire hour-long drive out to Ozark National Forest, that’s all I could think about. He called it a dumpsite. She was 19 years old.”
When they got out of the car, Rider looked at them and said, “If you screamed right now, nobody would hear you.”
“The fear that I felt in the safety of law enforcement made me just imagine how horrible it must have been that night for Melissa, because she was alive when they took her out to that spot,” Humphrey says. “Seeing it and being there, it made me dedicated to finding justice for her. It’s one thing to read about it … it’s another thing to stand in a place where they found a 19-year-old’s naked body on a cold mountaintop that had been there for almost six weeks.”
Not only did seeing the site strike a chord with Humphrey as the director of the documentary, but also, as a mother.
“Putting yourself in that position as a mom, it changed me,” Humphrey says. “That day completely changed my outlook. It became more than just we’re going to do this documentary in six months and be done. It became something that I’m incredibly passionate about.”
If there’s one word to sum up the process of filming this documentary in order to bring justice for Witt, it’s passion. From hundreds of hours spent poring over case details, Humphrey and Holmes have developed a connection to Witt herself.
“I’ve always loved true crime … and especially for it to be so close to home,” Holmes says. “And [Witt and I] are so close in age. And it’s really, it’s so different seeing it firsthand instead of just hearing about it … like talking to her friends and talking to the detectives and seeing where her body was found and seeing the warehouse and seeing where she was kidnapped. It’s hard to describe; it’s a lot more daunting. It’s kind of hard not to get passionate about it just because she seemed like such a sweet girl … I’ve seen so many pictures. I’ve edited so many videos. I’ve heard so many stories. I feel like I know her.”
Beyond seeing the existing footage of Witt, Humphrey has had “the distinct honor” of reading her diary.
“It was difficult at first because here are the very private, intimate thoughts of a 19-year-old girl who is now deceased,” Humphrey says. “I can tell you it made me feel like I knew her in so many ways, and it really shed a lot of light on who she was. It matched up with everything everyone said she was, just a good girl, a good person. She was in college at Westark Community College, which is now UA Fort Smith, she worked, she held down a job, and she’d just gotten a brand-new car from her dad. [She was] boy-crazy like anybody is at 19 and really active in her church. Really cared about her grades. And really naive. She was a very, very innocent girl. The most she talks about in her diary is holding hands or kissing a boy. I can’t say enough good things about her. For this to have happened to her, it’s tragic. For it not to be solved for as long as it’s gone on, it’s heartbreaking to me.”
The diary left such an imprint on her that she sought out a permanent reminder and now has the word “justice” tattooed on her wrist, along with hand-drawn hearts taken directly from a page in Witt’s diary.
Because Witt has no living parents and few close family members, Humphrey has taken on an important role in all of this: “I’ve become Melissa’s voice.”
When it comes to the film, she planned to offer a private, online showing, expecting to reach an interested audience of a few hundred or so, given that their Facebook page, “Who Killed Missy Witt?” has a following of more than 12,000 and more than 1 million visitors. Initially, the offer was for 100-250 seats.
More than 25,000 people have since asked to see the documentary, and the production team is considering expanding the number of seats at the showing, after which they will begin hitting the film festival circuit, where even more people will have the opportunity to see the film.
“We were not prepared for that kind of response. Even saying that number out loud, it scares us a little bit,” Humphrey says.
For Holmes, the unprecedented response to the private showing is not only giving him hope for the case to be solved, but also for his personal career in film.
“The first priority is always going to be to get her case solved,” Holmes says. “But, I mean, there are [thousands of] people that have signed up to see the documentary, and I’ve never dreamed that [many] people would want to see a film that I’ve made, especially this early on. … Trying to get it on a streaming site would I mean, could literally make my career for the rest of my life.”
Holmes has been reflecting on his time at UCA and how the passion he’s developed from working on the documentary has shaped his love for film.
“You can teach how to turn up an F-stop and what it does, you can teach about millimeters on a lens, but you really don’t know what it’s like to be storytelling until you’re out there storytelling,” Holmes says. “When you’re out there with her friends and her family at her tombstone, you just develop this passion for storytelling and this empathy for what happened to her. You can’t teach that stuff in the classroom.”
However, working on the case has also exposed him to certain things that go along with true crime and the line of work in general.
“I don’t know if I could just continue making true crime docs the rest of my life, because it would be pretty taxing on my mental health,” Holmes says. “There are a few moments when making this documentary where we just kind of have to sit back and just be quiet and just be like, ‘This is hard to process.’ It’s a story, but it’s real. It’s two hours away, and my sister lives in Fort Smith, and she’s just a couple years older than Missy [was] when she died.”
Humphrey has also experienced the dark side of working on such an intense case, citing unnerving instances where strangers would call her phone, show up to her house and even approach her in public.
Ultimately, to both of them, it’s still every bit worth it, and they hope the documentary will help shine a light on the quest for and the need for justice.
“Our efforts have even brought in new leads, so that’s been exciting,” Humphrey says. “We have an active lead on the case. I can’t discuss it, but we think it should be resolved very, very soon.”
The nearly-hourlong film will feature information about those leads, a variety of interviews, original media footage from Fort Smith’s KFSM-Channel 5, and brand new information about the case not yet shared with the public.
“I’m hoping it will jog someone’s memory to say, ‘Wait, I remember this,’ or, ‘So-and-so told me this,’ because I really do think we have our suspect pool narrowed down, and I think this documentary could potentially help push it over the edge so they can charge somebody with murder,” Humphrey says. “We want her to be remembered for more than just the murder. She is more than what they did and what happened to her.”
Humphrey hopes to also keep Witt’s memory alive through a book she wrote titled The Girl I Never Knew, which is being published by Genius Books and is scheduled to be released next April, following the documentary’s completion of the film festival circuit this year.
To watch the documentary trailer, donate or request a seat at the private showing, you can visit their website. If you have a lead, you can call the anonymous tip line at 1-800-440-1922 and leave a message, or you can reach out to the Fort Smith Police Department at (479) 709-5000 and ask for Detective Marion.
“I believe the answer is out there,” Humphrey says. “I think it’s just somebody who needs to be brave and come forward.”