Minnesota woman’s death a mystery 4 decades later
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Jerrilynn Sue Mullins loved the sun and daisies, snowmobiling and shopping. She was wicked smart and ambitious. She dreamed of owning a cabin in Wisconsin.
And then she was gone.
On Nov. 15, 1978, Mullins, 28, disappeared after having dinner with her husband and three of his business associates at a Chi Chi’s Mexican Restaurant in Richfield. Her body was found 7½ months later in a swamp just east of Interstate 694 in Lake Elmo.
Four decades later, the mystery of Jerrilynn Mullins remains.
“We just want to know what happened,” said Jeanne Taylor, Mullins’ younger sister. “We hope that someone will remember something or know something. I mean, it’s not impossible. Someone has to know something — or have seen something.”
For months, the story of the newlywed’s disappearance dominated headlines in the east metro. Fliers showing her photo and detailing her appearance — hazel eyes, 5-foot-3, 120 pounds, auburn hair — were distributed widely. A $2,500 reward was offered.
Officials received dozens of tips. One man said he had dropped off a woman matching Mullins’ description at a truck stop in Valdosta, Georgia. A woman from Montana reported she had seen someone who looked like Mullins dancing at a Polish bar in Anchorage, Alaska. Another caller said she was working in a restaurant and living in a trailer court in Prairie Grove, Arkansas.
Detectives checked them all: She wasn’t working at the Holiday Casino in Las Vegas on Feb. 6, 1979. She wasn’t working as a waitress at the Waffle House on Memorial Boulevard in Lakeland, Florida, on Feb. 13, 1979. She wasn’t on a bus in Denver on Feb. 22, 1979.
THAT LAST NIGHT
On the night of Nov. 15, 1978, Mullins, who had gotten married on Sept. 1 and moved to Oakdale the next day, arranged to meet her husband, Ronald Mullins, and some of his business associates for a drink after work. The couple had met several years earlier while working at Continental Telephone Co. in Sycamore, Illinois, their hometown. Each had been married once before; Ronald Mullins had two children from his first marriage.
Jerrilynn Mullins was working a temporary job as a secretary at Family Service of Greater St. Paul in downtown St. Paul. She had been with the agency for about a month, and her “work was completed very well, she was prompt and very dependable at all times,” agency officials told police.
Jerrilynn Mullins left work about 5 p.m. and drove to the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and Motor Lodge in Woodbury, at the southwest corner of Interstate 94 and Highway 120. Ron Mullins, who was a division plant manager for Continental Telephone, worked nearby, and the couple joined his colleagues at the motel bar for drinks.
Around 7:30 p.m., the Mullinses and three others decided to go for dinner and margaritas at Chi Chi’s at 7717 Nicollet Ave.; Reuben Bland, who was in town for work from St. Peters, Missouri, had once lived in California and said he missed eating Mexican food.
Ronald Mullins, 35, drove a company car; Patrick Melbourne, 33, of Hastings, a salesman who sold switching devices to Continental Telephone, drove his company car. Jerrilynn Mullins left her locked car — a 1975 yellow two-door Chevrolet Monte Carlo with Illinois license plates — in the parking lot of the Howard Johnson’s.
Police reports and interviews with Bland and Maureen Murphy, who worked with Ron Mullins, describe what happened at Chi Chi’s. After arriving, the five were told they might need to wait an hour for a table. They went to the lounge and ordered margaritas and later moved into the restaurant.
JERRILYNN LEAVES THE TABLE
Sometime after they began eating, around 9 p.m., Jerrilynn left the table, leaving her purse and pantsuit jacket behind, and didn’t return. About 15 minutes later, Ron Mullins asked Murphy to go and check on her. She checked the restroom; Jerrilynn Mullins wasn’t there.
Melbourne told police he went to the restroom and then went outside to check the weather. He said he saw Jerrilynn and tried to talk her into going back inside the restaurant “because it was cold ... and getting awfully windy,” he told police. “She stated that the air was fresh outside and she wanted to remain outside.”
Melbourne said he suggested that Jerrilynn wait inside her husband’s company car while they waited for the others. They walked across the parking lot to the car but found it locked, he told police. He suggested that she sit in his car instead. “He said he received no response from her and led her over to his car,” according to police reports.
Mullins told police that he came out of the restaurant and found his wife “in Melbourne’s arms” in the front seat of Melbourne’s car. Mullins went to get his car and drove to the front entrance of Chi Chi’s to pick up Bland and Murphy, who got into the back seat.
Mullins told police that Melbourne and Jerrilynn Mullins approached his car, but that he drove off before she could get into the front passenger seat. “I didn’t want a confrontation there,” Ron Mullins told police. “I guess I was just upset by what had happened, what happened. ... I acted impulsively.”
Bland told police that Ron Mullins looked at his wife and said, “‘Well, I can’t wait for you all night,’ and he reached over and shut the door and drove off. I figured, well, like, maybe they had a spat or something.”
Murphy, who had been given Jerrilynn’s purse and pantsuit jacket by a waitress, told police she was concerned and started to say something, but Bland cut her off.
“I really felt like I had to try and say something one more time, and I said something like ‘Ron, we’ve got to go back there,’ or ‘This is silly,’ ” she told police, according to the transcript. “I don’t remember my exact words, you know, you feel sort of awkward telling your boss what to do and, again, no response, and Reuben is telling me to shut up, and I dropped it.”
“Ron gave no explanation then?” a police detective asked her.
“No, and I didn’t pursue it,” she responded.
Melbourne told police that he drove Jerrilynn Mullins back to the Howard Johnson’s parking lot — a distance of 22 miles — and left her there. “He stated that he offered her assistance, but she declined anything,” a Washington County sheriff’s office report states. “Said he didn’t know what direction she took off, he just dropped her off and took off.”
Ronald Mullins said he dropped off Bland at the Howard Johnson’s and then drove to his house in Oakdale around 11:30 p.m.; Murphy then drove the company car to her residence in St. Paul.
Jerrilynn Mullins never came home.
“I was dumbfounded. She had no purse, no money,” Ron Mullins, 76, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press during a phone interview from his house in Mulberry, Florida. “I probably fell asleep waiting for her to come home around 2 after making several phone calls looking for her. I woke up at — I remember this exactly — I woke up at 4:44 a.m. and probably didn’t sleep for a week after that.”
The next morning, he called Melbourne at work asking, “What did you do with my wife?” according to police reports. He later called Woodbury police to report her missing. Her car was still in the parking lot at the hotel; it had not been moved.
BODY’S DISCOVERY LEAVES MORE QUESTIONS
Jerrilynn’s decomposed body was found June 30, 1979, when the owners of a house in the 7500 block of 10th Street North in Lake Elmo detected a strong odor coming from a nearby swampy area. Her body had surfaced, about 20 feet from shore, according to police reports. The site, which is just east of Interstate 694, is now within the city limits of Oakdale.
She was identified through dental records and the clothes and jewelry she was wearing: a knee-length tan coat, green slacks, a white blouse with green checks, green turtleneck sweater, gold watch, gold wedding ring, butterfly necklace and a bracelet with a turquoise stone. Her GM car keys were in her coat pocket.
No cause of death could be determined by an autopsy conducted by the Washington County coroner; Mullins then paid the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office to perform a second autopsy, but no cause of death could be determined. Results did show that her left pinkie finger was broken, and she had eaten within two hours of her death.
LEARNING ABOUT MELBOURNE’S CRIMINAL PAST
Police began investigating Melbourne, who had an extensive criminal history, including allegations of sexual assault against women. According to police reports, he was a suspect in a rape case in Tampa in 1969 but was never charged because the woman could not positively identify him. In 1970, he was convicted of breaking into an 18-year-old woman’s house in Mansfield, Ohio, and beating her with a heavy, blunt object.
In 1977, he was tried and acquitted in Illinois on charges of aggravated battery, unlawful restraint and public indecency after allegedly striking the back of a waitress’s head with a ketchup bottle at the Longhorn Restaurant in Darien, Illinois, on Nov. 17, 1976, knocking her to the ground, and engaging in lewd behavior.
No criminal charges were ever filed against Melbourne in connection with Jerrilynn’s death, but Ronald Mullins filed a wrongful-death civil suit against him in 1989.
The $100,000 suit, filed in Dakota County, alleged that Melbourne, who died in 2015, caused Jerrilynn’s death by “an intentional act constituting murder.” After a four-day trial, the jury concluded that she had been murdered, but ruled that Mullins had failed to provide sufficient evidence to find Melbourne civilly liable for her death.
In 1980, Melbourne was convicted of child abuse in Dakota County and sentenced to 90 days in jail, with 60 days suspended. He was sentenced in 1983 to a year in the Dakota County Jail and 10 years probation for second-degree criminal sexual assault; the incident involved a 10-year-old girl.
“We couldn’t understand why, if he has done all of these things, why wasn’t he put in prison?” Jeanne Taylor said during a recent phone interview. “They said he was suspected of doing even more things. None of it makes any sense.”
‘I WISH I HAD NEVER LEFT THAT RESTAURANT WITHOUT HER’
“Melbourne had a torrid reputation — none of which we knew,” said Mullins, who hired a private investigator, John Sperry, to investigate Melbourne. “We had a number of women who came forward after she disappeared and talked to us about difficult situations that they had had with him.”
Jerrilynn’s body was found at a site where Melbourne had allegedly taken other women after picking them up at bars, Mullins said. “That’s where he took them to entertain himself,” he said. “I’m sure he tried with (Jerrilynn), she resisted and he killed her, burying her in a pile of leaves.”
When he learned Melbourne had died in 2015, he said his first thought was: “God finally got him.”
“I wish I had never left that restaurant without her,” Mullins said. “If I had known what I knew even three weeks later, I would have never even been in his company, and I would have been telling anyone and everybody I knew to stay away from him. In those days, I was a pretty trusting person. I’m more cautious now.”
NO CAUSE OF DEATH HAMPERS CASE
Sgt. Mike Benson, of the Washington County sheriff’s office, said the Jerrilynn Mullins case has been reviewed several times over the years by different cold-case units, including 2004, 2006 and 2019. It’s still considered an open case, he said.
“As long as we have living relatives of hers who are interested in seeing closure, we’re of course going to keep looking,” Benson said. “But a case this old, we’re going to need to rely on someone from the public to come forward and give us that next tip.”
Rick Hodsdon, of the Washington County Attorney’s office, reviewed the case around the time of the civil trial. Although Melbourne was the “primary person of interest,” he said, they had no cause of death.
“We didn’t have any more evidence than the civil case had,” he said. “And, if in a civil case, with a preponderance of evidence, they can’t prove the case, we’re certainly not going to be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, which pretty much is what caused the case to go cold again, for lack of a better word.”
If a cause of death could have been established, “we might have taken it to a grand jury at least — if not charged him,” Hodsdon said. “But without that element, just with the body being missing so long, the decomposition — all things considered, we just didn’t have the basis to go anywhere after the civil case fell apart.”
Although Melbourne “civilly was exonerated,” Sperry, the private investigator hired by Mullins, said he believes “there was substantial circumstantial evidence that would make him a very strong suspect.
“Whether or not there is someone else out there who was the primary perpetrator and accessory or by some other means has information or knowledge that would either implicate or exonerate Mr. Melbourne, of course is only speculation,” said Sperry, 75, a lawyer in Eden Prairie. “Although much of the evidence was circumstantial in nature, it was clear that the civil jury were correct in their determination that it definitely was a homicide. That leaves still open the question of who, but that may have already been answered. That’s hard to say.”
In an interview with the Twin Cities Reader in 1989, Melbourne maintained his innocence and said only his family’s religious convictions had kept them together through the decade-long ordeal of accusations.
“If it wasn’t for our faith,” he told the Reader, “we would have been in an insane asylum long ago.”
‘IT’S BEEN TOO LONG’
Jerrilynn Mullins is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in her hometown of Sycamore, Illinois Her gravestone, decorated with a cross and flowers, reads: “Jerrilynn S. Mullins — Beloved wife and best friend.”
Jeanne Taylor, 64, of Sycamore, said she thinks of her sister every day. She wants people to know what a “bright light” she was.
“People remember all the gory stuff that was out there at first, and no one knows what a wonderful person she really was,” she said. “It’s a loss to the world.”
Their mother, Marilyn Taylor, died in 2003 without ever knowing what happened; their father, Jerry Taylor, 92, is blind and in poor health, she said.
“He just refuses to give up ... until he finds out what happened to his precious daughter,” she said. “It’s been too long. I mean, my God, it’s going to be 41 years. She’s been dead longer than she was alive. Someone must know something.”
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com