Last week, on Feb. 20, Gail Chilton received a call from Sgt. Pat Postiglione, head of the Metro Nashville Police Department's Cold Case Unit — a squad that has brought closure to Marcia Trimble's mother, Janet March's loved ones, and the families of serial killer Paul Reid's victims.
Postiglione, who is retiring this week after a stellar 30-year career, told Gail that he had just left the state prison in Solano, Calif. There, he delivered the news to inmate Patrick Lamonte Streater that the Davidson County Grand Jury had just returned indictments against him. Back in his hometown, Streater now faced two counts of pre-meditated first-degree murder.
"When Pat called me, I felt a huge sense of peace," says Gail Chilton, talking with remarkable composure at a Mt. Juliet restaurant. "It was calming, and spiritual, like a wave that went through my body from my head to my toes. I don't think I was aware of how much I had been holding in. For the first time in 17 years, I felt like I could breathe."
It was a February night in 1996 when Gail had a vivid dream. Her 18-year-old daughter, Melissa, had been murdered. It was so disturbing that when she described it to her husband Gary, an RN working at Memorial Hospital, he insisted she drive to Murfreesboro. That's where Melissa, their firstborn, was in her second semester at MTSU, majoring in psychology.
That evening, after attending her real estate class, Gail drove down I-24 and surprised Melissa at her dorm.
"I took her out to dinner and she asked me why I had come," Gail remembers. "I told her about my dream and she said, 'Oh, Mama, I'm all right. Everything's fine.' I said, 'No, you're not. Something's wrong, and I have a bad feeling.' "
But Gail's pretty dark-haired daughter — a four-year Gordonsville High cheerleader whose mother says she "was sweet and generous and didn't have an enemy in the world" — sent her off with assurances that she would check in more frequently. She'd come home soon, she said.
A week later, on Feb. 22, 1996, Gail was having a late lunch at the West End Chili's when her pager went off. When she called home, her son handed the phone to their neighbor. The man also happened to be the Smith County sheriff.
"The sheriff told me something had happened to Melissa, and I needed to call the Metro chaplain," Gail remembers. "I said, 'That means Melissa is dead.' He said, 'I don't know, you need to call.' I called the chaplain, and he told me to meet my husband at Memorial Hospital."
The chaplain stood waiting at Memorial, Bible in hand. Beside him, sobbing, was Gary Chilton.
"The chaplain began to tell me what had happened, and I told him they had the wrong girl, that my daughter was in Murfreesboro," Gail says. "And he said, 'No, ma'am, she has been identified.' I said, 'By who?' and he said by the owner of the business. I said, 'Business? What business?'
"He told me the name of the business and where it was. I knew I had just driven by there. I told him there was no way my daughter was there. I said, 'You have the wrong parents. You need to find that little girl's parents so they can get here.' "
But police had the right parents, the right girl. It was Melissa Chilton lying dead with her co-worker Tiffany Campbell inside the squat cinderblock building at 1805 Church St., with tinted windows and a door that said "Open 10 am - 1 am 7 Days a Week." The place, called Exotic Tan for Men, and its seedy companion Private Moments, was one of Nashville's many adult entertainment businesses.
"My girlfriend drove me that day down Church Street to get on the interstate," Gail says. "We drove right past the building where it happened — there were police cars everywhere, and yellow police tape. My girlfriend said, 'Do you think this has anything to do with Melissa?' I said, 'Don't stop, keep going.' "
Years later, a citywide crackdown would eliminate many such "salons" and massage parlors, with this heinous crime as an incentive. Back then, however, like others from Dickerson Road to Eighth Avenue South, it operated unregulated, unlicensed — and unnoticed by anyone but its patrons.
Melissa and Campbell, also 18, were there alone when someone entered the building. The intruder stabbed them both dozens of times, then slipped away unnoticed by anyone on the street or in the vegetarian restaurant next door. The killer thought to take the victims' identification, the surveillance video, and a safe.
"It was a double blow," Gail remembers. "Finding out your daughter was working in a place like that, and then the next minute finding out she's been murdered. It was unfathomable. We had never known anyone who was murdered."
Gail and Gary later found out that a childhood friend of Melissa's from Nashville had reconnected with her when she left home and brought her into the business, which offered "private exotic dancing."
"Her friends who knew and the other girls who worked there told me that she hated it, that she was going to quit," Gail says. "Her roommate told me she wanted to tell me that night I came to Murfreesboro but she didn't, because she was quitting. Tiffany had a fight with the owner the night before, and she was going to leave it too. She was getting her GED and wanted better.
"Kids make stupid decisions and bad choices all the time," she adds, "but most of them don't end in murder."
Gail was so sure the crime would be solved immediately that the Monday after Melissa's memorial service — the bodies were being held for an autopsy — she went to police headquarters to find out who did it. She didn't know that 17 years of anguish and frustration would pass before someone was charged for the double murder.
That someone is Streater, Campbell's former boyfriend, imprisoned since 2002 for violent robberies of elderly women. In the early '90s he'd been a track and field star at McGavock High. Police had always known about him, but there was never enough evidence to charge him. Until now.
Soon after contacting Gail Chilton, Postiglione called Campbell's mother, Deborah Edmonds. The two mothers were at the press conference the next day when MNPD Chief Steve Anderson announced that one of Nashville's most notorious murders had been solved. The stone-faced Postiglione allowed himself a slight smile. "The motto of Cold Case Units across the country," he said, "is, 'Never give up.' "
Gail Chilton never gave up either. With Edmonds' blessing, she took advantage of every media opportunity to keep the case in the public eye. For the first year or so, she showed up every week at police headquarters, and called so frequently her voice was known to all. Weekly — up until the day before she got the call she'd been awaiting, two days short of the crime's 17th anniversary — she stood in front of 1807 Church St. and the alley's back entrance, certain the vacant building would somehow give up its terrible secret. She would talk to Melissa, and tell her she would never give up.
"For the first few months after she was killed, I would dream she was walking down the hall to me, smiling," Gail says. "She would say, 'Mama, it's all right. Everything's going to be OK.' One Sunday morning I got up before dawn to make my husband breakfast before he went to work, then I went back to bed. About an hour later I had the same dream, except she was hugging me so hard it woke me up. I called Gary and told him that I knew Melissa had been there, that she had come to see me.
"He said, 'Gail, don't you know what day today is? It's Mother's Day.' "
It may be months or more before Streater is brought to Davidson County for trial. But this May, Deborah Edmonds and Gail Chilton will spend their first Mother's Day in 17 years with some measure of peace, certain justice is near for Tiffany and Melissa.
"For a long time after, my husband blamed himself, I blamed myself. We blamed each other," Gail says. "But there is only one person responsible for the murder, and that is the murderer."
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