Journey for justice continues 16 years after tanning bed murders

Tiffany Campbell and Melissa Chilton
(Graphic: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The mother of a teen killed in 1996 is still searching for her daughter’s killer despite several years without an arrest.

Gail Chilton’s daughter, Melissa Chilton, was killed along with Tiffany Campbell inside the Exotic Tan for Men, February 22, 1996.

Exotic Tan for Men was an adult business on Church Street near 18th Avenue.  The business has long been closed.   It’s now Judge Bean’s Vinegaroon, a barbeque restaurant.

Chilton did not know her daughter was working at the business until authorities notified her of Melissa’s murder.

“I was so naive when she was murdered,” Chilton said.  “First I didn’t believe she was murdered because until you are faced with it that’s just not something that’s in your mind because you don’t think anyone in your family is ever going to be murdered.”

The murders happened around lunchtime.  The business’s owner had been in contact by phone with the two girls earlier in the day.  Around Noon they stopped answering the phone.  He discovered their bodies around 2 p.m. that afternoon.

Tanning Bed Murders
The scene of the crime

“I was so naive that I had no idea that they didn’t know who killed her and they would not know who killed her for 16 years,” Chilton said. “They still don’t know.”

Metro Nashville Police Department’s cold case unit took over the murder investigation after the case went cold.

Cold case Det. Sgt. Pat Postiglione is leading the investigation.  Sgt. Postiglione has worked some of Nashville’s most famous cases, including the Janet March case.

He also helped put convicted serial killer Paul Dennis Reid in prison.

“I think that person was able to get in, kill the victims virtually undetected,” Sgt. Postiglione said.  “I think it was simply luck.”

He continued, “I don’t think it was skill or planning on the part of the perpetrator.”

Initially, investigators thought one of the girls either knew or thought they could trust the killer because they buzzed the killer into the business past a locked door.

“I say when you have a crime like this type of a crime, the first thing you do is look at the victims and to anyone connected to the victims,” Postiglione said.  “You typically look at the relationships that the victims were involved in at the time of their deaths.”

Postiglione said that does not always lead to a suspect, but in the Exotic Tan for Men murders it did lead to several suspects.  Postiglione continues to interview people of interest and recently traveled out of state for one such interview.

Over time it can become more difficult to investigate a case because people move, memories start to fade or in some cases people die.

The former owner of Exotic Tan for Men was killed in a car wreck last spring.

“There are some things we are not going to release that occurred at the crime scene,” Postiglione said.  “Hopefully down the road when we get a person, that person will be able to give us information that we will know is exact in terms of the crime scene.”

Since the murders, detectives have publicly identified some people of interest.

In 2000, the case was featured on “America’s Most Wanted,” and at the time there was a person of interest in Indiana.

He has still not been cleared.

“It’s probably not a good idea to totally eliminate somebody,” Postiglione said.  “If that person has an alibi or a very strong alibi you can put them on the back burner.”

He continued, “I think it’s important to leave them on the back burner until you until you get deeper into who the suspect is or the suspects are.”

Overtime there are aspects of the case that can become stronger tools.  Cold case detectives point to DNA evidence and human nature.

“In terms of people’s relationships with persons who may be involved with this, for example, 16 years ago they may have defended that person and gave them an alibi,” he said. “Sixteen years later, they are no longer with that person, maybe their relationship has changed drastically.”

He also said, “Maybe they won’t support them or give them the alibi they gave them 16 years ago.”

Technological advances can help make old evidence yield new leads.

“We evaluate it and re-evaluate it and sometimes if you looked at it 10 years ago forensically it may not be there,” Postiglione said. “But now with the new technology that’s evolved, you may find it where you couldn’t find it 10 years ago,”

The detective also said years ago a DNA test could require an entire spot of blood to extract a DNA sample. Now crime labs can yield profiles from microscopic spots of blood.

The cold case unit does not give up hope on closing its cases.

Investigators were able to arrest a suspect in a murder case dating back to 1979, February 13, 2012.

Freddie Lee Jones, 69, is charged with first degree murder in connection with the killing of Ethel Hethcote.

The 72-year-old woman was found strangled in her Hermitage home.

Jones, a convicted sex offender, had worked at the woman’s home installing insulation in the days before her murder.

“The reason is for the victim and the victim’s family to give them some sort of closure because this is a tough thing to live with,” the detective said, “to lose a loved one and 16 years later you have no idea who killed them.”

Postiglione feels confident someone in Nashville knows who killed Chilton and Campbell they just need to come forward.

For the killer he has this message:

“I think a cold case unit hopefully keeps them up at night hope it keeps them looking over their shoulder in case we are one step behind them.  Hopefully if there is someone out there who has been involved in one of these things, he will know that one day we will be pounding on his door.”

Chilton’s mother hopes for the same thing.

“I know people saw the killer,” she said. “I know there are witnesses who just don’t realize that all its going to take is a description.”

Chilton said she will not give up hope of seeing her daughter’s murderer brought to justice.  She often thinks of the life Melissa could have had if she was not murdered.

“I know she would have children. All of her friends have children, two and three kids, and I know she would be a great mother,” Chilton said.  “He literally stole my life.  He shut me down that day nothing was ever the same after that.”

She said, “I didn’t have a kid in college anymore.  I didn’t have a daughter.  I had a killer and that’s not much of substitution.”

Chilton continues to work as a victim’s rights advocate.  Following her daughter and Campbell’s murder she started a campaign to reform the adult business industry in Nashville.

Through her efforts along with city leaders the adult entertainment business was more closely regulated and performers had to be able to show proof of age among other requirements.

“I think in one day they shut down 300 businesses and we are talking about hole in the wall businesses,” she said.

Chilton also offered at $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her daughter and Campbell’s murder.

Anyone with information about the murders at Exotic Tan for Men should contact Metro’s cold cast unit at 615-862-7329 or Sgt. Postiglione directly at 615-862-7550.

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