Police unearthed tiny skeletal remains from the backyard of a Hallandale Beach home on Friday — all but confirming a heartbreaking end to the short-lived search for Dontrell Melvin.
“This is no longer a missing person case,” said Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy. “It is now a homicide investigation.”
The boy’s parents, 27-year-old Calvin Melvin and 21-year-old Brittney Sierra, were both in custody Friday, charged for the moment only with child neglect.
Former neighbors of Melvin and Sierra wept openly, wailed with anguish and collapsed after police announced that they had discovered the bones behind the small, green house at 106 NW First Ave.
The couple had moved from the modest home a year ago, apparently leaving behind a gruesome secret.
Standing behind yellow crime scene tape, a woman who said she was a cousin of Melvin’s shook her head at the discovery. “I just don’t understand how this could happen,” she said. “I don’t know how someone could live with that.”
Dontrell Melvin, 5 months old when he was last seen, would be 2 next month.
The search for Dontrell began this week when authorities responded to a Department of Children & Families hotline call of alleged child neglect. When police arrived at the couple’s home, they found only two children where there were supposed to be three.
Melvin had an explanation: He had taken Dontrell to live with his parents — the boy’s grandparents — because he and Sierra were experiencing financial difficulties. Officers went to the grandparents’ Pompano Beach home to check out the story, but the grandparents said it wasn’t true.
Police went back to talk to Melvin, but he was gone.
At that point, Chief Flournoy called a Thursday news conference to announce that Dontrell was missing and that police had grave fears about the boy’s safety.
Those fears were well founded.
The human skeleton was excavated after police spent much of Friday digging in the home’s backyard with the aid of cadaver dogs. Melvin and Sierra, already arrested hours earlier, were being held in the Broward County Jail, pending an analysis of the bones by the Broward County Medical Examiner’s office.
State child welfare administrators took two other children into protective care.
Questioned separately by police, the parents pointed fingers at each other.
On Saturday, a forensic anthropologist will return to the home to further excavate with special tools, Flournoy said.
Details of the toddler’s short life began to emerge Friday, raising troubling questions about whether police or child welfare authorities could have acted sooner.
Last October, an officer from the Hallandale Beach Police Department phoned the DCF child abuse hotline, relating information about a custody dispute between Melvin and Sierra. In the tape-recorded call, the officer does not express grave concerns about Dontrell’s well-being. But a report resulting from the call contained ominous words: “It is not known if the child is even alive.”
Despite those words, DCF declined to take action. The report was “screened out” by the child abuse hotline, meaning no investigation was warranted.
A spokesman for the agency, Joe Follick, declined to discuss the hotline call, saying it remains a part of a “current criminal investigation.”
Flournoy said he was never made aware that DCF had declined to investigate the call. “I’ve been told that something did happen with that October hotline call,” he said. “I’ve been told there was some response.”
Follick confirmed that DCF “had a number of instances of involvement with this family in recent years,” but would not elaborate. The Miami Herald has learned that privately run child welfare agencies under contract with the state had been working with members of Sierra’s extended family as recently as last year, and that DCF had removed children from the home of Sierra’s mother — with whom the couple had been living most recently.
“We continue to work very closely with the Hallandale Beach Police Department and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office on this investigation,” Follick said. “The death or disappearance of any child is a terrible tragedy that saddens every member of the community and every employee of this department.”
Flournoy said investigators were led to the couple’s former backyard after interviewing Melvin and Sierra.
The home is now occupied by Mahud Lama. Police told him to stay clear of the backyard while they investigated. Cadaver dogs were summoned and indicated someone could be buried there. Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies probed the area with metal spikes. An area of soft dirt was found, and the bones were located underneath. A medical examiner confirmed the remains were human.
Melvin, who reemerged Thursday night after disappearing from his current home earlier, offered police a variety of stories about his son’s disappearance. One was that he had left the boy at a North Miami-Dade fire station — which is legal under the state’s Safe Haven law, though only for about a week after a child’s birth.
Police didn’t believe him.
Sierra initially told police that Melvin walked out of their Hallandale Beach home with Dontrell in July 2011 — and came back without him. When she pressed Melvin about what he had done with the boy, he said he had given the child to his parents. She said she believed him, and life went on in the Hallandale Beach house, minus Dontrell.
Melvin and Sierra would have another child. There was also a third child — one by a different father — in the household.
Throughout the coming months, no one — not Sierra, not Melvin, not the boy’s grandparents nor other family members — reported to authorities that Dontrell had vanished.
“That’s what’s confusing,” the police chief said. “This is a large family unit — with grandparents and uncles and aunts — and everyone just thinks this child is with another segment of the family. We know the mother and father had problems, including financial problems. But nobody circled back and checked” on the child’s safety.
About a year ago, the family left the little green house and moved in with Sierra’s mother, just six blocks away.
Rosetta Braham, who lives next door to Sierra’s mother, said there were now six youngsters living there — two of them Sierra’s children. But she never saw Dontrell, never knew he existed.
Last August, Braham said, she took Sierra’s mother shopping for backpacks for her children and grandchildren. “She told me she had a dream that her grandbaby was missing,” Braham said. What neighbors did see were frequent arguments between Melvin and Sierra, some of which spilled into the front yard.
The two would “fuss and fight a lot,” Braham said, and Melvin would come next door and sit on her porch.
But Sierra would eventually come over, and the couple would reconcile.