In a world that fails to validate our existence and seeks to make monoliths out of our varied lived experiences, our community has an obligation to speak truth to power and share our authentic stories in all of their complexities. It is through sharing our journeys that we hold ourselves accountable for each other, bringing us greater empathy for the human experience, and preventing the erasure of our collective struggles.
In September 2009, Jonelle Melton, a 33-year-old middle school teacher, was found dead in her home in Neptune City, New Jersey. Although the three men responsible for her death were eventually identified and brought to justice, her husband Mike Melton, who not only found her but was falsely targeted as a primary suspect, has had to live with the residual damage of this loss for over a decade. Not allowing this tragedy to define him, Melton has found purpose in sharing his story of triumph over immense loss, and is inspiring the next generation through the joy of basketball.
EBONY spoke with the community hero about his search for justice, the road to healing and the power of giving back.
EBONY: You experienced a horrific loss that sent you on a long and hellish journey. What do you remember about the day that your life changed as a result of your former wife’s passing in 2009?
Mike Melton: I woke up on September 14 2009 and I thought it was gonna be a regular day. My wife and I were separated but we were still best friends and we worked at the same job. I taught fourth-grade social studies and she taught fifth grade. That day, we were supposed to do a project regarding a speech that Barack Obama gave about education. We were all set and ready to deliver it to the kids. Usually, we talk on the phone on our way to work and that morning, she didn’t answer the phone. I didn't really think anything of it and thought that maybe she overslept or something of that nature. When I got to work, I was asked if I spoke to her because she didn’t call out, which was unusual as well. By that time, all I'm doing is thinking about the project and if she is going to be there in time to present it. When the homeroom period is over, I get a call to come back down to the office where they inform me that she still didn't call in sick and they ask me to go check on her to make sure she is alright, so I do so.
Once I arrive at her home, I see her car and I feel a sense of relief. I'm still trying to call her but no answer. I bolt to the door and knock, but there's still no answer. I try turning the doorknob and yelling her name. No answer. Then, I notice that the doorknob is open. I go in, make a quick left for the bedroom and that’s when I see her laying on the floor.
I immediately freeze.
I call 911 as I didn't know that she was already dead at the time. I tell them I was still yelling at her and calling her name but she wouldn't get up. When the first responder arrives, he evaluates her and explains to me that she is dead. I freak out. The responder then states that they need to take me out of the room and that I should be prepared to answer a lot of different questions all day. I was eventually taken to Neptune City Police Station where I sat for about 40 minutes without anyone speaking to me. When I finally get to the prosecutor's office, it feels like I’m in The First 48. They asked me a lot of questions about me and about our relationship and I was very forthcoming because I knew I didn't do anything. I'm thinking that I'm really helping them.
Two days later, a newspaper article comes out that says that Jonelle was found but they didn't say who found her. The last paragraph says that “she was estranged from her husband. They worked at the same job, and their divorce was supposed to be final on October 6.” This was September 16th. It became clear to me then that I was the number one suspect.
After the realization that you were being looked at as the number one suspect, how did you process that?
I didn't know what to do. At that point, it was the first time and only time in my life that I contemplated suicide. The three reasons I didn't do it were: my belief in God, the fact that I knew I didn't do anything, and my desire to prevent my family from facing any additional pain as they were already going through so much. I couldn't go to work anymore so I was just home. That is when the despair kicked in.
What did support and healing look like for you during this horrific time?
Around this time, I received a call from a guy named Ron, who was an attorney, and his son played in the basketball tournaments that I hosted. Ron said that he was going to represent me pro bono because he knew I didn't have anything to do with this and they're going to try to take me through the wringer. So, Ron took over my case. We had a press conference where I got a chance to talk about home, who I was, and highlight my character. Every day I woke up and I didn't know if today was going to be “the day.” I immediately went into therapy but it only provided temporary solace for me because when I left the therapist’s office, the case was still open and there was still no justice. Because of this looming fear, I turned to alcohol. This soon became the norm for me because I couldn't face what was going on at that time.
In 2013, I got a call from Ron and he revealed that he had brain cancer. In the time before his passing, he prepared me for what was to come and helped me secure a new attorney who would fight for me as he did. During this time, I was being forced to resign from my job and I did not want to do that. I had watched the kids I taught grow up and had built a strong bond with them—so to no longer be a part of that journey with them really hurt and made me very depressed. However, Ron’s support and faith in me meant a lot at that moment in time.
When you discovered what actually happened to Jonelle, what did that realization do for you?
I found out what really happened in 2015. In 2014, a new detective came on the case and shared with me that he knew what actually happened and he wanted to sit down and speak with me. It took me a year to actually sit down and talk to him.
When we finally sat together, he said, “Listen, your wife lived next door to some drug dealers. The drug dealer had some money in his house and his girlfriend was at a party running her mouth. Some stick-up boys heard about the money and they went to rob the drug dealer but they went to the wrong house. That's how your wife got killed.” After hearing this, half of me is feeling relieved because they knew it was not me who did that to Jonelle. The other half is feeling heavily distraught because she lost her life over some money.
What does peace look like for you now?
After taking my rehabilitation seriously, what’s kept me alive is my Basketball Spotlight company. Working with the kids and doing the camps and the tournaments because that's the only place where people are not really judging me.
After learning the truth, I flew down to Florida to go to rehab for the first time. I did five days in detox, and then I checked into rehab. At the first meeting I went to, I made a near fatal mistake. I compared myself to the people there instead of finding commonalities with them. I was listening to one guy talk about how he drinks 175 liters and another say that he consumes hand sanitizers and hairspray and I instantly say to myself that I'm definitely not like them. At that point, I had cut off my ability to learn and told myself that I didn’t have a problem. I was only there because my wife got killed and only attended the Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings so I could hear ratchet stories. I didn't pay attention at all. I became arrogant and ignorant and did not pay attention to what was happening to me.
Later on, I was called to testify against the three men—Jerry J. Spraudling, Ebenezer Byrd and Gregory A. Jean—who murdered my wife Jonelle. I became scared again. I couldn't turn to the program for support because I didn't take rehab seriously. So once again, I turned to alcohol. I had PTSD; I was home all day and the intensity of it was increasing.
It took four years for us to get to trial. Eventually, I went back to Florida and went to the same rehab that I went to before. On the first night there, I opened the guidebook they gave me for the first time. However, I couldn't understand the first two chapters of it, because my head was still kind of clogged, being out of detox. But when I got to the chapter that dealt more with alcoholism, I identified with it so much that I immediately turned to the front of the book—because I wanted to see what year this book was written—because I couldn't believe that they were talking about me. That's how much it resonated with me.
The part of the chapter that hit me the most was about this guy who was 30 years old and owned a business. I immediately resonated with him because I own my basketball company. He had made the vow to not drink again until he retired. He was sober for 25 years, retired and he picked up a drink. Three months later, he was in the hospital; and three years later, he died. That's when it dawned on me how this disease progresses in your body. It scared me and propelled me into action.
In Step 4 of recovery, you have to do a fearless moral inventory of yourself. You write down everything you ever did, all the harm you’ve caused and your fears. In step 5, you reveal your deepest, darkest secrets and pray for three things: for God to forgive you, for God to change you into a better person, and for the strength to forgive yourself.
When I completed that, a warm sensation just went through my body. For the first time in my life, I didn't care about anything else but serving God.
In my last meeting, I knew I had to tell my story. There were 200 people in the room that didn't know me but were captivated by my truth. That's when it hit me—I had to tell my story to help try and save the lives of others. I knew I had to do this because nobody in our community does this. I contacted all of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball teams, high school teams, and all of the other people I knew. I started setting up speaking sessions about the dangers of self-medicating.
Now, my life is really not about me anymore. It's about working for the community and trying to help save people's lives. That's what gives me the peace and motivation I have each day. I was given a second chance so I have to do the best I can with the gift I’ve gotten.