In the spring of 1982, JoAnn Tate was found dead in her St. Louis home, face down in a pool of blood. Her daughters, 7-year-old Melissa and 4-year-old Renee, had been stabbed repeatedly but survived.
A man Tate dated for a short time, 37-year-old truck driver Rodney Lincoln, was charged with the murder. No forensic evidence established that he had killed Tate and attacked her daughters. In fact, Lincoln had not seen Tate for nearly a year at the time of her death. To convict him, prosecutors relied on the testimony of Melissa, a traumatized child whose account of what happened changed over time. Despite the discrepancies in her testimony, a jury found Lincoln guilty. He is serving two life sentences for crimes he insists he did not commit.
In 2010, DNA testing found that a hair prosecutors said placed him at the scene was not his. All the blood and hair belonged to the victims. A judge, however, ruled the finding was not enough to exonerate Lincoln, in part because it did not override Melissa’s testimony identifying him as the killer.
More than 30 years after her mother was murdered, Melissa, then 41, recanted her testimony after she watched a true-crime show about the crime that hypothesized another man was the killer. The 2015 show, Melissa said, brought back a flood of suppressed memories.
Lincoln thought he’d be a free man. At least, he said, it felt that way at the time.
Lincoln met Tate in 1981 at a St. Louis pool tournament he had organized at the Cottage Inn, a bar on Davidson and South Broadway. Antique and furniture stores and a few thrift stores lined the sidewalks near the bar. Elderly people who liked to sit outside on warm nights. Few children enlivened the street.
Tate’s brother, Dan, participated in the tournament that night. Tate accompanied him. Dan knew Lincoln from other pool tournaments and introduced them.
Tate was friendly and easy to talk to, Lincoln told me from the Jefferson City Correctional Center, in Jefferson City, Missouri. We spoke by phone. His voice slurred slightly when he talked. He was 73. Sometimes he had difficulty hearing me.
Lincoln said Tate gave him her name and number. That night after the tournament, he called her, and she invited him to her brick walk-up in the Hyde Park neighborhood north of downtown. They got together six or eight times after that.
Tate had lived a difficult life. She was the mother of an adult daughter as well as Melissa and Renee. She had been married to a man who beat her with brass knuckles. In 1975, she and her younger brother, Nathaniel Clenney, were severely injured when a semi truck struck their car. For the remainder of her life, Tate suffered persistent pain. Her weight ballooned to more than 200 pounds. She dated all the time. She always seemed to be searching for love, Clenney told me. She stayed with some men for a long time, other men for just a short while. She didn’t explain to her children when they broke up. She was involved with two men when she became pregnant with Melissa and was unsure who was the father.
“JoAnn, you can’t hook up with these guys,” Clenney would tell her. “You can’t be easy. Play hard to get. Get you someone better.”
“She didn’t listen,” he said.
At the time Lincoln met Tate, his life had settled into a predictable routine after years of disruption largely of his own making.
Lincoln was born in St. Louis. His parents divorced when he was a child and he never knew his father. He adored his stepfather, a man who came into his life when he was 5 and stayed there until he died in 1975. They’d drive to Festus, Missouri, and fish. Carp mostly, an occasional turtle or two. The old man rarely got angry. Serious, yes; angry, no. He had a way of talking if Rodney had done something wrong, a way that told Rodney he best not do it again.
His mild-mannered mother was firm when she needed to be. She expected him to be polite and respectful. Anything less, and she’d set him down for a little talk. That look. Don’t keep it up. Lincoln understood.
Lincoln enlisted in the Navy in 1963 after completing high school. Forty-nine days after he shipped to Naval Station Great Lakes, a doctor found he was hard of hearing in one ear. He received an honorable discharge for medical reasons.
He moved from job to job until he started driving a truck in 1964. He married and relocated in 1968 to Santa Monica, California, where his wife’s family lived. The couple had two children by then and were expecting their third. He found work with Culligan Water Conditioning. But a 1971 earthquake that threw his wife across their bed scared the hell out of him. He loaded his family onto a bus, returned to St. Louis and drove for Roadway Express, a trucking company.
A chance encounter in 1972 upended his life. One evening as Lincoln drank in a St. Louis bar, the name of which he no longer recalls, a friend who lived across the street told him some guy had stolen an axe from his pickup. Lincoln chased the man down and demanded the return of his axe. The man’s name was Russell Meirs, 52. Both he and Meirs were very drunk, Lincoln recalled. Meirs explained that he was unemployed and broke. He stole the axe to pawn it. Lincoln decided the axe wasn’t as big a deal as the need for another drink. He and Meirs bought wine and beer at a liquor store and drove in Lincoln’s pickup to some woods by Jefferson Barracks near the shore of the Mississippi River.
Their drunken friendship soon turned violent. Lincoln said Meirs made a sexual pass at him, which he rejected. Meirs got angry and picked up a rock the size of a softball and threw it at Lincoln but missed. Not to be outdone, Lincoln threw an equally big rock at Meirs and struck him in the head. Meirs collapsed and Lincoln threw another rock. When Meirs didn’t move, Lincoln felt for his pulse. Nothing. Panicked, Lincoln pushed the body into the river, ran back to his pickup and took off. The driver of a car coming from the opposite direction later identified his vehicle to the police.
Lincoln didn’t tell anyone he’d killed a man. He was scared and tried drinking away the memory. Two weeks later, police questioned him: Did he know Meirs? Had he seen him around? Where had he been that night? Who had he been with?
A month later, police questioned Lincoln again. They told him his truck had been seen leaving the crime scene. He tried to talk his way out of it, but he felt cornered. Exhausted from stress and fear, with no more energy to duck and dodge what he saw as the inevitable, he confessed. A judge sentenced him to 10 years in Moberly Correctional Center in Moberly, Missouri, for second-degree murder. He served two years and was released on parole in 1975.
“It doesn’t haunt me,” Lincoln said about Meirs’s death. He had been drinking. He made bad choices. He told his children he was in jail because he had done something wrong. That’s how he looks at that night. Drunk and stupid and punished accordingly. He hasn’t forgotten, but he has tried to forgive himself.
In 1977, two years after he left prison, unable to find work and drinking hard again, Lincoln broke into a building supply store and stole some tools. He was caught and sent back to Moberly for two years.
How idiotic can you be? he asked himself. He made up his mind never to return to prison again.
Lincoln’s wife, Catherine, divorced him that same year. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story after the Tate murder, she described him as a loving parent but one who spent too much time drinking, shooting pool and flirting with other women.
After he was released in 1980, Lincoln moved in with his mother, Mary Beatrice Marlow, on Minnesota Street, a working-class neighborhood with one- and two-story houses squeezed together. Marlow lived about a 30-minute drive from Tate’s home.
Lincoln’s daughter Kay remembers when her father returned home from prison in 1975. He picked her up at Mount Pleasant Elementary School. She was in the first grade, seven years old. The teacher called her into the hall. Do you know who this is? Her father beamed at her. “My daddy,” she said, and she went to him and he held her. He walked Kay and her two older brothers, Rod and Leonard, home.
Kay, Rod, Leonard and Kellie saw their father on weekends. Kellie remembers how her father liked to sing truck driving songs, “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Sixteen Tons” and “Teddy Bear.” He had a nice, deep voice, but the children’s mother was really the singer in the family. Everything was just fun. Fishing, playing cards. Even if it was bad weather Lincoln would make a game of it and chase his kids through the house, driving his mother crazy.
He had standards, however, that he wouldn’t laugh off if his children violated them. One day, Kay’s sixth-grade teacher caught her talking in class. She told Kay to write “I will not talk in class” until she had filled two sheets of paper. Kay wrote the sentence one time in large letters on both pages. She thought her father would be amused, but he grew very stern and told her to do it again and this time correctly.
Kellie recalled an evening when she referred to her father by his first name. She was 4 or 5 at the time. “Don’t do that again,” he told her. “It’s ‘dad’ to you.” Kay and Kellie still laugh about it.
None of Lincoln’s children remember the Cottage Inn pool tournament where their father met Tate. In fact, they don’t remember having seen her at all. He brought her to his mother’s house just one time with her daughters Melissa and Renee. Lincoln took the girls to a park across the street, and they played on a swing set. Afterward, they ate dinner.
Melissa remembers Lincoln from that time. He was easygoing, she said. He knelt on a knee and talked to her and Renee as adults. He was skinny and short. He didn’t speak much, but when he did he told jokes. His mother offered the girls plates of cookies and cake. Sheet cake from the 99 cents store. Melissa and Renee slept on a pallet. They considered their night in his house an adventure.
Lincoln and Tate stopped seeing each other when he met another woman, Diane Packineau. Packineau, Lincoln said, made him feel there was more to life than drinking and acting a fool. You’ve had enough, she’d tell him. You’re hitting it pretty hard. He listened. He slowed down. She also didn’t hold his prison record against him. It was a long time ago, she told him.
Lincoln and Packineau spoke about marriage. They were still together when he was charged with Tate’s murder.
On April 27, 1982, some time after midnight and before dawn, Melissa woke up to a loud noise and a scream. She saw a naked man sitting at the end of her bed and her mother on the floor in the hall.
“Why is my mom on the floor?”
“She’s sleeping,” the man said.
Melissa thought she recognized the man as someone who had been with her mother but couldn’t place his face.
The man picked up Melissa and carried her into her mother’s bedroom. She felt him tugging off her clothes. She struggled and called for her mother. The man tried to force her to give him oral sex. He threw her down, pressed a pillow over her face and started stabbing her. Melissa screamed and put up her hands and kicked, but he continued stabbing her. She tried getting off the bed, but the man grabbed her. Melissa stopped struggling and played dead, she told me. The man walked into the kitchen. Melissa heard the water running and crawled beneath the bed.
“Where’s Melissa?” she heard Renee say.
“I don’t know,” the man said.
The family’s black schnauzer wriggled beside Melissa and licked her wounds. Melissa passed out. When she came to, light was beginning to come through the windows. She tried to walk, collapsed and passed out again. She woke up to Renee calling for water. Melissa attempted to rouse her mother, but she wouldn’t move.
Melissa remembered stumbling into the kitchen and vomiting. She filled a measuring cup with water and gave it to Renee. Recalling that moment, Melissa said she was weak from blood loss and did not notice what bad shape her sister was in until Renee drank the water. It leaked out holes in her throat. She does not remember her reaction or if she reacted at all. She stumbled back into her bed and passed out again.
That morning, Tate’s boyfriend, Gerald Woodward, telephoned her house three times. No answer. He called Clenney. Clenney told him he’d not heard from his sister. He asked Woodward for a ride into St. Louis to run errands. Both men lived in the suburb of Florissant.
Woodward and Clenney stopped at the home of Abigail Wallace, a sister of Clenney and Tate. Wallace had expected Tate to help her with a garage sale. If Tate loved anything it was playing Uno, selling Avon products and organizing garage sales. But she hadn’t shown up. Clenney and Woodward left Wallace for Tate’s house. When they arrived mid-morning Woodward noticed the transom window was open.
They knocked on the screen door. No response. The entry door stood ajar, and they stepped inside. Tate lay on the floor, underwear pulled off, a mop handle in her rectum, blood everywhere and a knife on the bed in Tate’s bedroom. Woodward “froze like a statue,” he later testified. Clenney knelt by his sister and touched her hip. Cold. He saw Melissa in her bed beneath a blanket. He didn’t realize she was hurt.
“Who did this to you?” Clenney shouted at Melissa.
“The man who worked on Mamma’s car,” she answered.
“Who did this?” Clenney said again.
“Bill did it,” Melissa said. “He laid his coat right here.”
Clenney called the police. The dispatcher, he recalled, asked him if he was joking.
“This ain’t no joke!” he said.
Paramedics rushed Melissa and Renee to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. Melissa has vague memories of riding in an ambulance, the wail of its siren. She recalls lying naked on a cold metal table and then waking up in a bed attached to a colostomy bag. She had been stabbed 10 times. A slit ran from her buttocks to the top of her vagina. Her right lung had collapsed.
Renee, in the same room, was comatose. Their family had already dug the girls’ graves, their cousin said. No one expected them to live.
A police officer stood at the door to their room. The girls’ Aunt Rachel sat near Melissa.
“Where’s mom? Did they catch the bad man?” Melissa asked her.
“No,” Rachel said. “They need your help.”
As police descended on Tate’s house, Lincoln dressed for work. He drove a truck for Mound City Whole Sale Groceries. Diane Packineau had spent the night and made him breakfast: eggs sunny side up, just the way his mother did. After they ate, Lincoln and Packineau got in his mother’s green Ford station wagon and drove to the apartment she shared with her brother. It was about 7 a.m. Clear skies, nice morning. Packineau’s brother was watching Gunga Din on TV. Lincoln dropped her off and left for work. He began making his deliveries between 8:30 and 9 a.m. By the time the police were called to Tate’s house, Lincoln was already out making deliveries. His boss, Robert Saltzman, testified that he did not notice anything unusual about Lincoln that morning.
Lincoln said he heard about Tate’s death on television that night. He had a hard time believing that someone he had been intimate with had died in such an awful manner. The newscaster compared her death to the Charles Manson murders.
St. Louis police had no immediate suspects and no witnesses other than Melissa. Blood, hair and fingerprints from the crime scene offered no clues. Woodward would later testify that Tate had told him she feared several men who occasionally sat outside her house. Clenney also said that Tate had been worried about a former boyfriend named Tom.
Melissa’s ideas of who killed her mother created further confusion. She maintained to the police that the assailant was Bill. Police and Melissa’s family were unable to determine who Bill was. Their confusion deepened further when Melissa’s older half-sister, Melinda, 18, arrived at the hospital the day her mother’s body was found and asked Melissa if a former boyfriend of their mother, Gary, had been the attacker.
“Yes,” Melissa answered.
On May 4, 1982, a week after the crime, Melissa was questioned by Detective Joseph Burgoon. According to court documents, while she was still in the hospital, Melissa told Burgoon that she had first met Bill at a park. On another day, Bill had taken her family to his house. Bill, she said, drove a yellow taxi and “had black hair all the way to his ears.” Bill had also been to their home three days before to fix her mother’s car.
In a telephone interview, Burgoon told me he searched the St. Louis police department’s database for possible suspects named Bill but found no one who matched Melissa’s description. He said he also showed Melissa and Renee dozens of photos, but they never picked anyone out. Every time he visited, he brought the girls M&M’s.
Melissa told me Burgoon was like a father to her. He was stable, not scary. He gave her candy. He’d say, “This is something I want to talk to you about. If you want to stop, that’s OK.” She was afraid of disappointing him. She sensed his urgency to catch the “Bad Man.” She wanted his approval, she told me. She wanted to help.
A social worker named Wayne Munkel was also with them. He noted at the time: “Patient in much discomfort and interview stopped several times. Patient repeated many previous statements. Patient expressing anger toward [detective] Burgoon and Munkel later. Patient also blocking painful experiences recalled earlier.”
Mary Flotron, a victim witness advocate who had been assigned to Melissa and Renee after the attack on their family, noticed how scared Melissa was of men. No matter their ethnicity, when Melissa saw a man she would call him the Bad Man. Flotron recalled an afternoon when prosecutor Joe Bauer came into her office and Melissa pointed and said, “Bad Man! Bad Man!”
Flotron helped Melissa with trial preparation. They would role-play in the courthouse. Flotron would tell Melissa where Lincoln would be sitting and referred to him as the Bad Man. She also said Melissa got a kick out of having Burgoon pretend to be the Bad Man.
On May 18, 1982, a forensic artist drew a sketch of the suspect based on a photo of Dennis Smith, a family friend whom Melissa said resembled the killer. After the sketch was released, her Uncle Daniel and his sister Abigail Wallace told police the sketch reminded them of a man named “Rod,” later identified as Rodney Lincoln.
Court records show that on May 23, 1982, Burgoon met with the girls to show them photos of suspects. Before displaying the photos, he told them he had a magic door downtown and that the Bad Man would be behind the magic door.
Burgoon explained that it was important the girls pick out the right man so the Bad Man would not go free. He then showed them just two photos: One was a five-year-old, black-and-white mugshot of Lincoln and the other was a color photograph of Gary Parris, a relative of their older half-sister that detectives said was a person of interest.
“I’ve got a couple of photos,” Burgoon said he explained to the girls.
Melissa picked Lincoln. Renee wouldn’t look.
“His name’s not Bill,” Burgoon said.
“That’s him,” Melissa said.
That day, Lincoln held a family barbecue at his mother’s house. He had his daughters that weekend. He ran an errand for his mother, and when he returned she told him the police had telephoned. Lincoln returned the call. The police asked him a few questions: Did he know JoAnn Tate? Did he know anyone who might harm her? Had she been to his house? They didn’t tell him how they got his name. They asked if they could come out and speak with him. Lincoln agreed.
Lincoln wasn’t surprised the police wanted to talk. He had dated Tate. He assumed they were contacting many people she had known. About a half-hour later, two detectives walked into his backyard. One flashed a badge, the other patted him down. Everyone got quiet. Kay, 13, was in her grandmother’s house playing cards. She watched her father kiss Kellie, 10, on top of her head and then leave with the detectives. No one told her what was going on.
“He’ll be back,” her grandmother said.
The detectives read Lincoln his Miranda rights but did not handcuff him. They drove in an unmarked car to the police station at 12th Street and Clark. One of the detectives was Burgoon. Not a bad guy, Lincoln told me. Pleasant. Tall, well built. He asked questions about Lincoln’s relationship with Tate. How long had they known each other, did they ever argue, that sort of thing. Then Burgoon informed Lincoln he would appear in a lineup.
“Wait a minute,” Lincoln told himself. “They’re looking at me now.”
His mind raced. He wondered what he had done to be a suspect. He tried to calm himself. Just sit and wait for this to be over.
Forty-five minutes later, he stood in the lineup room with three other men about 16 years younger, heavier set and with bushier hair. Of those men, Lincoln did not know that only his picture had been included in any previous photo lineup. He did not know Melissa sat on the other side of a one-way mirror. He did not know that Melissa had already identified him as the killer.
When he was escorted out of the room, Lincoln was handcuffed.
“You’re in serious trouble,” an officer told him.
Burgoon dismissed as “apples and oranges” criticism that the photo lineup and the live lineup had been biased against Lincoln. Melissa, Burgoon said, never wavered.
“She was all emphatic he did it,” Burgoon told me.
He said the men chosen to stand with Lincoln in the lineup were the only ones available at the time.
“It was slim pickings,” he said.
Reflecting on the lineup decades later, Melissa told me she knew she was expected to pick Lincoln. The detectives didn’t call the suspect the Bad Man as she did. They called him Rodney. She remembers selecting him. He was a familiar face.
Kay Lincoln remembered a weird feeling settling over her father’s house after he left with the detectives. The adults were whispering, looking upset. Kay’s aunt took her and Kellie home. Her aunt spoke to their mother. The expression on their faces, looks of dread.
That night after Hill Street Blues, Kay got ready for bed and watched the previews for the 10 o’clock news. The camera panned down a hall of a police station and showed her father walking between two officers. Murder Suspect Arrested, words on the screen said.
Lincoln was charged with capital murder and first-degree assault with intent to kill. His bond was $1 million. His family raised money for a private attorney, Robert Hampe. Hampe, Lincoln said, told him to stay calm. This will work out. Don’t panic.
Lincoln’s trial began in August 1983. Jurors split seven to five for Lincoln’s acquittal, and it ended with a hung jury. Prosecutors called for a new trial.
Mary Whitis served on the jury and remembers the trial well. She recalled seeing Lincoln seated at a table. A small guy, she thought.
Whitis listened carefully to the testimony of each witness but never heard anything that convinced her Lincoln killed Tate. However, it was Melissa’s behavior during the trial that made a particular impression. When she walked into the courtroom, Whitis noticed Melissa moving toward Lincoln’s table and smiling at him. The prosecutor intervened and guided her to the witness chair.
“The thing that got me, Melissa always smiled at [Lincoln],” Whitis said. “Why would she have begun going to his table and smile at him from the stand if he’d killed her mother?”
The second trial opened on Oct. 7, 1983. Lincoln’s lawyer, Hampe, petitioned to prohibit use of eyewitness identification of Lincoln: “The circumstances surrounding the out-of-court identification are so inherently suggestive and conducive to mistaken identification as to violate due process under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, and Article I, section 10, 15 and 18A of the Missouri Constitution.” The judge denied the request.
During the second trial, a then 8-year-old Melissa testified that she did not remember the attacker returning to the house, contradicting what she had told investigators in a May 1983 deposition; she did not see “Bill” break into the house, did not see her mother trying to flee, did not see “Bill” stab her mother going against previous statements she had made. She also testified that her mother never referred to Lincoln as Bill.
The discrepancies in her testimony, however, did not outweigh the moment she identified Lincoln as the killer.
“Do you see the man in the courtroom who hurt you and your sister and your mother?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes, sir,” she said, stepping down from the stand. She pointed at Lincoln. “Him.”
“Go right over and point to him.”
Throughout the trial, Lincoln felt like he was an animal in a box and everyone was looking at him. When Melissa pointed at him, the box began squeezing in from all sides. He felt nauseated, weak, helpless. He tried to remain optimistic.
The jury found Lincoln guilty, and the judge sentenced him to two life sentences (one each for the assaults of Renee and Melissa) and 15 years for manslaughter, the maximum sentence for that crime.
Melissa told me she does not remember the verdict. Someone told her the Bad Man would stay in prison. She had nightmares of a man busting through a back door and stabbing her in the chest, the man’s face indistinct in the dream. She was always looking for her mother. She approached women who resembled her.
You look like my mom. Are you my mom?
Poor thing, they said, and walked away.
Melissa and Renee bounced among relatives for years after the trials. Melissa said two family members sexually abused her. She had nightmares. She wore a colostomy bag and smelled. Even after she no longer needed the bag, teachers and students still noticed the scars on her body.
At night, Melissa would cuddle with Renee and make up stories about teddy bears. She and Renee thought of themselves as an island no one could touch. They could be with each other and understand what the other felt.
After high school, Melissa joined the Navy in 1995, married and gave birth to a daughter in 1997. Melissa left the Navy in 2000. A year later, she became a contractor with the U.S. Defense Department until 2007 when she was laid off during the Great Recession.
In 2008, Renee, 31, died of cancer. Melissa moved to Pennsylvania in 2009 to be near her cousin, Jackie Barton. She returned to St. Louis four years later but left again for Pennsylvania in 2014. That same year she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, a disorder, doctors told her, that resulted in large part from the attack on her family decades earlier. She did not see combat. Studies show that some people may not begin to experience PTSD symptoms until years after the traumatic experience.
Kay Lincoln doesn’t recall her father’s conviction. She assumes her mother told her. She does remember being angry. She had just started high school. Students talked about it, but Kay kept to herself. She sent letters to her father. He wrote back and said he loved her and that he did not kill Tate or harm her daughters.
When she was 16, Kay ran away with her boyfriend. She contacted her father. Lincoln did not tell her to go home. He asked her to be careful and to consider her decisions. Let your mother know you’re OK, he added.
Kay never did return home and didn’t talk to her mother for about eight months. She stayed with her boyfriend and raised a family of four children. She never lost touch with her father.
Lincoln’s older son Rod remembers how his social studies teacher brought up his father’s case in class. Articles about it were posted on the bulletin board for a discussion on current events. Rod asked to be excused. The teacher later apologized.
Rod wanted to attend his father’s trials, but threats had been made against the family and his mother kept him home. He was with a friend on a merry-go-round when he heard about the guilty verdict.
When he thinks of his father, Rod, now 52, reflects on the man who raised him, the man who bought him a fishing pole for his 17th birthday. In his excitement, Rod broke six inches off the tip of the pole as he took it from the car. Don’t worry about it, son, Lincoln told him. I’ll get you another one. Rod still has that pole. He’ll go fishing with his father when he gets out.
As a young man, he started driving a truck like his father and volunteered with charities. To this day, Rod does everything he can to make people proud of the name Lincoln.
Kellie Porter, Lincoln’s youngest daughter, told me no one can imagine what it’s like to have the whole world believe your father is a murderer. She didn’t talk about the conviction. She blocked it out of her mind. She had nothing to do with her father for years.
Porter told me she was a god-awful teenager. Just horrible. Sneaking out at night, getting suspended from school. Angry. Father gone, mother at work all the time. Something was missing. Her brother Rod taught her to drive, not her father. Her father wrote letters, sent birthday cards. She didn’t answer. He said he loved her no matter whether he heard from her or not. You’re my little angel with horns, he wrote.
Lincoln never stopped looking over his shoulder his first 10 years in prison. He had been convicted of a crime that harmed children, the lowest kind of offense in the pecking order of inmate life. One time, three convicts waited for him at the end of a hall. They held shanks and chased him until he reached the door of the control tower. Lincoln said nothing about it, but the guards knew what was going on. Everyone did. That was the intimidating part of it. Someone waiting to kill you and you didn’t know who but other people did. Lincoln recalled those years as living in the hot zone.
He tried to be relaxed when his family visited. His children were one accomplishment the courts couldn’t take from him. When they left, he saw his life walking out the door.
He suffered loss. His mother died in 1987. Seventy-six years old. She had been sickly most of her life from a childhood bout with tuberculosis. She’d visit twice a month, send him packages of shirts and pants. Always was sending him something. Her death hit him hard. She was one of his closest ties to the outside. It bothered him he hadn’t said goodbye.
Diane Packineau told him she had met another man. Packineau didn’t feel good about breaking up with Lincoln, but what was she to do? He was in prison for life. She was 20. It wasn’t a sob story. It happens. Life is life. She still doesn’t believe he did it.
“He was supposed to have killed that woman, stabbed her kids, gone to work, gone home and act like he had a normal day? How?” Packineau, now Diane Keenan, wondered.
Why had the jury discounted her testimony? She wasn’t an eyewitness to the murder, but she was an eyewitness to Lincoln. Yes, he had once killed a man. But this was of a different kind. This time they’re saying he murdered a woman with children. Screaming and blood and knives and more blood. Packineau didn’t get it. The way her testimony was discounted, she thought, was very rude.
Abby Wallace, Tate’s younger sister, told me Tate died six days before her birthday. Tate had joked about it.
“I’m getting older and soon there will be no more days.”
“Don’t say that,” Wallace had told her. “We’re snared by the words that come out of our mouths.”
When Wallace and her brother Daniel came across the name “Rod” in Tate’s journal and told police about Lincoln, they thought, “Sure, go check him.” But when he was charged, Wallace told Daniel that something wasn’t right. How could Lincoln take on Tate as small as he was? Here it was they had nobody and the next thing they had Lincoln.
Wallace didn’t buy it but what was she going to say? “The police said they had him,” she told me.
After the murder and throughout the two trials, Tate’s brother, Nathaniel Clenney, alternated between shock, anger and confusion. He thought Lincoln was guilty. The police had his family sold on that. They must have had what they needed if he was convicted. Right? Still, Clenney told me, he wondered. A little guy like that killed JoAnn? He had doubts.
Gerald Woodward, now 57, assumed when Lincoln was convicted that he had killed Tate. He thought, great, they got him. The more he mulled it over, however, the more the conviction didn’t sit right with him. Wait a minute, he thought. When JoAnn got mad, she was a tiger. Woodward didn’t see how Lincoln could have withstood that. She’d fight to the death. Whatever happened, Woodward told me, that’s what she did.
In the early 1990s, the harassment Lincoln experienced in prison ended. He had established himself as a “standup convict,” a man who wasn’t a rat and whose word was good. He didn’t cause trouble and wouldn’t be bullied. He didn’t talk about his case. He learned to pick out people he trusted; the rest he avoided or spoke to only in a casual way. His attitude: If you want to know why I’m here, I’ll tell you. If you want to know about my case, get on a computer. In prison, you don’t make friends, Lincoln said, you make associates.
He kept to himself, a convict without options who did his own time and appreciated the little things: a sunny day, a drawing from one of his grandchildren, a card that said, “Thinking of you.”
Lincoln’s case unexpectedly resurfaced in June 2003. Prompted by concerns of criminal convictions brought against defendants without physical evidence linking them to the crime, St. Louis prosecutors began a review of about 1,400 criminal cases to determine whether DNA testing could confirm or refute guilt. Lincoln and just five other cases were selected for further review.
Kay Lincoln was ecstatic. The prosecutor will realize he didn’t do it, she thought. Then Kay saw a television interview with Melissa. Melissa said it was wrong to reopen the case because she didn’t need DNA. She knew Lincoln murdered her mother and stabbed her and her sister. She said she was stabbed 27 times and that she had picked him from a lineup of 20 men. Kay was livid. She did not pick him from a lineup of 20 men. She was stabbed 10 times, not 27. She suffered horribly, Kay thought, but she shouldn’t embellish.
That same month, Melissa sent Lincoln a letter. On the envelope she wrote, “Rodney Lincoln is a baby killer,” “a child rapist” and a “coward,” among other things, all highlighted in yellow.
“I know you are a monster,” she wrote in the five-page letter. “I truly hope you die in there.”
Melissa’s fury found satisfaction in April 2004, when St. Louis prosecutors determined that no evidence existed to exonerate Lincoln. Kay began looking at other options while at the same time publicly advocating for her father. Among other things, she contacted attorney Phil Gibson with the Midwest Innocence Project and Steve Weinberg, an investigative reporter and professor at the school of journalism at the University of Missouri. Both men agreed to look into Lincoln’s conviction.
Weinberg was intrigued. The St. Louis prosecutor had included Lincoln’s case for review and then dropped it. Why? Were they embarrassed by the conviction? People he spoke to about Lincoln conceded he wasn’t a saint, but they insisted he’d never hurt a woman and her children. He also had a good alibi, Weinberg thought. He met with Lincoln in 2006. He was small and slim. He took down JoAnn Tate? Weinberg wondered. The whole thing, he thought, didn’t make sense.
He and 11 students spent almost a year researching the case. The story they produced showed among other things that Lincoln’s conviction hinged on a traumatized girl whose testimony was inconsistent. Their work was published on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Yes, I was traumatized,” Melissa told the student reporters. “Yes, I had the wrong name for the guy. I mean, if someone tried to kill you and chopped you up and killed your mom, you would think that people would understand if you gave them the wrong name. But the description matched. I knew where he lived. I knew who he was.”
Seven months before the Post-Dispatch published the students’ story, Gibson from the Innocence Project requested DNA testing of pubic hair, blood samples and scrapings taken from under Tate’s fingernails. Such technology did not exist at the time. The tests could identify the assailant. Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said the fingernail scrapings could not be found. However, pubic hair and blood samples were available.
In 2010, the DNA results showed blood at the murder scene was not Lincoln’s. Lincoln thought he would be released, but three years later, Circuit Judge Robin Vannoy found that the results of the DNA tests did not exonerate him. Melissa’s testimony was more significant, Vannoy said.
“I was at a point right then that I didn’t have hope,” Lincoln recalled. “It was a painful disappointment. I thought maybe I had a chance, and I got nothing.”
Two years later, a producer with the television show Crime Watch Daily, a syndicated news magazine series, contacted Kay Lincoln. He wanted to revisit her father’s case.
The producer also reached out to Melissa. At first she wanted nothing to do with the show. She told me she was rude to the producers, ignoring their emails and phone calls. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. She had never told her story. Others had told it for her—detectives, prosecutors, everyone but her. No one spoke about her mother as Melissa remembered her. How in winter she would pour vanilla extract over cones of snow for Melissa and Renee and call it snow cream. How she played the accordion and the church organ four times a week, Melissa and Renee beside her. How she’d collect soda bottles for gas money. Didn’t get much, but it tided her over for a minute. Drove around with a tank full of gas, windows down, enjoying being alive.
The Crime Watch Daily production team interviewed Melissa in an Embassy Suites Hotel in Pittsburgh for about six hours. She told them Lincoln killed her mother.
The show aired Nov. 23, 2015. Melissa could not make herself watch it until the next night. She sat with her cousin, Jackie Barton, and saw the brick walk-up where she and her family had lived in St. Louis. She saw black-and-white images of her mother dead on the floor, the ominous voice of a narrator pulling her along, A story so heinous a crime writer couldn’t dream it up, an utter bloodbath. Melissa didn’t know the show would use crime scene photos. She felt overcome by nausea and ran out of the room.
She tried to watch it again the next morning but became disturbed by a mugshot of bearded convicted serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. The show suggested Sells as an alternative assailant to Lincoln. Sells’s picture scared Melissa. She didn’t know why. She shut off the TV and left for the Jailhouse Saloon where she worked part-time as a janitor. The job, she told me, got her out of the house, gave her a routine and allowed her to work alone. PTSD, she continued, had always made it difficult for her to function around other people.
At the saloon, Melissa pushed back against her fears and watched the remainder of the show on her cell phone. Looking at Sells’ mugshot again made the bottom drop out of her stomach. She had flashbacks, smelled cigarette smoke, a man’s beery breath, his hair against her face, things she had never mentioned to police. Memories that had been incomplete began coming together, she said, filling in the blank spots of her recall.
“It wasn’t Rodney,” Melissa told me she thought at the time. “It was Tommy Lynn Sells.”
Authorities believe Sells committed at least 22 murders. He was known to savagely stab his victims and insert objects into their bodies. He roamed from state to state and was dubbed the Cross-Country Killer. Court records show he had family ties in St. Louis.
Texas executed Sells on April 3, 2014, for the murder of 13-year-old Kaylene Harris on New Year’s Eve night, 1999. Entering through a window, Sells slipped into the Harris family’s Del Rio, Texas, home about 3:50 a.m. He stabbed Kaylene 16 times, attempted to rape her and slit her throat. He also cut the throat of her friend, Krystal Surles, 10, of Yates Center, Kansas. Krystal survived by feigning death.
After his arrest on Jan. 2, 2000, Sells stunned authorities by offering to tell them about his other crimes, including the 1987 Illinois murder of Keith Dardeen, his pregnant wife, Elaine, and their 3-year-old son Pete. He inserted the bat he used to kill Elaine into her vagina.
Sells told investigators that he had killed people in all 50 states, including at least three in Missouri.
“The Tate murder was the kind of thing [Sells] could have done and was capable of doing,” Diane Fanning, author of Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells, told me.
Sells used names other than his own when it suited him, Fanning said. She did not know if he ever went by Bill. However, Bill was his father’s name.
Otto MacLin, a psychology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, has studied the Lincoln case. He said that when detectives told 7-year-old Melissa that the Bad Man was behind a magic door and then showed her just two photographs, one of relative Gary Parris and a mugshot of Lincoln, the circumstance were created for her memories to change.
“The process was problematic,” MacLin said. “Memories, like other evidence, can be contaminated. Somewhere she had doubts. Something didn’t add up.”
The mugshot of Sells may have provided her a reason to doubt, but whether he was in Missouri on April 27, 1982, remains unknown. On Feb. 22, 2016, in a sworn affidavit, attorney Harry Truman Moore of Paragould, Arkansas, said he represented Sells on a charge of auto theft in 1982. Sells was 17. At the time of his arrest on April 3, 1982, he told police he was headed to Illinois.
Moore negotiated a plea deal for Sells on April 14, 1982. Sells was sentenced to five years’ probation with the special condition that he spend two months in Consolidated Youth Services in Jonesboro, Arkansas. However, the court record does not verify that Sells checked in to the facility. The facility did bill the state for Sells’ stay, but that doesn’t prove he actually arrived there. None of the staff remembers him.
“The only conclusion one can definitively reach from the [Sells] court file is that he was released from the Greene County Jail on April 14, 1982. Anything beyond that is speculation,” Moore wrote.
Jackie Barton, Melissa’s cousin, flew to Missouri for Thanksgiving with her family three days after Crime Watch Daily aired. She asked her mother, Abigail Wallace, what she had thought about the show.
Wallace said she’d always had doubts about Lincoln’s guilt. All these years later, she said, she prayed for Lincoln and for peace in her own soul. Barton’s uncle Nathaniel Clenney expressed similar misgivings.
“You can’t say anything to Melissa,” he told her. “We don’t want her to think we don’t trust her.”
“I can’t keep this one to myself,” Barton replied. “I will be telling her. I will be talking to her.”
When Barton returned home that weekend, she spoke to Melissa about her family’s doubts. Melissa burst out crying.
“You’ve given me so much peace right now because I’ve been thinking the same thing, but I was so scared to say something,” Melissa said.
On Nov. 28, 2015, Kay Lincoln received a Facebook message from Melissa.
“Can we talk?” Melissa asked.
Kay read it and called Tricia Bushnell, an attorney with the Midwest Innocence Project.
“You’re not an attorney,” Bushnell told her. “She approached you. This won’t hurt your father.”
Kay messaged Melissa and agreed to talk. Melissa gave Kay her phone number. Game on, Kay thought.
“I’m scared,” Melissa said when she answered. She began sobbing. “I feel like I’m losing my mind. Oh, my God, I know he didn’t do it. I’m so very sorry.”
Melissa told Kay she had believed the killer was Lincoln because that was what she was told. She remembered being shown a photograph of Gary Parris and then of Lincoln and told one of them did it. She had always questioned picking Lincoln, she said. She remembered seeing him in the courtroom and not feeling scared of him.
Kay had expected an uncomfortable conversation. She thought she’d be angry at the now grown woman who had put her father away, but she wasn’t. When they started talking, Kay wanted to comfort Melissa.
“It never has been your fault,” she told her.
“How can I help?” Melissa asked.
“Would you talk to my father’s attorney?”
Oh, my God, Kay thought. She can change this. Dad’s coming home.
On Nov. 30, 2015, Melissa contacted Ed Postawko, assistant circuit attorney in St. Louis, and told him Rodney Lincoln did not attack her family. She explained the Crime Watch Daily program and how she had reached that conclusion.
Two days later, she met with Postawko in St. Louis in a videotaped interview.
“It’s like you grow up hearing a story and you can visualize it in your mind and when someone says, this is what happened, that’s who your brain puts there because that’s how you think the story is supposed to go,” Melissa told Postawko. “I don’t know how Rodney got there when this all happened.”
Kay visited her father in the prison few days later. He noticed something different about her. Her smile. She’s absolutely giddy, Lincoln thought.
“I got some news for you,” Kay said. “Melissa says you didn’t do it.”
Lincoln looked at her, mouth open. He asked her to repeat what she’d just told him.
“Melissa says you didn’t do it.”
Lincoln began to laugh, then he started weeping.
On Dec. 4, 2015, Postawko told private investigator Quinn O’Brien and Tricia Bushnell of the Innocence Project that because of DNA evidence and Melissa’s recantation, the conviction of Lincoln was “a bad one.” Although he was not convinced that Lincoln had not been the attacker, he concluded there was no evidence left to keep Lincoln in prison. Postawko said his office might consider a release order for Lincoln providing the Midwest Innocence Project did not say that Lincoln was “factually” innocent of Tate’s murder.
The Crime Watch Daily team interviewed Melissa again after her recantation. She told them she was now convinced Tommy Lynn Sells was the killer. On Dec., the show met with Lincoln at Jefferson City Correctional Center. Unbeknownst to him, Melissa was among the camera crew. The producer identified her to prison staff as part of the production.
In the interview, Lincoln said again that he had not killed Melissa’s mother and stabbed the girls. When asked what he would to say to Melissa if he had the opportunity, Lincoln hesitated. He thought of her recantation and a wistful smile played across his face.
“‘Give me a hug,’” he said, voice trembling. “‘Give me a hug,’ and thank her. She saved my life.”
“Rodney,” correspondent Michelle Sigona told him, “Melissa is here today.”
A woman in a blue sweatshirt stepped from behind a camera. She began crying. Lincoln stood and they embraced. Melissa apologized. Lincoln said she had nothing to apologize for. They held each other.
Their dramatic meeting may have made for great TV, but it also allowed prosecutors to question Melissa’s honesty. On March 17 and 18, 2016, at a hearing in Cole County, Missouri, Melissa testified that she knowingly allowed Crime Watch Daily to falsely identify her as part of the production team.
“And that was—I don’t want to use the word dishonest,” the prosecutor said.
“It was terrible,” Melissa replied. “It was a lack of judgment. It was a lapse of judgment.”
Melissa testified that she received $900 from the show for the use of some family photographs. She also had an exclusive contract with the show, she said.
On June 16, 2016, Judge Daniel Green ruled that he did not find Melissa’s repudiation of her trial testimony reliable or that it would have prevented a conviction. He also noted that Melissa’s Crime Watch Daily contract and the “dishonest” manner in which she entered the prison weighed against her credibility.
I asked a Crime Watch Daily spokeswoman why Melissa was misrepresented as a member of the film crew. In an email, the spokeswoman replied that the show does not comment on its “story gathering practices.”
In his ruling, Green said “new” information introduced by the attorney general that the killer was missing a finger contributed to evidence of Lincoln’s guilt. Lincoln, Green observed, was missing a finger on his right hand from a work-related accident. Tommy Lynn Sells did not have a missing or damaged finger.
The missing finger became yet another odd twist in a case that had more than its share of odd twists. In neither of Lincoln’s two trials did the prosecution or the defense ask Melissa if the killer was missing a finger.
On Feb. 10, 2016, four months before Green made his decision, private investigator Quinn O’Brien, working on behalf of Lincoln’s attorneys, met with then 85-year-old Mary Flotron, the victim witness advocate who had been assigned to Melissa and Renee after the attack. Flotron told O’Brien that Melissa had mentioned to her that the Bad Man was missing a finger.
However, in a sworn affidavit that same year, Melissa said she never told prosecutors or anyone else that her attacker was missing a finger. She said she did not know Lincoln was missing a finger until she was an adult and has no memory of her mother’s killer missing a finger.
Missouri Assistant Attorney General Michael Spillane spoke to Flotron in January, one month before O’Brien. Flotron told him “years later [the finger story] came up somewhere, and Joe Burgoon asked me about it, and I told him. He said, ‘I never heard that.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean you never heard it, as much time as you spent with Melissa?’”
Flotron added, “It’s been so many years, you know, that you think to yourself, “Am I old? Did this really happen?”
Judge Green did not share Flotron’s doubts. He rejected Lincoln’s petition for release.
More denials followed. Later that year, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that it would not examine Lincoln’s “actual innocence” claim unless the Missouri Supreme Court would declare that such claims could be examined in non-death penalty cases. Had Lincoln been sentenced to death for the slaying of Tate, the criminal justice system may have handled his claims of innocence differently.
Sean O’Brien, professor of law at the University of Missouri, called the decision frightening.
“In other words, innocence alone is not a good enough reason for a court to release a prisoner,” O’Brien said.
The Missouri Supreme Court in 2017 refused to review Lincoln’s case. For him to be released, the governor would have to grant Lincoln parole or clemency.
“We are still looking for a Missouri state official to do the right thing for Rodney and Melissa,” O’Brien said.
Lincoln is not the first person to be convicted in Missouri based on questionable eyewitness testimony and lineup procedures. All nine DNA-based wrongful conviction exonerations in Missouri were caused by eyewitness misidentifications. Misidentification is the single biggest common factor in wrongful convictions, and it played a part in 72 percent of cases overturned by DNA nationwide. Missouri leads the country in misidentifications reversed by DNA evidence.
The American Psychological Association found that “controlled experiments as well as studies of actual identifications have consistently found that the rate of incorrect identifications is approximately 33 percent.” The association also concluded that “research shows that juries tend to ‘over-believe’ eyewitness testimony, making jury reliance on even unreliable identifications likely.”
The Lincoln case also raises reasonable questions about the proper handling of witnesses by the prosecution and police, in this instance a traumatized and impressionable child. In the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Wade, the court concluded, “the influence of improper suggestion upon identifying witnesses probably accounts for more miscarriages of justice than any other single factor—perhaps it is responsible for more such errors than all other factors combined.”
As part of his most recent appeal, Lincoln’s lawyers argued that prosecutors failed to turn over documents detailing the pretrial “familiarization sessions” with Melissa and Renee. Judge Green said the claim had no legal merit.
These days, Melissa, 43, continues to work at the Jailhouse Saloon. She is active in civil rights and wrongful conviction advocacy. She takes a break of an hour or two each day. After completing the simplest of tasks, she must rest. She attributes this need to post-traumatic stress.
Melissa stands by her recantation. She has no regrets about visiting Lincoln with Crime Watch Daily.
“I wanted him to know that I knew he didn’t do it,” she said.
She keeps in touch with Kay Lincoln on Facebook and sends Lincoln postcards of parks and woods, places she thinks he’d visit if he could.
“I received your lovely postcards of the New River Gorge,” Lincoln wrote to Melissa on Nov. 18. “Yes, it is gorgeous. I can almost feel what it would be like standing on the platform looking out over the gorge.”
Melissa hopes one day Lincoln will see for himself the places in her postcards. She wants him to be free. Restorative justice, she says, is great but may be too late for Lincoln. If he dies in prison, she doesn’t know what she’d do. It would be difficult for her to come back from that. She would feel responsible.
Nathaniel Clenney, 54, lives with the memory of discovering his sister’s body. It’s hard not to close his eyes and see it all over again. It’s like his arm has been cut off. JoAnn died and took part of him with her. There’s less of him now.
“There’s so much mystery to this thing,” he said.
Abigail Wallace continues to pray for Lincoln. She told me detectives said they’d put him so deep in jail he’d never see the light of day. Lincoln isn’t a young man, Wallace said. He won’t see the light of day if they don’t let him out before long.
Kay Lincoln, 49, holds on to hope but dreads good news. She doesn’t want to hear it and get her hopes up only to have them dashed. She had thought the DNA testing and Melissa’s testimony was it. She thought her father would be home soon. At least by Christmas. He’s still not home. So much for thinking.
Kellie Porter is 46. She married at 19 and has three children. She never did take them to visit her father. She didn’t want them exposed to prison life, for them to see the evil in the world. A mistake, she tells me. She robbed her kids of an opportunity to know their grandfather. They have gotten to know him now as adults.
When I spoke to Kellie, she recalled a day she saw her father outside one of his hearings. She can’t recall which one, might’ve been 2016, but she distinctly remembers seeing him step out of a police van and the way the sun shone on him. He turned his face to the sky. He looked so good and natural standing outside like that.
Detective Joe Burgoon is 78. He works part-time in the cold case unit of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. He remembers Melissa as a sharp little girl. He has never faltered in his belief that Lincoln killed Tate. He thinks advocates for Lincoln confused Melissa and convinced her to recant. It was up to a jury to decide, Burgoon told me, not anyone else, and the jury decided. Nobody, he added, wants the wrong man in prison. It would be embarrassing.
“Who are they going to get if it wasn’t Lincoln?” he asked. “Who else can they go after?”
Lincoln told me he achieved a kind of freedom when Melissa hugged him and said she believed he had not attacked her family. He holds no animosity toward her. She was only 7. How could he have animosity toward a child? She seemed so frightened during the two trials. Not of anyone in particular, just frightened in general. Looking around a lot.
“I’d never hurt a child,” he told me.
He feels his life is like a movie but without an ending. He’s not even in the audience. The movie plays without him. He catches only glimpses of life outside the theater. And the actors keep dropping out. His mother died and then one of his sisters. Two children of another sister were murdered. One by a friend’s boyfriend, the other by a jealous husband. Kay’s daughter, Jessica, was shot and killed in 2016 in a botched hold up. Lincoln’s ex-wife, Catherine, died last year. They had remained close. He had sent her a paper sack from prison one time. “You’ll be my favorite old bag,” he had written.
Lincoln wept over each death and his inability to offer comfort from prison. Loss has aged him. Prison has aged him. His brown hair is now gray, his face lined and drawn.
Sometimes, Lincoln closes his eyes and sees himself with his stepfather and mother, his sons and daughters. Their memory sustains him. The desire to prove his innocence sustains him. He knows some people will never believe him, but he hopes others do. He dreams of a day when he can just be Rodney. Not convict Rodney. Just Rodney. Rodney Lee Lincoln.
Imagine. What that would feel like.