Maria Ellena opened her dining room curtains a year ago Tuesday morning and saw a person lying motionless in the alley, between a thicket of trees and an abandoned brick house.
Her first thought, she says, was someone must have passed out drunk. But, she saw no signs of life and she and her sister both called 911.
It turned out to be the body of 18-year-old Melvin Travis, who had suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head shortly after midnight on July 19, 2015.
One year after his death, Travis's family is still trying to cope with his life cut short to gun violence.
They mourn their loss, they said, and the idea that Travis won't see his eight younger brothers and sisters graduate high school; he'll never see his daughter's first day of school; and that his case remains unsolved.
The first officer arrived at at 6:23 a.m. that morning at the crime scene in the alleyway on the 600 block of Ridge Road in Gary.
"It was a basic scene," Detective Cpl. Edward Gonzalez, the lead detective on Melvin's case said.
There are only three occupied homes on the block adjacent to the alley where Travis was killed.
"In this case we were up against the wall because it was a bad location," Gonzalez said. "There was not a whole lot of evidence or eyewitnesses accounts to help us on this."
There was only Ellena, a volunteer from the Missionaries of Charity homeless shelter across the street, who initially spotted the body in the early morning sunlight and her colleague, Sister Maria, who also works at the shelter.
When detectives arrived they spoke with a bystander who, from a distance, recognized Travis's black hoodie and black jeans and was able to direct officials to his house, Gonzalez said.
There was a clamorous, almost violent series of knocks at the door where Travis lived.
Timetra Smith, Travis's mother-in-law, peeked through her blinds to see three police cars parked in front of her home. She opened the door to find four men: three police officers and a Lake County Coroner's Office investigator.
"When they first came in I'm thinking maybe somebody stole something or got in trouble," Smith said. "But when I saw that shirt from the coroner's office I already knew somebody was dead."
Gonzalez asked Smith if all of her children were in the house, she said.
"As far as I know," Smith said she replied.
First, she checked the two bedrooms upstairs where her youngest children slept. All clear. Then she headed to the basement where her three oldest sons slept. She crossed the threshold of Melvin's room. He wasn't there.
"My heart dropped," Smith said.
Initially, the coroner investigator asked for Smith to look at photos so she could identify Travis's body. She refused, she said. She was still in denial.
"It wasn't registering in that moment," Smith said.
Eventually, the detectives and the coroner's investigator sat down with Smith on her sofa and showed her the pictures.
"Her reaction is something I will never forget," Gonzalez said, adding that Smith shrieked and then collapsed on the floor.
A year later
In the corner of the family room there is a large portrait of Melvin Travis and his 2-year-old daughter, Kanya. The toddler ran over to the portrait one recent afternoon and kissed her father's picture.
She walked around her grandmother's house carrying her father's wrinkled obituary. "That's my daddy," she said, pointing to a picture of Melvin.
"No one misses him more than his daughter," Jaquana Williams, Melvin's sister, said. "The killer not only took him from the rest of his family but robbed her of her whole life."
One year later, the family's pain is conspicuous.
"His death brought up a lot of pain," Williams said. "It definitely caused a rift in the family."
A month after Melvin's death, Melquan Travis, his younger brother was arrested for an alleged armed robbery. Williams acknowledged that her brother Melquan is responsible for his own actions but said she firmly believes that Melvin's murder had a negative influence on him.
"That's what people don't understand. These young folks are out here killing people and you don't know how you affect the family," Tyshonna Allen, Melvin's sister, said.
Melquan said that he harbors a lot of pain and guilt over his brother's death, she said. On the night before Melvin's murder, Melquan came home early, at 9 p.m., without his brother.
"My son blames himself," Smith said. "He said if they would've been together, they would've died together."
The thought of his brother being murdered less than a mile from his home in a desolate, dark alley haunts him, Melquan said in a telephone interview from the Lake County Jail.
"I'd rather died with my brother than him dying by himself," said Melquan, who is charged with attempted murder and armed robbery, among other things.
Melvin Travis's family agrees he was passionate about his family. His daily routine was simple. He would spend all day with his family and friends walking from his house, to his grandmother's house one block away and to the local corner store down the street from his house. And, he was known to many in the neighborhood, his family said.
"He was all about his brothers, his cousins and his family," Williams said.
Melvin's murder case remains open. Gonzalez said police are actively pursuing leads.
"We're still in the progress of talking to people," Gonzalez said. "There might be some forthcoming information."
Last year there were 50 homicides in Gary. Only four of the victims were younger than Melvin. As time elapses, the family gets a little more anxious about finding Melvin's killer, they said.
"The older it gets, the colder it gets," Williams said.
Nevertheless, Gonzalez said one of the biggest hurdles in solving such crimes is a "veil of silence" that sometimes hovers over murder cases.
"That's our number one challenge is getting the community to come forward and talk," he said. "If we stay silent on these issues then nothing gets resolved."
Whether it's a fear of retaliation or an unwillingness to "snitch," Gonzalez said people are often hesitant about coming forward and providing information. Thus far, there's only speculation about who murdered Melvin, he said.
"It will take one person who's not going to be afraid to come forward and gives us information that gives us probable cause to arrest somebody," Gonzalez said. "I think that is what this case is going to boil down to."
Melvin's family insists they will continue working with law enforcement and try to bring the killer to justice.
"We won't let Melvin's murderer slip under the rug," Jaquana Williams said.
To provide information or tips regarding this case contact Detective Edward Gonzalez at 219-755-3852 ext. 1006.
Copyright © 2016, Post-TribuneCrime