After two tumultuous relationships, all Brenda Sue Schaefer wanted was a good, kind man to settle down and make a family with. When Melvin Ignatow proposed to her with a 2.3-carat diamond engagement ring on Valentine’s Day 1987, the 36-year-old nursing assistant thought she was finally going to have the storybook romance she had always dreamed of.
The couple met on a blind date a year earlier and although the 50-year-old divorced father of three wasn’t Brenda’s usual type, the pair got along well and she felt he was a great listener. It also didn’t hurt that Melvin was a successful businessman who travelled the world and made an above-average income while doing it; he swept Brenda off her feet with outings on his 32-foot speedboat and romantic drives in his corvette.
But it turned out that Brenda didn’t really know the man she had agreed to marry. Melvin wasn’t who he portrayed himself to be, and things quickly turned dark.
She called off the engagement and disappeared
Brenda lived with her parents, John and Essie, in Louisville, Kentucky. On September 25, 1988, they reported her missing when she failed to return home. Her 86' Buick Regal was found abandoned on the side of the highway hours later; the driver’s side window was smashed and the car had a flat tire.
Weeks prior to her disappearance, Brenda had confided in her brother Tom and Tom’s girlfriend Linda that she was deathly afraid of Melvin, and had called off the engagement. Brenda claimed that he was controlling and abusive, that he wanted her to engage in various sex acts she was uncomfortable with and when she refused, he drugged her; she woke up naked several hours later, with no recollection of what had occurred.
Fortunately, Brenda had informed several people that she was meeting with Melvin on September 24 to return the engagement ring and thousands of dollars worth of jewelry he had gifted her throughout their relationship.
When the police knocked on Melvin’s door, he cried hysterically over Brenda’s disappearance, claiming she had left his home at 11:30 pm, alive and well. Officers searched Melvin’s home twice but came up empty.
Weeks turned into months and eventually, an entire year passed by with no sight of Brenda. As the last known person to see her alive, Melvin remained the prime suspect in her disappearance. In order to clear his name, he appeared before a grand jury and told the court he couldn’t have possibly been involved in Brenda’s disappearance because he had spent the night with his ex-girlfriend, 38-year-old Mary Ann Shore.
Kidnapped, tortured, and buried
Melvin and Mary Ann dated on-and-off for two years before he met Brenda. Although Mary Ann was hopelessly in love with him, Melvin only used her for sex. When she learned that he had proposed to Brenda, Mary Ann became desperate to win Melvin back. She would do anything to be with him — even if it meant murder.
When investigators first attempted to question Mary Ann, she refused to talk. Fortunately, she couldn’t keep a secret for long. Four months later, she went to the police and admitted that she helped Melvin murder Brenda.
When Brenda arrived to return the jewelry, Melvin kidnapped her and took her to Mary Ann’s house where they forced her to strip naked. The twisted pair gagged Brenda, bound her hands and feet, and tied her face down to a glass coffee table where Melvin raped her while Mary Ann took photos. After several hours of torture, Melvin suffocated Brenda with chloroform and buried her in a pre-dug grave in the woods behind Mary Ann’s house.
Mary Ann claimed that when Brenda apologized for ending their relationship and pleaded for her life, Melvin screamed, “This will jolt you into better sex!”
In exchange for a lesser charge, Mary Ann led the police to Brenda’s remains and agreed to meet with Melvin while wearing a wire. She told him the police were onto them, and that she was worried they would find Brenda. Melvin told Mary Ann not to be rattled, “that place we dug is not shallow.”
Based on the recording, Melvin was arrested and charged with a slew of offenses including murder, kidnapping, sodomy, sexual abuse, robbery, and tampering with evidence.
A lie led to his acquittal
The prosecution was confident they had enough evidence to convict Melvin but the tape proved to be of no use; Melvin’s voice was muffled and jurors weren’t sure whether he said the word “dug or “got.”
Mary Ann was the prosecution’s star witness but not everyone found her to be credible due to her tight mini-skirt and the fact she giggled as gory murder details were laid out by the defense.
The defense argued that it was Mary Ann who killed Brenda in a jealous rage and was framing Melvin, “to get even.” Mary Ann’s testimony didn’t help her case; she told the court she had only met Brenda once but when asked what she looked like Mary Ann responded, “You mean the last time I saw her?”
Caught in a lie, the jury discounted Mary Ann’s entire testimony and acquitted Melvin of all charges. He called it, “The best Christmas present I ever had.”
Melvin was a free man but he was forced to sell his home to pay his legal fees and his reputation in Louisville was tarnished; many believed he was guilty and had gotten away with murder. Fortunately, he would soon face justice.
On October 1, 1992, the new homeowners decided to update the living room. They hired a carpet layer and when he pulled it up, he found a Ziploc bag taped to an air vent. Inside was 3 rolls of undeveloped film, Brenda’s engagement ring, a diamond tennis bracelet, and a matching necklace.
The man immediately called the police who had the film developed. They found 112 photographs of Melvin raping and abusing Brenda on the glass coffee table, exactly as Mary Ann had recounted.
Since Melvin couldn't be tried for Brenda’s murder twice due to double jeopardy laws, he was arrested for lying under oath.
On the day of his sentencing, Melvin looked at Brenda’s brothers in the courtroom and suddenly confessed to Brenda’s murder. He apologized to her family and insisted that she died peacefully.
Melvin was sentenced to a total of 14 years on federal perjury charges. He was released from prison in 2006. Mary Ann was sentenced to 5 years for tampering with physical evidence. She was released in 1995.
Both met their fate on a glass coffee table
Brenda’s death was especially hard on John and Essie. Sadly, Brenda wasn’t the first child they were forced to bury. In 1971, their son, Detective John William Schaefer Jr., was shot and killed in the line of duty. He was only 28-years-old.
Tragically, John and Essie’s health deteriorated rapidly after Brenda’s death and both passed away before they were able to see justice for their daughter.
Melvin’s children were absolutely devastated since they had believed in his innocence and had stood by him since the beginning. Not only did Melvin take a woman’s life, but he also ruined countless other lives including those of his own children, who are forced to carry the shame of his crime for the rest of their lives.
In an almost bittersweet form of irony, Melvin hit his head on his glass coffee table and slowly bled to death on September 1, 2008, just three weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of Brenda’s death. He was 70-years-old. Michael Ignatow later referred to his father as, “one of the most hated men in Louisville.”
Sources: Clipping from The Courier-Journal — Newspapers.com, FBI releases files on Mel Ignatow investigation (wlky.com), Mel Ignatow — Wikipedia, Nursing assistant killed by her older fiancé and his sick sidekick — rape and torture caught on camera — New York Daily News (nydailynews.com), 03 Oct 1992, Page 1 — The Courier-Journal at Newspapers.com, Brenda Schaefer Murder: How Did Mel Ignatow Die? (thecinemaholic.com), Mel Ignatow | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers
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