He could have been stopped: Convicted molester volunteered at Palm City church youth group
By MICHAEL LAFORGIA
The detective flips on a tape recorder and eyes the skinny man sitting across from her. She reads him his rights and starts in on the questions.
“What I’d like to find out is if anything happened between you and Michael. Did you molest Michael?” the detective asks.
“Uh, yes. If that’s the word you want to use,” the man says. He’s tall, better than 6 feet, and rail-thin. He has a long, strange neck and sharp features, like a bird’s. He
seems comfortable making the admission.
“Tell me exactly what occurred.”
He does, explaining in graphic detail his encounters with the 14-year-old boy, whose mother had trusted the man and brought him into her St. Lucie County home. “If
he wanted to do it, I, I always knew. Because of the hints that he would throw me,” the man begins.
The year is 1987. About two hours south, in Dade County, details of horrific abuse had emerged from the Country Walk sex abuse case.
In Tallahassee, lawmakers had drawn up and passed Florida’s first background screening law. The measure just is taking effect. It was designed to keep kids safe, to
prevent another Country Walk from ever happening again.
And here is 23-year-old James Roy Melton Jr., sitting with Detective Pam Huddleston of the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office, confessing to sex crimes as if recalling
trips to the grocery store.
This story is based on interviews, court documents and police reports. The Palm Beach Post is withholding the victims’ full names to protect their privacy.
“When was the last time that you had sex with Michael or fondled Michael or anything like that?” the detective asks.
“The last time?” Melton says.
“This is Thursday,” the detective says.
“So,” Melton says, “it would have been yesterday afternoon.”
“All right, how many children — I’m talking about children under the age of 18 — have you had sex with?”
“In the past 23 years? Ohhh. That’s a tough one,” Melton says. “Oh … a dozen. Roughly. Give or take a few.”
“OK. Is your primary interest into children, boys, or women, older women?”
“If you’re asking me if I was to go out here today and have my pick?” Melton says. “Like if there was some gorgeous blonde standing there and a nice little handsome
young thing standing there, is that what you’re saying?”
“I would say it would have to be the child.”
Melton is arrested, charged and, in 1988, convicted of lewd and lascivious assault on a child younger than 16. He is sentenced to nine years in state prison. He gets
out in 1995.
Soon after, on a Wednesday night at Palm City Community Baptist Church, a tall, rangy man wanders onto the basketball court. He has a long, strange neck and sharp
features, like a bird’s. He joins a pickup game with a group of young boys. Eventually, the church allows him to become a chaperone for a summer youth program. No
one bothers to check his criminal history.
A background check would have shown that the new volunteer had served prison time for felonies committed between 1984 and 1990, crimes ranging from grand theft
and gun possession to child molestation.
Next, a 14-year-old boy joins the church group. Right away he catches the eye of the friendly new youth counselor. The counselor introduces himself. He says his
name is Jim Melton.
Three weeks later, on Aug. 23, 1997, the boy is among a group sleeping over at a church youth minister’s house. They play pool. By midnight, they’re tired out. The
boy and three others make their way into a bedroom. Melton follows.
Two clamber into beds. A third stakes out the floor between them. The boy curls up near the foot of one bed. Melton lies down at his feet. The lights go out.
What happens next affects the boy for the rest of his life, his family would claim in a lawsuit against the church, a suit the church would settle for an undisclosed sum.
About a year later, the boy is on the witness stand in Martin County Circuit Court, testifying against his attacker.
His voice comes out so small and soft that the judge has to stop him. “I have the amplifier turned all the way up,” the judge says, “and I can’t hear.”
Again, Melton is convicted. This time, he’s sentenced to 30 years in state prison.
His release date is set, tentatively, for 2025.
By then, he’ll be 62, and could still have years left ahead of him.