Baffled town seeks answers

A missing boy's now-dead mother remains the key suspect, but relatives say it was stress, not guilt, that drove her to suicide.

Published September 13, 2006

LEESBURG - It was more than two weeks ago when Melinda Duckett finished watching a movie and checked on her 2-year-old son, Trenton, in his bedroom.

All she found, the 21-year-old told police, was an empty crib - and a 10-inch cut in the window screen above it.

Since then, the boy's disappearance has stretched the 75-member police force of this small town to its limits, and Melinda Duckett has turned up dead. She shot herself on Friday at her grandparents' house, just up the road from where she was living with her son, wading through a messy divorce with the boy's father and trying to get her life back on track after getting laid off.

Fliers posted on gas station doors around this 19,000-person town in the middle of the peninsula show Trenton - 3 feet tall, 35 pounds, brown hair and eyes, denim shorts and a diaper - and ask anyone who may have seen him to notify police.

Melinda Duckett's family members say the strain of missing the boy pushed her to the brink. But it was the increasingly critical eye of the media that pushed her over, they said.

Duckett shot herself a day after taping an interview with CNN Headline News' Nancy Grace, who frequently focuses on missing-persons cases. Stumbling on questions like whether she had taken a polygraph test or where, specifically, she was shopping with her son before his disappearance, Duckett, speaking by telephone, became audibly exasperated.

Before it was over, Grace was pounding her desk in a raised voice, saying, "Where were you? Why aren't you telling us where you were that day?"

"Nancy Grace and the others, they just bashed her to the end," Melinda Duckett's grandfather Bill Eubank said Tuesday. "She wasn't one anyone ever would have thought of to do something like this. She and that baby just loved each other, couldn't get away from each other. She wouldn't hurt a bug."

Janine Iamunno, a spokeswoman for Grace, said in an e-mail that Duckett's death was "an extremely sad development," but the program would continue covering the case.

"We feel a responsibility to bring attention to this case in the hopes of helping find Trenton Duckett, who remains missing," Iamunno said.

Police have focused increasing attention on Melinda Duckett's whereabouts around the time Trenton disappeared and the notes, computer, camera and other items seized from her house.

Trenton's father, Josh Duckett, 21, was first in the hot seat after the boy disappeared Aug. 27. Newspapers reported Melinda took out a temporary restraining order against him as the two worked to finalize a divorce.

But he took a polygraph test and has answered all police questions satisfactorily, Capt. Ginny Padgett said.

Trying to piece together a time line of where Melinda and Trenton were 24 hours before she reported him missing, police on Tuesday described her car, a 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse, and asked anyone who might have seen it during that period to call them.