May 14, 2014

Mom upset with dismissed murder charge: 'He beat my child to death'

On the last night Cathie Melville and Gary Warwick were together, Melville said she ran down a busy highway in fear from the man she came to believe murdered her 1-year-old son, Joey Abernathy.

A passer-by picked her up and took her to a pay phone. Melville called her parents. Her mother put her in the back seat of her car and drove her to the bootheel of Missouri to stay with relatives to hide out from her former boyfriend, who would eventually be charged with beating Melville's son to death.

The charges against Warwick would inexplicably be dismissed a year later.

Warwick could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His lawyer, James Gomric, declined to comment on Melville's statement.

Melville and her daughter, Beth Stauffer, would revive the case 39 years later when charges were once again filed against Warwick.

On Wednesday, Melville found out that Warwick had murder charges dismissed against him for a second time.

"All I'm asking for is justice for my baby. I believe the evidence is there. He was indicted by a grand jury. I just want him to sit and face these charges," Melville said. "He beat my child to death while I slept in another room. How am I supposed to live with that? I have had to live with that my whole life."

Police were called to the trailer Melville shared with Warwick at 1222 Freeman St. near Washington Park about 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 30, 1972. Melville went to Children's Welfare Hospital and was told that her only child was dead. She collapsed.

"He was my world, my whole world," Melville said.

Doctors medicated Melville. She said she suffered a nervous breakdown and remained hospitalized.

After her release, Melville stayed with Warwick, who denied he injured the boy. Melville said Warwick told her what to say to police, kept her away from her family, and continued to tell her that he hadn't hurt Joey. Two months after her baby's death, Melville refused to answer questions at a coroner's inquest, opting to assert her Fifth Amendment rights.

On Wednesday, Melville said she was young and afraid back then.

"No one wants to believe that someone who was supposed to care about you would do this," Melville said. "I've suffered my whole life for that."

That changed one night when Melville said Warwick took her to a hotel. During an argument, Melville said she began raising questions about her baby's death. The conflict grew more intense.

"I told him what he wanted to hear," Melville said. "I looked at him and said, 'OK. OK. I believe you. I believe you.'"

After that, Melville asked Warwick to take her to buy a drink. Along the way, she told him she was going to be sick. When he stopped, she ran down the highway and called her parents who shipped her to a relative's home for safekeeping.

Despite her fear, Melville said she never gave up. She called St. Clair County Sheriff's Sgt. Charles Airhart every few weeks to find out how the case was proceeding.

Warwick was charged with murder four months after Joey's death.

Suddenly, she said Airhart stopped returning her calls, so she went to the sheriff's department.

Melville went to Airhart's office with Joey's death certificate in her hand.

"He told me that the case had been dismissed and he had done all he could do," Melville said. "I asked him how can I live with my son's cause of death being a homicide?"

The next time Melville saw Airhart, he sat at her kitchen table and told her that he was going to marry Melville's mother, Barbara Altman. A couple of months after the wedding, Airhart was investigated after emergency workers found Altman bleeding at the bottom of the stairs. Altman suffered broken facial bones and a fractured skull. She told investigators she fell down the stairs. An emergency worker heard Airhart tell Altman to "go ahead and tell" and that "he deserved it."

The two later divorced. Airhart died in 1999. Altman died in 2012.

"He almost killed her," Melville said.

Melville, now 60, lives in Cabot, Ark., where she worked as a nurse. She married and had other children, but she said she never stopped thinking of Joey. She said she wrote letters to the governor, her representatives and even the president.

More than 40 years after that night she ran down the highway, Melville cried as she described her last moments with Warwick, more convinced of his guilt and disappointed a jury may never get to decide.

"Nowhere in those papers does it say that he is innocent," Melville said.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at or 618-239-2570.

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