Published: Aug 25, 2010 4:13 AM EDT
Updated: Aug 24, 2010 3:48 PM EDT

CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. - Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron is pleased to announce positive developments in the Pilar Rodriguez homicide investigation. The CCSO Cold Case Unit has obtained an arrest warrant for Melissa Harding Jones AKA Melissa Cooper. The Honorable John W. Dommerich, Circuit Judge, issued a warrant for the arrest of Jones for Aggravated Manslaughter of a Child, a felony of the first degree based on a failure of an obligation to protect, in the Feb. 1999 death of the then 4 year old Pilar Rodriguez.

Sheriff Cameron at this afternoon press conference said, “Today’s arrest is the culmination of over ten years of hard work by many very talented investigators and I am so pleased that we can finally bring some degree of closure to this very sad case. I truly want to commend the five men of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit who worked tirelessly over the past year and half to help get us to where we are today. I also want to thank the investigators and attorneys of our State’s Attorney’s Office for working side by side with my staff this entire time. Without their assistance and the assistance of many other law enforcement agencies that helped over the years, we would not be making this arrest this week.”

The Cold Case Unit was established by Sheriff Cameron Jan. 2009 and is staffed with five part-time retired law enforcement officers who have a combined 140 years law enforcement experience. (See bio list on each detective below). The unit has examined unsolved homicide and missing person’s cases in the county, including the Pilar Rodriguez homicide. Pilar was last seen in the company of her babysitter, Melissa Cooper, and Cooper’s then boyfriend, Keith Wilson, in Punta Gorda Feb.1999. A missing person report filed by Pilar’s father, Marco Rodriguez, initiated an extensive investigation into her disappearance. Early leads and statements indicated criminal activity was involved and Pilar was most likely deceased.

According to Cold Case Supervisor Det. Mike Gandy, “Evidence and materials related to this case were reviewed by members of our unit, and Detective Kurt Mehl was assigned as lead investigator for this case. Det. Mehl painstakingly organized the enormous case file, while Detective Mike Vogel reviewed and examined each item of evidence related to this investigation. Detectives Mehl, Vogel, and other detectives of the Cold Case Unit began reviewing all information previously gathered in the last 10 years by the many investigators involved in the investigation. Subsequent interviews were conducted and additional activities performed, including service of a search warrant, evidence examinations, surveillance operations, and public information solicitations.”

Throughout the investigation, the Cold Case detectives maintained frequent contact with the State Attorney’s Office concerning legal and investigative issues. Assistant State Attorney’s Dan Feinberg and Don Mason, and SAO Investigator Jennifer LaDelfa, were assigned to coordinate the prosecution in this case. Special Agents John Kuchta and Lynn Billings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and their teams dedicated numerous hours assisting in various phases of this investigation.

The follow-up activities by the Cold Case Unit led to the discovery of critical information, evidence, and witnesses, which along with previous investigative information, provided evidence establishing probable cause for the arrest of Cooper. The CCSO Cold Case detectives, assisted by FBI agents, and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in Everett, Washington, served the Charlotte County warrant on Melissa Harding Jones, AKA Melissa Cooper, at her home in Everett last night without incident.

This is still an active investigation and with any ongoing criminal investigation. It’s procedurally improper to discuss specific details concerning witness testimony, offender testimony, evidence or the possibility of future arrests. Any inquiries concerning the prosecution phase of this case should be directed to the Office of Steve Russell, State Attorney 20th Judicial Circuit. Please contact SAO Communications Director Samantha Syoen at 239-533-1125.

Sheriff Cameron pointed out that numerous agencies, both law enforcement and civilian, assisted the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Cold Case Unit throughout this endeavor. The assisting personnel are too numerous to list so here is a list of supervisors/directors of the various agencies:

State Attorney 20th Judicial Circuit Honorable Stephen Russell

Federal Bureau of Investigation SAC Steven Ibison

Florida Department of Law Enforcement SAC E.J. Picolo

Florida Gulf Coast University Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney/Dr. Tony Barringer

Marion County Sheriff’s Office Sheriff Ed Dean

Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Sheriff Jack Parker

Florida Wildlife Commission Regional Director Tom Champeau

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Sheriff John Lovick

National Center for Missing &

Exploited Children (NCEMC) Gerry Nance

And, virtually every division of the CCSO

BIO’S ON CCSO COLD CASE UNIT INVESTIGATORS/DETECTIVES

Mike Gandy, 53: CCSO Cold Case Unit Supervisor, 33 years in Law Enforcement, 31 of those years in investigations and Major Crimes. Retired CCSO in 2006 as a Major. Part-time Cold Case Unit since Jan. 2009. Mike is a sworn CCSO detective.

Kurt Mehl, 51: 27 years in Law Enforcement. Retired from Stafford Township Police (Southern Ocean County, NJ); 5-years in patrol and 22 years as a detective with 10 of those years in Major Crimes. Part-time Cold Case Unit since Feb. 2009. Kurt is a sworn CCSO detective.

Mike Vogel, 62: 24 years Federal law experience and 4 years as a private investigator. 3 years Special Agent U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS); 17 years Special Agent, Resident Agent in Charge and Special agent in Charge for U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS); 4 years as Special Agent U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General (USPS-OIG). Retired as Federal Criminal Investigator in 2003. Part-time Cold Case Unit since Feb. 2009.

Lou Orlando, 78: 25 years with Willowick (Ohio) Police Department and retired as a Lieutenant; plus 13 years in private security at South Seas Plantation in Lee County. Part-time Cold Case Unit since Feb. 2009.

Gerard Cooley, 54, 27 years with Ft. Myers Police Department; retired May 2007. Part-time Cold Case Unit since Feb. 2009.

SNOHOMISH COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE:

Sheriff John Lovick

3000 Rockefeller Ave., #606, Everett, WA 98201

sheriff.snoco.org

Main Phone: 425-388-3393

PIO: Rebecca Hover, Rebecca.hover@snoco.org

MELISSA ANN HARDING-JONES

aka MELISSA COOPER

DOB: Sep. 20, 1976 (33)

422 84th Ave. SE, Lake Stevens, Washington 98258

Arrested on CCSO warrant Aug. 23, 2010, 5:30 p.m. PST, by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office & FBI

PHOTOS:

Pilar and her father Marco Rodriguez.

Melissa Jones booking photo in Everett, WA.

State Attorney 20th Judicial Circuit Stephen Russell; Sheriff Cameron looks on.

CCSO Cold Case Unit supervisor Detective Mike Gandy and Sheriff Cameron looking on.