By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers
A man convicted of brutally raping and murdering a Clovis convenience store clerk more than 30 years ago died Tuesday in a state prison.
Stanley Deon Melton, who suffered a long battle with cancer and was seriously ill, was 66, prison officials said Friday.
Melton died Tuesday while in long-term care at the prison medical facility in Los Lunas, New Mexico Department of Corrections spokesperson Tia Bland said.
He was charged with the 1975 killing of Sarah Vineyard, 30, a single mother of two from Melrose. Melton was convicted in 1976 and given the death penalty, which was later commuted to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty as it stood at the time.
His death brings some closure to at least one of the Clovis Police detectives who worked on the case, but it is bittersweet.
Now retired, Caleb Chandler said he always hoped Melton would die by execution, which was his sentence following his 1976 trial.
“I’ve watched (Melton’s case) closely. This is one of the cases that are on my mind frequently. It’s hard to shake the memory of such a crime,” Chandler said.
When Melton began having parole hearings in the 1980s, each time he came up for review, the victim’s family and the community had to relive the pain, Chandler said.
He said he laments the change of sentence that granted Melton almost three additional decades of life.
“In my opinion, he should have been put to death as he was sentenced. That was the decision of the judge and jury,” he said.
Chandler said in his 24 years as a Clovis police officer Vineyard’s murder was one of the worst crimes he dealt with.
“This one would be in the top three of the most horrific murder cases that I worked,” he said.
Chandler still has a worn edition of Front Page Detective magazine from May 1976 with a story detailing the murder, investigation and trial.
The magazine’s pages, yellowed and worn, show images of the crime scene.
In one, there’s a chalk outline of a woman’s body on pavement. In another, a younger version of Chandler follows trails of blood. A third shows the truck used to transport the victim.
It was Feb. 6, 1975.
About 3 a.m., a couple stopped at an Allsup’s convenience store on North Prince Street. They found smeared blood on the store floor and articles of female clothing, the story reported.
The store seemed abandoned and Vineyard was nowhere to be found.
Hours later, her partially nude body was discovered in a Clovis hospital parking lot on Thornton Street. She had been raped and savagely beaten, the story said. She died of head injuries.
A search of known sex offenders in the area turned up Melton’s name, the story said. He was working as a ranch hand in the area, the story said.
Police discovered his blood-covered jacket in a bathtub in Melton’s trailer north of Clovis Outside the trailer, they found Vineyard’s work smock.
Melton was located at an abandoned home on Axtell Street, where he was burning bloody pieces from a mattress, the story said.
He was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and criminal sexual penetration.
The magazine article said blood, hair and fiber evidence led to a quick conviction when the case was tried in 1976 in a Carlsbad courtroom.
Chandler said the trial was moved because of publicity.
Melton killed Vineyard while on parole for raping a woman at knifepoint in Hobbs two years before, Chandler said.
“This was obviously a predator who, by his own admission, would have done it again,” Chandler said. “He told us at the time he was convicted, if he was released, he would commit the same crimes again.”
Daniel Burdine of Melrose, brother of the victim, said Friday he didn’t want to talk about Melton’s death.
Prison officials said Melton’s body was released to family members this week.
Efforts to locate Melton’s family were unsuccessful.