Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mel Ignatow

Justice does not always serve the just

Like so many Bluegrass and Old-Time ballads, this story begins with obsession and ends with a haunting. Not by a ghost or specter, but by the lingering effects of one man's morbid temptations and lack of conscience. For years, Louisville, Ky., was haunted by the atrocious crimes and ever-present, unrelenting presence of Mel Ignatow, violent sexual sadist, pathological liar and killer. We may expect morality to fail, but justice always finds its voice, or so Law & Order tells us, through the legal system. This is television fiction, of course. The legal system operates by what social scientists call normative values: the rules are set up in the abstract and then, through a battle of wits and wills mediated by a judge and decided by an all-but-random jury, the system seeks to apply the abstraction of the law to the individual. The legal system excels at producing definitive decisions, but in the case of Mel Ignatow justice had nothing to do with a verdict.

Louisville, Ky.
Louisville, Ky.
On the evening of September 24, 1988, Mel Ignatow tied Brenda Sue Schaefer, his beautiful fiancée, to a glass coffee table and then beat, sodomized, tortured and murdered her. He was tried; he was acquitted, and he was released. But six months later, while an HVAC team was remodeling Ignatow's former residence, sold to fund his legal defense, they discovered Schaefer's jewelry as well as several rolls of film hidden in a covered heating vent. The film had long been suspected to exist. One of Ignatow's former lovers had been cooperating with the commonwealth's investigation and claimed to have taken photos that documented Schaefer's final agonizing hours, but neither prints nor the film could be located. Once developed, the film validated the witness: over one hundred photos documented each moment of Schaefer's humiliation, pain, and death. But it was too late. Ignatow had been acquitted, and, by the U.S. constitutional prohibition of double jeopardy, he could not be tried twice for the same crime. Ignatow got away with murder, and, until his death at home in 2008, Ignatow's legal victory left the residents of this genteel, refined city with a sour taste in their mouths.


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