VANCOUVER, Wash. — Two bodies found near Washougal on Wednesday are believed to be those of a Vancouver mother and daughter who went missing earlier this month, according to the Vancouver Police Department.
On Wednesday night, Melendez' family released a statement to KGW: "The family is grateful for all the community support and we ask that people respect the privacy of the family while they process and grieve."
The Clark County Medical Examiner's office is working to determine the cause and manner of death.
On March 18, Vancouver police conducted a welfare check at the Springfield Meadows apartments on Northeast 66th Avenue for 27-year-old Meshay Melendez and her 7-year-old daughter, Layla Stewart.
Melendez' family members told police that she had not been seen or heard from since March 11. A friend told them that the two had not been home for a few days, and their dog could be heard barking inside their apartment.
A family member let an officer into Melendez' apartment, but they found only the dog inside.
Vancouver police said that investigators learned that Melendez, Stewart and an ex-boyfriend named Kirkland Warren had stayed at the home of an acquaintance on March 11. The three were seen leaving in a burgundy Dodge Charger around 6 a.m. on March 12.
On March 19, Melendez' mother found her vehicle, a 2000 Chrysler 200, on Northeast Loowit Loop near the Vancouver Mall. Police seized the vehicle to serve a search warrant..
That same day, police executed a search warrant at Warren's home on Northeast 109th Avenue, taking him into custody.
Warren's arrest had to do with charges not directly related with Melendez' disappearance, but for alleged events that happened in the weeks and months prior. He was charged with tampering with a witness, violating domestic violence protection orders, fourth-degree domestic violence assault, drive-by shooting and unlawful possession of a firearm.
A desperate search
In the intervening days, friends and family of Melendez and Stewart tried to keep hope alive, continuing the search for their two missing loved ones.
Late Wednesday morning in northeast Vancouver, even complete strangers were helping to scour Beaver Marsh for any sign of the mom and her child. Holly Matheney does not know the family, but she said she was heartbroken over their disappearance.
"You can do everything you want from the couch," Matheney said, "but when you're out here and you're actually looking and doing the work and helping the family, that gives them so much more closure than it would by just saying, 'We hope you'll get the answers you need.'"
Melendez' family was desperate to find the two. They feared that Warren, who authorities have named a person of interest in the case, had something to do with their disappearance.
"We haven't seen them since last Sunday, nobody's talked to them or heard from them since last Sunday and that's not normal, that's definitely not normal," Kendrick Taylor, Melendez' stepfather and Layla's grandfather, told KGW.
As these searches were going on, law enforcement agencies were making a grisly discovery. On Wednesday morning, the Clark County Sheriff's Office responded to a call from a rural area along Southeast Wooding Road near Washougal, according to deputies on scene. The agency said that a passerby reported what appeared to be two "life-sized mannequins" just off the roadway, in thick brush at the bottom of an embankment.
A deputy responded to investigate, finding two bodies. The sheriff's office called in detectives from the Vancouver Police Department.
Based on "unique identifying genetic marks," the bodies are believed to be those of Melendez and Stewart, Vancouver police said in a statement. Their family members have been notified of the discovery.
Michelle Bart, a spokesperson for the family, said the family has started a memorial fund and a GoFundMe to help pay for two funerals.
Checks and cards can be mailed with the details listed below to the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation.
Checks payable to NWCAVE
Memo: Meshay and Layla Memorial Fund
PO Box 872494
Vancouver, WA 98687
An 'extreme risk'
As of Wednesday afternoon, Melendez' ex-boyfriend Kirkland Warren had not been charged in connection with her disappearance or death. But earlier in the day, Warren appeared in Clark County court in connection with a murder he's accused of committing in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Investigators arrested Warren for the murder in 2017, but he was later released on bond. According to KGW's sister station THV11 in Little Rock, Warren was not required to stay in Arkansas after bailing out and the judge did not add any requirement for GPS monitoring.
The murder trial was continued or delayed at least seven times for various reasons, primarily because his lawyers argued that they needed more time to prepare. In the meantime, Warren made his way to Clark County.
The chief deputy prosecutor in Pine Bluff told THV11 that they would request his extradition back to Arkansas now that he's been taken into custody.
But Warren's arrest over the weekend was not his first in Clark County — not even his first this year. On March 2, police arrested Warren for allegedly physically assaulting, harassing and shooting at Melendez the December prior.
Warren was ordered to have no contact with Melendez, and prosecutors determined that he posed an "extreme risk" to her. A risk assessment scored him at 31 on a scale between 1 and 18 — literally off the charts.
Regardless, Clark County prosecutors did not request that Warren be subject to electronic monitoring prior to the trial, and the court chose not to order it. He was released March 10 on $100,000 bail, according to court documents.
A few short days later, Melendez and Stewart disappeared.
Among Warren's current charges is alleged witness tampering, with prosecutors alleging that Warren called Melendez from jail and pressured her to drop the charges. Since witnesses also said he'd been seen with Melendez and Stewart before they disappeared, police picked him up for violating the no contact order and the terms of his parole.
This scenario is something that domestic violence advocates say happens too often — and something needs to change.
Electronic monitoring is allowed under a Washington law called the Tiffany Hill Act, which aims to protect survivors of domestic violence. KGW has covered it extensively in the past, and the fact that it's underused.
The bill was signed into law in 2020. It was named after a Vancouver mother, Tiffany Hill, who was murdered by her estranged, abusive husband the year before.
The law allows courts to order people accused of domestic violence to wear GPS ankle devices, which can be monitored by officials and linked to an app on the victim's phone, alerting them when the offender is nearby.
"Why isn't electronic monitoring being used consistently?" asked Elizabeth Montoya from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "I think that's a really important question that we need to answer. We need to understand the barriers to figure out that this is a system that works for survivors and communities."
KGW wanted to find out why the Clark County prosecuting attorney's office didn't request GPS monitoring for Warren, despite the extreme danger he posed. They have yet to respond to a request for comment.