Two years ago, Colleen Janssen, a Wake County assistant district attorney, watched as Kelvin Melton, a habitual offender in a case she prosecuted, was convicted and led off to prison.
This week, Melton was accused by prosecutors of orchestrating a plot from inside prison walls to take Janssen’s father prisoner in a bizarre, score-settling kidnapping that ended with a coordinated rescue across state lines and huge sighs of relief in North Carolina.
Frank Janssen, 63, was rescued in an Atlanta apartment late Wednesday night, five days after his wife reported him missing from their Wake Forest home.
Law enforcement officials from numerous local, state and federal agencies joined forces in a case that raises questions about the extent of danger to law enforcement and their families and also raises questions about the accessibility of mobile phones for those who are incarcerated.
On Thursday, though, officials highlighted the happy ending to a perilous journey that started Saturday with a stranger’s knock on the door of the Janssen home.
“I’m honored and humbled to say Frank Janssen is safe and back with his family today,” said John Strong, special agent in charge of the FBI in North Carolina. “He spent five nights in the hands of a group of very dangerous people. We can only imagine the uncertainty, confusion and fear he experienced.”
Janssen, who commutes during the week to a job in the Washington area at a national consulting firm, started his Saturday with a bike ride.
Sometime after he returned, a “heavy-set white woman” knocked on the door of the Janssen home in the Heritage golf course neighborhood, authorities said.
Christie Janssen reported her husband missing when she returned to the residence. She also told authorities she saw blood on the front steps.
A missing person’s report went out across local law enforcement networks, and for more than 24 hours, family and friends of the prosecutor puzzled over what could have happened.
On Monday, at 1:51 a.m., Christie Janssen began to receive a series of threatening texts, according to federal complaints that charge five people with kidnapping. The messages came from a phone in Georgia through a number that Janssen did not recognize.
The texter told Janssen that her husband was in the trunk of a car on the way to California in one message. Another message cautioned her that if law enforcement officers were contacted, her husband would be sent back to her “in six boxes.”
Additional messages stated that “every chance we get we will take someone in your family to Italy and torture them and kill them.”
“[W]e will drive by and gun down anybody” and “throw a grenade in your window,” messages said.
The messenger made various demands, according to federal investigators, including “specific demands” for the benefit of Melton, a 49-year-old inmate in a maximum-security prison in North Carolina. Melton was convicted in October 2012 of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and inflict serious injury, and of being a violent habitual felon. The case was prosecuted by Colleen Janssen and resulted in a life sentence with no chance for parole.
While the threatening messages were coming in, law enforcement officers were gathering routinely with representatives from the Wake Forest Police Department, the State Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and the Wake County district attorney’s office.
Ned Mangum, recently named acting Wake County district attorney, sat in on those meetings and recalled the dark cloud that settled in as fears of the worst roiled the group.
“I’ve never seen the mood as anxious and scared and as uncertain as it was in this office,” said Mangum, who worked for many years in the district attorney’s office before becoming a District Court judge.
At 12:19 p.m. Wednesday, another text came to Christie Janssen’s cellphone. It showed her husband tied up and seated in a chair, along with more demands.
“Tomorrow we call you again an if you can not tell me where my rings are at tomorrow i all start torchering [Mr. Janssen],” the message stated, full of misspellings and poor grammar. “If we find out police seen this, we kill both people now and go for your family.”
Investigators traced 24 texts and calls to a phone that was transmitting messages from Polk Correctional Institution in Butner, where Melton is incarcerated. Officers monitored calls and texts from the phone, including this one between two men at 8:20 p.m. Wednesday:
“The first spot we are checking out is close to the house.”
“We want to make sure it’s in a secluded area and the ground is soft so we can go three feet deep.”
“Get a bag, put it over his head, and stuff something in his mouth.”
“However you feel like doing it, just do it.”
“Make sure to clean the area up. Don’t leave anything. Don’t leave any DNA behind.”
“Get some night time medicine and make him go to sleep.”
“Make him drink a whole bottle of NyQuil.”
Earlier Wednesday night, agents had raided a home in Austell, Ga., where Tiana Maynard lived, according to documents. One of the phones was traced to that address.
Agents said they found Maynard’s children there alone and took them into protective custody. On a monitored call at 11:33 Wednesday, a woman is heard stating, “They got my kids.”
Investigators arrested Maynard when she arrived at the police station to get her children. She led agents to others and to a Chevrolet Tahoe, where according to court documents, a shovel and a .45-caliber pistol were found.
The FBI rescued Frank Janssen from an apartment in a complex of two-story, townhouse-style residences near the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.
In addition to Maynard, 20, four other people – Jenna Paulin Martin, 21; Jevante Price, 20; Michael Montreal Gooden, 21; and Clifton James Roberts, 29 – face federal kidnapping charges, which carry maximum prison sentences of life without parole.
No charges against Melton were announced.
Thomas Walker, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which includes Wake Forest, praised all the law enforcement agencies Thursday for a case that ended well.
He declined to comment further, though, saying the investigation is ongoing.
“We will pursue justice in this matter,” Walker said.
The Janssen family was not at the Wake Forest home Thursday. They have asked for privacy.
Phones in prison
Several top prosecutors used the case as an opportunity to push for more resources and for changes in state law related to cellphones found in prison.
Frank L. Perry, secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said prison overseers are working to stem the problem. In 2013, 747 mobile phones were confiscated from prison inmates in the state. So far this year, 166 phones have been retrieved.
Corrections officials have been using new technologies and procedures for the past several years to detect and confiscate cellphones, according to the secretary’s spokeswoman.
Melton has been written up on two occasions over the past year for having a cellphone inside Polk – on July 6, 2013, and on Feb. 24, 2014.
“The department is deeply concerned about any corrupting influence by inmates against Adult Correction employees and will aggressively investigate and take action against offenders and staff involved in using cellphones to conduct criminal activity from inside prison walls,” Perry said in a statement. “It will continue its ongoing efforts with increased intensity towards stopping contraband from entering any of its facilities.”