Monday, December 28, 2020

A Reporter's Notebook: Covering the "Unforgotten" Story

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst
Editor’s Note: Over the spring and fall 2020 semesters, journalism students at Roosevelt University enrolled in the capstone undergraduate journalism course undertook a working investigative reporting project, examining the mostly unsolved strangulation murders of at least 51 Chicago women over two decades—more than three-quarters of these women are African American. 

The first class of student-journalists enrolled in the Convergence course began in January 2020, and passed the torch to the next class in Fall 2020, which carried the project to year’s end. Arianna Thome was among the fall class. In an abbreviated form, her journal of the reporting experience—her thoughts, feelings and lessons learned—is presented here.

By Arianna Thome

Arianna Thome, student journalist
IT'S LATE ON A SCHOOL NIGHT, and all I can hear is the television blaring. A female  news anchor on the nine o’clock news is going on about how another murder has occurred in the city that I call home. Of course, I didn’t even know what this meant at the time. But I do remember the pained look on my mother’s face as she listened to the breaking news. 

I have lived in Chicago my entire life, I grew up here. …Little did I know there (might be) a serial killer on the loose. Not once had I considered that being a possibility in my 22 years of life until this year when I first heard it would be the focus of one of my final journalism courses.

I was 3 at the time when the murders began, the first coming early in the new year of 2001. That year, five additional murders followed. Angela Marieanna Ford, Charlotte W. Day, Winnifred Shines, Brenda Cowart, Elaine Boneta, and Saudia Banks. These six women were the first of 51 others to lose their lives over the next 17 years—the most recent in 2018. The murders (according to the Murder Accountability Project) were carried out at the hands of one or more serial killers who specialize in asphyxiation and malevolence. 

It’s my first week back in my final year at Roosevelt. I have spent my entire day researching about our new class project. 

As I go through the lengthy list of victims, I face a dark abyss of absent information about the women and their murders. I am left wondering how an issue like this is left underreported, unsolved, and so unseen… 

—Week One – Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020

‘Still Stuck’

Today was interesting. I was assigned three women from the list of “The Chicago 51” to investigate further: Denise V. Torres; Genevieve Mellas; Pamela Wilson

I have already started Google searching, and almost no information has come up. Denise V. Torres and Pamela Wilson have next to nothing reported on their deaths. The best lead I have found comes from the reporting of the murder of Genevieve Mellas, the mother of six found murdered on Oct. 9, 2008. I have found an obituary and a couple of articles—finally something. 

Still stuck at a dead-end of contacting family. The only shot I have comes from the obituary. Many left kind words for Genevieve but notes from “daughters” Amber and Amanda’s gave me a lead. 

—Week 2 – Monday, September 7, 2020

* * * *

Memo From Professor Fountain:

“Dear Class, I hope all is going well. It has been a while since our first meeting. Just an update on the Convergence Project this semester…

Due Monday, 9/14: A no more than one-page Research Memo on what you have learned about the project. Basically, your memo should say what your research has revealed about our project topic; …Just a reminder: Each of you has two undertakings in our project this semester: 

One task is to try and contact the families of at least two of the victims from our database of 51 for the purpose of writing a 300 to 500-word profile that humanizes the victim. …The idea is to get enough information to write a profile of life on each woman. This portion of our project is called, “Portraits.”

What should you be doing now? All of you should proceed to research each of the names you will be assigned to see what has been written about them, if anything, in local publications; making full use of available databases...and also social media. Leave no stone unturned. Our task is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. But it’s not the impossible dream as your colleagues before you have proven. Keep the faith.”

* * * *

Praying for the Best

I did it! I finally got a lead. I was able to find Genevieve’s eldest daughter’s Facebook page. It seems silly to be excited about finding someone on Facebook. But it’s the best shot I have at getting in contact. As excited as I am to have finally found something that can help humanize these women, I am still very nervous. 

The next thing I have to do is try and reach out to the family and explain what my class and I are trying to accomplish without being overbearing or rude. I keep thinking about what the outcomes could be. I’m just praying for the best. The women deserve their voice. 

—Week 5-6 – Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020

An Overflow of Emotions

I finally reached out to Amanda Mellas today, Genevieve’s eldest daughter. Yes, I sat on it for about a week, but I wanted to be prepared and go about this the best way possible. The good news is, she responded and was willing to help. I can’t even explain the emotions I’m feeling at the moment. I’m nervous, grateful, excited, and so much more. These women will finally get a chance to get their voice back. 

—Week 6 – Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020


I just finished a Zoom meeting I had with Amanda Mellas, and to my surprise, another sibling was present for the interview. Genevieve’s second daughter, Amber Mellas was also willing to speak with me. Not only was I able to connect with one, but two members of the family! The one thing I have noticed about this project is the overflow of emotions it has brought. 

I feel something different every time I sit down to work on it. While speaking with Amanda and Amber, I am so humbled to be able to tell their mother’s story. I want to keep going and do the same for the other victims and their families, but with the serious lack of information, I just can’t.

—Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020

‘Dig A Little Deeper’

I’m getting closer to completing the final draft for Genevieve’s story. I’ve been working so hard since the semester started to make it absolutely perfect, but unfortunately it will never be perfect. I’m having trouble. I’m not sure if it’s because I haven’t written major stories like this, or because of how challenging the experience has been. 

Coming into this class, I thought it was awesome that we were getting the chance to be able to work on something like this. …There’s honestly a lot of pressure writing stories like this. 

…The most challenging part about all of it though is how much it impacted me emotionally. 

Whenever I sit down to write, my mind begins to race between a million different thoughts and the floodgate of emotions is opened. At times, I even find myself mourning Jenny.

…Many women of the “Unforgotten” were labeled as drug addicts and prostitutes at the time of their death. This saddens me because I know that those labels do not accurately define these women. Sometimes you just have to look a little deeper…

—Week 10 – Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020

Closer to Justice

I have finally finished Genevieve’s story and I cannot wait to share it. This assignment has been one of the most challenging that I have ever had to work on, but also the most fulfilling.

With more information comes more chance of healing for the victims’ families, a louder voice for those taken too soon, and justice that is inching closer to being served. This is just the beginning to the story of the “Unforgotten”. 

— Week 11 – Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020


There are two weeks left in the semester and the entire class is getting everything ready to be shared with the world. The work that has been done to bring this story to life is truly incredible. 

The world has changed drastically in a short amount of time, and it has impacted many. Our class has had to do almost everything virtually due to the pandemic. But we did it, the reporting, researching, and writing. 

We all sincerely and wholeheartedly set out to give the victims and their families their voice back in order to humanize the victims lost. Although we have just begun to shed light on the story of the “Unforgotten,” I believe much is still to be learned and uncovered. 

But I have left for the record my story on Genevieve Mellas. It begins: “Her daughters remember her heart, how she lived and the way she died but most of all the way she loved…”

—Week 14 – Wednesday, December 3, 2020

Genevieve "Jenny" Mellas and her children.