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Family remembers Copper Dollar Ranch murder victims

30-year anniversary to be commemorated with public candlelight vigil Sunday

Published: Friday, March 1, 2013 11:44 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 11:45 a.m. CDT

Long-time Newton residents Ida (Cahill) Gregory Reynolds and Thelma Fisher, who spent some of their final days together at Newton Healthcare, did not share a bond forged by typical forces, such as family or friendship. Since March 3, 1983, the two were connected in life for another reason: Both lost a child to the brutal — and still unsolved — Copper Dollar Ranch murders.

Thelma passed away Jan. 24, 2011, and Ida followed 16 months later, on May 15, 2012, with neither one ever seeing justice for their children, 20-year-old Steven Joseph Fisher and 17-year-old Melisa Lynn Gregory. Just days before she died, however, Thelma — who was in regular contact with the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office in an effort to see the crime solved — left Ida’s oldest daughter with one plea.

“She told me, ‘Lisa, I want you to just keep at them,’” Newton resident Lisa Gregory said. “She wanted me to keep doing what she had been doing. She said, ‘I’ll know when I get home what happened to them.’ But she wanted us to know here too. It was really tough.”

To remember their loved ones, and ensure the crime is not forgotten, local family members of Melisa “Mouse” Gregory have organized a candlelight vigil for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday, the 30th anniversary of the murders, outside the Jasper County Courthouse. Candles will be provided, and the public is encouraged to attend.

“We would love to have everybody — anyone that knew them — come and be with the family,” said Lisa, who was 19 at the time of her younger sister’s death. “We just want everybody to know that we’ve not forgotten it.”

Around 8 a.m. March 3, 1983, a ranch foreman discovered Steven and Melisa’s bodies at the Copper Dollar Ranch, located about four miles northwest of Newton at that time on West 48th Street North. Steven worked part-time at the ranch and was staying in a camper with his girlfriend, Melisa. Death certificates indicate the two victims died as a result of multiple severe head injuries.

“I was sitting watching Channel 13 news, and I had just had my knee operated on, so I wasn’t very mobile,” Lisa said. “I found out on the news that there was a double homicide on Copper Dollar Ranch, and the male was Steven Fisher, and the female was unknown. At the time, they didn’t know if it was Melisa or not. We kept telling [the authorities], ‘We know she was out there. It’s her.’ We didn’t know until 1 o’clock the next morning that it was her, after they had identified her through dental records.”

Scott Gregory of Newton recalled having spent the night at a friend’s house just outside of town the night his older sister was killed. Even though the boys had plans to spend the day riding three-wheelers, Scott said he inexplicably felt the need to go into town.

“For some reason, I felt that. I did,” Scott said. “We walked probably about two miles or so, and John’s brother Larry picked us up. We started to drive into town, and he said, ‘Scott, I’ve got some bad news. One of your sisters was killed last night.’”

The Gregorys said their mother learned of the murders at Copper Dollar Ranch from her landlord while paying her rent. Melisa also had another younger brother, Travis Reynolds, and a younger sister, Tanna Reynolds, who were only 8 and 18 months old, respectively, at the time of her death. Tanna said did not learn about the crime until years later.

“I didn’t even know I had [another] sister,” said Tanna, who has been called “Mouse Jr.” due to her strong resemblance to Melisa. “Mom never told me. I found it all in the basement snooping. I was 11. There were pictures, and I know there was an autopsy report, because I remember reading it — what happened to her and how they had to identify her.”

No arrests have ever been made in connection with the murders.

“It’s still fresh,” Lisa said of the loss. “It’s an open case. They’re working on it. Since Thelma told me to keep at it, I’ve kept at it. We’ve talked to them (sheriff’s office) at least once a month. And I think us being out there with this candlelight vigil is a way of telling everyone, ‘If you know anything, just come up and say so.’”

Steven was married to, but separated from, Terri Supino at the time of his death and had two children, Rocky and Casey. Two of Steven’s siblings still reside in the Newton area. Lisa described Steven as family — “he will always be family,” she said — and is hoping for a strong turnout for Sunday’s vigil.

“It just feels right to have something like this,” Lisa continued. “We’ve not had anything like this. Tanna said, ‘Why are we doing it now? Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?’ I told her I think we’re all comfortable now, and we’re healing. We want this solved.”

The Gregorys acknowledged their mother did not talk much about Melisa or the murders over the years.

“She didn’t even put a picture [of Melisa] up until maybe two years before she died,” Scott’s wife Karen said. “She had the picture, but she never hung it up. I said, ‘You know, Mom, it’s OK to remember.’ We cried that day. It was hard.”

Lisa remembered her mother struggling with guilt.

“It’s always been hard for her. We had a talk, and she stated that she didn’t forgive herself because of Melisa,” Lisa said, her voice trembling with emotion. “So I know that she hurt. I told her, ‘Mom, it wasn’t your fault.’”

The Gregorys also are working to establish a fund to raise money for a reward for information about the crime.

“It needs to be solved,” Karen said. “We don’t want another 10 years to go by. There’s somebody out there who knows something. It’s heart-breaking that two mothers passed away before they ever knew.”

Daily News Associate Editor Mandi Lamb may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 424, or at mlamb@newtondailynews.com.

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