Why murder defendant was free before killings in Washington
Law enforcement officials work at the scene along Wooding Road on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, east of Washougal, Wash. Authorities found two bodies believed to be those of a missing Vancouver woman and her 7-year-old daughter in a brushy area farther down Wooding Road. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian via AP)
By GENE JOHNSON
SEATTLE — Kirkland Warren was out on bail pending a long-delayed murder trial in Arkansas. But when he was arrested in southwestern Washington state early this month on charges that he assaulted his ex-girlfriend and fired a gunshot into her apartment, he quickly posted bond and was released again.
Just a few days later, his ex-girlfriend, Meshay Melendez, 27, and her 7-year-old daughter, Layla Stewart, vanished. Police named Warren a person of interest in their disappearance.
The discovery of their bodies in thick brush down a road embankment on Wednesday has raised questions about why someone facing a murder charge in another state would be released from custody after being arrested for a serious domestic violence offense.
Cymber Tadlock, the deputy prosecutor who has handled Warren’s case in a 2017 killing in Jefferson County, Arkansas, said the Vancouver Police Department in Washington notified her on March 2 that they had arrested Warren for drive-by shooting and other charges, stemming from an incident in December. They also told her the next day that Warren had a court appearance and his bail was set at $100,000.
It wasn’t until March 14, after she had received official paperwork from Clark County, Washington, that she filed a motion to revoke Warren's bail in the 2017 murder case. In the meantime, he posted bail and was released from custody March 8 — four days before Melendez and her daughter vanished.
Had his Arkansas bail been revoked sooner, it’s possible Warren would have remained in custody as a fugitive pending his extradition to face trial in Arkansas. But Tadlock said the time it took to obtain an order revoking his bail was typical.
“I wish everything could happen more quickly,” Tadlock told The Associated Press. “I wish his murder case could have been resolved by now. It’s had delay after delay, and now it’s had a tragedy.”
Even before a man walking his dog reported seeing what resembled two “life-sized mannequins” in a rural area east of Washougal, Washington, on Wednesday morning, the family and friends of Melendez and Stewart had asserted the criminal justice system let them down.
Melendez’s brother, Miguel Melendez, and stepdad, Kendrick Taylor, along with Stewart's grandfather, told The Columbian newspaper of Vancouver that they couldn’t believe Warren had been released on bail after shooting at her apartment, especially considering his pending murder trial in Arkansas.
But except in cases of aggravated murder, Washington law presumes someone will be released from custody until they are tried and convicted. Courts can impose conditions — such as bail or electronic monitoring — to help ensure public safety and to keep defendants from fleeing.
Warren was charged with killing an acquaintance in his vehicle in 2017 and leaving the body in a roadside ditch. He told police the passenger was asking him for money and he shot him because he feared for his safety.
His family got him released from custody pending trial by putting up 10% of his $250,000 bond, said his attorney in that case, Mark Hampton, and Warren subsequently moved to Washington state with the knowledge of his lawyer and prosecutors.
The case has been delayed pending psychological evaluations, discovery disputes, the pandemic and, most recently, by a fall that Hampton’s 91-year-old mother took, resulting in a broken hip.
Vancouver police previously investigated Warren in 2020 for possession of a stolen gun, and in 2021 for lying on a federal form required to purchase a firearm by saying he was not facing felony charges, according to court records.
Under Arkansas legal rules, judges must find reasonable cause that the defendant has committed a felony before revoking bail, according to Tadlock, who said “we had to have a finding by another court" because the allegations occurred in another jurisdiction.
Warren’s March 2 arrest stemmed from a December incident during which police said he assaulted Melendez and then fired a gunshot into her apartment. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges and he has not been charged thus far in the deaths of Melendez or Stewart.
At Warren’s initial court appearance on March 3, prosecutors noted he posed an extreme risk to Melendez, The Columbian reported. The court set bail at $100,000 and ordered him to have no contact with her.
Warren was the last person seen with the mother and daughter before they disappeared, according to charging documents. On the night of March 11, a friend told police, she had been babysitting Stewart when Warren arrived to pick her up. Melendez was unresponsive in the car, naked from the waist down.
The friend reported Melendez missing on March 18. Melendez’s mother also reported her missing, saying the family had not heard from her for a week. The next day, police arrested Warren again. With his bail in Arkansas revoked, and his bail in Washington increased to $1 million, he has been in custody since.