The puzzling case of a missing Collingdale woman

Among those concerned about Melissa Ortiz-Rodriguez are (from left) friend Evie Ramos; sister Ana Camacho; and mother, Olga Ortiz.
Among those concerned about Melissa Ortiz-Rodriguez are (from left) friend Evie Ramos; sister Ana Camacho; and mother, Olga Ortiz. (STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 12, 2013

Daniel Leight sat behind his desk at the Collingdale police station, leaned back in his chair, and tugged on his baseball cap.

The only detective for the 21-officer department, Leight does everything - arsons, burglaries, drugs, robberies, undercover. It all lands on his desk.

His corner office is crowded with file cabinets; two small safes for evidence are stacked on top. On a bookcase shelf next to mementos confiscated from past cases - a dead grenade, bongs and other odd drug paraphernalia - is the unsolved case of Melissa Ortiz-Rodriguez, the 31-year-old mother of two who went missing in April.

"Someone out there has information or knows what happened," said Leight, 44.

It has been more than six months since the brown-haired, brown-eyed Ortiz-Rodriguez is said to have walked out her Collingdale Borough door on the way to visit friends in Newark, N.J., and disappeared.

There have been no calls home for Mother's Day or birthday cards to her two young daughters. She hasn't texted, e-mailed, or posted on Facebook. She didn't show up for her first day of work on her new job. Her phone has been silent. The car she usually drove is still parked at home.

Police say what is equally puzzling and what sets this case apart from other missing person cases is the actions - and inactions - of her estranged husband, Jose Rodriguez.

"The man has not reached out to me even once to ask about the status of the case," said Robert Adams, Collingdale chief of police. "I have heard nothing from his side of the family whatsoever or his friends."

Ortiz-Rodriguez's family and friends contact him and Leight several times a week asking for updates, Adams said.

Efforts to reach Rodriguez through his attorney were not successful. Messages left for Sarah Seclow, his girlfriend and mother of his infant son, have not been returned.

Something happened

Rodriguez first called police to report his estranged wife missing April 23 - four days after she was to have arrived at a friend's home.

"He was the last person to see her," said Leight.

The couple had a tumultuous relationship, according to Evie Ramos, a friend of Ortiz-Rodriguez.

Ramos said Rodriguez had been very controlling of Ortiz-Rodriguez. He would limit the money he gave her and call friends if she did not check in or was late getting home.

"She was always worried," said Ramos. "I told her to please be careful, and I didn't want anything to happen to her. That was in 2010."

This year, on Feb. 25, Ortiz-Rodriguez filed for a protection-of-abuse order and outlined some of the couple's disputes. Rodriguez allegedly locked her and the children out of the house, broke the house phone, disassembled parts of her car engine, and took the train pass he obtained for her through his job at Amtrak. She withdrew the complaint about two weeks later, according to court records.

The pair had separated after Ortiz-Rodriguez found a receipt for an infant car seat and bottles and learned her husband had moved in with Seclow and had a baby, according to court records.

Ortiz-Rodriguez had recently talked to an attorney about obtaining a divorce, had started dating, and was to start a new job that Monday, Leight said.

"I don't see that person running away," said Leight. "I believe something could have happened."

The day he reported his wife missing, Rodriguez and his two daughters - 8 and 11 - went to the police station to talk to detectives. The next day, Rodriguez hired two lawyers; one for him, the other for his daughters. He has not spoken to police about the case since.

There were "tons of inconsistencies" in Rodriguez's statement, Adams said.

Rodriguez initially told police he left the house first that day but then said his wife left to drop the children at school, according to court records. He said she was wearing gray pajama pants and a T-shirt but later told police she wore a yellow dress, according the records.

When a neighbor asked if there was anything new, Rodriguez said his wife had been found and was at the station talking to police, according to the records.

That same week, Rodriguez enrolled the girls in an Ocean County, N.J., school, near where he lives with Seclow, and put the Collingdale home on the market.

Been a nightmare

Rodriguez's lack of cooperation and his activities around the time of the disappearance raise suspicions, said Leight.

Leight said he and Adam Sendek, a detective with the county's Criminal Investigation Division, have followed up every tip and lead received.

They have served about two dozen search warrants in the case, including those for Rodriguez's houses, cars, Amtrak work vehicle, cellphones, GPS devices, and EZPass. They monitor Facebook pages, have traveled to Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey interviewing friends and family, contacted local and national media, and check every report when an unidentified body is found.

"It is very discouraging, very disheartening," said Adams, who drives by the house every day.

Olga Ortiz, Ortiz-Rodriguez's mother, said the situation had been a nightmare for the family.

"We are still in the darkness. We haven't gotten to the light," said Ortiz. "I keep hoping and praying that she is still alive."

Adding to her sorrow is that she has not been able to see her granddaughters, Ortiz said. She has gone to court to get visitation, but Rodriguez has not agreed.

"I don't know how a person can keep my granddaughters from us," Ortiz said. "They were part of our lives since they were small."

The Ortiz-Rodriguez case is classified as a missing person, but Leight investigates it as if it is a homicide, collecting evidence now with the idea he may end up going to court later.

Leight patiently waits as DNA samples he thinks are those of the missing woman are processed at the state police lab. He hopes to then match those samples with specimens Ortiz-Rodriguez gave when she entered the military.

Those results in turn could be used to compare with any unidentified bodies that have been found.

"If it is a homicide, we will figure it out," said Leight. "It is just a matter of time."


mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111

@MariSchaefer

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