Judy Johnson never got to see her appearance on the Maury Povich show - she was brutally murdered before the episode went to air.

Judy, along with her daughter Melinda, were appearing on the infamous American talk show regarding their involvement in the "Hicks Baby" saga - where couples in the 1960s unknowingly adopted children from the black market.

Melinda was one of these babies.

Back then, it wasn't easy for couples to meet the legal obligations necessary for adoption. Judy and her husband had looked into adoption through official channels but you could be rejected if you were divorced, or if you weren't a home owner.

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So in the early 1960s the couple applied for adoption through an intermediary between a work colleague and a clinic in McCaysville, Georgia.

The instructions were simple: Once they received a call, they were to get to Georgia within 12-hours. They were to walk in the front door, sign the birth certificate and head out the back door.

Finally, they were warned: Get out of town as quickly as possible.

In February 1963, Judy got that call. Baby Melinda cost US$1000, a price Thomas Jugarthy Hicks told her would cover the cost of the biological mother's keep.

It wouldn't be until 30 years later that Melinda and Judy would realise they were part of a devastating black market plot by Dr Hicks to illegally sell newborn babies to couples in six states in America from 1951 to 1964.

There is evidence Dr Hicks told birth parents that their baby had died and were instead selling them on to desperate couples.

Which led Judy and Melinda to Maury in April 1998.

After she was killed, "I called them and they did a little tribute to her at the end," Melinda told news.com.au.

Posted by Melinda Dawson on Monday, 2 January 2012

THE NIGHT JUDY WAS MURDERED

On June 7, 1998, six-year-old Brooke Sutton appeared at the front door of a neighbour's house, bloodied, dazed and bruised. She had spent the night at her grandmother's house, Judy.

"She was my babysitter so I went there after school and I stayed the night a lot," Brooke later explained. "We watched her favourite show and then we went to bed."

But that night an intruder entered Judy's home in Barberton, Ohio and brutally raped and strangled her while she slept on the couch.

Her nose, jaw, collarbone and skull were all broken and she was beaten so badly that her injuries appeared like stab wounds.

Brooke, who was sleeping in the bedroom, had heard the attack taking place and cowered underneath the bed covers.

"I got out of bed and I went to the kitchen and I looked and I seen that there was a guy in the kitchen, but it scared me, so I ran back to the bedroom," she would later tell NBC News.

But the intruder found Brooke and the six-year-old was beaten, raped, strangled, sliced and left for dead.

The morning after the attack, Brooke regained consciousness and went in search for help.

"I'm sorry to tell you this, but my grandma died, and I need somebody to get my mum for me," the six-year-old said in a voicemail message to a family friend.

"I'm all alone. Somebody killed my grandma. Now please, would you get a hold of me as soon as you can? Bye."

Bloodied and bruised, she ended up at the next door neighbour's house. The neighbour, Tonia Brasiel, was cooking breakfast for her children at the time and made Brooke wait for 45-minutes on the front porch.

Brooke later told police the attacker looked and sounded like her Uncle Clarence.

Uncle Clarence - Clarence Elkins - was Melinda's husband and Judy's son-in-law.

Police descended upon Melinda's home where she would learn her mother had just been brutally murdered - and her husband was the prime suspect.

"That pain was unbearable and I just screamed, you can't wrap your head around that," Melinda said.

"They had Clarence in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car. At that point they took him, and he never came back home."

'I THOUGHT I WAS NEXT'

Based on Brooke's identification, Clarence was convicted of murder, attempted aggravated murder, two counts of rape by force or threat of force, and felonious assault.

"I watched the jury walk in," Melinda recalled to the Criminal podcast.

"I watched the jury look at Clarence, and I knew it wasn't good. A lot of the men gave him a look like' 'you're disgusting'. Just hateful. A couple of the women jurors were crying."

He was given two life sentences.

But Melinda didn't buy it. Clarence had a solid alibi (he was never alone that night), there was no physical evidence and she just couldn't believe, after almost two decades of marriage, that he could be responsible for such a devastating act.

At the time, both Judy and Melinda had received strange phone calls calling for punishment after going public with the Hicks Baby controversy and Melinda was terrified she was next.

"That was my first thought when they told me she had been murdered. That it had something to do with the Hicks babies.

"I was so afraid that they were coming to get me and my sons, they have my husband in jail and I'm left like a sitting duck. It was a nightmare, you can't even, unless you experience it, you can't even imagine."

Her family torn apart, Melinda found herself completely alone. Her mum dead. Her sister and niece refused to speak to her. Her husband in jail for her mother's murder.

"We were completely estranged for three years after my mum's murder," Melinda said.

"My whole entire family turned their back on me. They believed I was sticking up for Clarence. Covering for him. Lying for him. They weren't having anything to do with me.

"For a minute I may have flopped into a ball, but I had two sons. That was my main objective, to take care of my children. I don't think I processed it for a long time, I went into survival mode."

She made a vow to find out who had actually killed her mother.

SHE WOULD HAVE TO DO IT HERSELF

Three days after Judy's murder, she started her own list of suspects. Twelve in total.

Melinda knew that the only way to prove Clarence innocent was to find a DNA sample that matched the crime scene. Clarence's DNA had already tested negative - so she knew that finding a match would lead her to the real killer.

Over the next six years she set about getting DNA samples from her list of 12. She was forced to flirt with men at strip clubs and pull out strands of hair directly from their head without them knowing.

Everyone's DNA was preserved, either from a discarded beer bottle, cigarette butt or hair root. Melinda wasn't sure how she was going to get the specimens tested, or how long it would take, so her freezer became a laboratory of DNA samples. They would stay there for six years.

By this time, Clarence's lawyers were out of ideas. His appeals exhausted and Melinda's bags of DNA accumulating space, she realised she needed help.

She contacted private investigator, Martin Yant, who convinced Melinda to reconnect with her sister.

When she answered the door, her sister turned away. But then, she turned around, and came back.

"We had a little reunion, my niece was now 10 years old. We were a family again. My sister was listening to me, I'm hearing things from her that I wasn't privy to about the case. Together we were trying to figure this out."

At this time, Brooke began to voice her concerns that she may have picked the wrong guy.

"She said, 'I don't think that his eyes [the killer] were blue'," Melinda recalled.

Clarence's eyes were blue.

"She [Brooke] said it was dark and she'd just seen the back of his head along with one time when he [the killer] went to punch her. That must have been right before she went unconscious. She saw a face in the dark."

The state's key witness recanted her story, citing the prosecution for "saying what everybody was telling her to say". The primary evidence against Clarence Elkins was beginning to crumble.

It was May 2002.

Clarence's lawyers submitted a motion for a new trial, but the prosecution argued Melinda had polluted her family and was coercing them to change their mind.

In a gobsmacking move, the court agreed, and decided there was no grounds for a retrial. The judge said the case never hinged on DNA but eyewitness testimony.

Melinda was livid. Clarence had been in prison for six years by this stage.

But one morning, Melinda picked up a copy of Ohio newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal on the way to work.

There, on the front page, was the neighbour whom Brooke had run to all those years ago. The neighbour who had made Brooke wait 45 minutes on the front porch before letting her in: Tonia Brasiel.

The story gave Melinda red flags.

Tonia, along with partner, Earl Gene Mann, were charged with child rape of their own children.

Earl Gene Mann in an undated police photo.
Earl Gene Mann in an undated police photo.

'I KNEW THAT IT WAS HIM'

"I had never heard Earl Mann's name before, I didn't know Tonia had a [de facto] husband but I knew right at that moment that it was him," Melinda said.

By all accounts, Earl, already a convicted rapist, was in that house when Brooke went for help.

"I think about it all the time, that after all these years searching, he was right next door.

"I always felt there was something very odd that [Tonia] wouldn't have called the police and let my niece in, she left her on the porch. That was odd to me."

Earl Mann had gone missing from the halfway house where he was staying on June 3, 1998. Melinda says Earl went "AWOL" on June 4 and disappeared. Judy was murdered three days later, on June 7.

"When I started searching I did a lot of research about Tonia and Earl. They weren't officially married so I didn't know about him.

"He committed other assaults on the elderly while he was out. There was an older gentleman that he robbed and beat with a pole stick, which I'm pretty sure that's what was used against my mum."

Melinda was baffled over how police never investigated Earl Mann's disappearance. His address, the same address as Tonia's, was listed but "his name never came up".

Melinda would later find out that in January 1999, Earl Mann was arrested on a traffic violation in Barbeton, the same town Judy was murdered. He partially confessed to her murder.

"The patrolmen wrote down what he said and sent a memo to the detectives while Clarence was in jail, but he had not had his trial yet. The memo said that Earl Mann asked at the time, 'Are you arresting me for Judith Johnson's murder?' - and they don't do anything about it."

Melinda began to track Earl Mann and discovered the terrifying realisation that he was incarcerated at Mansfield Correctional Institution, a mixed-security state prison for men in Ohio.

It was the same prison where her husband Clarence was being held for Judy's murder. She couldn't prove it yet, but she was sure she had her killer.

"I was collecting DNA all up to the point I figured out it was Earl Mann," Melinda said.

"I was writing him fictitious letters as a pen pal. I'd even send him envelopes so he would send me a letter back, the envelope type that you had to lick it on the back and seal it, just to get his saliva. But he never wrote me back."

The catalyst came when Melinda visited Clarence in prison one day. It was here that she would come face-to-face with Earl Mann.

"I visited Clarence and told him, 'this is the guy, I'm telling you. I don't know how I know but God is telling me this is the person. I asked, 'do you know who he is?' Clarence said, 'yeh, he's sitting by the window in the back'.

"I said, 'I'm going to get a Coke'. I had to walk past Earl Mann to get the drink, and as I walked back I looked at him and he looked at me.

"All I could think to do was smile at him, because I didn't want him to think I was onto him."

Clarence Elkins, 42, embraces his sons Clarence II, left and Brandon outside the Mansfield Correctional Institution on December 15, 2005, following his release. Photo / AP
Clarence Elkins, 42, embraces his sons Clarence II, left and Brandon outside the Mansfield Correctional Institution on December 15, 2005, following his release. Photo / AP

CLARENCE'S MOMENT TO CATCH THE REAL KILLER

Earl Mann had tried to buddy up to Clarence in jail.

He'd say, 'I know that you're innocent' and try to shake his hand and be a buddy to him. Clarence said there was always something about Earl that bothered him. He wouldn't have anything to do with him.

But this strange coincidence turned out to be a life-changing opportunity for Clarence. Melinda knew he had to somehow get a sample of Earl Mann's DNA.

"I said to Clarence, 'you've got to get something from him'," Melinda said.

Clarence was sceptical, but Melinda insisted and convinced Clarence to steal one of his cigarette butts.

One day, he walked into a common area, and there was Earl Mann, smoking a cigarette. When he walked away, Clarence got his sample. He hid it in his bible for two weeks, wrapped it in paper and sent it to his lawyer.

The day after Clarence got the sample, Earl Mann attacked another inmate with a lock inside of a sock. He was moved to another prison.

"If Clarence wouldn't have gotten that cigarette butt when he did, he would have never had the chance to do it again," Melinda said.

Clarence Elkins, 42, embraces his wife Melinda outside the Mansfield Correctional Institution on December 15, 2005 after his release. Photo / AP
Clarence Elkins, 42, embraces his wife Melinda outside the Mansfield Correctional Institution on December 15, 2005 after his release. Photo / AP

THE DNA WAS A PERFECT MATCH

The DNA was tested against the crime scene DNA. It was a perfect match.

Melinda joined forces with the Ohio Innocence Project and after a public campaign.

On December 15, 2005, armed with new evidence and DNA testing, the Summit County Prosecutor's Office announced they were dropping the charges against Clarence and calling for his immediate release from prison. Additionally, charges against Earl Mann were forthcoming.

"It was like I could breathe again," Melinda said.

"I was so happy for Clarence, and my sons. This was so hard on them, to have lost their grandmother, and their dad."

Melinda and her whole family, including her sister and niece, picked Clarence up that day.

Earl Mann was finally convicted in 2008. It took Melinda seven and a half years to clear her husband's name.

Earl Mann plead guilty to the murder of Judy Johnson and the rape, assault and attempted murder of Melinda's niece, Brooke. He took a plea deal, and was sentenced to 55 years in prison. He won't be eligible for parole until he's 92.

"I couldn't have lived with myself if I hadn't tried to find out who did this to my mum," Melinda said.

"I wanted the person who did this to pay for what they did.

"I felt for a long time that she [Judy] wasn't at peace. There's not a minute that goes by that I don't think of my mother, there's hardly a day that goes by when I think of Earl Mann.

"I don't have to anymore."

Sadly, Melinda and Clarence divorced after his 2005 exoneration. They remain friends, but Melinda said "it's a lot to come back from".

She is resumed the search for her biological mother through ancestry.com, who are using genealogists and DNA to track down her family tree. She has already found her biological first cousin.

"It has been a very long journey - and it's not over."