By Ann McAdams | April 28, 2021 at 11:04 AM EDT – Updated April 28 at 11:58 AM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – They’d spent their entire FBI careers investigating horrible crimes, but it was still the last thing they’d expected: finding one of their own co-workers, murdered. In the summer of 1999, agents assigned to the Wilmington FBI office found themselves in that very situation. Despite all their experience, the shock of finding the body of FBI secretary Melissa Ann Mooney after going to her home for a well check made one agent on the scene vomit.
WECT has now obtained the FBI investigative file into Mooney’s murder. Just 28 years old at the time of her death, she had been set to move into a brand new house on August 6, 1999, and had recruited FBI agents to help her. But on the morning of the move, the ever-punctual Mooney was a no-show. After she didn’t answer her phone, agents then drove to her new home in a Castle Hayne subdivision.
Her car was in the driveway, and there was a large boot print on the front door that appeared to have been kicked in. An agent went into the home, and found the worst-case-scenario. Mooney’s nude and lifeless body, lying face up on the bedroom floor. She had been strangled.
In no time, a massive investigation was underway. The FBI agents were too close to the victim to take the lead, and called in the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) to begin processing the crime scene. But the FBI went into overdrive to assist. You’d expect a thorough job by the FBI, but even by their exacting standards, this was a colossal effort.
“She was part of the FBI family, and the FBI family wasn’t going to quit on this case until they figured out who did it and why they did it,” retired Agent Larry Bonney said. He was Mooney’s boss at the time of her death, and treated the single mother like his own daughter.
Investigators set up a hotline at the NHCSO to field tips, securing six dedicated phone lines for anyone who might be willing to call in a lead on Mooney’s murder. They compiled a list of everyone who’d recently been released from nearby prisons to see if any could be likely suspects. And they went through Mooney’s address book, and tracked down dozens and dozens of her friends, love-interests and former FBI co-workers, who now lived all over the country. Field agents from San Francisco to Dallas to Philadelphia assisted in the effort to interview her contacts, even though many of those contacts hadn’t talked to Mooney in years.
By nearly all accounts, Mooney was kind, quiet, reliable, and well-liked. But her personal life had been rocky.
“She was having some bad experiences at home… She’d come in with a bruise and I’d ask her what happened and she said, ‘I fell down.’ And I finally said, ‘Come in here and sit down. What the heck is going on?’ And so she told me that this guy was a drunk and occasionally would slap her around a bit, and I said, ‘Kick him out,’” Bonney recalled.
Mooney followed that advice, and separated from her husband, Roger Mooney. They had just finalized their divorce at the time of her death and had been in a contentious battle over child support for their four-year-old daughter, Sammy. It had gotten so bad that authorities say Roger, a Marine, had joked to colleagues about putting Melissa’s picture over the target at the shooting range to improve his accuracy. Melissa confided in friends that if she ever showed up dead, they should assume Roger did it.
So when Mooney did, in fact, show up dead in an apparent crime of passion, many of those close to her naturally blamed Roger. Detectives thoroughly investigated him, but Roger remained steadfast that he was innocent. And while Roger seemed to have the motive to kill her, logistically, authorities thought it might have been a stretch for him to pull it off.
Roger was watching Sammy the night Melissa died at his home near Camp Lejeune, a full 70 miles from Mooney’s new house in New Hanover County. Investigators believed she had died around 11:45 pm. For Roger to have done it, he’d had to have driven 140 miles round trip, either taking his young daughter with him, or leaving her for hours, then still make it back in time to get Sammy to her babysitter and himself to work by 5:30 the next morning.
Despite many people’s gut instinct that Roger was guilty, the Wilmington FBI office director Larry Bonney, who had a background in profiling and abnormal psychology, suspected otherwise.
“He said, ‘You know, it should be Roger, but it isn’t,’” District Attorney Ben David recalled of Bonney’s theory. “He said, ‘Actually, this man has a motive not to kill her. Because now he can’t go oversees and serve his country like he’s trained his whole life to do, because he’s now a single dad.’”
Looking for alternative suspects, investigators started digging into Mooney’s complicated love life. She’d started dating again after getting separated from her husband, and some of those relationships had gotten serious. Agents tracked down some of her boyfriends, got fingerprints, hair and blood samples. But the men had solid alibis at the time of Mooney’s death, or simply didn’t seem to have the motive to kill her. After two years of painstaking work with no arrests, investigators had to admit the case had gone cold.
“We just had to say, ‘let’s start over.’ You have to constantly test your assumptions with this job. You can’t always go off of your gut. You have to look at the evidence, sometimes from ten different ways,” David said of the decision to start the investigation from scratch. They brought in new detectives, advertised a whopping $80,000 reward for information hoping to generate new leads in the case, and went back to the beginning, canvassing the neighborhood for anyone who may have seen or heard anything the night Mooney died.
This time, someone stood out. Tyrone Delgado, who lived down the street from Mooney, wasn’t as cooperative with investigators as he had been the first time they talked to him the day she died. In 1999, he’d told agents he hadn’t seen or heard anything unusual the night of Mooney’s death. Two years later, the former member of the Navy didn’t want to talk to investigators at all, and acted squirrely enough that he caught agents’ attention.
Agents started digging into Delgado’s past, and made some startling discoveries.
“Mr. Delgado had never been convicted of anything more than misdemeanors. But he had been a suspect and charged in some terrible cases, including a brutal sexual assault,” David said of what their background search uncovered.
Delgado had been arrested for breaking into a woman’s home in Leesville, Louisiana in 1994, and sexually assaulting her. She was pregnant at the time, home with her four young children when she says Delgado broke in and attacked her. The pictures of her dramatic bruising taken at the hospital after that assault are chilling.
“When the FBI went and looked at that file, they thought they were looking at the ghost of Melissa Mooney,” David said of the disturbing similarities to Mooney’s injuries.
Shortly after the 1994 attack, an affidavit in the FBI file says that Bessie Huff, Delgado’s mother, came and warned him to run in the middle of the night. At the time, authorities say she was an elected official in Leesville.
“Bessie Huff told them they had to leave immediately,” the affidavit reads, relying on testimony from Delgado’s girlfriend at the time. “She and… Delgado fled the State of Louisiana…and were sent money by Western Union by his family after being told to flee the area before police arrested Delgado.”
When Delgado was later arrested on a fugitive warrant, “the case was not prosecuted when the victim signed an agreement and was paid monies for restitution and medical expenses for sexual battery and aggravated burglary. The agreement was signed by the subject’s mother, Bessie Huff.”
Authorities say Delgado’s mother intervened with the District Attorney in Vernon Parrish and asked for a plea deal. Delgado’s mother agreed to pay $2,000 to the victim, and Delgado agreed to leave town. The victim accepted the payment, and Delgado moved to Wilmington.
The Leesville woman was not Delgado’s only accuser. Astonishingly, when agents researched all the places Delgado had moved during his time with the military, they found more than a dozen other women who claimed he’d brutalized them. A woman in Washington state came forward as early as 1991. Another former girlfriend got a restraining order against him in 1992. And a former wife, Gloria Fernandez Delgado, also wound up in the hospital after she says Delgado attacked her.
While they now had reason to believe Tyrone Delgado killed Melissa Mooney, investigators still lacked the evidence they needed to charge him with murder.
After years of sticking by his side, Delgado’s current wife, Ana Cruz Delgado, finally had enough when she says Delgado tried to kill her in 2003. He was arrested for the attack, and Ana’s injuries were strikingly similar to Mooney’s.
“By the time I got to a doctor, my face was really swollen. I couldn’t eat solids for about a week,” Ana told WECT. Nearly 20 years later, she still suffers from that assault. “He slapped me so hard in the face, I have hearing loss because he burst my eardrums. So I have to wear hearing aids for the rest of my life.”
The new attack, coupled with a DNA sample they’d finally been able to obtain from Delgado that showed similarities to a hair found at the crime scene, gave authorities the critical mass they needed to arrest him for Mooney’s murder. When District Attorney Ben David had all the pieces in place to take Delgado to trial, women from across the country flew to Wilmington to testify about how he’d attacked them, too.
In the end, it took the jury less than four hours to find Delgado guilty of murder.
David says that many of the people he prosecutes as district attorney are good people who have run into problems with drugs or alcohol that get them into trouble. He classifies Delgado as a notable exception.
“Every now and then, you get someone who’s just pure evil. I would put Tyrone Delgado on the Mount Rushmore of any cases I’ve prosecuted. He’s one of the four worst in my career,” David said. “People frequently ask me, would we have been able to solve this if it wasn’t an FBI secretary who was the victim. And I tell them very honestly, ‘No, I don’t believe we would have.’ The FBI took this case personally, and threw a lot of resources at it. And it was only through painstaking review of the case and starting over 100 times, the we were ultimately able to catch a guy who had walked through the rain without getting wet for years.”
While decades have passed, David is still constantly reminded of the Mooney case, in part because Delgado continues to fight his conviction through the appeals process.
A thank you from Washington, D.C.
The conviction earned Ben David the respect of the FBI. Shortly after the trial, he got a letter from then-Director Robert Mueller.
“I want to commend and thank you for your hard work on the successful prosecution of Tyrone Delgado for First Degree Murder. However, the very reason behind the case brings great sadness to the FBI,” Mueller wrote. “Melissa Ann Mooney was a valued member of the FBI family and did not deserve to lose her life in such a brutal attack. Faced with what seemed like an insurmountable task, you and your staff spent many years relentlessly pursuing her killer…. On behalf of the FBI, please accept our gratitude….”
More than 20 years after her death, Mooney’s former co-workers still remember her fondly.
“The FBI family is real and exists…. We take care of our own,” Bonney said from the Wilmington home where he retired. “When you have somebody like Melissa who has come from nothing to really a significant job in a pretty good size office, for a kid with no experience, background at anything, a high school education. And she became a valued employee and very much a part of the FBI family.”
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