Slain mother and daughter Meshay “Karmen” Melendez and Layla Stewart will be remembered for being “so full of energy and life.” No matter how bad of a day, they would wipe away a loved one’s tears and bring a smile to their face.
“Meshay loved Layla with all her life. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for her,” said Michelle Bart, president and founder of the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation. “In one conversation, she shared with her mom, Nichole, that she understood Layla was the one person who would always be by her side.”
About 300 people gathered Sunday morning in Esther Short Park’s Propstra Square to honor the mother and daughter. The vigil was hosted by NWCAVE and YWCA Clark County, in conjunction with the family.
Many wore red, for Melendez, 27, and pink, for Layla, 7. Some wore purple shirts with a photo. Family, friends and community members left flowers, balloons, cards, stuffed animals and other trinkets on a table.
Investigators say the two were last seen the morning of March 12 with Melendez’s former boyfriend, Kirkland C. Warren, who was barred by court order from having contact with her. Melendez’s mother reported the pair missing March 18 after she couldn’t reach them for their regular video chat session. Their bodies were found Wednesday in a rural area east of Washougal.
Warren, whom Vancouver police had named a person of interest in their disappearances, has not yet been charged in their deaths.
“This tragic death of this young mother and her daughter is a stark reminder to all of us that each time fatal violence is committed, someone’s loved one will not come home. And that someone will no longer be kissed, hugged, held — whether they are a child, a family member or a friend,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told the crowd.
McEnerny-Ogle said the Vancouver Police Department is “working with its law enforcement partners to ensure a thorough and resolute outcome in the ongoing investigation.”
Standing side by side with Clark County Sheriff John Horch, Vancouver Police Chief Jeff Mori said there is nothing he can say “to bring these two beautiful people back.” But he said he will do everything he can to make sure they are never forgotten.
Horch echoed the sentiment, adding that his agency and Vancouver police are committed to asking the questions of what happened in this case.
“How can we do better?” he said.
Those questions were at the forefront of Sunday’s vigil.
“I want to clear the air as the spokesperson of this family. We applaud Vancouver Police Department and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Clark County Search and Rescue and Washington State Patrol. They did what your tax dollars pay them to do — find missing people and bring them home. We have Meshay and Layla home, not the way that we hoped, but they are home,” Bart told the crowd.
She laid blame on the courts and prosecutor’s office.
“At the end of this case, we need to … gather and work together to amend our constitution so it benefits our victims, so the criminals that do the perpetration are held to the fullest extent of the law, and all of us, our families, our friends, this community, and the victims get justice,” Bart said.
Her words were met with applause and cheers.
Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said lawmakers will look at every step of the investigation to see what they can do going forward.
“A few years ago, we did a lot of good work at recognizing that it’s wrong to have high bail for trivial crimes and to especially levy those laws and that bail on Black and brown people — good move,” Wylie said. “But we need to have no bail for people that are obviously dangerous, and somehow, we’ve got to get there. And I will do everything I can to move in that direction.”
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who sponsored the Tiffany Hill Act, which strengthened protections for domestic violence victims with protection orders, said she plans to expand on it. The act — named for a mother who was murdered in 2019 by her estranged husband in Hazel Dell — allows for the electronic monitoring of domestic violence offenders.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESOURCES
YWCA’s 24-hour SafeChoice Domestic and Sexual Violence hotline: 1-800-695-0167
National 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence Friends & Family Guide: wscadv.org/resources/friends-family-guide
“We have to quit waiting for someone else to die to name a bill after them,” Wilson said through tears and applause.
Vancouver police Sgt. Tanya Wollstein who has worked on hundreds of domestic violence cases, including Hill’s, said she never wanted to see another domestic violence victim killed in Clark County.
“We need statewide lethality assessments like the one used by VPD to inform prosecutors and judges of the lethality risk in these cases,” she told the crowd.
“As an additional measure, we need to make sure that our law mandates that offenders that reach the extreme risk threshold are ordered to participate in offender monitoring with victim notification,” she said. “And finally, we need a constitutional amendment to allow judges to withhold bail for domestic violence offenders who represent this extreme risk to their victims.”
One of those assessments had found Warren posed an “extreme risk” to Melendez with a score of 31 on a scale of 1 to 18. Still, his bail was set at $100,000, which he posted, and he was released without electronic monitoring.
National Women's Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation has established a Memorial Fund for Meshay "Karmen" Melendez and Layla Stewart.
Following a moment of silence and performance of “Amazing Grace,” Bart and Wollstein shared a bit about Melendez and Layla on behalf of their family.
Melendez was always caring and had a huge heart. She was determined and courageous, Bart said.
“Meshay and her mother could share each other’s company as two close friends. As a little girl, she was so shy and soft-spoken with a goofy giggle. As Meshay grew up, so did her personality. … She became more and more outgoing and became a confident woman. But that goofy giggle never changed,” Bart said.
Layla had “a spirit that people were naturally drawn to, with big hazel eyes, a smile that would light up a room and the cutest dimples,” Wollstein said. “She was a fearless little lady ready to conquer the biggest rides at the carnival.”
She loved nature walks and playing outside. She walked around the house singing.
“She loved her friends, her puppy, Honey, and her new, little kitten, Rocky,” Wollstein said. “She adored and loved her mom. She was definitely a grandma’s girl and an auntie’s girl. She was a papa’s girl and definitely an uncle’s girl. She was deeply loved.
“One thing is for sure, she wasn’t going to miss a chance to tell you that she loved you.”
Meshay Melendez and Layla Stewart
Timeline in Meshay Melendez, Layla Stewart case
The following information comes from court records filed in Clark County Superior and District Courts and Jefferson County Circuit Court in Arkansas, as well as police news releases. None of the allegations or charges have been proven in a court of law; all cases are pending.
- Nov. 27, 2017: Kirkland C. Warren shoots his passenger, Curtis Urquhart, with a 22-caliber handgun, after Urquhart repeatedly asks for money, and dumps his body in a ditch near Stuttgart, Ark. Warren later admits to shooting Urquhart, but he tells investigators he feared for his life.
- Dec. 12, 2017: Warren is arrested in Arkansas in connection with the November homicide.
- Dec. 13, 2017: Warren posts $250,000 bond in the homicide case and is released.
- Feb. 7, 2018: Criminal charges of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse are filed in the Arkansas case.
- 2020: Vancouver police investigate Warren for possessing a stolen semi-automatic handgun. Officers contact him, and he surrenders it. The firearm remains in evidence.
- March 31, 2021: Warren lies on an application to buy a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun at SafeFire in Camas. He says he is not under indictment for a felony, when he has the pending murder case in Arkansas. His application is denied.
- Dec. 13, 2022: Warren and Meshay Melendez argue at her Minnehaha area apartment. He subsequently leaves and shoots at Melendez’s balcony window, as she looks outside.
- Dec. 23, 2022: Melendez calls 911 to report Warren assaulted her. She also reports the shooting from 10 days prior.
- Feb. 3, 2023: Law enforcement interviews a friend who was present during the shooting and corroborates Melendez’s account.
- Feb. 17, 2023: Melendez meets with investigators and recants her earlier statement. She says she lied about the shooting and claims she and her friend have mental health and drug issues, to explain away their earlier statements. She wants assurances Warren won’t be arrested. Investigators deem this to be suspicious.
- March 2, 2023: Vancouver police arrest Warren.
- March 3, 2023:Warren makes a first appearance in Clark County Superior Court on suspicion of second-degree domestic violence assault, drive-by shooting, making a false statement, harassment and possession of a stolen firearm, between the series of alleged incidents. Clark County prosecutors say a danger assessment found Warren poses an “extreme risk” to Melendez, with a score of 31 on a scale of 1 to 18. They also note the active homicide case in Arkansas. They ask Warren be held on $100,000 bail. Judge Suzan Clark grants the prosecution’s request, citing the nature of the allegations and the open Arkansas case. Clark also orders a domestic violence no-contact order with Melendez. Hours later, Warren violates the domestic violence no-contact order by calling Melendez twice from the Clark County Jail. He suggests she’s responsible for his arrest and needs to get his charges dropped. Melendez says she is trying to get the charges to go away. Warren says he’s not going back to Arkansas. Warren posts bail later that day. But he is cited in Clark County District Court for violating the domestic violence no-contact order with Melendez.
- March 6, 2023: Warren appears in custody in District Court on the citation. Vancouver police Sgt. Deb Libbey, who authored the probable cause affidavit, asks the court to order Warren wear a GPS monitor if released and be subject to higher bail. Judge Kristen Parcher orders $10,000 bail and electronic monitoring, for domestic violence offenders who are released pending trial.
- March 7, 2023: The District Court case is dismissed, and the allegations are later added to Warren’s Superior Court case. He is not fitted with a monitor before the case is dismissed.
- March 8, 2023: Warren is released from the jail.
- March 11, 2023: Melendez, Layla and Warren stay the night at a friend’s apartment in the VanMall neighborhood.
- March 12, 2023: Melendez and Layla are last seen that morning with Warren, leaving in his burgundy Dodge Charger.
- March 17, 2023: A judge in Arkansas revokes Warren’s bond in his 2018 murder case.
- March 18, 2023: Melendez’s mother reports her and Layla missing after she can’t reach them for their regular video chat session, and friends express concern over being unable to contact them for a week. Vancouver police conduct a welfare check on Melendez and Layla at their Minnehaha area apartment. They are not there.
- March 19, 2023: Melendez’s mother finds her daughter’s car, a Chrysler 200, in the 7800 block of Northeast Loowit Loop in the VanMall neighborhood. Vancouver police serve a search warrant for Warren’s vehicle and residence in the Kevanna Park neighborhood, and he is arrested. Vancouver police issue a missing persons bulletin to the public.
- March 20, 2023: Warren appears in Superior Court on new allegations of tampering with a witness, second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm and a protection order violation. Clark County prosecutors ask that Warren be held without bail or that his bail increase from $100,000 to $500,000. Judge John Fairgrieve postpones the hearing a day and asks the prosecution for more information about the basis for the new allegations. He does not make a decision on bail. Warren remains in custody. The Arkansas judge’s order to revoke Warren’s bond is filed with Jefferson County, Ark., Circuit Court.
- March 21, 2023: Warren appears in Superior Court on the new allegations. Fairgrieve finds probable cause. Clark County prosecutors ask Fairgrieve to order Warren be held without bail or increase his bail from $100,000 to $1 million and order he wear a GPS ankle device if released. Fairgrieve orders the $1 million bail and electronic monitoring. Vancouver police name Warren a person of interest in Melendez and Layla’s disappearances. Investigators also release descriptions of the involved vehicles.
- March 22, 2023: Warren appears in Superior Court on a warrant for the Arkansas case. He admits he is the person wanted in Arkansas, but he refuses to waive extradition to be turned over to authorities there. Judge Robert Lewis orders Warren be held without bail on the warrant. Two bodies are discovered down an embankment in thick brush off Southeast Wooding Road near Sunset View Road east of Washougal. The Vancouver Police Department tentatively identifies them as Melendez and Layla.
- March 26, 2023: About 300 people gather in Esther Short Park’s Propstra Square to honor Melendez and Layla. The vigil is hosted by the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation and YWCA Clark County, in conjunction with the family.
- March 31, 2023: The Vancouver Police Department announces Warren is facing two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Melendez and Layla. The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office also announces it had determined both Melendez and Layla died from gunshot wounds to the head.
- April 3, 2023: Warren appears in Superior Court on suspicion of two counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Melendez and Layla. Prosecutors announce they intend to charge Warren with aggravated first-degree murder. If convicted, he would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
- April 12, 2023: Warren's wife, Monet Tyler-Warren, 26, is charged in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Oregon with first-degree aggravated theft, first-degree theft, aggravated identity theft and identity theft. She's accused of stealing money while working at a Portland credit union and transferring it to other accounts, including one in Melendez’s name.
- April 17, 2023: Warren pleads not guilty to aggravated murder charges in the fatal shootings of Melendez and Layla.
- April 19, 2023: More than 100 people attend a private memorial service at Evergreen Memorial Gardens for Melendez and Layla, followed by a procession to their gravesite.
- May 9, 2023: Warren pleads not guilty to two counts of violating a protection order, one count of tampering with a witness and one count of second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm. The new charges are tied to his drive-by shooting case. Prosecutors had previously amended the information in that case, but Warren had not yet been arraigned on the added charges.