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Crime News Homicide for the Holidays

Houston Christmas Horror: Lifeless Body Of A Missing Mother Found In A Creek

Melissa Sowders was pregnant and in a love triangle with her estranged husband and boyfriend when she went missing.

By Constance Johnson

The last time Melissa Sowders’ family saw her was on Christmas Day 2013. The family had gathered for their traditional holiday meal, but it was bittersweet.

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Melissa was divorcing her husband, Matthew Sowders, and he had custody of the couple’s four children, so they were missing from the holiday gathering.

Melissa had married Matthew when she was just 16 years old. The couple’s family grew quickly, and soon Melissa was an overwhelmed mother with four young daughters. The marriage became rocky, and the two agreed to split. Melissa found a new boyfriend, Jason Sanford. They had dated before and reconnected after her marriage fell apart.

The day after Christmas, Sanford told the family that he hadn’t seen Melissa. She was supposed to pick him up from work, but never showed up. Later that evening, the family reported her missing to Houston police. Authorities contacted the Taco Bell where the young mother worked and discovered that she failed to show up for her shift that evening.

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Her family told police that after she dropped Jason off at work on December 26, Melissa went to meet Matthew and their youngest child at McDonald's, but after that no one heard from her again.

Police reviewed surveillance footage at the fast food restaurant. On the tape Melissa was seen coming into the restaurant around 11 a.m. She walked into the lobby area and looked at her phone. She then turned, went to an exit door, and walked out. Where had she gone?

Investigators questioned Melissa’s estranged husband, Matthew. He told police that Melissa had to use the restroom but didn’t want to use the one in McDonald’s. He drove her to his apartment, and she went to the bathroom. He thought she had returned to McDonald’s to pick up her car.

Authorities then contacted her current boyfriend, Jason Sanford, for more information. He said the last time he spoke to her, she was at McDonald’s. Later, he tried calling and texting her, but never got a response.

Further questioning of the family revealed another surprise: Melissa was pregnant.

“She was happy and that was the first time in a while that I had seen her that happy because she told us that she was going to be a mother,” Melissa’s mother told "Homicide For the Holidays."

Investigators discovered that while Melissa was living with Jason she was still romantically involved with her Matthew. Was this somehow related to her disappearance?

Soon, a crucial tip came in. A patrol man located Melissa’s Honda parked at a truck stop just a few miles away from the McDonald’s where she was last seen. There was no sign of Melissa herself. After hearing the news, Melissa’s family started to doubt that she would ever be found alive.

Police focused their investigation on those closest to the 26-year-old mother. They discovered that her boyfriend, Jason, was still married and had a history of violence. Matthew had filed a telephone harassment report against him. He told police that Sanford had threatened him, saying he and his children were in danger. Sanford was also facing an assault charge stemming from an altercation with his wife’s new boyfriend.

Investigators questioned him, and learned Melissa’s family didn’t know he was married and Sanford’s wife was unaware of his relationship with Melissa. But he denied any involvement in Melissa’s disappearance. He also had an alibi for when she went missing: His boss confirmed that he was at work.

Shortly, after Christmas, police received a break in the case. A woman called 911 to report that she saw Melissa’s body on the bathroom floor of Matthew Sowders’ apartment. Matthew would not let her into the apartment and appeared agitated and anxious.

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Police rushed to the apartment. The power was cut off, there were dirty clothes everywhere, and the floors were filthy, but there was no evidence of a crime scene, police said. The caller was either mistaken or Melissa was just in there laying down.

They planned to interrogate Matthew Sowders, but got another tip from another female caller to 911. She said that she was in a sexual relationship with Matthew, and he wasn’t telling the truth about his relationship with Melissa. She said he was jealous of her relationship with Sanford and upset about the pregnancy.

The day after Christmas, Matthew had told her that he had put Melissa’s body in a trash can and taken it out to Cypress Creek in Harris County, Texas. She was still in contact with Matthew, so police gave her a voice recorder to tape their conversations.

Police questioned Matthew, but he denied everything. They searched his truck but found nothing that tied him to Melissa’s murder.

They focused on the creek and enlisted the help of volunteers to scour the area. Three days into the search they found a horrific clue: a trash can, but it was empty. They were convinced that Melissa was murdered, but they still didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Matthew.

Investigators continued to listen to the recorded telephone conversations. In them, Matthew bragged that police didn’t have anything without a body.

But two days into the new year, a body was found in the creek. It was Melissa. An autopsy confirmed that she died by homicide — she was probably strangled to death. The autopsy also confirmed that Melissa was pregnant when she died.

Police believed that when Melissa came to Matthew’s apartment to use the bathroom, he discovered that she was pregnant with another man’s baby. His jealousy led him to kill her.

In April 2015, more than two years after Melissa Sowders’ disappearance, Matthew pled guilty to her murder. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

To find out more about how the case was solved and learn more about others like it, watch “Homicide For The Holidays” on Oxygen or stream episodes here.