Convicted killer now training dogs in honor of her young victim
Melinda Loveless has spent more than 7,000 sunrises and sunsets - half her life - behind razor wire. Now 36, she grew up in prison, in the shadow of her legacy - a crime of jealousy.
"Just the name alone," Melinda Loveless recalls. "There's Melinda Loveless and here comes my case."
Loveless received 60 years in prison for planning and executing the 1992 torture and murder of 12-year-old Shanda Sharer.
But at the Indiana Women's Prison, the hands that once took life now nurture it.
Melinda Loveless has a leash in each hand and a new lease on life as a trainer of service dogs for the disabled.
In seven years, Melinda has become one of the most trusted and competent trainers in the ICAN program, an acronym for Indiana Canine Assistant Network.
Its founder, Sally Irvin, is impressed with Melinda's progress.
"We bring our challenge dogs many times to Melinda because she's able to figure out what their strength is," Irvin says.
Melinda has groomed Odle as a courtroom dog for abused and traumatized children.
"Odle comes into court and the kids are going to sit with him, hug him to make it easier for them," Melinda says.
But a puppy named Angel is a dog like no other. Angel is a four-legged conduit to her victim, Shanda's mother.
125 miles away from the prison, in New Albany, Shanda's mother Jacque Vaught still endures shock waves from her daughter's brutal murder.
"I had many times said if you want to see as close to a person who has absolutely nothing inside of them, look into Melinda's eyes because there's nothing there," Jacque says.
Jacque never wanted contact with any of her daughter's killers.
"All I ever said is I want them to serve their sentence. That's all I ever said."
But Charlie Petrizzo, a North Carolina breeder who supplies dogs to the ICAN program at the prison, forged an unexpected connection between the two.
"I liked it because it wasn't planned," Melinda says.
Petrizzo, a burn victim like Shanda, convinced Jacque, Shanda's mother, to watch a videotape of Melinda now.
"I was really taken aback. I saw someone almost reborn," Jacque says.
She saw someone who has learned to nurture something, love it, then let it go as Melinda did with her older dog, Odle, last March.
"When you have to pass off something you've grown to love, it is bittersweet," Melinda says. "There's growth in that. I've taken care of her. I've loved her. I've cried on her. I've given her medicine, her baths. She's like my kid."
Jacque Vaught saw a transformation in Melinda.
"She was sincere. She was compassionate. I think the ICAN program allows her to have something in her life that she can show love back to and there's never betrayal on either side," Jacque says.
So Jacque Vaught did something remarkable.
She took up Charlie, the breeder, on his idea to donate a puppy in Shanda's honor.
And let Melinda Loveless, train her.
Melinda did not believe it at first.
Not until the puppy, Angel, ran into her arms the first time they met in a crowd of people.
"That's the one Jackie had touched, had held, had named. And I said wow!" Melinda says.
Jacque has faced some criticism over her decision.
"It's my choice to make .She's my child. If you don't let good things come from bad things nothing gets better. And I know what my child would want. My child would want this."
Melinda is overwhelmed by the decision.
"She helped me to heal, forgive and grow, whether she wanted that or not. She did a good thing," Melinda says. I would thank her. I couldn't thank her enough."
Melinda is training Angel to help someone in need, but Angel is already helping her.
"Angel is in good hands," Melinda says. "And I'm doing it for Shanda. And I'm doing it for her."
Jacque Vaught says she hopes a dog will be donated each year to ICAN in honor of Shanda, and says she is comfortable with Melinda raising more of them.
There are no plans for Jacque and Melinda to meet.
Melinda has eight years remaining on her prison sentence.