How Melvin Ignatow Got Away With Murder — Before Eventually Being Killed By Karma

Published January 13, 2023
Updated November 9, 2023

Mel Ignatow killed his girlfriend Brenda Sue Schaefer in 1988 and managed to get away with it. Two decades later, however, he met a grisly fate eerily reminiscent of that murder.

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and/or images of violent, disturbing, or otherwise potentially distressing events.

Mel Ignatow

YouTubeMel Ignatow and Brenda Schaefer.

On Sept. 25, 1988, weeks after she told friends and family members that she planned to break up with her abusive boyfriend, Brenda Sue Schaefer was reported missing.

“I don’t think our mother believed it, but we knew she was dead right away,” Shaefer’s brother Tom Schaefer told CBS News.

He was right. On Sept. 24, Schaefer’s 50-year-old boyfriend Mel Ignatow had brutally murdered her in Louisville, Kentucky after learning she planned to break up with him — a fact Ignatow later admitted himself.

But that confession didn’t come until after he’d already been acquitted of her murder and made a free man. And despite the confession, he could not be charged with her murder a second time due to double jeopardy laws.

This is the story of Mel Ignatow, the man who got away with the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Brenda Schaefer on a technicality.

The Events Leading Up To Brenda Schaefer’s Death

Melvin Henry Ignatow was born on March 26, 1938 in Pennsylvania. He eventually moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he worked in business. According to The Courier-Journal, he met Brenda Schaefer, a doctor’s assistant, on a blind date in the fall of 1986, and the two began dating.

But two years into the relationship, Schaefer began hinting to coworkers and family members that Ignatow was abusive.

The Courier-Journal reported that Linda Love, the girlfriend of Schaefer’s brother Tom, later testified that she’d gone to dinner with Schaefer in August 1988. At that dinner, Love claimed, Schaefer confessed that she “hated” and was afraid of Ignatow, and intended to break up with him.

Ignatow himself was aware of Schaefer’s intentions — and began plotting with his ex-girlfriend Mary Ann Shore to murder her.

The Brutal Murder Of Brenda Schaefer

Ignatow and Shore decided that the murder would happen at Shore’s house. The two spent weeks making plans that included digging a grave in Shore’s backyard and soundproofing the house.

On Sept. 24, 1988, Schaefer met up with Ignatow to return the jewelry he had given her. Instead, he took Schaefer to Shore’s home. Once there, NY Daily News reports, he pulled out a gun and locked her into the house. He tied her to a glass coffee table and stripped, blindfolded, and gagged Schaefer before raping and torturing her.

Ignatow then killed his 36-year-old girlfriend using chloroform. Meanwhile, Shore stood by, taking photos of the abuse.

Investigating Schaefer’s Disappearance

The next day, Schaefer was reported missing. Her abandoned car was found near where she lived with her parents. It wasn’t long before Ignatow was singled out as the lead suspect.

Roy Hazelwood was an investigator for the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit and an expert on “sexually deviant” criminals. He was brought onto Schaefer’s case to help investigators better understand the suspect.

“You don’t break up with someone like Mel Ignatow,” Hazelwood told CBS News. “Mel Ignatow breaks up with you.”

However, following investigations, authorities couldn’t find witnesses or physical evidence that linked Mel Ignatow to Schaefer’s disappearance, and he vehemently denied having anything to do with it. And Schaefer’s body still hadn’t been found.

In 1989, police told Melvin Ignatow he could testify before a grand jury to clear his name. It was during that hearing that Ignatow mentioned Mary Shore for the first time.

Investigators then questioned Shore, who readily admitted to assisting Ignatow in the murder and even led police to where the body was buried. Finally, 14 months after Schaefer had gone missing, her body was dug up, bearing signs of abuse that seemed to line up with Shore’s claims.

Despite a lack of DNA evidence that might help single out a suspect, Ignatow was finally charged with Brenda Shaefer’s murder.

The trial, however, went horribly wrong. According to Murderpedia, Shore giggled on the witness stand and left a terrible impression, hurting her credibility in the eyes of the jury. The defense even suggested the Shore had killed Shaefer out of jealousy.

Ultimately, the jury determined that there was not enough evidence to convict Ignatow. On Dec. 22, 1991, Mel Ignatow was acquitted of the rape and murder of Brenda Schaefer.

The judge on the case, embarrassed by the trial’s outcome, wrote a personal apology letter to Schaefer’s family.

Mary Shore

YouTubeMary Shore testifying in court during Melvin Ignatow’s trial.

Evidence Against Mel Ignatow Finally Emerges

About six months later, a carpet installer was pulling up carpet from a hallway in Mel Ignatow’s former home when he uncovered a floor vent. Inside the vent, he found a plastic bag filled with jewelry belonging to Shaefer, along with three rolls of undeveloped film.

When developed, the more than 100 photos proved that Shore’s testimony was completely true. The images were the photos Shore had taken during Shaefer’s murder, showing Ignatow raping and torturing his girlfriend.

But because of double jeopardy laws, which say you can’t be tried for a crime for which you’ve already been acquitted, Ignatow couldn’t be retried for Brenda Shaefer’s murder.

Instead, Ignatow was brought to trial for perjury, based on the illegitimacy of his testimony in the murder trial.

During the trial, Ignatow outright confessed that he had committed the murder. In October 1992, he was sentenced to eight years and one month for perjury.

After his 1997 release, he was charged again with another count of perjury in a case involving Schaefer’s boss, who had threatened to kill Ignatow if he didn’t say what had happened to Shaefer. Ignatow was sentenced to another nine years.

Mel Ignatow Avoided Justice — But Karma Finally Caught Up To Him

Melvin Ignatow was released from prison in 2006, and lived as a free man in Kentucky for a couple of years before finally getting his comeuppance.

On Sept. 1, 2008, twenty years after the murder of Brenda Schaefer, Mel Ignatow accidentally fell in his home. He bled out and died at the age of 70. In the truest sense of karma, one aspect of his death was eerily reminiscent of Brenda Schaefer’s murder.

“Apparently, he fell and hit a glass coffee table,” Ignatow’s son Michael Ignatow told local news station WAVE.

“He will probably go down as one of the most hated men in Louisville,” Michael added.

If you found this story about Melvin Ignatow interesting, you may want to read about the teen killer who was caught thanks to a Facebook selfie. Then, learn about these rich and famous people who probably got away with rape and murder.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City who holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Ithaca College and hosts a podcast for Puna Press.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.