Sherlock Holmes, Meet Melanie Morningstar

Melanie Morningstar arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, one Saturday afternoon this past September toting a backpack full of books and speaking the fractured Spanish one might expect from a blond gringa tourist. Little did the clerk checking her into the Honduras Maya Hotel imagine that the slightly ditsy visitor from Miami Beach was really an intrepid reporter hot on the trail of an internationally wanted fugitive.

Actually Morningstar, a 41-year-old freelance reporter and television producer, didn't have much of a trail to be hot on. In pursuit of a tip for an Australian news program, she had arrived in Honduras with just a single contact person and not even a decent photograph of the man she was hunting. But after six weeks and countless journeys to dozens of towns and villages throughout the country, Morningstar successfully tracked down alleged pedophile Robert "Dolly" Dunn, Australia's most notorious fugitive, wanted since 1995 on nearly 100 sexual assault and drug charges. Dunn is now at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings.

How Morningstar and an imported television crew located a character that Australian police and Interpol couldn't, and how he was finally nabbed in an elaborate sting operation that nearly ran amuck, and how he ended up here -- well, it's a long and fascinating story, a condensed version of which was documented in a segment on the Australian program 60 Minutes, which is similar to the U.S. show but not affiliated with it.

Dunn's arrival in Miami on November 11 received some local coverage, but federal authorities holding him haven't publicized the key role a local citizen played in his capture. Australian media, though, have been all over the story. Morningstar, a Sydney native who has lived in Miami Beach for close to six years and who is better known here as a fixture of the South Beach nightlife scene, has suddenly become a celebrity in her homeland.

"Melanie, let me say, did an excellent bit of footwork on this," acknowledges veteran 60 Minutes producer Steve Barrett, speaking via cell phone from the beach in north Queensland, where he's taking a late spring vacation. It was Barrett who, at the end of August, got "one of those magic phone calls like Deep Throat" -- an anonymous voice telling him to look for Dunn in Honduras. The accused child molester had been on the lam for more than a year, surfacing on an Indonesian island in early 1996, eluding capture, then disappearing again.

Dunn, now 56 years old, had been a science teacher at a Catholic school in Sydney until he was jailed in the early Nineties on drug charges. Police had known of his alleged "boy-loving" (in pedophile lingo) activities, however, since the late Eighties, and in fact had arrested him at one point for dealing in child pornography. He never went to jail for that because three state police detectives allegedly accepted a bribe to reduce the charges. Dunn was subsequently granted immunity in 1995 to testify against the police in a highly publicized judicial inquiry. But before testifying, Dunn bolted.

After that the newly formed New South Wales Child Protection Enforcement Agency (an arm of the state police), investigating pedophile activity in Sydney, began locating dozens of young men who claimed they'd been assaulted by Dunn years earlier. Authorities also discovered numerous graphic videotapes showing sexual encounters between Dunn (and other men) and the boys. "The public was shocked and horrified when they saw those videotapes of Dolly Dunn and his partners going on holidays and preying on these young boys," recalls Barrett. "Some had running commentary, saying things like, 'I'd like to get inside his bum' -- and more shocking stuff." The police issued a warrant for Dunn's arrest. According to Barrett, he was charged with 85 counts of sexual assault on children and 6 counts of supplying narcotics to minors.

The reported sighting of Dunn in Indonesia in early 1996 (Barrett contends that no one actually saw the man) came about after a Sydney newspaper tracked him to the island of Lombok. In the process, it inadvertently alerted him to the presence of Australian federal police, who had already arrived and later claimed they were about to arrest him. Dunn vanished.

So when Barrett got his anonymous tip eighteen months later, he and his colleagues at 60 Minutes held a top-secret strategy session. "We didn't want to be in the position of tipping him off again," Barrett recalls, "and then the authorities get all huffy with you while he goes off again around the world goosing young boys."

Barrett spoke with his state police contacts, who told him they too had information that Dunn was in Honduras and, they suspected, was probably trying to work as an English teacher. But since state police had no jurisdiction outside New South Wales, they were seeking help from the Australian federal police, who in turn were required by protocol to go through Interpol to ask Honduran authorities for cooperation in searching for the fugitive. Progress on the Honduran front had been excruciatingly slow.

So the 60 Minutes staff decided to mount its own effort to find Dunn. "Melanie had worked for 60 Minutes for ten years," explains producer Gareth Harvey. "We'd done a lot of work in Colombia together. I knew she spoke Spanish and was indefatigable. I made contact with her and -- really with just a little bit of information -- we sent her down there. She had the names of a few charity organizations that worked with street kids and she had a few newspaper clippings. I personally know of no other person who could have done what she did in Honduras."

Recalls Morningstar: "I spent the first weekend going to parks during the day. I knew it wasn't safe for me at night. I checked out a couple of restaurants close to the hotel. It was really spooky. The first appointment I had was with an organization that helps street kids, and they told me about a British woman in Trujillo [on the northern coast] who had reported this sort of activity, so I headed up there. It turned out she was in England. I checked out a hotel. There were a couple of kids playing pool that night. I played dumb tourist, just talked to them a little. I didn't even show them a photo. The first week I was really terrified of landing in a town he was in. Even though I was looking for him I was initially scared of finding him because I wasn't prepared. When someone said, 'I know an English teacher named Roberto,' my heart went into my throat. But as time went on and I perfected my cover, I gained more confidence."

She used her real name but played the role of gringa perdida -- a well-known species of North American backpacker -- who tried to sell her "antique books" to English-speakers. She usually traveled by public bus; sometimes she hired a driver. "If a town was big enough to have gringos in it -- generally if it was big enough to have a hospital or an English school -- I'd stop there," Morningstar recalls. "I had an AT&T card so I could call the States, and I checked in once a day with somebody at 60 Minutes, usually [a producer] in Los Angeles. They kept putting money into my [Miami] checking account, so I could always get enough cash at banks -- you don't need that much." (Barrett says 60 Minutes spent more than $100,000 tracking Dunn.)

After a month of scouring the countryside, Morningstar found her patience wearing thin. She occasionally happened upon places where a man who might have been Dunn had been sighted, but she was always too late. In October she even chased a tip across the desolate western border with Guatemala. It proved worthless. Then she got a call from an earlier contact telling her to "haul ass to Copan," the remote region near the Guatemalan border that is a major site of Mayan ruins.

There in the town of Santa Rosa de Copan, on a street named Rodeo Drive, in a hostel called Hotel California, Morningstar learned from the owner (who recognized a photo) that Dunn and another gringo had recently left their jobs operating the hostel's restaurant. The owner's girlfriend had complained to local police about the large number of boys who worked at the restaurant for only three or four days each. (The police, according to Morningstar, didn't act on the complaint.) The owner thought Dunn had returned to Tegucigalpa.

After Morningstar showed the hotel owner (she won't reveal his identity) newspaper stories about Dunn, he agreed to help her find and snare the fugitive. Not that he was enthusiastic at the prospect. "The way I got him into this," Morningstar notes, "is I told him it was a way for him to prove he wasn't involved in what Dunn was doing."

Several days later her hotel contact, through a shadowy ex-U.S. military man known only as Colonel Bob, arranged a meeting with Dunn back at the Honduras Maya Hotel in the capital. The pretext: a prospective real estate deal for which Dunn (who claimed he was still owed money by Hotel California) would be paid a commission.

60 Minutes sent a video camera from Miami so Morningstar could surreptitiously tape that initial meeting. "The footage was sent back to Miami, then to Sydney," recounts producer Gareth Harvey. "We then brought in the Child Protection Enforcement Agency. They came in that morning and looked at the video and agreed there was no doubt it was Dunn. We couldn't afford to tip him off and let him move on, so we knew we had to involve law enforcement authorities. The public opprobrium would have been so great had we just gone out and done the story and not brought the guy to justice."

Harvey, Steve Barrett, reporter Liz Hayes, a cameraman, and a soundman got on the next flight to Tegucigalpa. To Harvey and Barrett's amazement, within 48 hours of their arrival an aggregation of law enforcement officials from Australia, Honduras, and the United States had devised a plan to capture and remove Dunn from Honduras -- a plan in which the 60 Minutes crew would gain access to Dunn and attempt to interview him even before authorities could handcuff him. "They knew we held the trump card," Barrett says. "We had the contact who had the ability to lure him to the hotel. So another meeting was set up in the same hotel, and I can tell you I'd hate to be a bloody surveillance copper just sitting in that hotel knowing the guy could walk in at the wrong time and blow everything."

In accordance with international protocol, Australia's federal police liaison to Washington, John Lawler, had flown to Tegucigalpa to coordinate an operation that would ideally result in Dunn's return to his country. "I don't have any jurisdiction in Honduras," Lawler explains from his Washington, D.C., office. "All I can do is facilitate things that happen and explain to the Honduran authorities what the Australian government and the Australian law enforcement community are trying to achieve. Then it's up to the Honduran authorities independently."

As it turned out, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Honduras, who had no legal interest in the case but who did have years of experience working with Honduran law enforcement officials, are credited by all involved with serving as the key link between Australia and Honduras, helping with communications and cutting through the legendary red tape.

The Central American country has no extradition treaty with either Australia or the United States, so Honduran immigration authorities took a different tack. They decided to detain Dunn and then expel him as an "undesirable person." Because many international flights out of Tegucigalpa land in Miami as either a destination or connecting point, it made sense for Dunn to be sent to the United States, which does have an extradition treaty with Australia. The only possible problem: Honduran immigration officers by law couldn't hold Dunn longer than 24 hours, so they had to time their arrest in a way that would ensure he was promptly put on a plane to Miami.

Once the legalities were covered, it fell to Morningstar to orient her little coterie of collaborators and make sure her main contact didn't chicken out or fly back to Santa Rosa de Copan. The 60 Minutes crew rented two adjoining tenth-floor suites at the Maya and hid microphones and a camera in one of them. The contact would stay there with Dunn there until a phone call from the next suite warned him to leave.

On the day of the sting, though, the contact, Dunn, and some friends came to the hotel still reeling from a night of heavy drinking. The sting was postponed 24 hours. But then Dunn showed up at the contact's room far ahead of schedule -- while Morningstar was still there. She quickly ducked behind the shower curtain in the bathroom while the contact coolly walked Dunn downstairs for a cup of coffee as the crew frantically set up their microphones and camera.

When the two men returned, everything was ready. Or so they thought. The contact offered Dunn a Scotch, which he accepted. The phone rang, the contact excused himself, and the 60 Minutes crew then burst in from the adjoining room. Reporter Liz Hayes stuck a microphone in the shocked Dunn's face.

"Mr. Dunn, are you aware you're wanted in Australia?" Hayes asked. "Mr. Dunn, are you a pedophile?"

Dunn gulped down his Scotch and headed for the door, dragging on a cigarette and mumbling evasively in response to Hayes's questions. They let him leave.

The Honduran immigration officers, the only people who could arrest Dunn, were supposed to have been waiting in the hallway -- but they weren't. They'd come up the elevator a few minutes earlier, saw nothing, and rode back down to the lobby, where a worried Morningstar sent them back up.

Dunn, meanwhile, strolled to the elevator and pushed the down button. "He must have thought he could just leave town now that we'd found him and he'd be done with us," Harvey says. "Instead the elevator opened and it was crammed full of authorities who arrested him."

Dunn was driven to the Tegucigalpa airport and put on the next flight to Miami. Still in handcuffs, he made the trip wedged between two law enforcement agents. Once here he was assigned a federal public defender. Dunn's court file has been sealed by Magistrate William Turnoff; an extradition hearing is scheduled for early January.

Morningstar, meanwhile, has flown to Sydney for vacation and to reassure her mother that all the traipsing around in Honduras was nothing compared to the work she did ten years ago tracking drug lords in Colombia. Her mother, in turn, will show her all the newspaper clippings in which she is prominently mentioned as one of the people who captured Australia's most-wanted fugitive. But Morningstar plans to be back in Miami for Dunn's extradition hearing. "No way I'm going to miss that," she says.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories