AMHERST, N.Y. -- Melissa Barthelemy may be best known across the northeast as one of four prostitutes killed by a so-called "Craigslist Serial Killer"; but her family members the sweet, outgoing girl who grew up in Buffalo, graduated from South Park High, and attended cosmotology school.
"My daughter Melissa was a wonderful girl," Mark Szpila, Melissa's father, said as he wiped away tears. "She was the light of my life. I would just like to set the record straight that she wasn't a mean person, and she wasn't a bad person."
Melissa was 24 when her family reported her missing in 2009. She had moved to the Bronx and was working as a hair stylist. Her family didn't know, but she had also started a side job as an escort, and she met her clients on the Web site Craigslist.
Police believe Melissa and the three other victims met their killer on the Internet. The bodies were discovered on Long Island in December, and three, including Melissa, were identified earlier this week. Long Island authorities came to Buffalo to deliver the news to Melissa's mother Lynn.
"I actually had told my fiance I thought it was going to be easy when I found out, and I would feel relieved, and it wasn't," Lynn said. "It was just a total nightmare."
Lynn said she reported Melissa missing the second week of July 2009; however, New York City Police would not take the report. It wasn't until 10 days later that NYPD officers finally started investigating.
"Do you feel like police missed their opportunity to find your daughter?" 2 On Your Side's Michael Wooten asked.
"Yes, I do," Lynn responded. "I don't know if it's because I was calling from Buffalo and it was over the phone and I couldn't afford to go there."
Lynn's fiance Jeff Martina said he was eventually told a file was started but that detectives wouldn't be assigned due to Melissa's job as an escort. That changed when Erie County's sheriff called in a favor to a friend in New York.
"They missed the opportunity to get this guy," family attorney Steve Cohen with the firm Hogan-Willig said. "They could have gotten him if they had jumped on him when Jeff first called."
Police are investigating numerous phone calls made from Melissa's phone after she went missing. They were made to Melissa's teenage sister Amanda.
"It's nothing that we can say on the air," Lynn said. "It wasn't nice. It wasn't nice, and it wasn't something that should have been said to a 16 year old."
The New York Daily News reports the man on the phone, who may be Melissa's killer, asks Amanda if she knew her sister's profession, describing Melissa as "a whore."
As police investigate the phone calls, they're also doing forensic work at the beach where the bodies were found and digging through digital records. Detectives believe all four victims met the killer on Craigslist.
Cohen said the family is considering legal action against the Web site, which no longer allows postings for adult services, including illegal prostitution. However, that policy was not in place when the women were killed.
"They (Craigslist) are putting these girls into the underworld on a scale never before seen," Cohen said. "So bad people are getting to view these girls, get their contact information, and they are creating a dangerous situation."
Melissa's remains are expected back in Buffalo on Saturday; the family is arranging a memorial service for next week.