Friends describe one victim of the Phoenix ‘Zombie Hunter’ as adventurous, spontaneous

4 of Melanie Bernas' friends are coming together to remember their late best friend, who was murdered in 1993 by a serial killer.
Published: May. 18, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: May. 18, 2023 at 9:49 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- For 30 years, a black and white yearbook photo and the word “victim,” were all we knew about Melanie Bernas. She was murdered in 1993 by a serial killer who later called himself the Zombie Hunter. Melanie’s family stayed out of the media spotlight. They asked her friends, at the time, to turn down interview requests.

But in April, Melanie’s killer, Bryan Patrick Miller, was convicted of her murder. Melanie’s friends are speaking about her for the first time to Arizona’s Family Investigates. “I don’t want the only thing surrounding her to be him and what he did. Because I want people to know my friend and know the girl I grew up with was more than just a murder victim. She was a friend and a sister,” said Daphne Marcus Bonila, who lived down the block from Melanie.

“You Google Melanie Bernas now, and it’s just the black and white photo and what’s happened to her. But we have so many amazing memories,” said Danielle Jordan Sanchez, who says she always looked up to Melanie. “I just want everyone to know how wonderful she was,” said Jessica Preach Daniels, who was among Melanie’s longtime closest friends.

Rachael Schepemaker met Melanie in high school. “Melanie and I were more reserved, more quiet. So I think we bonded instantly,” she said. The two became closer while working together at a yogurt shop in Scottsdale.

All four women came forward to fill in the blanks about Melanie, who died when she was just 17 years old. “You earned her friendship, which I liked about her. She didn’t just hang out and talk to anybody. She had to get to know you,” said Jessica. “We were inseparable growing up. And I just remember laughing with her non-stop. We could just look at each other and give each other a look and just start cracking up,” she said.

“It did take some time for her to open up. But once you were trusted by her, you were in her inside circle,” said Daphne. “Sports, swimming; we used to swim in her backyard. She would jump on the trampoline.” Jessica says Melanie also loved to ride her bike. “It was something that Mel and I did together. It was our thing. We would just love to ride and talk and laugh,” she said.

On the evening of September 21, 1993, Melanie rode her bicycle from her home in Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood, west along the Arizona Canal, to the Metrocenter Mall. Jessica worked at a restaurant near the mall. They spoke and planned to meet up later for a nighttime ride. “I said ‘I’ll see you when I get off work,’” said Jessica.

What we now know is that Miller was waiting along the bike path. At some point that night, Melanie crossed his path. “I gave up riding my bike after Melanie was murdered. I stopped riding. I haven’t rode since,” said Jessica.

“When the news was showing that a body was found by the Metrocenter Mall. I thought that’s not Melanie. There’s no way,” said Rachael. “It was like people were in a daze. It was like, this didn’t happen to our people. It didn’t happen in our neighborhood,” said Daphne.

“We have school counselors that came and talked to us. But the last thing you wanted to do was talk to someone you don’t know,” said Rachael. “I remember thinking if this person knew Melanie and knew who she was and how wonderful she is, they wouldn’t have done it,” said Jessica. All the women described the pain of waiting decades for an arrest, then seven more years for the trial.

DNA found on Melanie and another victim, Angela Brosso, led police to Miller in 2015. “I want to make sure that he pays for what he did. Because he didn’t just do it to her. He did it to her family. He did it to her friends, her classmates, and our neighborhood,” said Daphne.

Miller faces life in prison or the death penalty when he is sentenced in June. However, these women say they still feel the effects of the trauma and loss they experienced all those years ago. “My kids have not been allowed to do things they should be able to do,” said Rachael. “They should be able to ride their bike to a friend’s house, and I can’t let them do it because I’m afraid.”