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Moorhead homicide victim described as ‘backbone of the family’

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- The stars finally seemed to align for Melissa Dykes Willcoxon. She had just received word that she would receive a disability settlement, a sum that would allow her to travel to Florida to visit her family.

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Melissa Dykes Willcoxon with her three children in this undated photo. Maurice Dykes, her brother, thinks it was taken about 20 years ago.

MOORHEAD, Minn.  -- The stars finally seemed to align for Melissa Dykes Willcoxon. She had just received word that she would receive a disability settlement, a sum that would allow her to travel to Florida to visit her family.

A former waitress, Willcoxon had been disabled by knee and back injuries, and often used a walker to get around. At 49, she was a recent grandmother and looked forward to meeting her grandson -- her first grandchild -- for the first time.

But days before she planned to leave, on June 28, Willcoxon’s body was found when firefighters came to put out a fire in the rented home where she and her boyfriend resided at 1019 11th Ave. S. in Moorhead.

Willcoxon’s younger brother, Maurice Dykes of Hawthorne, Fla., thought at first that his sister had been killed in the fire. Then he learned from police that she was the victim of homicide. But the family knows little else.

“We want to know what her last moments were,” Dykes said Wednesday, July 6. “I can’t really describe what it’s like wondering what your family member’s last moments were like when it’s a murder.”

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One small comfort to the family: Police have said Willcoxon died before her body was burned in the fire.

Although investigators are confident they know the identity of the woman whose body was found, they have not yet released the name until it is confirmed by medical examiners through medical records, said Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson.

The family on Wednesday confirmed Willcoxon is the victim. They said her height, 5 feet 2 inches, matches the body that was found. She and Bill Headsten, her longtime boyfriend, had moved into the rental house the first week in June, after living in residential motels in the area, Headsten said.

Police have named Justin Marshal Critt, 38, as the suspect in the killing and arson fire. Critt is in the Cass County Jail on a Cass County robbery charge.

Critt’s criminal past includes convictions for assaulting a corrections officer. He also was convicted of first-degree arson when he was 18 years old. He was convicted of setting fire to the Detroit Lakes (Minn.) Junior High in November 1994.

Meanwhile, authorities in Detroit Lakes say Critt was at the scene of a suspected arson fire that destroyed a vacant apartment building in Detroit Lakes on June 27, the day before the suspected arson fire at the Moorhead home where Willcoxon’s body was found.

Sgt. Robert Strand of the Detroit Lakes Police Department said authorities have confirmed Critt was in the area of the Detroit Lakes fire at the time of the blaze, but would not say whether he is considered a suspect in that fire.

According to court papers filed in Cass County District Court, Critt is suspected of being involved in a robbery in downtown Fargo that occurred the same day as the fire in Detroit Lakes.

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Critt had been hired as a handyman by the owners of the rental house where Willcoxon and Headsten had resided.

“We knew the guy,” Headsten said, referring to Critt. “We weren’t awfully familiar with him.”

Earlier on the day Willcoxon’s body was found in the burned house, Moorhead police were called to the address. Willcoxon had complained about Critt, who apparently had gone to the house to retrieve some of his belongings, even though he no longer worked for the owners, Headsten said.

A friend of the owner called the police, who didn’t detain Critt even though he was wanted on the Cass County robbery charge, Headsten said.

Willcoxon was not one to quarrel with others, he added. “She was very outgoing, a very vibrant spirit. She was very friendly. Everyone liked her.”

Willcoxon moved in 2012 to Fargo-Moorhead from Florida with Headsten, a North Dakota native.

By the time of the move, Willcoxon was no longer working. She had broken a vertebra in her back while lifting a crate of milk at a restaurant in Florida and received a worker’s compensation settlement for the injury, Headsten said.

“She wasn’t very mobile,” he said. “She used a walker a good part of the time.”

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Willcoxon, who had three grown daughters, sometimes used the name Melissa Ritch, a name from a previous marriage, Headsten and Dykes said.

“She was all about her family,” Dykes said. Days before her death, she learned that she had qualified for Social Security disability payments, and could expect to start receiving payments within a week or so, Headsten said.

“Basically God was good,” Dykes said, recalling his sister’s reaction to the good news. “She was finally going to be OK.”

The move from Florida to Moorhead seemed to agree with her. Because the northern air is less humid, her asthma improved, Dykes said.

One of Willcoxon’s daughters, Amanda Ritch of Jacksonville, Fla., has started a fundraising site on the Gofundme.com website, seeking $500 in donations to pay for her burial expenses, a plea that appeared under the heading, “Help us lay our mom to rest.”

“She wanted to be cremated and buried back home in Gainesville, but my sisters and I cannot afford to bring her home where she belongs,” Ritch wrote. “Anything you could give would help.” She added: “Prayers are also welcome in this time of confusion and difficulty.”

As of Wednesday evening, contributions of $250 had been pledged.

Willcoxon’s dog Maggie, a brindle pitbull and German shepherd mix, was found outside the home when firefighters responded to the blaze. Because Willcoxon and her dog were inseparable, Headsten, who said he was away at work at the time of the fire, believes Maggie witnessed her death.

“She must have seen what happened,” Headsten said. “She knows Melissa’s gone.”

Willcoxon had planned to arrive in Florida to visit her family this week. “She was like a mama to us all, taking care of us,” Dykes said. “Melissa was like the backbone of the family.”

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Justin Marshal Critt, 38, of Audubon, Minn., has been identified as a suspect in the death of Melissa Dykes Willcoxon.

Related Topics: MOORHEADFIRES
Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
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