Hightower named Investigator of the Year
By CHARLEY WILKISON
Last Thursday, Melissa Lietz Hightower was sitting in the audience in Galveston applauding as elected officials and county attorneys from across the state were being recognized. Little did she know that backstage her boss, Williamson County Attorney Dee Hobbs and several of her coworkers were waiting to honor her as the recipient of a statewide coveted award for criminal investigators. And she had absolutely no idea that her husband had made the trip from their home in Liberty Hill.
“All criminal cases sound somewhat similar, all criminal investigators credentials and experience sound that way, too. It really wasn’t until I saw my boss being introduced that I became suspicious that something weird was going on. I was shocked, honored but completely shocked,” she said.
“I consider her (Hightower) a friend, an expert, a professional, a compassionate servant to our citizens and the quintessential investigator that every office must have in order to be successful,” Hobbs said. “I may not understand where she gets the energy to stay as active as she does on behalf of my office, our law enforcement community, the victims of crimes, and all those that reach out to her for help, but I have definitely witnessed how she uses that energy.”
When Melissa Hightower was born in Indiana the chances of her being named the number one criminal investigator in Texas by the state’s District Attorneys and County Attorneys were probably not all that high. While she was growing up in Dickson, Tennessee she wasn’t planning to co-author the premier training book on criminal investigations, but she admits to being curious and asking more than her fair share of questions.
“A natural curiosity sort of helps a criminal investigator,” she says, “that and getting people to talk to you, to tell you things, communication—that’s another part to it.”
As a child, she really wasn’t planning on moving to Texas or marrying a Texas police officer either. But by the time she was in high school she was telling her friends she was going to be a criminal profiler for the FBI.
During her high school and college summers, Hightower worked at the Opryland theme park in Nashville, Tennessee where she started at the bottom of the pecking order cleaning up, operating the amusement rides, acting as hostess, tour guide and eventually became a uniformed security officer there.
As she was finishing her degree in Psychobiology and economics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky she discovered that her eyesight would not allow her to follow her dream of excelling at the FBI.
“That dream was sort of dashed,” she says backtracking for a second, “maybe dashed is too strong a term, but I sure hadn’t thought of another plan at that time.”
However, her new plan began to take shape in the offer of a job from Gaylord Broadcasting Company, which owned Opryland. She decided to take a chance and make a move to the new Fiesta Texas theme park in San Antonio. For five years, Hightower served on the team investigating criminal activity and overall security of the thousands of tourists who came to visit.
Although she handled everything from presidential visits, interaction with the local San Antonio police, and was the state police liaison on criminal investigations, her interest turned more toward her original interest in law enforcement.
She began a self-funded education at the police academy at San Antonio College where she attended classes and graduated becoming a licensed Texas peace officer.
“I just wanted to move into real police work,” she said.
The first job opening was as a school district police officer in San Antonio.
“I took the job to get the experience,” said Hightower.
She had no idea what that decision would mean later in her life. It was there at Northside ISD where she met a young officer who had just gotten out of the Navy and wanted to spend his life in law enforcement. Later he would become her husband, and much later Lt. Robert Hightower at the Austin Police Department.
“But I didn’t know any of that back then,” she says laughing, “back then I just thought he was different. I think the first thing I noticed was his confidence, not overconfident, but more of a calming presence, his ability to handle situations and be sure. You meet a lot of men who have a gun and badge and have this arrogant, look-at-me kind of attitude that only makes tense situations worse—well, he was kind of the opposite of that.”
Her tenure as an ISD officer was short lived when the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office in San Antonio called offering her a job. They remembered back when she was solving criminal cases in the corporate setting. Now, she was a peace officer and they wanted her as their investigator.
While working there she was tasked with the case of the high profile capital murder of Fabian Dominguez who was a San Antonio officer killed in the line of duty. It remains in her mind as one of the most difficult cases she has worked.
Meanwhile, boyfriend Robert Hightower was accepted into the Austin Police Department. He graduated from the police academy on a Friday, they married on the next day, Saturday, and his first shift on patrol was the next day, Sunday morning.
Two months later, Melissa was hired as an Investigator in the Williamson County Attorney’s office where she has served for 17 years — as Chief Investigator since January 2013.
“Two cops being married is a benefit, not a negative in any way,” she said. “A spouse who is not law enforcement could not possibly understand our twisted sense of humor, insanely late hours, sarcasm, phone calls at all hours, worrying about cases you’re working on, or the all-important need to decompress.”
Although she has worked some tough cases since coming to Williamson County, Melissa says juvenile-involved murders are among the worst.
“We (investigators) fall back on our training, detach ourselves emotionally, and do our job because we are professionals,” she said.
As an officer on the street she often felt like she spent too much time on each case. Being extremely thorough, she understood she had the professional characteristics of an investigator.
And about that prestigious award — The Chuck Dennis Investigator of the Year Award — the one where her husband, bosses and colleagues met secretly in Galveston to present?
“Well, it was a complete surprise. I got a little teary-eyed, but in true cop fashion that had to go away real quick. I do a lot of things, I don’t do any of them for recognition, it was humbling and gratifying,” she said.
The Hoosier-born, Tennessee-raised, Kentuckian-turned Texan was very honored.
The Hightowers have lived in Liberty Hill since 2001, four of their six grandchildren attend Liberty Hill schools.