Michelle Howard grew up among the grit and glamour of Atlantic City, New Jersey. She thrived on the energy of the bustling resort town, the 24-hour casinos and endless nightlife.
“She was the life of the party,” her daughter, Dawn Register, told Dateline. “She was fun and lively and had a go-getter mentality. But she also wanted the best for me.”
After experiencing tough times and having been involved with the wrong crowd over the years, Michelle decided it was time for a change. Dawn said her mother knew that in order to begin a fresh chapter in her life, she would need to leave New Jersey. And Michelle knew exactly where she wanted to go. California.
“It was her dream to move to California,” Dawn explained. “And she wanted me to go with her. That was the last conversation I had with my mom.”
They had gathered at Dawn’s great-grandmother’s house in Atlantic City for the Thanksgiving holiday. Dawn told Dateline that her mother was last seen by the family two days later, around 10 p.m. on Saturday, November 24, 2001.
“The next time I saw her, she was in a body bag,” Dawn said. Dawn was 19 years old when her mother was murdered.
On November 26, 2001, the body of 32-year-old Michelle Lynn Howard was found lying on the side of the road on Estelle Avenue in the vicinity of Old Landis Avenue about a quarter mile from Interstate 40, according to Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner.
Tyner stated that when Township of Hamilton police officers responded to the scene and located Michelle’s body, she was unresponsive and had no pulse. She was found unclothed with the exception of a white bra, he added.
Dawn told Dateline that her mother did not have a car at the time and has no reason to believe she would be in that area. Authorities told the Press of Atlantic City in 2001 that they believe Michelle was killed in Atlantic City and dumped in the Mizpah area.
According to a statement released by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, the autopsy revealed the cause of death to be “asphyxia associated with aspiration of gastric contents, multiple blunt force injuries of the head, neck and torso.“ He concluded that the “manner of death was homicide.”
“It was really brutal,” Dawn told Dateline. “I don’t know who did this to her, but I know she fought back.”
Dawn told Dateline that in the years following her mother’s murder, very little information came in to her and she says she felt left in the dark about the investigation.
“I was there when the detectives first told us they had found her body,” Dawn explained. “But after that, nothing. I’m her only child, but they wouldn’t tell me anything.”
After years of being kept in the dark, Dawn decided it was time to find out what happened to her mother. So she began asking questions.
“I wanted to write a book about everything I had been through,” Dawn said. “And something just came over me. I needed to know what happened to her. So I started talking to family members. And I used social media… which really went a long way.”
Dawn said she was flooded with different stories and pieces of information, which she took to the investigating agency, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s office.
On Friday, 19 years after the murder of Michelle Howard, the prosecutor’s office issued a new plea for information in her case.
“It is my hope that we will be able to find the person(s) responsible for the death of Michelle Howard and give her family the closure they deserve,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner stated in the release.
Tyner encourages anyone with any information in connection with the case to come forward and speak with law enforcement.
“Even though Ms. Howard lost her life 19 years ago, I am hopeful that there is someone out there who saw something or knows something that can assist us with solving this homicide,” Prosecutor Tyner said. “Time is always the great equalizer, and circumstances sometimes change that lead people to come forward now, that prevented them from doing so at the time of the incident.”
Michelle’s daughter Dawn told Dateline that she believes someone knows something and just wants them to come forward.
“I absolutely want justice for my mother,” Dawn said. “My mother did not deserve to die like that. Nobody does.”
Dawn told Dateline that the Thanksgiving holiday is the worst time of year for her, especially since she began seeking the truth in her mother’s murder.
“For years, I was numb. And I never dealt with her murder,” she said. “But now, it feels like it happened yesterday.”
Dawn’s life now is the opposite of her troubled childhood, something she knows would make her mother happy. She lives in Tennessee and is married with a good job. She says the only thing missing is justice for her mother.
“I don’t know what happened to her that night, but someone out there does,” Dawn said. “But I strongly believe I’ll get justice for my mom.”
Anyone with information about Michelle Howard’s case is asked to call the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s office at 609-909-7800 or submit a tip on the prosecutor’s office website at http://www.acpo.org/tips.html.
People can also call Crime Stoppers at 609-652-1234 or 1-800-658-8477 (TIPS) or visit the Crime Stoppers website at http://www.crimestoppersatlantic.com/.Tipsters may be eligible for a cash reward for information leading to an arrest and indictment.