RALEIGH — In the days after Melissa Dawn Huggins-Jones was found dead in her North Hills home, police maintained an around-the-clock presence in front of her apartment on Allister Drive and in the surrounding neighborhood, underscoring the fact that there was a killer on the loose and police didn’t know who it was.
After two days of uncertainty, Beth Tobin, who lives nearby, went to stay with a friend in another neighborhood. She didn’t return until the following week, after police arrested three people and charged them with murdering Huggins-Jones.
“I have been living here for years. I have so many friends here,” Tobin said. “I told the police that sometimes when I left home I left my door unlocked. Now you just don’t.”
A person is much more likely to be murdered by someone they know instead of a stranger. Often what seems like an act of violence by an opportunistic stranger turns out to be the work of a spouse or an acquaintance.
But police say Huggins-Jones did not know the three people charged with her murder: Ronald Lee Anthony, 23, Travion Devonte Smith, 20, and Sarah Rene Redden, 18. Police say the three entered her apartment intending to commit a burglary.
“I think everybody has been frightened,” Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said after the arrests. “Here you have someone who was at home in bed, minding their own business, and they’re killed. Most people are killed by someone they know.
“The random ones are the ones that frighten us most.”
Of the 321 homicides in North Carolina in 2011 where the victim’s relationship to the killer was recorded, about 28 percent were done by strangers, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. The rest were killed by spouses, ex-spouses, romantic partners, friends or other acquaintances.
Despite those numbers, random acts of violence make people feel uncertain, said Lori Brown, an associate professor of sociology and coordinator of sociology and criminology programs at Meredith College in Raleigh.
“These random crimes are so scary because it is hard to convince ourselves that it was someone she did not know – otherwise it means any of us could be a victim,” Brown said. “But in this big city, these kind of crimes are very rare and even though we get 24/7 video and news about what has happened, it is still a rare event.”
Rare, but hard to shake. Among the random acts of violence that caused unease in the Triangle are:
• The ambush of 37-year-old Regynald Brown as he was riding a bike on a greenway trail in South Raleigh, where police say he was beaten to death by four teenagers in December.
• The beating death of State Board of Education member Kathy Taft in a home off Oberlin Road in March 2010. An unemployed musician, Jason Keith Williford, whom Taft did not know, was convicted of her murder.
• The abduction and murder of UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson in the spring of 2008. Two Durham men, Demario Atwater and Laurence Lovette, were found guilty of her death.
• The abduction of Cynthia Moreland, a Progress Energy employee, from a downtown Raleigh parking deck after she showed up for work one morning in August 2006. Her body was found 12 days later behind an abandoned farmhouse in Harnett County. She had been strangled. Antonio Davon Chance, a 30-year-old registered sex offender, was convicted of her murder.
Two other homicides that first appeared to be random riveted the Triangle’s attention. In November 2006, Michelle Young, a young pregnant mother of a 2-year-old daughter, was found beaten to death in her Raleigh home. In July 2008, Nancy Cooper went out for a jog from her Cary home. Her body was found in an unfinished subdivision two days later.
The cases turned out to not be random acts. In both instances after lengthy investigations, the women’s husbands, Jason Young and Bradley Cooper, were charged and both found guilty of first-degree murder.
Brown says that almost all crimes – even the seemingly random ones – happen for a reason that the public may not understand but the killer does.
“Although that reason seems crazy to the rest of us, and even dumb, at that moment, the killer thinks this makes sense,” she said.
Brown says the key issues in slayings like those of Huggins-Jones, Taft, Moreland, Carson, Cooper and Young that cause them to stand out are that the events happened in prosperous areas that generally doesn’t see violent crime, and the victims are attractive women.
“Sadly, the deaths of white women are often seen as more ‘interesting’ by the public,” she said. “But senseless, random crime happens often to people who live in lower income communities.”
Willoughby said that Huggins-Jones’ death transcends a specific community.
“All of us are vulnerable to this type of violence,” he said. “It frightens us all.”