RALEIGH — Laura Jean Ackerson, a Kinston mother of two whose dismembered body was found in a vine-laden Texas creek in July 2011, had been recording conversations with the father of her sons, saving emails and text messages, and storing some messages in a secret file that she and one other knew about, according to a friend.
Shortly before her death, Ackerson, 27, had been engaged in a what her friends described as a bitter custody battle with Grant Ruffin Hayes, the Wake County musician with whom she had two sons and who now is accused in her death. Her friends contend she took those steps because she was worried about what Hayes might say in court or might do to her out of court.
A custody hearing had been set for August 2011 in Lenoir County, friends said, and Ackerson was seeking more time with her toddlers than the two days per week that a previous court order had restricted her to.
That hearing never happened.
Ackerson went missing two years ago on July 13 the day Wake County prosecutors say she was murdered.
Heidi Schumacher, a friend of Ackerson for seven years, fell to her knees five days later, but six days before Ackersons body was discovered. Kinston friends let Schumacher know that Ackerson had not been seen nor heard from for days.
I started bawling, said Schumacher, a criminal justice student at the time who had instructed Ackerson to make the recordings and preserve her written exchanges with Hayes. They told me Laura was missing and asked for any information that I might have. I knew she wasnt missing.
In Wake County Superior Court on Thursday, Hayes, the father of Grant IV and Gentle, the preschool-age children he had with Ackerson, conceded through attorneys that he played a part in the dismemberment and dumping of his former girlfriends body.
But attorneys for the musician, who also went by the name Grant Haze, put the blame on another woman in the 34-year-old mans life.
Amanda Hayes, whom Grant Hayes married in April 2010 in Las Vegas (to the surprise of Ackerson, who thought she was his wife), also is accused of murder in a case that has upended the lives of the children.
Amanda Hayes is not scheduled to go on trial until January, but her attorneys, Johnny Gaskins and Rosemary Godwin, have given a glimpse of her defense in court documents and pre-trial hearings.
They have said Amanda Hayes has an alibi for the time of Ackersons death, but was coerced into helping dispose of the body.
They have characterized Grant Hayes as an intimidator who threatened Amanda Hayes before and after her arrest. They say he sent a letter from the Wake County jail after his arrest in 2011, in which he threatened to kill Amanda Hayes.
In his opening statement Thursday, Will Durham, a member of Grant Hayes defense team, offered a different scenario.
This case is about a man covering up his wifes actions, Durham told the jury.
He contended that Amanda Hayes, who one month earlier had given birth to a daughter, killed her husbands former girlfriend after Ackerson and Grant Hayes came to an agreement about the custody of the boys. It wasnt something that was planned, Durham said. But it was something that happened.
$25,000 for custody
Durham claimed the killing happened after Grant Hayes and Ackerson had agreed among themselves to drop a bitter custody battle in the courts.
He said Grant Hayes had agreed to give Ackerson $25,000 to let him have custody of the boys. Investigators confiscated a piece of paper during the investigation that has since been studied by handwriting analysts, in which Ackerson wrote that by doing so she was not agreeing to terminate her parental rights, according to testimony.
But friends of Ackerson testified Thursday that such a note would have been out of character, that being able to have the children with her for more than two days each week had been a mission of hers.
Busy day planned
On the last day that anybody saw Ackerson alive a Wednesday on which she had four business meetings scheduled the graphic artist and aspiring advertiser arose excited about the day.
She told several people at her business meetings and Chevon Mathes, a Kinston woman with whom she was building an advertising business, that Grant Hayes had invited her to Raleigh for an atypical midweek visit with their boys.
She talked about taking them to Monkey Joes, a play zone with games, puzzles and soft-landing areas for toddlers.
Ackerson was juggling her work and classes at Pitt Community College, dreaming about building a bigger advertising agency or opening a pre-school where she would serve the children organic food and offer a range of activities.
On the Wednesday that Ackerson was killed, Durham said, Amanda Hayes was upset that her husband had agreed to give his former girlfriend so much money, wondering where they would get such a sum.
Prosecutors contend the killing was part of a malignant, calculated plot to kill Ackerson, and that the midweek invitation to see her boys was part of that plan.
The defense team did not elaborate on how Ackerson was killed, other than to contend it happened when Grant Hayes was not present.
Autopsy reports do not list a cause of death other than to say Ackerson died from undetermined homicidal violence.
The evidence will show the death happened in a spontaneous, unpredictable way, Durham said.
What happened next, Durham said, are the terrible decisions of people who are terrified.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys said the couple went out and bought a saw, cleaning supplies and other items.
Detectives have said Ackersons remains were placed in several large coolers, loaded into a rented U-Haul trailer that the Hayeses then towed more than 1,250 miles to the home of Amanda Hayes sister, and then dumped in a creek about 100 yards from the house.
Ackersons body was discovered July 24, 2011, by authorities in Richmond, Texas, near Houston.
There, under the scorching Texas sun, in water thats 89 degrees, there lies Laura Ackersons torso, Wake County Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger said. Its been split in half.
Over the next few days, Zellinger added, investigators found part of Ackersons leg in creek vines. A short way upstream, they found her decapitated head.
For the previous 11 days, friends of Ackerson had been asking, Wheres Laura?
That question, Zellinger said, was replaced by a new one.
The focus of investigators and others turned to what happened to Ackerson.
This isnt just a case about a dismemberment, Zellinger said. This isnt just a case about a custody dispute. This is a case about the hate that leads to dismemberment. This is a case about the hate that leads to the custody dispute.
Wedding certificate unsigned
Prosecutors have a list of 100 potential witnesses who could be called at trial. First up was Mathes, the Kinston resident who had been a business partner of Ackerson and the first to report her missing to police.
Defense attorneys for Amanda Hayes Johnny Gaskins and Rosemary Godwin were in the Wake County courtroom Thursday for the opening statements. They said in mid-August that without hearing evidence against Grant Hayes, they did not know whether their client would be involved in this months trial.
In previous articles, The News & Observer has inaccurately reported that the Hayeses lived as husband and wife but were not married. But her attorneys said Thursday that a wedding occurred in April 2010 in Las Vegas. Ackerson was surprised by the news, her friends testified, because she did not realize until Grant Hayes sent her a photo of his wedding with Amanda Hayes that he had never signed their wedding certificate.
As the wife of Grant Hayes, Amanda Hayes could be legally protected from having to testify to any conversations the two of them might have had about Ackersons death. But the spousal protection privilege would not necessarily apply to anything she might have seen, only spoken exchanges.
If prosecutors tried to compel Amanda Hayes to testify, she also could invoke her Fifth Amendment right on the grounds that anything she said might incriminate her.
Attorneys have said the trial could last at least three weeks.