Melissa Huggins-Jones had come to Raleigh two years ago to start a new life.
The mother of two was newly divorced in 2013 and had been given an opportunity by the bank she worked for in Tennessee to manage its first out-of-state branch.
In early May 2013, Huggins-Jones moved into an apartment complex off Six Forks Road near North Hills. She selected it, friends and family have said, because she thought it was safe.
Her daughter Olivia, 8 at the time, moved with her, and her son, then 12, stayed behind in Tennessee with his father to finish the school year there.
That new life of Huggins-Jones had barely begun when police say two men and a woman on a robbery spree robbed the 30-year-old mother of her future.
On Tuesday, in a Wake County Superior Court room packed with tearful onlookers, one of those men pleaded guilty to first-degree murder – ensuring himself a sentence of life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty that prosecutors held out as an option.
Ronald Lee Anthony Jr., 25, and an accomplice took turns stabbing and bludgeoning Huggins-Jones, prosecutors said.
Huggins-Jones, known as a dedicated mother and an active volunteer at the Tennessee church she had attended, awoke during the robbery, according to prosecutors, and Anthony and his accomplice killed her so she could not identify them.
Huggins-Jones’ body was discovered May 14, 2013, after her daughter sought help from a nearby construction crew.
A construction worker, who went inside the apartment with Olivia, described the scene to the emergency dispatcher who responded to the 911 call.
“There’s blood everywhere, ma’am,” the caller told the dispatcher. “She’s cold, cold as ice, ma’am, and I can’t … there is no pulse.”
Olivia was not injured.
Anthony, 25, was charged with murder on May 22, 2013, along with Travion Devonte Smith, 22, of Raleigh, and Sarah Rene Redden, 20, of Wake Forest.
Investigators homed in on the three after a laptop stolen from the apartment of a downstairs neighbor of Huggins-Jones showed up in Wake Forest.
DNA evidence from that computer led investigators to the trio, who had been breaking into cars in the North Hills area of Raleigh.
Redden, who sought a lower bail in May 2014 in a failed attempt to await trial outside jail and be with her young daughter, has been described as a lookout and getaway driver who did not go inside the apartment.
Prosecutors have described her as someone who has cooperated with investigators, and someone willing to testify at trial.
Smith is awaiting trial on the same accusations as Anthony.
At the plea hearing Tuesday in the Anthony case, family members of Huggins-Jones described their loss.
Kenneth Huggins, her father, was in tears as he told Judge Donald Stephens that he would “never be the same again” after losing his daughter. A child, he said, “is a part of your body.”
“The loss of Melissa, my beautiful, precious daughter, has damaged my heart,” Huggins said.
Dawn Wallace, Huggins-Jones’ mother, said that although the killers had robbed her of a future with her only daughter and that her grandchildren would grow up without their mother at milestone graduations and other rites of adult life, the killers could not steal from her past.
“You cannot take away the wonderful memories we have,” Wallace said.