Raleigh, N.C. — Months before her death two years ago, Laura Ackerson expressed concerns about her safety to the Kinston lawyer she hired to represent her in a custody battle with her ex-boyfriend, Grant Hayes, over their young sons who were in his care, the attorney said Tuesday in Hayes' first-degree murder trial.
"We had a conversation that she not put herself in a situation where she would be alone with him," John Sargeant told jurors of the March 2011 conversation with the 27-year-old Ackerson, whom Wake County prosecutors say Hayes killed July 13, 2011, in his Raleigh apartment after inviting her for a rare mid-week visit with the children.
By the time of their conversation that spring, Sargeant said, Ackerson had received the results of a court-ordered psychological evaluation and was optimistic that she might get, at a minimum, split custody of her boys, who were in the primary care of their father and whom she only saw on weekends.
Hayes had claimed nine months earlier, Sargeant said, that Ackerson was mentally unstable and was a danger to the children. Ackerson, meanwhile, had accused Hayes of being a substance abuser.
In advance of an August 2011 court hearing, however, Ackerson had made positive changes in her life, Sargeant said, that included going back to school, advancing her career by starting her own business and getting her own apartment – all moves geared toward getting back her sons.
"We really felt like she was going to be vindicated at this hearing, in light of all the negative things (Hayes) said about her in court papers," Sargeant said.
But she was also worried, he said, about what Hayes might do.
"She believed he was starting to get desperate. She believed the evaluation was going her way, and she believed Mr. Hayes knew the evaluation was not going his way," Sargeant said.
A marked-up copy of a report on that evaluation, police investigators testified Monday, was found in Hayes' SUV after his arrest, and prosecutors say it was the custody case that led him to plan her death, cover it up by dismembering her body and dump her remains in a Richmond, Texas, creek.
Also in support of the state's claims, Courtney Last, a computer forensics analyst with the Raleigh Police Department, on Tuesday guided jurors through dozens of email exchanges from Ackerson's Google account between Hayes and Ackerson arguing about the children, their different parenting styles and provisions of the temporary custody order, including phone calls with the boys and Hayes complying with the psychological evaluation.
In other messages to friends, Ackerson referred to Hayes as a sociopath, and she sought out a support group for their victims.
"I recently got out of a relationship with one, but we have two children together," she wrote in a July 4, 2010, email to the support group. "I am wondering if you know of any resources for helping me get him diagnosed? My kids are at risk here, and I need all the help I can get."
"Grant is a sociopath. Being with one changes your mind about relationships in a big way," she wrote in another email. "He does everything with a smile. Passive aggressive is an understatement."
Hayes sent at least two emails to Ackerson after her death, Last said. One was at 4:08 a.m. on July 15, 2011, asking her if she would like to keep the boys for a week, and another nine hours later asking her not to talk to him at the weekly custody exchange planned for later that day.
"I mean, seriously, we are trying to reach a settlement and you go dark on me after agreeing to, shall I say, ‘certain terms,’" Hayes wrote. "Yes, REAL F----D UP."
"I have NOTHING more to say to you until I hear from your attorney," he added.
Copies of the messages were also found stored in Hayes' Hotmail account, Last said, in a folder labeled "messages from a ho."
Defense attorneys, however, have said that none of the emails show Hayes threatening Ackerson.
They contend it was Hayes' wife, Amanda Hayes, who killed her during an argument and that their client helped get rid of the body because he didn't think anyone would believe the death was unplanned.
Amanda Hayes, the defense has said, was upset that her husband agreed in a handwritten note to pay Ackerson $25,000 for her to give up the custody fight and that "something happened" between the two women when he left the room.
Those who knew Ackerson, however, have testified that she would never have given up on her children.
"Her No. 1 priority was to get custody of the children," Sargeant said. "Everything she did was concerned about putting herself in a position to get her children."