Raleigh, N.C. — A Raleigh man accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend once threatened to kill her and her best friend in the parking lot of a local coffee shop, the friend told jurors Friday in his first-degree murder trial.
"He just went off and said, 'I have friends. I'm powerful. My friends are powerful, and I can kill you,'" Heidi Schumacher testified in Grant Hayes' trial of the profanity-laced exchange. "Then, he said, 'Don't (expletive) with me.'"
Unaware of why Hayes was angry at Laura Ackerson – his girlfriend at the time – Schumacher said she later obtained a concealed carry permit and purchased a gun.
"I guess they had been in arguments," she said. "I don't know what was going on in their lives that made it worse, that he would threaten both of us."
Nearly two years later when Raleigh police asked Schumacher what she thought might have happened to the missing 27-year-old from Kinston, "I told them that either Grant had her murdered or murdered her," she said.
By July 13, 2011, Hayes had married his wife, Amanda Hayes, had a 1-month-old daughter with her and had primary custody of the two young sons he shared with Ackerson.
Prosecutors allege the couple planned Ackerson's death and killed her in their home, cut up her remains and traveled 1,200 miles from Raleigh to Fort Bend County, Texas, where they dumped them in a creek across the street from the home of Amanda Hayes' sister.
The motive for the crime, prosecutor Boz Zellinger told jurors in opening statements Thursday, was that Grant Hayes wanted to rid Ackerson, embroiled in a bitter child custody dispute, from his family's life.
Schumacher testified that on another occasion in 2008, she was on the phone with Ackerson – pregnant with her oldest son – and heard Grant Hayes yelling at her and forbidding her to talk to Schumacher.
"I went over, because I was worried for her," Schumacher said.
She arrived to see Grant Hayes leaving in a car and Ackerson crying with a bloody nose that appeared to be broken.
Despite her friend's urging, Ackerson refused to go to the hospital or call police.
"She told me that, 'It's OK. It's OK. I'm not going to do anything. I'm not going to press charges,'" Schumacher said.
Ackerson also feared for her life, friends testified Thursday, and told them that if anything ever happened to her it would be because "Grant did it."
But defense attorney Will Durham, says it was Amanda Hayes – set to go to trial in January – who killed Ackerson during an argument while his client was in another room with his boys. He only made a "terrible decision" to cover up what his wife did.
The defense pointed out during the testimony of a North Carolina SBI agent that Ackerson recorded in her diary an occasion when Amanda Hayes called her "psycho crazy" and another when Ackerson confronted her about an emotional outburst in front of her sons.
Grant Hayes never went to police, Durham said, because he was afraid police would not believe that the death was unintentional.
James Gwartney, a Kinston police initially investigating Ackerson's disappearance, testified Friday that the Grant Hayes told him on July 18, 2011, that Ackerson showed up at his apartment five days earlier for a mid-week visit with her children and dropped them off nearly three hours later.
Gwartney said Grant Hayes also told him that he and Ackerson also talked about signing over custody of the boys to her. The conversation raised concerns for Gwartney, who contacted Raleigh police.
Meanwhile, the next day, Amanda Hayes' adult daughter, Sha Guddat, picked up the boys for several hours, she testified. When she returned several hours later, she said, she was met by her mother who asked to borrow a vacuum because hers had broken.
On a subsequent visit to the apartment while the Hayeses were in Texas, Guddat said she noticed a strong smell of bleach, but it wasn't until after their arrest on July 25, 2011, that she realized the hallway bathroom was empty – no shower curtain, shower lining, floor mat or toilet cover.
Another discovery she made, she said, was of an owner's manual for a handheld electric saw in a stack of papers.
Prosecutors say that in the days following Ackerson's death, Grant Hayes bought several items, including a duffle bag, several coolers and, in the hours after the crime, had gone to a local Walmart to buy a saw, extra blades and a tarp among other items.
"That's at 2:40 a.m. after Laura goes missing," Zellinger said.