Raleigh, N.C. — Raleigh police detectives investigating a Kinston woman's death found discarded containers of muriatic acid at the end of a street near the Texas creek where her dismembered remains were recovered more than two years ago, one of the detectives testified Wednesday in her ex-boyfriend's first-degree murder trial.
Sgt. Robert Latour said the containers were similar to the ones that a security camera captured Grant Hayes buying at a Texas Home Depot on July 19, 2011 – six days after Laura Jean Ackerson, 27, was last seen alive and a day after a colleague reported her missing.
Hayes, 34, and his wife, Amanda Perry Hayes, 41, are each charged in the case. Hayes, on trial first, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Wake County prosecutors contend that the couple planned and carried out Ackerson's death at their northwest Raleigh apartment, cut up her body and traveled 1,200 miles with it in coolers and disposed of it in the creek in Richmond, Texas – about 60 miles southwest of Houston – near the home of Amanda Hayes' sister and nephews.
A local dive team spent two days recovering Ackerson's legs, her torso – which had been split in half – and her skull, Latour said during nearly four hours of testimony Wednesday.
"It was immediately apparent to me that the condition of the skull was much different than the other recovered remains," he said. "The skin from the face appeared to have slid down, and it collected near the jaw. There were large portions of facial bones that were exposed."
Investigators later called an anthropologist to determine if acid was responsible for the skull damage, Latour said, but prosecutors never inquired of him about the results of the testing.
Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens limited the photos jurors could see of the remains and ordered some to be sealed by the court in an effort "to maintain the dignity and the integrity of the person of the victim."
Jurors, however, did see photos of Ackerson's torso and legs as a crime scene investigator from the Fort Bend County, Texas, Sheriff's Office described finding them in foliage in the alligator-infested creek.
Amanda Hayes' 23-year-old nephew, Shelton Berry, testified that, while the Hayeses were on the Texas trip, Grant Hayes asked him about whether the reptiles, as well as feral hogs – both common in Texas – eat people.
"I just thought he was curious," Berry said. "I thought he was a city boy scared of them."
Grant Hayes also wanted to go shark fishing about 90 minutes away, Berry said. The two never did, though, because Berry didn't have time.
Berry's younger brother, Dalton Berry, also testified about a similar discussion about alligators and the depth of the creek – as deep as 13 feet in some areas.
He also said he overheard Grant Hayes on the phone while washing out coolers the day before returning to North Carolina.
"'I don't need an alibi. I was with my family,'" Dalton Berry quoted him as saying. "He was on the phone a lot."
Grant Hayes ended up leaving several of the coolers behind, Dalton Berry said, saying he didn't have room in his SUV once he returned a U-Haul trailer he had rented in Raleigh.
Latour said he noticed several of the coolers while he was at the Berrys' home. He also saw a machete that Shelton Dalton said Grant Hayes also left behind.
Near a feral hog pen near the Berrys' home, Latour testified that he also found packaging from a pair of gloves that Grant Hayes bought from Home Depot, along with a 32-gallon plastic trash can and the four containers of acid.
On cross-examination, Latour said that even though it was Grant Hayes who bought the acid, it was Amanda Hayes who was captured on a hidden camera in her nephew's truck discarding the containers of acid.
Defense attorneys contend that she killed Ackerson during a fight and that Grant Hayes made a "terrible mistake" to cover for his wife by helping dispose of Ackerson's remains.
"You'll see a lot of hostility between Laura Ackerson and Amanda Hayes," attorney Will Durham said during opening statements last week. "The evidence will show that Amanda Hayes was extremely resentful of Laura Ackerson."
Entries in Ackerson's diary support that claim. On one occasion, she wrote that Amanda Hayes was "psycho crazy" and on another, she talked about confronting her after an argument in front of Ackerson's two 2- and 3-year-old sons whom she had with Hayes.
Latour came to a similar conclusion after reviewing some of the entries.
"She had somewhat of a tumultuous relationship with both Grant and Amanda," he said.
Defense attorneys for Amanda Hayes, who is scheduled to go to trial in January, have filed court documents claiming that she was involved in the crime because she feared for her life and the life of her children. They also allege that Grant Hayes, while in jail, threatened to kill her.
Her name is not on a list of potential witnesses testifying for the state in her husband's trial.