Raleigh, N.C. — The brother of a Kinston woman whose dismembered body was discovered in a Texas creek two years ago testified Tuesday in her ex-boyfriend's first-degree murder trial that she didn't feel safe toward the end of their relationship and that she was "trying to find a way out."
It was sometime around July 2009, Jason Ackerson said, when his sister, Laura Ackerson, came to him looking for a place to stay. The pair ultimately decided it would be best for her and her young son to live elsewhere after the boyfriend, Grant Ruffin Hayes, reportedly threatened her.
"She said the defendant had stated that, 'If you go stay with your brother, I will hunt you down or my goon squad will hunt you down and kill you,'" Jason Ackerson testified.
Jurors, however, weren't allowed to hear that testimony.
Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said that the timing of the statement was too far removed from Ackerson's 2011 death.
Prosecutors said during opening statements on Thursday that Hayes, 34, and his wife, Amanda Perry Hayes, 41, planned and carried out the attack in their northwest Raleigh apartment on July 13, 2011, because of a bitter custody dispute over the 2- and 3-year-old sons Laura Ackerson had with Grant Hayes.
Defense attorneys, however, said Amanda Hayes killed Laura Ackerson during an argument, and that Grant Hayes made a mistake by disposing of Laura Ackerson's remains.
They were found July 24, 2011, in a creek in Richmond, Texas – about 60 miles southwest of Houston – across the street from the home of Amanda Hayes' sister, Karen Berry.
Amanda Hayes is also charged with first-degree murder in the case. She is set to go to trial in January.
Over the first few days of testimony, prosecutors have portrayed Grant Hayes as a controlling boyfriend while the couple was together.
On Friday, Laura Ackerson's best friend, Heidi Schumacher, testified that Grant Hayes also threatened them both.
"He just went off and said, 'I have friends. I'm powerful. My friends are powerful, and I can kill you,'" she said. "Then, he said, 'Don't (expletive) with me.'"
On another occasion, Schumacher said, she overheard, while on the phone with Laura Ackerson, Grant Hayes forbid his then-girlfriend from having any other interaction with her.
Jurors did get to hear Jason Ackerson testify to overhearing something similar on a visit to see his sister at the apartment she once shared with Grant Hayes.
"He was pretty much ordering her that, 'You don't need him in your life and you don't need to be around him. He's a bad influence. I'm all you need,'" Jason Ackerson said.
At the front door at the time, he knocked several more times over the next 10 minutes, he said, but no one ever answered. He called his sister several times that day, but it wasn't until the next that she returned his calls.
"She let me know that I wasn't allowed to come over there and that if we were to see each other, we'd have to do it in secret because Grant didn't like me," Jason Ackerson said.
Also testifying Tuesday were several Raleigh police homicide detectives who said they found a 3-foot bleach stain in the foyer of the Hayeses' apartment, as well as a handwritten letter signed by Laura Ackerson in which she agreed not to pursue custody of her sons in exchange for $25,000.
Prosecutors, however, contend that she would never have given up the fight for her children, and witnesses said that she was confident that she would regain full custody of them during an August 2011 court hearing.
Defense attorney Will Durham has said that Amanda Hayes was angry about the handwritten agreement and wasn't sure how Grant Hayes would be able to afford to pay his ex-girlfriend.
When Grant Hayes left the room, "something happened. We don't know what," Durham said.
Amanda Hayes, he said, went on to tell her sister, 'I hurt Laura. I hurt Laura bad."