Richmond, Texas — Texas investigators believe a 27-year-old Kinston woman missing for more than a week was killed and dismembered in North Carolina and transported in ice chests in a U-Haul trailer to a site 60 miles south of Houston, where her remains were scattered in a creek.
Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Craig Brady said in a news conference Monday that search crews had recovered 60 percent of the body, believed to be that of Laura Jean Ackerson, a businesswoman and mother of two who was last seen July 13.
She was reported missing two days later, after she never showed up in Raleigh to pick up her sons from their father, Grant Ruffin Hayes. Her car was found in a parking lot at a north Raleigh apartment complex on July 20.
Authorities are working to make a positive identification of the remains, Brady added, but all indications have led investigators to believe they are Ackerson's.
Hayes, 32, and his wife, Amanda Perry Hayes, 39, were arrested early Monday morning in Kinston and were charged with murder. They were in the Wake County jail without bond Monday evening.
The whereabouts of Ackerson's and Grant Hayes' children is unclear. Raleigh police, who are handling the investigation, would not comment. Brady said he thought they were with their father's family.
Raleigh police also have not commented on a possible motive, but family members and friends have said that Ackerson and Grant Hayes were involved in a custody battle and that their relationship had been "volatile."
Brady said it appeared to him as if the custody issue might have been a factor in the death.
"I don’t know if it was a planned homicide or if tempers flared, but I can’t imagine someone being that cold or just uncaring that, after the murder, they took the steps of dismembering this lady in the manner that they did and just tossing her in a creek," Brady said. "It’s one of the most gruesome scenes that I’ve seen in 30-something years of law enforcement."
Brady said that Raleigh police contacted his office Sunday afternoon, seeking assistance in Ackerson's disappearance.
That led search crews to Oyster Creek, a few yards from where Grant and Amanda Hayes had visited with her sister in Richmond, Texas, Brady said.
The two arrived there last Monday with a trailer, he said, and it appears that someone used a boat to dump the body parts in the creek, Brady said.
"I can't imagine someone being that cold and uncaring that, after the murder, they took the steps of dismembering this lady in the manner that they did and just tossed her in the creek," Brady said.
A dive team searched the creek for additional remains Monday and planned to search again on Tuesday.
Investigators took a machete from the house, Brady said, but it was unclear whether it is related to the case. He said it appeared that someone might have used a saw to cut the body, but he did not elaborate further.
Detectives also seized several ice chests, Brady said, some of which had been cleaned by Amanda Hayes' family. Brady said that there is no indication that they knew anything about Ackerson and that it was unlikely any family members would face charges.
Meanwhile Monday, police staked out the Hayes' home at Woodfield Glen Apartments in Raleigh, about a quarter-mile from where Ackerson's white 2006 Ford Focus was found last week at Camden Crest Apartments.
A neighbor told WRAL News that police showed up at the Woodfield Glen complex last Wednesday evening and told her they wanted to speak to someone about a missing persons case. Officers were there again Thursday and Monday, the neighbor said.
Family members of Ackerson and the Hayes had no comment about Sunday's developments.
Friends were shocked by the news.
"I’m devastated. My heart is broken," Ackerson's friend, Jo Jackson, said. "Laura is not in a creek somewhere. Laura is in heaven."
Jackson helped organize prayer vigils at Ackerson's church on Monday and last week and was also a business mentor to her. Ackerson's marketing business was doing well, and she had recently picked up three new clients, Jackson said.
She said her friend, who she met about a year ago at church, had a bright spirit and strong faith.
"I saw her as being very humble. She came hungry for the help that only God can give and (was) just a very gracious person," Jackson said.
Local guitarist Tommy Evans said he's known Grant Hayes for eight years from their performances on the Triangle's music scene.
Grant Hayes, who also goes by the stage name, Grant Haze, is a brilliant artist, Evans said, and he is also shocked to hear of the arrests.
"He's very giving, laid back, a mellow guy all the way around," Evans said. "He's very, very creative and talented. I haven't played with many people who are better."
According to video clips posted on Grant Hayes' music website, Amanda Hayes is also an entertainer, having been an actress in movies and TV shows.
The two married last year.
"I married my soul mate, my best friend, and she is something that I wanted my whole life, and she's beautiful," Grant Hayes said in one clip.
In another, he also talked about the two boys he had with Ackerson, explaining how he named his children after himself.
His first son was named Grant Jr., and his second son Gentle because of his own gentle nature, Grant Hayes said.