Raleigh, N.C. — A Raleigh couple was ordered held without bond Tuesday in the death of a Kinston woman whose remains were found in a south Texas creek.
District Judge Jacqueline Brewer appointed public defenders for Grant Ruffin Hayes, 32, and Amanda Perry Hayes, 39, and set their next court date on Aug. 16.
Laura Jean Ackerson, 27, a businesswoman and mother of two, was last seen July 13, and her business partner, Chevon Mathes, reported her missing five days later.
A dive team for the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office in Richmond, Texas, found remains late Sunday scattered in Oyster Creek, about 60 miles south of Houston. Divers and cadaver dogs wrapped up the search Tuesday after three days in the sweltering heat.
"The objects, we believe, were floating, and that came up into the lily pads, (which) made it difficult," said Mark Thorsen, a member of the Houston Police Department's dive team. "It was a football field of lily pads and weeds and stuff like that that we had to go through to try to search."
Investigators on Tuesday positively identified the remains as those of Ackerson. They said they believe she was slain in North Carolina before her killers hauled her dismembered body in coolers to Texas for disposal.
Amanda Hayes' sister lives about 100 yards from a wooded area that includes Oyster Creek, and Texas authorities said that Grant and Amanda Hayes arrived in Richmond last Monday.
Investigators took a machete from the house, but Chief Deputy Craig Brady of the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office said he doubted that it was connected to the case.
"It's obvious from the remains that something other than a machete was also used, if the machete was used at all," Brady said.
Detectives also seized 124- and 75-quart ice chests from the house, and Brady said it appears Grant Hayes purchased five coolers in North Carolina in the days after Ackerson was reported missing.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said it wasn't unusual that first-degree murder charges were filed even before investigators knew they had found Ackerson's body.
"We have sufficient information that we felt was probable cause that a murder had been committed and these two people had done it," Willoughby said. "Any type of evidence that was seized in Texas would be able to be transported here and reviewed and analyzed if it provided any information."
Ackerson's car was found at a north Raleigh apartment complex on July 20. The complex is less than a quarter-mile from the Woodfield Glen Apartments complex where the Hayeses live.
Raleigh police have not commented on a possible motive for Ackerson's death, but family members and friends have said that Ackerson and Grant Hayes were involved in a custody battle over their two young sons and that their relationship had been "volatile."
Mathes said Ackerson talked to her about fighting for custody of the children.
"She was having a pretty tough time. She was still very positive on getting the children back full custody," Mathes said.
Mathes said she sent Ackerson an e-mail before she reported her missing.
"I said, 'If I don't hear back from you, I am going to the police in the morning.' And I still didn't hear anything back," Mathes said.
Ackerson swapped emails with former boyfriend James Harrison in the days before her disappearance, acknowledging that she had been in court with Grant Hayes for the past year. She told Harrison that the couple lived in the Virgin Islands for about a year before returning to North Carolina two years ago and expressed optimism about rebuilding her life as a business owner and a single mother.
"I've heard that your twenties are the hardest compared to the rest of adulthood, and I can definitely say mine have been rough but good," Ackerson wrote in a July 11 email to Harrison.
Police said Ackerson's two sons were with family members, but they didn't disclose whether it was Ackerson's family or Grant Hayes' family.