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True-crime author tackles Laura Ackerson death, dismemberment

Posted January 12, 2016 6:02 p.m. EST

Author Diane Fanning has again found an intriguing and disturbing Triangle story to tell.

Fanning, who lives in Virginia, wrote the definitive account of the Michael Peterson case with her 2005 book "Written in Blood." Her 14th true-crime book, "Bitter Remains: A Custody Battle, a Gruesome Crime, and the Mother Who Paid the Ultimate Price" (Berkley, 416 pages) was released last week.

The book chronicles how a contentious custody fight led to the grisly death and dismemberment of Kinston’s Laura Jean Ackerson, a 27-year-old entrepreneur and graphic artist. Ackerson was last seen alive when she visited the Raleigh apartment of Grant and Amanda Hayes on July 13, 2011, to pick up her two sons from Grant, their father and her former boyfriend.

Ackerson’s chopped up remains were found in a creek near Richmond, Texas, later that month, leading Grant and Amanda Hayes to be charged, then convicted in separate trials.

“The thing that amazed me most of all was the level of venom and the total human disregard of Laura and lack of understanding of her importance to her children,” Fanning said. “It’s one thing to, in a moment of rage, murder another human being. It’s quite another to kill that person and then methodically dismember the human body that gave birth to the boys you claim you love.”

Convicted of first-degree murder in September 2013, Hayes is serving a life term without hope of parole in the Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg. His appeal for a new trial was denied in March 2015. His former wife, convicted of second-degree murder in February 2014, is serving a 13- to 16-year term at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. She hasn’t filed an appeal, and Fanning doesn’t expect one.

“She’s not a stupid woman,” said Fanning of Amanda Hayes, an actress who had very minor roles in "The Sopranos" and other shows, and in the movie "The Stepford Wives."

“She knows that if she went for a new trial, there’s a strong possibility that, this time, the jury wouldn’t be convinced that she was partially a victim," Fanning said. "I think that she should have gotten prison for life too, honestly. Just for what she did to those children is horrible.”

After being granted a divorce in October 2014, she now goes by Amanda Smith.

Divorce is a common thread in the book, from the divorce of Ackerson’s parents when she was young to the multiple marriages of Amanda Hayes’ mother, to the multiple marriages of both Amanda Hayes and Grant Hayes.

Fanning has written about other cases that got much more media coverage, such as the death of Caylee Anthony. That, and the story of Michael Peterson’s conviction in the death of his second wife, Kathleen Peterson, commanded worldwide attention.

While Court TV covered the Peterson trial, the two Hayes trials were only streamed by Triangle TV stations.

Peterson is living in Durham and has been seen working out at the Lakewood YMCA. He was released from prison after a December 2011 ruling granted him a new trial. The Durham District Attorney’s Office still hasn’t announced when or if that trial will happen.

“It wasn’t as big of a deal nationally as Peterson,” Fanning said of the Ackerson case. “With Peterson, I was dealing with a lot of national media. With this case, it didn’t stir up interest.

“A lot of that is dependent on timing and social standing,” she said. “Amanda at one time had a lot of money, but by the time the crime was committed, she was broke. Although Grant really wanted to be a big-time celebrity, he never got there. So you were looking at people who got to the edge of success but never reached it unlike Michael Peterson, who really did have a number of points of success in his life. Kathleen was a freaking star.”

READ MORE AT RALEIGH & Co.: Bitter Remains: An in-depth page-turner about murder of Laura Ackerson