Local News

Witnesses describe search for Ackerson's remains

Posted February 3, 2014 9:09 a.m. EST
Updated February 3, 2014 7:24 p.m. EST

— Testifying in the first-degree murder trial of Amanda Hayes, divers and crime scene investigators on Monday described for jurors their three-day search of a murky and alligator-infested Texas creek for Laura Ackerson.

Wake County prosecutors say Hayes, 41, and her husband, Grant Hayes, 34, killed the 27-year-old Ackerson at their Raleigh apartment on July 13, 2011, cut up her body and drove to Richmond, Texas, where they disposed of the remains in Oyster Creek, across the street from Amanda Hayes' sister's home.

It was 11 days after Ackerson's death that Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office crime scene investigator Kim Oreskovich found a split torso and a leg stuck in thick vegetation in Oyster Creek, just outside Richmond, Texas – about 60 miles from Houston.

The next day, a sheen across the water and the strong smell of a decomposing body led Brian Davis, a diver with the Houston Police Department Dive Team, to find what he initially thought was a leg. He later discovered it to be Ackerson's head, which had been disfigured.

About 15-20 feet away, Davis said, he later recovered a piece of her leg.

By that time, the Hayeses had returned to North Carolina and had been charged in Ackerson's death. Grant Hayes went to trial last year and was convicted of the crime.

Amanda Hayes, who also faces an accessory to murder charge, is now on trial. Monday marked the fifth day of testimony in her case.

Defense attorneys say their client didn't know Ackerson had been killed – that she tripped inside the Hayeses' home – and that her involvement in the crime – helping to dispose of Ackerson's remains – was only because her husband threatened to kill her and their children.

But the state says Amanda Hayes was angry at and resentful of Ackerson because of a bitter custody dispute with Grant Hayes over their two young sons. Not only did she commit the crime, prosecutors say, she admitted to her sister, Karen Berry, that she hurt Ackerson and that Ackerson had died.

Berry's rural home and property became a crime scene on July 24, 2011, Fort Bend County Sheriff's Detective Brad Wichard testified, when authorities found not only Ackerson's remains but also evidence that someone had used muriatic acid in an empty hog pen in Berry's back yard.

Wichard said several containers of muriatic acid were discovered about 1.5 miles from Berry's property and that investigators also had discovered surveillance video – although he didn't elaborate further.

Investigators seized several items from the property, including a 75- and 120-quart cooler, a machete and a small jon boat parked on the bank of Oyster Creek, about 50 yards southwest where Oreskovich recovered Ackerson's torso.

Jurors on Monday got a look at the boat Monday morning, leaving the courtroom for about 10 minutes to examine it in a parking garage.

Prosecutors said Friday that it is the vehicle the Hayeses used to dispose of Ackerson's remains and that showing it would help jurors understand just how closely Amanda Hayes was involved in the cover-up.

The jury also saw two security videos of Amanda Hayes withdrawing money from an ATM.

One transaction, at 9:37 a.m. on July 19, 2011, took place across the street from a Home Depot, where security cameras recorded Grant Hayes, 47 minutes later, purchasing eight gallons of acid, a 32-gallon plastic garbage can and neoprene long-cuff gloves similar to packaging found in Berry's hog pen.

A second set of photos was from a July 20, 2011, transaction at a drive-through ATM, in which Amanda Hayes was drying her nephew's pickup truck.

"Do you see anyone else in that truck?" Wake County Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger asked Wichard.

"No," Wichard replied.

More Texas investigators are expected to take the witness stand Tuesday.