On July 13, 2011, Laura Jean Ackerson of Kinston, North Carolina, went to pick up her two toddler sons. It would be the last time she was seen alive...
Two weeks later, detectives searching for the missing mother made a gruesome discovery on the shores of Oyster Creek near Richmond, Texas—the dismembered body parts of a young woman whom they were able to identify as Laura Ackerson.
Laura’s ex, Grant Hayes—the father of her two sons—and his wife, Amanda, the mother of his newborn daughter, both pointed the finger at each other as the one guilty of murdering Laura, cutting up her body, and then transporting and disposing of the remains.
This is the haunting true crime story of a devoted mother, a disturbed couple, and how these horrific events came to pass...
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About the Author
She has appeared on numerous network and cable news shows and radio stations across the United States and Canada, including TODAY, 48 Hours, 20/20, Forensic Files, Snapped, bio., Investigation Discovery, E!, and the BBC.
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Praise for Diane Fanning
Berkley titles by Diane Fanning
LAURA JEAN ACKERSON—Twenty-seven-year old entrepreneur, graphic artist and mother of two, aka Laura Hayes
GRANT HAYES III—Musician, artist and father of Grant, Gentle and Lily Hayes. Husband of Amanda Hayes, aka Grant Haze
AMANDA HAYES—Actress, artist, mother of Sha Elmer and Lily Hayes and wife of Grant Hayes, aka Amanda Tucker, Amanda Smith, Amanda Haze
FRIENDS AND FAMILY
RETHA FAYE RYAN ABERNATHY—Mother of Amanda Hayes
JASON ACKERSON—Older half brother of Laura Jean Ackerson
PATRICIA BARAKAT—Inmate in the Wake County facility who befriended Amanda Hayes when she was incarcerated awaiting trial
DALTON BERRY—Son of Karen Berry and nephew of Amanda Hayes
KAREN BERRY—Older half sister of Amanda Hayes, lives in Texas
SHELTON BERRY—Son of Karen Berry and nephew of Amanda Hayes
SHA ELMER—Daughter of Amanda Hayes and Scott Elmer, aka Sha Guddat
GENTLE HAYES—Youngest son of Grant Hayes III and Laura Ackerson
GRANT HAYES II—Father of Grant and Grantina Hayes, husband of Patsy Hayes
GRANT HAYES IV—Oldest son of Grant Hayes III and Laura Ackerson, aka little Grant
GRANTINA HAYES—Sister of Grant Hayes III, aka Tina
LILLIAN ANN LOVE HAYES—Daughter of Grant Hayes III and Amanda Hayes, aka Lily
PATSY HAYES—Mother of Grant Hayes III, wife of Grant Hayes II
LAUREN HARRIS—Friend of Grant Hayes III and manager of the Monkey Joe’s in Raleigh, North Carolina
JOSEPH “JOSE” HARDIN—Music promoter on St. John and friend of Grant Hayes III
MATT GUDDAT—Boyfriend and later husband of Sha Elmer
MARK GIERTH—A friend of Grant Hayes on St. John
CHEVON MATHES—Laura Ackerson’s friend and business partner
BARBARA PATTY—Church friend and mentor of Laura Ackerson
KANDICE ROWLAND—Daughter of Karen Berry and niece of Amanda Hayes
OKSANA SAMARSKY—Artist and friend of Laura Ackerson
HEIDI SCHUMACHER—Laura Ackerson’s closest friend
NICKY SMITH—Third husband of Amanda Hayes
PABLO TRINIDAD—Confidant of Grant Hayes III in Wake County jail
DR. GINGER CALLOWAY—Court-appointed psychologist who provided the psychological evaluation report about Laura Ackerson and Grant Hayes III in their custody fight
OFFICER KEVIN CROCKER—Policeman with the Raleigh Police Department in Raleigh, North Carolina
WILL DURHAM—One of two attorneys representing Grant Hayes III at trial
DETECTIVE JERRY FAULK—Raleigh Police Department’s lead investigator in the Laura Ackerson case
AGENT MICHAEL GALLOWAY—Forensic investigator with the Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification
JOHNNY GASKINS—Amanda Hayes’s lead attorney
DETECTIVE DEXTER GILL—Investigator with the Raleigh Police Department
DETECTIVE JAMES GWARTNEY—Kinston, North Carolina, police department investigator who was the first to respond to Chevon Mathes’s report of Laura Ackerson’s disappearance
SERGEANT BRIAN HALL—Investigator with the Raleigh Police Department
BECKY HOLT—Assistant district attorney in Wake County, North Carolina
COURTNEY LAST—Computer forensics analyst with the Raleigh Police Department
DETECTIVE SERGEANT ROBERT LATOUR—Raleigh, North Carolina, homicide detective
DR. NOBBY MAMBO—Deputy chief medical examiner with the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office in Galveston, Texas
DETECTIVE DAVID MOORE—Investigator with the Raleigh Police Department
DETECTIVE ZEKE MORSE—Investigator with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office in Fort Bend, Texas
KIM ORESKOVICH—Crime scene investigator with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office in Fort Bend, Texas
DETECTIVE THOMAS OUELLETTE—Investigator with the Raleigh Police Department
MEL PALMER—Investigator working for attorney Johnny Gaskins
DETECTIVE STEVE PREVITALI—Raleigh, North Carolina, homicide detective
DETECTIVE MARK QUAGLIARELLO—Investigator with the Raleigh Police Department
AGENT SHANNON QUICK—Senior agent with the Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification
DR. DEBORAH RADISCH—Chief medical examiner for the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
JENNIFER REMY—Hair and fiber analyst for the North Carolina State Crime Lab
DETECTIVE AMANDA SALMON—Investigator with the Raleigh Police Department
JOHN SARGEANT—Laura Ackerson’s custody attorney
JUDGE DONALD STEPHENS—Presided over both Grant Hayes’s and Amanda Hayes’s trials in the superior court of Wake County, North Carolina
DR. PAUL STIMSON—Forensic odontologist in Houston, Texas
SERGEANT DANA SUGGS—Assisted with logistics of the investigation for Raleigh Police Department
AGENT TIMOTHY SUGGS—Forensic chemist with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation
DETECTIVE BRAD WICHARD—Investigator with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office
BOZ ZELLINGER—Assistant district attorney in Wake County, North Carolina
OYSTER Creek leaped to the earth’s surface in Fort Bend County, Texas, just north of the historic town of Richmond, about a half hour southwest of downtown Houston. Paralleling the Brazos River, it meandered through lush, semitropical countryside on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the 4300 block of Skinner Lane, unruly brush and tall grasses crowded around as if trying to hide the creek from strangers’ eyes. At one spot, a football field–size patch of lily pads consumed its whole width. Oyster shells littered its banks, hobby fishermen harvested its bounty and alligators patrolled its length for prey.
In July 2011, in the Pecan Grove community, another deadly creature desecrated its waters.
On Sunday afternoon, July 24, 2011, detectives searching for a missing North Carolina woman made a gruesome discovery tangled up in the weeds growing by the edge of the creek: a piece of armless female torso, severed at the neck and just above the hip area. By four o’clock, they’d found the rest of the torso. They strongly suspected that they’d found the body of the woman whom they were seeking, but without a head or hands, identification would depend on the slow, methodical process of DNA testing.
The next morning, just after nine, dive experts from the Richmond Fire Department and the Houston Police Department arrived at the scene. The near-100-degree sun beat down on their heads and stabbed into their backs with the single-minded intensity of a carrion crow. Humidity soared over 90 percent, adding to the oppressive atmosphere. Even the temperature of the water was 89 degrees. The smell of decomposition filled their lungs as they stood on the bank assessing the situation to help them define their target area.
Two divers, Brian Davis and Mark Thorsen of the Houston Police Department, plunged into the hot, dark, murky creek. They started their search at the boat secured to the bank. The tender stood still, holding a line connected to a diver, who traveled out in 180-degree arcs. Each time the man in the water completed a run, the man on the bank fed out more line, which slightly extended the distance from the bank and allowed the diver to traverse a wider semicircle. When searching for something large—like a car—the line feeds out fast; but today, as they were hunting for body parts, the process was far more deliberate, methodical and slow. Visibility was nonexistent, forcing the divers to feel blindly with their hands in the black water and to depend as much on luck as on skill in their search for more body parts.
Since the detectives were aware that the missing woman had a tattoo on her foot, they focused first on finding that, since it could be an easy and quick identifier. Since the foot has less muscular tissue than other body parts, it would not float to the surface readily, so they performed an underwater scuba search for one hundred feet in every direction. Sinking to the bottom, the divers made snow angels in the mud, seeking foreign objects on the riverbed—all to no avail.
The lily pads were a major nuisance, covering 50 to 60 percent of the surface of the designated search area. It was impossible to take a boat through them, and every time the divers pushed them out of the way, the current pushed them back. It was a constant struggle.
Noticing a spot of sheen on the surface of the water, an indicator of decomposition, divers Davis and Thorsen scooped up a sample and returned to shore. Cadaver-dog handlers presented it to their canines, who hit on the scent, indicating the presence of human remains and sending the divers back to that spot to continue their task. Near the area of the sheen, the smell of decomposition was strong. Searching on the surface, Davis spotted a suspicious object tangled among the roots of the lily pads. Pulling it upward, he saw a smooth, hairless bone in the middle of a dark mass. At first he thought he’d found a femur bone, and he called Thorsen over to help with the recovery. However, when they rolled it over, a face was revealed, and Davis realized what he had seen was actually the back of a skull. The water had held the skin and muscle in place, but when they pulled the head to the surface, it started sliding off the bone.
The two men placed a ribbon on the surface where they found the skull and made measurements of its location from two stationary objects. After shooting photos of the area of their find, they wrapped the head in a sheet and carried it to the bank.
The smell of decomposition was still strong at the spot of sheen, prompting the two divers to return to the water and continue searching. Fifteen to twenty feet deeper into the mass of lilies, they found a portion of a leg. Both of the parts they located that day were on the outer edges of the hot zone. Altogether, over two days, 60 percent of a body had been recovered and delivered to the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office.
On Tuesday, the dive team returned, expanding the target area farther but finding nothing more. Nonetheless, they had all that was needed to make identification. The detectives had found the missing woman from Kinston, North Carolina, nearly thirteen hundred miles away, in Oyster Creek in Texas: twenty-seven-year-old businesswoman and mother of two Laura Jean Ackerson.
LAURA Jean Ackerson was born on April 30, 1984, to Rodger and Brenda Ackerson in Hastings, Michigan, the only city in rural Barry County in the southwest corner of the state. There were six other children in the family, including her father’s son, Jason, who was three years older than Laura.
When Laura was a toddler, Rodger and Brenda separated. The battle of unsubstantiated allegations and contentious finger-pointing that lead to the divorce inflicted emotional scars on everyone, fracturing family relationships and leaving the children with conflicting loyalties. In Laura, the long-term emotional damage was apparent even after she reached adulthood.
In 1996, Laura and her mother moved to Iowa. Laura attended Lynnville-Sully High School in the tiny town of Sully and graduated in 2003 (a year later than she should have, due to the many disruptions in her home life).
Her half brother, Jason, left Michigan for North Carolina when he turned twenty-two, though he and Laura continued to keep in touch by phone a couple of times a month. Not long after Jason got a place in Youngsville, a half-hour drive northeast of Raleigh, Laura headed south to join him. Dead-end jobs, worse relationship choices, and frustrations with her home life had left Laura yearning for a new start. Although Youngsville was located in the prosperous and thriving Research Triangle area of North Carolina, it was still a small, rural town with a population under twelve hundred. It certainly wasn’t a hotbed of employment opportunities, nor was it full of the entertainments and activities a twenty-year-old woman would crave. Laura lived there with her brother for six months before setting out for the brighter life of the far more cosmopolitan city of Raleigh to find a job and a place of her own.
In 2004, Laura started working for an Applebee’s restaurant in Raleigh. She had the right stuff to be a good waitress: a cheerful, perky personality and girl-next-door good looks with an engaging smile and shoulder-length brown hair. There she met coworker Heidi Schumacher, a bright young woman with an equally sweet smile and longer hair that she sometimes wore up. The two women hit it off right away. After a short while, they both moved on to new jobs, initially together at the Front Row Sports Bar, though Heidi soon moved on to pursue an insurance career.
Laura had started taking online classes at Kirkwood Community College while living with her brother, and after earning her associate of arts degree from Kirkwood in 2005, she thought about a career in real estate, and took a seventy-five-hour prelicensing course at JY Monk Real Estate School that same year. Her natural talents and interests were stimulated, however, by two classes she took at the community college, one in graphic design and the other in marketing. She decided to focus on developing her graphic-arts skills and obtaining the necessary marketing acumen needed to start her own business. In her spare time, by using the Internet, the library and networking, Laura built on her academic introduction, absorbing all the knowledge she could to pave the path for her future. And to pay the bills in the meantime, she also worked for Bassett Furniture Direct in Raleigh doing retail sales and helping customers with decorating solutions.
Even though they were on different trajectories, the two friends continued to stay in contact through regular e-mail, live chat and phone calls along with occasional face-to-face meetings. From time to time, Heidi had Laura over to her parents’ house in Wake Forest, situated between Raleigh and Youngsville. Before long, Laura was like a part of their family. It filled a void in her life since, except for her brother Jason, the rest of her relatives were in the Midwest.
In mid-April 2007, Laura called Jason bubbling over with excitement because of the new romance in her life. She told him about Grant Hayes, a great new guy she was seeing. Jason hoped that his little sister was embarking on a good relationship but knew the odds weren’t in her favor. Her fractured family life and rocky high school experience had left her naïve, immature and vulnerable.
At the end of that month, Heidi returned from nearly two months of insurance training in Chicago. Laura greeted her friend with the news that she had a big surprise. When they got together at an Italian restaurant to celebrate Laura’s twenty-third birthday on April 30, Heidi could see immediately that her friend was very excited. It went far beyond her regular perkiness; Laura seemed to hum and vibrate with high emotion.
Laura quickly blurted out: “I got married! Surprise!” She explained that she and Grant had exchanged vows in front of the justice of the peace in Raleigh earlier that very day.
Heidi was knocked off balance over the news—she didn’t know Grant Hayes, and this all seemed so sudden, nearly surreal. She covered her shock with a smile and said, “Well, awesome.”
It turned out that Grant, Laura’s new husband, was a musician, who’d be performing at the restaurant that same night. Laura introduced Heidi to him out in the parking lot. Grant gave Heidi a hug, and she returned it while assessing the shorter, African-American man with a shaved head standing in front of her. Heidi thought that he looked familiar, but it took her a moment to realize that he was the same musician who’d been playing at the Blue Martini Bar and Lounge on South Wilmington Street, where she and Laura had gone together right before Heidi left for Chicago. She knew that Laura had spoken to Grant on his break between sets that night, but had no idea that there had been any further contact between the two of them.
She wasn’t impressed; in fact, she was certain Laura could do better. But while her misgivings were immediate, Heidi sincerely hoped that they were groundless and that her friend’s newfound happiness would never end.
GRANT Ruffin Hayes III was born to Patsy and Grant Hayes Junior on April 30, 1979. He grew up with one sister, Grantina, whom everyone called Tina. According to his mother, Grant was a “sweet child—he was very docile.” In high school, she said, her son was so charming “that all the girls liked him.” Being able to play guitar added to his popularity, and even while still a teenager, he was good enough to perform on the Raleigh nightclub scene.
When he was eighteen, he married a ballerina named Emily Lubbers and moved down to Greenville, North Carolina. Grant said that she and her dancing were the inspiration for many of the songs he wrote. Emily attended school at East Carolina University and worked a job to support the couple. Grant was frustrated in his attempts to secure work that suited him. And that was a sticking point: Grant always seemed to think he was too good for any of the jobs he was qualified to get.
The relationship dissolved rather quickly. As it disintegrated, Grant fell into a deep funk and sought psychiatric treatment. He was prescribed medications for depression and bipolar disorder, including lithium. Then he moved back to Raleigh.
According to a close friend, the religious instruction Grant had received growing up remained apparent in his life. He regularly attended church, made prayer an essential part of every day and studied the Bible faithfully until 2003. But then, the friend said, Grant turned his religious fervor over to Tupac Shakur’s music, learning all the lyrics of Tupac songs just as he once learned Bible verses. Grant began to spend most of his time talking to others by relating tales from the life of Tupac.
Soon after, he started drinking, smoking marijuana and experimenting with cocaine and heroin. Through this period, Grant still worked hard, made money, took his medication as prescribed, and seemingly maintained control over his mental illness. But after someone gave him 2C-E, a synthetic hallucinogen, Grant couldn’t get enough of it. He was hooked on the intense visual hallucinations that many users said were more vivid than those experienced under the influence of LSD. Although the effects of each dose only lasted for six to ten hours, the drug tended to alter perception throughout the next day.
Grant snorted it regularly and, within weeks, his friend said, Grant was no longer capable of having a “normal, business-style conversation.” He was consumed by delusions of grandeur and often made no sense at all. “It seemed he’d started a habit of believing the first thing that popped into his head. He’d continue trains of thought to nowhere and then start a new one in a split second. He had lost something—something in his mind. A part of him wasn’t there anymore,” his friend said.
ONE night in late 2006, as he performed at a venue, a twenty-two-year-old woman, Laura Ackerson, caught his eye. She attended a few more of his shows and once brought Heidi with her to a performance before her friend went out of town. Right after that, Grant and Laura started dating. Laura was taken by the fact that she and Grant shared a birthday—it made their coming together seem like fate.
It was on their next birthday, April 30, 2007, that they exchanged vows before a justice of the peace. Laura turned twenty-three that day, Grant twenty-eight.
LAURA strongly believed in Grant’s musical talent and thought that with a little help he could hone it into a remarkably successful music career. She actively marketed him to various venues and lined up bookings through Rare Breed Entertainment Agency, whose only client appeared to be Grant. She also encouraged him to keep working on the development of his natural artistic talent.
Grant, however, behaved like a man who wanted more than a supportive partner; he acted as if he wanted someone he could control at all times and in every way. In no time, Grant had taken charge of Laura’s life. It was too easy for him to dominate and manipulate the younger, naïve woman with low self-esteem. He attempted to establish control over all her activities and associations.
The honeymoon was over. Among his more outrageous requests, he asked her to talk to his fans about their sex life and brag about his penis size. When she objected and was horrified at that prospect, he said he didn’t understand why she had a problem with it. He said that it was obvious to everyone that she was “trash” because she was a white girl in a relationship with a black man.
Grant shocked Laura in a different way one evening a few weeks later at Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill in Cary. Another musician rebuked him for arriving late for a gig and Grant pulled a knife on him. He told Laura he was justified because the guy had used the word “fuck” when talking to him.
Laura experienced other incidents that caused her to be fearful for her personal safety. From time to time, Grant slipped into what he described as his “blackouts” or “lost time.” In the midst of those disengagements from reality, he acted odd and violent, and then he would fall suddenly into a restless sleep for many hours, twitching throughout as if he were engaged in an unceasing nightmare.
On one particularly bad occasion, Grant, fueled by cocaine, wrote a nonsensical autobiography that he posted on Myspace. After finishing that task, he pulled out an air pump BB gun and began shooting at Laura. The pings weren’t causing any serious physical harm, but they were very painful.
She pleaded with him to stop but he just kept pulling the trigger and staring at her with empty, hawklike eyes as if she were prey waiting to be torn asunder. She held up a kitchen towel to block some of the BBs as she made her escape from the room. Laura was never certain if these episodes were all drug-induced or not.
He attempted to indoctrinate her in some of his peculiar beliefs. He told her he believed he was a “time traveler” and that “beings” from other planets followed him around and often talked to him. He thought that those same beings ran the United States. Not only did he believe a government collapse was imminent, he said, “The world will end on December 31, 2012,” and he needed “to get enough cash to make it on one of those alien ships at the end of the planet.” He believed that very rich, famous, necessary individuals would either be in an underground system of tunnels or on the ships while Armageddon raged across the earth. It sounded as if he had read a piece of Scientology literature and appropriated bits and pieces for his own personal religious doctrine.
Laura would have liked to have believed it was one big joke, but Grant seemed dead serious about his delusional belief structure. The more she learned about these ideas, the more disturbing it was to her. But she had grown more under his control once she was pregnant with his child. No matter how crazy he acted, no matter how nutty his beliefs sounded, he was the father of the baby she carried and she was totally dependent on him now. She had entered the relationship without a strong sense of self and Grant eroded what little she did have. She was stranded in a volatile relationship with none of the needed self-confidence to strike out on her own.
A few months after their wedding, Grant had also asked Laura to be in a polygamous relationship with him. When she refused, he went outside of the marriage and hooked up with a girl named Kristen that December, a mere seven months after his matrimonial ceremony with Laura.
Laura learned about the woman’s existence when she was in the second trimester of her pregnancy. The grin on Grant’s face while he talked to Kristen on the phone with Laura was in the same room made it seem as if he was delighted to keep Laura’s insecurity at the highest level possible. Knowing she could hear him, he asked Kristen to marry and run off with him. When Grant hung up from the call, Laura confronted him. He justified his behavior by pointing to her polygamy refusal. He then added that he wanted to have sex with Kristen because she had a “large butt.” Although Grant obviously needed the company of adoring females, it seemed as if he had no respect for any woman.
Grant certainly didn’t have any for Laura’s close friend Heidi Schumacher—in fact, he despised her. He told Laura what he thought of that woman and insisted that she cut off contact with her, but the two women kept communicating despite Grant’s disapproval. When he was at a band meeting, prepping for a show or performing, they’d get together somewhere for a cup of coffee or dinner.
Despite those efforts with Heidi, however, Laura would later admit, “I allowed myself to be alienated from my friends and family. Everyone I knew was either ‘really dumb’ or ‘too fat’ or ‘not good enough to be around us,’ according to Grant.”
In her third trimester, Laura was once on the phone with Heidi, who could hear Grant yelling in the background, “Heidi is a bad influence on you! I forbid you from seeing her ever again.”
When Laura tried to hang up the phone, Heidi begged, “Please don’t, Laura.”
“I have to,” Laura said between sobs, and disconnected the call.
Worried about what might be happening at her friend’s home, Heidi immediately hopped into her car and drove twenty minutes to check on Laura. As she arrived, Heidi saw a big black sedan pulling away with Grant in the passenger seat.
Laura opened the front door as Heidi approached. Laura was sobbing, her nose was bleeding and Heidi thought it appeared to be broken. One of Laura’s eyes was swollen nearly shut, and the area around it was deep red. Heidi was certain that Laura would have a black eye by the next morning if not sooner. It didn’t take a detective to reach the conclusion that Grant had physically assaulted Laura.
She suggested that the police should be called, but Laura said, “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m not going to do anything. I’m not going to press charges.”
“Laura, you need to go to the hospital. You’re pregnant. You need to go to the hospital to make sure everything is all right.”
“No, no, no. It’s okay. We’re going to get through this. He’s never done this before but it’s okay.” Laura was shaking all over and crying, as she pleaded with Heidi, “Please. I don’t want anybody to know.”
“Just come out to my car and I’ll drive you to the hospital,” Heidi said.
Laura continued in her stubborn refusal. Heidi stayed with her for an hour and a half trying to break down her friend’s resistance to seeking medical treatment but to no avail. She finally left after Laura’s tears dried and she had calmed down. When Heidi saw her again a couple of days later, it was clear that Laura had tried to cover up her injuries with makeup, but the swelling and dark coloration were still quite obvious.
Laura’s first child, Grant Ruffin Hayes IV, was born on May 2, 2008. Heidi visited Laura’s home as soon as she returned from the hospital. With the birth of their grandson, Grant’s parents completely embraced Laura as a member of the family. They often chided Grant to be as supportive of his wife as she was of him. Laura probably would have done well to rely on them a bit more, but she showed no inclination to turn to them about any of the problems she was having with Grant.
By the time little Grant was two months old, another conflict erupted—this time over immunizations for the baby. Grant said his son would absolutely not get shots. He repeatedly told Laura that the chances of an African-American boy getting autism were far greater than the rest of the population. Laura was in turmoil over the issue. She wanted the protection from childhood diseases for little Grant but she was afraid that her husband might be right. Again, this was a battle Grant won.
LAURA’S brother Jason met Grant Hayes for the first time when his nephew was about six months old. They had dinner together and hung out for a while, and Jason left thinking that they’d had a good visit.
Occasionally, after that evening, Jason would go with Laura to bars or clubs to see Grant perform. On one of his subsequent visits to their home, little Grant had been fussy for a while. Laura made sure he wasn’t hungry or in need of a clean diaper, so then left him upstairs to cry, believing the old wives’ tale that it would strengthen his lungs.
Grant grew progressively more agitated and angry as his infant son continued crying. He snapped at Laura, “Shut him up, whatever it takes.”
Jason coaxed Grant outside to remove him from the situation, and talked him down into a calmer state of mind. Soon Grant acknowledged he was being too emotional, and matters settled down.
Not long afterward, Grant, Laura and the baby moved over to an apartment in the Camden Crest complex in North Raleigh, located very close to Jason’s place of employment. He started coming to see his sister every week, either on his lunch break or when the work day was over. Usually when he arrived, Grant retreated to the back bedroom and never came out. The rare times he did emerge, it was only to go to the refrigerator and then back into hiding.
One day, Laura called Jason and asked if he could come and hang out at lunchtime. About an hour later, Jason arrived and knocked on the door. He could hear arguing and loud commands delivered by Grant to Laura. “He doesn’t need to come around. You don’t need to be hanging out with him. He’s a bad influence.”
While Grant yelled, baby Grant cried. Laura struggled to calm both of them down at once. And Grant continued ranting. “You don’t need him in your life. I’m all that you need.”
Jason stayed at the front door for about ten minutes, knocking again and again. He went around to the sliding glass door and tried to look inside. He couldn’t see anything, but by that time all was quiet.
Jason left, but he kept trying to phone his sister all day. She finally returned his call the next day and said, “In order for us to see each other, it has to be private, when Grant isn’t around. He doesn’t like you.”
Jason didn’t like the situation, but he realized as long as Laura was in this relationship, she needed contact with family more than ever. Thereafter, the siblings continued to meet in secret, either when Jason came to Laura or when Laura met him at his work.
Grant continued his attempts to cut Laura off from all family and friends, from anyone who would provide her with support—the pattern of controlling spouses who desire to isolate their partners in order to make them more dependent and therefore more compliant.
DESPITE his desire to have Laura at home alone, however, Grant didn’t seem to be capable of being alone himself. Whenever Laura left little Grant in his care for even the shortest amount of time, she always found other people with him when she returned. Even with his child present, Grant invited anyone and everyone into his home, from other musicians and groupies to pimps and drug dealers. Most worrisome to Laura was how Grant would pass little Grant around to total strangers. He even offered one convicted felon “godfather status” in order to solidify a business transaction.
One evening in the fall of 2008, Grant and Laura went out to dinner with their baby and eight of Grant’s friends. They sat outside at a table, but within the first thirty minutes, Grant disappeared inside the restaurant and stayed gone for quite some time.
One of his friends went in to see what was up and found Grant in the men’s room snorting and selling cocaine. When the friend returned to the table, he turned to Laura and said, “You should leave Grant and take your son.” Knowing that Grant was an avid believer that immunizations caused autism, the friend added, “Get your boy immunized. He’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
IN February 2009, Grant Hayes’s family staged what they called an “intervention” on Laura’s behalf at their house. With Grant’s mother, Patsy, and sister, Tina, gathered around, Grant’s father told Laura that his son had “a crazy world-takeover plan. He wants to have fifty kids with different women of all races in order to build his empire,” Grant Jr. said, adding that his son had told him he anticipated being about seventy years old before he achieved his goal. Her husband, they told her, believed this was the old way of building a business—like in the Bible.
Her father-in-law also warned Laura that Grant III “is the type of man who will pimp you if he needed to.”
Suddenly, she saw the truth behind one of her husband’s strange habits. He would always provide a “party favor” (aka a woman) to keep the host “company” at promotional parties for his new recordings or for a new artistic venture. Now she understood exactly what those phrases meant.
Her in-laws gave her the phone number for Grant’s first wife, Emily. Emily’s advice to Laura was: “Run—run as fast as you can.”
When Laura walked out of the Hayes’s home, she took little Grant and spent a couple of weeks with her friend Heidi Schumacher’s parents. When Laura returned to Kinston, Grant’s sister, Tina, took her to a magistrate to file assault charges against Grant. That same month, she contacted the Safe Alliance, an agency in Charlotte that ran a shelter for abused women and their children. She wanted to know if what she was experiencing was typical of abusive relationships. She wanted to know of any options she could use to correct the destructive path she traveled.
But Laura never followed through with any of it, fearing her little family would never recover—and she so yearned to provide her son with the cohesive, intact unit that she never had growing up.
She would come to deeply regret her naïveté at this point in her life.
BY March 2009, life had grown ever scarier for Laura. Grant was spending more time with felons and drug abusers, and as a result his drinking and drug use escalated once again. One terrifying night, he ran into little Grant’s bedroom raging and swinging a baseball bat. He told Laura that “the aliens were fucking with him.” A hysterical, shrieking Laura threw herself between Grant and the baby to protect the little boy from his father. Then Grant rushed outside, still clutching the bat and running off crazed.
Throughout the chaos of Laura’s disintegrating home life, Heidi and Laura managed to maintain their friendship, getting together as frequently as possible. One evening in late March, they were standing out in the parking lot of a Starbucks chatting when Grant pulled up and lit into Laura for continuing to see Heidi. Then he directed his comments to both women: “I am powerful enough and I have enough friends that I could have you both killed and no one will know what happened to you. So don’t fuck with me.”
Soon after that incident, Heidi obtained a concealed-carry permit. She wanted Laura to carry a gun, too, but Laura was very uncomfortable with firearms and wouldn’t have one. Instead, Heidi bought her friend a knife with a rosewood handle, which Laura carried with her until she died.
Around that same time, when little Grant was still less than a year old, Laura found him sitting with his father watching a movie while a very explicit and realistic rape scene filled the screen. Laura was appalled and wanted to take her son out of the room. Grant refused to let him go and told her that little Grant was his son and her opinion was irrelevant. He knew what was best for his boy.
Shortly after those experiences, Laura suggested a temporary separation to Grant, saying she could go to her brother’s house for a while. Grant went ballistic. “If you go stay with your brother, I will hunt you down, or my goon squad will hunt you down, and kill you. And Jason, too.”
Nonetheless, Laura did broach the subject with her brother. After talking it over, however, they decided it was too much risk to Jason’s young daughter, who lived with him part-time. Neither one of them wanted to put yet another person in danger.
After that, Jason stopped calling his sister so as not to further strain her relationship with Grant. He just waited for her to call him. They still talked every month, but now it had the undertones of an espionage assignation.
AS time went by, Grant Hayes grew more frustrated with his trajectory as a professional musician in Raleigh. Some nights he played open-mike gigs, performing for hours for tips and coming home with no money after he paid his bar tab. He felt he needed a new audience to revitalize his foundering career.
He’d been playing on the college circuit with other performers but had been pushed out of that group. He later claimed that the reason for his ejection was that someone was trying to kill him because of his knowledge of or involvement in a murder. He expressed a desire to escape the heat to an acquaintance in the United States Virgin Islands, Joseph “Jose” Hardin, a music promoter/agent in St. John.
Jose thought Grant was a charismatic and creative musician who knew how to play a crowd. He smiled at individuals as he performed and had been described as a male Sade. Jose believed that getting an act like Grant’s to St. John would be a real coup. He assured Grant that he could line up five to six gigs a week for him. On top of that, Jose said, “It’s awesome here. No stress. No worries.”
The smallest of the three main Caribbean islands—St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix—that make up the USVI, St. John encompasses only twenty square miles and about 60 percent of that is under the purview of the US National Park Service. After a flight to Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas, reaching its smaller sister is easy on the Red Hook ferry. A fifteen-minute boat ride travels through breathtaking tiny cays, some lush and green, others covered with rocks, cactus and stunted trees.
St. John remained a lush and unspoiled paradise with pristine beaches and magnificent vistas around every corner. Any snapshot of Trunk Bay, with its underwater snorkeling trail, would strike most Americans as a familiar sight.
Grant thought about it and decided his folk-reggae music style would likely be popular in the islands—and it would be a way to get back at the guys who’d rejected him and prove himself. Little Grant was still small when Grant left him and Laura behind in Kinston while he went down to test the waters. In no time, he renamed himself Grant Haze and established a devoted following. Within one month, he had a girlfriend on St. John.
Jose knew Grant had what it took as a performer but he was further impressed by the extent of Grant’s artistic abilities—“all he needed was a piece of paper and a pencil.” Grant knew, too, how to capitalize on it. Every month, he came up with a new awesome business idea.
One successful plan was his souvenir T-shirts. Grant printed artwork he’d created on the shirts, then added the words “St. John, USVI” and they sold like crazy. Then, Jose said, Grant “manipulated other people to sell them for him, too,” creating another stream of revenue as well as an effective promotional tool.
A crazier plan cooked up by Grant involved getting an elephant to give rides to tourists. Mark Gierth, a friend of Grant’s on St. John who joined him in “chasing girls and imbibing pot and cocaine,” said that he told Grant: “There are no elephants in the Caribbean; there must be a reason for that.”
Still, Grant was enchanted with the idea until Mark reminded him, “Elephants poop—and it has to go somewhere. Do you want to shovel it?”
Mark said he often felt bad for Grant, who always seemed “two steps behind the guy who got the prize.” For instance, Grant would become all teary-eyed when listening to “One Believer” by John Campbell. The song told the story of a man who dreamed of having his name in lights and prayed for someone who believed in him and opened the right door. Grant saw himself as that man—a lonely outcast whose career hadn’t gone the way he wanted it to go. Grant grew bitter when talking about the success of others; it “made his heart race and his face change.”
But according to Mark, Grant “was always a little short of what he needed,” even though “he was always striving for success.” Jose, on the other hand, came to believe that Grant’s real problem was that he was very lazy and would back away from any real work.
Grant, however, could be very charming—so charming, Jose said, that “I knew he was manipulating me. . . . He’d say, ‘I need you—only you can do this—you are special—you are awesome’ . . . and I’d fall for it again and again.”
WHILE Grant was in the islands, Laura told Heidi she wanted to leave him. She and little Grant again moved in with Heidi’s parents. Heidi had long been dismayed by Grant’s controlling behavior and was quick with encouragement and an offer to help in any way she could.
Laura decided she wanted to take her son and stay up in Michigan with her father, Rodger Ackerson. Together, the two friends planned Laura’s road trip, including an overnight stay at Heidi’s grandparents’ place in Ohio.
But just before it was time for Laura and little Grant to head north, Laura started feeling ill. Heidi took her to Planned Parenthood in Wake Forest, and Laura discovered that she was twelve weeks pregnant with a second child.
Laura shifted gears and decided not to leave Grant after all. Instead, she decided that she was going to tell him about their new baby and move down to the Virgin Islands to be with him, and to give their relationship one more chance.
Before leaving for the Caribbean, Laura told her brother Jason that she knew that Grant had begun another relationship on the island, but she added that he’d promised to stop seeing that woman immediately.
Their second son was born two months premature on St. Thomas on August 3, 2009. They named him Gentle Reign. Grant explained the name in a promotional interview for his website with Los Angeles publicist Hollace Dowdy. “In my maturity, I’m understanding what masculinity is. And it’s gentle.”
Not only did that line contradict his behavior, the interview was filled with information about an idyllic childhood complete with a gospel-music-star mother and a father who was a minister in a big Los Angeles church. It was all in direct contrast with previous statements he’d made onstage about abuse and alcoholism in his family life. Listening to Grant, it was impossible to know where truth ended and fantasy began.
UNFORTUNATELY, blissful island life on St. John did not seem to be in the cards for Laura Ackerson. She had to care for two little guys under the age of two, and the youngest one had been born with a serious health problem involving his kidney.
Mark Gierth, who lived with the couple on St. John for a while, said that Laura and Grant Hayes had frequent verbal squabbles, often over money issues and child care. Now that Laura was the mother of two, she wanted more financial stability and grew frustrated that Grant was hanging on to an empty dream. She still believed in Grant’s talent but he wasn’t making headway toward turning it into a reliable source of income. She wanted him to come back to reality and accept financial and emotional responsibility for their two children.
Even though Grant tried to hide it, Laura also knew that he was seeing another woman, but she didn’t know if it was the same one he’d promised to give up when she came to the islands or if it was another woman altogether. She simply knew there was someone else, and she felt him slipping away. Grant blew off her concerns, telling her that it was part of his job to make women want to have sex with him so that he could pass them to the guys who tagged along as his unofficial entourage. He said that was why he was treated like a celebrity and why everyone wanted to pay for his expenses, from limos to dinners to clothing.
To make matters worse, Grant partied all the time, developed a heavy cocaine habit, and showed no signs of awareness or concern about any of Laura’s needs. His daily drug and alcohol use made him incapable of caring for the children. That left all of the childhood duties and household tasks in Laura’s hands—with one exception: he still managed to take out the trash. Typically, he was up most of the night, then slept into the afternoon. When he rose, he’d occasionally make a needed grocery store run. Then he’d eat dinner and go out to work and the pattern started again.
Whenever Grant was out doing drugs, he always told Laura he was with Jose, because Laura knew that Jose didn’t like blow and wouldn’t be around others who were using it. Many times, to reinforce his stories, Grant would trap Jose in a corner, pushing for confirmation, until Jose felt he had no choice but to lie for him.
The more Jose viewed Grant up close, the more troubled he became. He noticed that Grant’s lyrics all seemed angry, filled with words like “rage” and “hate.” He talked a lot onstage about his childhood with an alcoholic father who went to prison and beat him and his mother when he was at home. Jose wasn’t sure if it was all an act or if there were truth in the dark story.
Grant told Jose that he was scared of black women because of past trauma and so was always with white women because he couldn’t stand to look at a black woman’s private parts. Jose never knew what to believe. He winced when he heard Grant threaten Laura and threaten to kill or take the children away from her. Jose saw Laura as a loving, caring woman who was supportive of Grant’s career and put up with a lot of BS in the process.
Jose recognized that Grant’s worldview was excessively self-absorbed. “He was in his own little world—it belonged to him. Everyone else who was there existed for his use.”
Often, Grant brought other people home with him, and woke Laura at two thirty or three in the morning. One night, he opened his computer and started composing music and woke up the whole household. Laura was sweet to everyone but her irritation at Grant rose off her like steam from a boiling kettle. Still, she settled the boys back in bed and then asked if anyone was hungry. Of course, they all were. She fixed food and went back to bed, still obviously mad. Jose felt sorry for her but felt helpless in the shadow of Grant’s overpowering, intolerant personality.
Jose came to view Grant as a perfect psychopath who lied and used people without mercy. He believed that Grant had a delusional personality and blamed others for his failures and essentially was a coward and lazy about real work. He saw that Grant could recognize and zero in on people who were caring, who would listen to his tales of woe and help him.
Gentle’s physical problems became frightening—he needed special health care, including a surgical procedure to put a stent between his bladder and kidney. So Laura left Grant on St. John and moved back to North Carolina with her sons. She moved into a rental property in Kinston owned by Grant’s parents that was located next door to their day care center. In exchange for her housing, she cleaned the center each night. Near the end of the year, to make additional money for expenses, Laura started a freelance business called GoFish Graphic Designs, creating logos, layouts and print publications for other businesses.
THOUGH a great distance now separated them, Grant and Laura kept in close touch. He told her about a woman named Amanda who was feeding him and doing his laundry in exchange for guitar lessons. Grant described her as an investor who wanted to back his career.
When Grant met country music star Kenny Chesney on the island, he told Laura that Kenny had a huge crush on Amanda. “Maybe I should just pimp her—nah, I won’t.” Despite that denial, he detailed how if Kenny was in Amanda’s pocket and Amanda was in Grant’s, then “I’m as good as famous.”