What Happened to Melissa James?

The tale of two bodybuilders and a bizarre death in the desert

Joshua Longobardy

At 4:41 A.M., Dick Draper, chief of the Mountain Springs Volunteer Fire Department, receives a call from Clark County dispatch. A trucker on his way to Las Vegas from Pahrump has just reported seeing a car on fire, a half-mile south of State Route 160, on Sandy Valley Road. Chief Draper and a partner gather their equipment, jump into a fire truck and take off toward the blaze with their siren, like an oracular knoll, announcing across the desert the start of a woeful new day: December 14, 2005.

It is a crisp and rainless Wednesday morning, and because the lazy winter sun is nowhere to be seen at this hour, the flames that consume the car illuminate the entire barren landscape of Mountain Springs when Chief Draper arrives on the scene. So awesome is the fire, swarming and devouring the automobile from which it has risen, that it prevails over an entire truckload of water and foam. It isn't until Chief Draper returns from the fire station with another truck and reinforcements that the flames begin to abate.

Afterward, little remains. And like most of the automobile's interior, the back seat has disintegrated, offering a clear view into the trunk, where Chief Draper's eyes, surveying the damages, collide with a horrific image that incites him to call the police without delay.

You'll want to send someone down here fast, he tells the Metro dispatch. I just extinguished a vehicle fire, and there looks to be a dead body in the trunk.

As bailiffs escorted Kelly Ryan to her seat, handcuffed and chained and wearing the blue Clark County Detention Center jumpsuit of her abjection, it was as if her reality has been flipped inside out—and not just because she, now charged with murder, kidnapping and third-degree arson, had once been the epitome of a role model, popular for her stellar physique, her girl scout's charm and her sweet and innocuous nature, but also because today, February 10, 2006, after several cosmetic surgeries, countless libertine nights submerged in drugs, and two months in jail, she looked like an apparition of herself. This is how the media in the gallery exposed her, their collective stares and pitiless camera lights striking down on Kelly as she entered the Las Vegas Justice Court.

But she looked only at her husband, Craig Titus, whose hollow eyes had swelled with instantaneous and irrepressible tears at the sight of his wife, walking without grace and even more petite in her prisoner's jumpsuit than she already was. He had been ushered from his cell to the defendant's table minutes earlier, and was sitting there, all 215 muscular pounds of him, quiet and ineffable until he saw Kelly, the woman he had married in 2000 after a long and resilient courtship, the wife he would go on describing to friends as "my best friend and my heart, the best thing that's ever happened to me." Then he started to cry.

Tears fell, and he sobbed. Kelly responded with an impulse of unadulterated affection: With her eyes opened wide, and her head tilted like that of a faithful hound, Kelly's lips—full and salient—began to quiver, and if she couldn't speak it was only because those omnipresent stares and oppressive lights from the media wouldn't permit her a word commensurate with the moment.

The room was running over with them: journalists, local and national, and from every denomination, too. Newspapers, celebrity magazines, bodybuilding websites, prime-time newscasts—they were all there, come to see the unfolding story of two superstars in the world of muscle and fitness charged with the murder of Melissa James, a young woman who had lived and worked and even played with the celebrity couple within the stucco walls of their home in southwest Las Vegas.

It has become a true-life crime story, followed by many, and one with a dramatic narrative written in case files and legal motions, orated by lawyers before overflowing courtrooms, and translated by journalists. It's become a hot topic not only of gym gossip and Internet message boards, but also for the world's untamable bloggers. It has revealed itself as neither a bodybuilding issue nor a steroid-fueled tale, as originally branded, but rather, as simply a tragic yet enthralling story in which one life has ended and two others, no matter what happens next, are doomed.

It was quarter past 1 and the couple sat silent and shackled on opposite ends of the defendant's table. With nothing between them—no lawyers, no judges, no officers, no nothing—Craig looked forward and Kelly stared at his imperial profile, and they both waited like everyone else for the bail hearing to begin. For not only would it serve as a miniature, precursory trial, but for the couple who hadn't slept in the same bed for nearly 50 days, the hearing, if judged in their favor, was the only current hope at being together again.

Kelly and Craig have made it back home from the desert by the time Metro is summoned to the scene. A resident officer responds to Chief Draper's call first, and after he confirms that yes, there is definitely a dead body out here, in the trunk of this burnt car, the case is assigned at random to one of Metro's homicide squads: detectives Robert Wilson, Clifford Mogg, Ken Hardy and Dean O'Kelley—the latter of whom is called upon to lead the case, for it is his turn in the squad's rotation of command. (Therefore it is also Detective O'Kelley's responsibility to assemble the case file, which by February 10 would be some 12 inches thick.)

Sergeant Rocky Alby sends the squad off with a brief synopsis of what's known so far—three-tenths of a mile south of State Route 160, off Sandy Valley Road, we have the burned remains of an unidentified victim, discovered in the trunk of a burned vehicle, a 2003 Jaguar, four-door, X-type, bearing license plates 269-PPL—and as soon as the detectives arrive on the scene, still odious with smoke and burnt flesh, their investigation begins.

Every trip is something new, says Detective O'Kelley, who has been with Metro for 14 years. It's dangerous to have the attitude that you've already seen it all, because you haven't. Not in this city. And so he examines the burnt car with an open mind and a surgeon's gastric fortitude, but deep within, as he would later confess, he cannot repress his humanity when he observes what is inside the trunk: not a body, but the remnants of a body, burned well beyond recognition, with what appears to be a petite rib cage, short limbs and a small torso, and whom he suspects to be a female on account of the denim jeans and matching blue sweater, vestiges of red panties, and a few pieces of feminine jewelry detectable on the corpse. Moreover, the head has been mummified with a blanket wrap, but strands of reddish-brown hair protrude from the back. The body had been in flames for more than 45 minutes.

Detectives also find a suitcase in the car, packed with women's clothing, and adjacent to it, a brand-new barbecue set—both of which, of course, are torched. The preliminary evidence, says the Clark County arson investigator on the scene, leads me to believe that accelerant was used to ignite this fire, and a lot of it.

Which couldn't have been more correct. For in the days to come, while detectives were in the heat of their scavenger hunt for evidence, they would obtain a surveillance tape from the Wal-Mart on Hacienda Avenue and Fort Apache Road, less than a half a mile from the home of Kelly Ryan and Craig Titus, that shows Kelly purchasing seven bottles of lighter fluid at 3:30 a.m., on Wednesday, December 14. And obtained copies of her Wells Fargo credit card statements would confirm that predawn purchase.

"The state asks this honorable court to hold defendants Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan without bail," began Robert J. Daskas, chief deputy district attorney. He wasted little time with preambles. He carried himself with the unsteady air of a novice, but his look was sharp, his wit keen. Justice of the Peace Joe M. Bonaventure presided. Daskas continued: "We have witnesses, statements, evidence that show on the date of December 13, 2005—"

"Your honor," objected Richard A. Schonfeld, Craig Titus' defense attorney, from the law offices of Goodman and Chesnoff. His partner, Steven C. Boozang, Titus' advocate retained from Massachusetts, sat to his left. To his far left, Kelly Ryan's lawyer, Tom Pitaro. "The state is proffering, and I know this honorable court is well aware that a bail hearing is not meant to determine guilt."

Then Daskas said: "Your honor, first-degree murder is the only charge for which a person can be held without bail, 'if the proof is evident or the presumption great.' And that's what we intend to prove here today, that 'the proof is evident, the presumption great."

"Plus, your honor," said Schonfled, "we filed a motion yesterday at 9:30 a.m. to suppress illegally obtained recorded statements from my client on December 24, 2005, in Massachusetts, and because those statements were recorded surreptitiously they should not be admitted to the court today."

Judge Bonaventure said he didn't have a copy of the motion. Daskas said the same. Go on, said the judge Like a good essayist, Daskas, having already stated his thesis, outlined his argument: "There is overwhelming evidence that defendants Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan murdered Melissa James; the defendants have demonstrated they are severe flight risks; and they are of dubious character.

"Let's start with the evidence. On December 14, 2005, a dead body was discovered in the trunk of Mrs. Titus' red 2003 Jaguar. "

Six hours after the car had been lit on fire, detectives Mogg, Hardy and Wilson trace the overt thread—the burnt Jaguar's license plates—back to the home of the car's registered owner, a Mrs. Kelly A. Ryan, and they knock on her door completely unfamiliar with her celebrity and the sport which has engendered it.

She and Craig live in a big house, with its 3,034 square feet, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, customized gym and office adorned with their countless accolades from the sport that has defined their lives, embedded in a placid neighborhood where folks, by and large, keep out of one another's business. When the detectives, after being invited in, ask Kelly and her husband, Craig Titus, if they know the whereabouts of Kelly's 2003 Jaguar, the couple says no, they had discovered it stolen from their garage at 5 o'clock that morning, and have reason to believe it was their roommate, Melissa James, who took it; and when detectives say, well, ah, we found it burned in the desert, and there was, ah, a dead body in the trunk, Kelly sucks in air fast through her mouth and goes Oh! But Craig, detectives say, shows far less emotion.

During a free-association talk about the events at hand, detectives note that Craig appears very controlling, adamant about remaining by his wife's side and insistent upon Kelly remembering specific details while they are questioned together. After short preambles letting the couple know their respective interviews are being recorded, the detectives begin taking down Craig and Kelly's official statements—but in separate rooms, according to standard interviewing procedures, much to Craig's consternation.

Why didn't you notify the police that your car was stolen? Detective Wilson asks Kelly, who replies, with her typical high-pitch voice somewhat muddled from a lack of sleep: Craig thought it was a private matter, so he just called our friend Anthony—Anthony Gross—and asked him to help search for Melissa and the car. They went looking for about an hour but didn't find anything, so Craig decided to wait here for Melissa to come back. Detective Wilson asks who Anthony Gross is. Kelly says that he's just a friend. He's just a really good friend.

So who is Melissa James? Detective Wilson asks. She's a friend we hired to manage our personal affairs, Kelly says, and we invited her to live in our house free of rent because she was going through hard times. In another room, with Detective Mogg, Craig gives the same description of Melissa, but with a critical addition: He says that he's had sexual relations with the young woman in the past—relations his wife was not aware of.

Furthermore, Kelly and Craig both say that Melissa has been stealing from them, taking money out of their bank accounts and charging items to their credit cards without permission. Craig says that Kelly confronted Melissa about the embezzling, and the tension between the two women rose to such combustible levels that he had to book Melissa a room for the past two nights at the La Quinta on Sahara and Fort Apache, whose records would confirm that Room 232 had indeed been reserved for Monday and Tuesday nights under the name of Craig Titus. Moreover, he says that he had stayed with Melissa in her room for most of the first night.

But on Tuesday afternoon she came back, Kelly says, and I told her, you know, you're no longer welcome in my house. Craig had booked a flight for her to New Jersey, where her mother lives, to depart that night. So, Kelly says, she packed her things in a suitcase, and at about, um, 2:30 I think it was, I dropped her off at the convenience store around the corner, where she was supposed to get a ride to the airport. Detective Wilson asks: In what car? The Jaguar, Kelly says. Do you remember what she was wearing, asks Detective Wilson. Yes, says Kelly. A blue long-sleeve top and denim jeans.

In another room, Craig states: Yeah, so Kelly dropped Melissa off at the Green Valley Grocer at 2:30 in my silver truck, a Dodge Viper, and that's the last we've seen of her.

"Now, of course, the defendants were being disingenuous," prosecutor Robert Daskas continued, "because they offered contradictory statements in Massachusetts—"

"Your honor," Schonfeld said, standing. "I would like to remind the court that we have filed a motion to suppress these statements from December 24, because they were recorded surreptitiously and illegally."

On the morning of December 23, 2005, Detective O'Kelley receives a message from special agents in the Boston area that they are closing in on the fugitive couple. Stand by, they tell him. And then, before his lunch hour is even up, he receives the word for which he has been yearning since a warrant had been issued for the couple's arrest three days earlier: We've got 'em.

That night, he and Detective Mogg fly out to Boston. On the plane they read over the FBI's interview with Kelly Ryan and Craig Titus from earlier in the day, and prepare to conduct their own the next morning.

It is the first time he has seen either one of the two muscle and fitness superstars face to face, and his initial impression of Kelly, whom he interviews first, just after his plane had touched ground, is that she appears scared, deprived of sleep and suffering from severe drug withdrawal (an notion of O'Kelley's based upon his vast experience dealing with drug-users, and the numerous needles that detectives found in Ryan's household). She looks just as she had in her mug shot: like a phantom. Of his first and only encounter with Craig, he would later say: He reeks of arrogance, it oozes out of his every pore; but there is an underlying odor of insecurity, and that's why he is so desperate to always be in control.

The standard procedure for obtaining statements, according to Detective O'Kelley, is simple: we start with a pre-interview, during which the interviewee freely associates about the concern at hand, and the detective takes some notes; then we pull out a tape recorder and apprise the interviewee that we'll be recording his or her statements; and then we'll all speak on record, confining questions and answers to the essential points. Yet, Detective O'Kelley says, there were no pre-interviews with Kelly or Craig in Massachusetts because we were not in our environment, we were outside of our setup, so we wanted to get the job done as efficiently as possible.

The problem is, Massachusetts is governed by a different set of laws for recording statements than Nevada. In the former, a two-party state, an officer is prohibited from recording oral communications without the consent of all parties involved, and in the latter, only one party needs to be aware of the recording, and that can be the officer himself. In the transcribed copy of Titus' interview in Massachusetts on December 24, there is no preamble to inform him of the tape recorder, as there is in every other interview detectives recorded during their investigation.

What I did was, O'Kelley would later say, I put the same exact recorder used to obtain their statements in Las Vegas, on the 14th, between me and the suspects, and pushed the record button in plain view. The red light was on in front of us the whole time. There's no way they didn't know they were being recorded. But now there will be a hearing on March 29, I guess, to see if those interviews will be suppressed.

"Not only were Mr. Titus' rights violated when the two detectives recorded a statement from Mr. Titus at the jail," said Richard Schonfeld, relaxed, voluble, confident. "The detectives violated Massachusetts law, MGL 272, which makes it a felony." Said Daskas: "That's fine. The evidence is still overwhelming." Schonfeld returned to his seat, content.

Nonetheless, suppressing statements is a legal matter, for lawyers and judges, and not their opposites, we journalists. And so this is what could've been invoked:

With a mountain of solid evidence behind him, and with the tape recorder already on before him, Detective O'Kelley says: We've been drawn a fairly clear picture from witness statements and people whom Craig talked to about what happened, and one of the things that's been painted fairly clear to us is your level of involvement here, and we're all of the consensus that, um, there was a point in time where you could have stepped back and said 'I'm not gonna be a part of this. You know I love you Craig, but I'm not gonna have anything further to do with this.' You know what I mean?

Who have you spoken to? Kelly says.

Quite a few people


Like your friend Mandy. And quite a few others.

What did they say?

Well, um, we know there was a chance for you to, you know, go on with your career and everything else. So what we'd like for you to do now is explain what happened from your perspective, your story as to what happened.

Uh-huh, Kelly says.

Yeah, says Detective O'Kelley. Let's try to maybe iron some things out before we may get a taped statement. Sometimes we can go forward through a situation, or sometimes even backwards, step by step, and people remember things a little better. And if we talk about that in advance, then, um, we do a recorded statement, then it's a little bit clearer in your head.

Right, Kelly says. Do you mind if I use the restroom? I don't feel very good.

When she returns and proceeds with the interview, O'Kelley would later recall, it is very apparent that she and Craig have had nine days and 3,000 miles to rehearse their story.

Kelly says that after she dropped Melissa off at the convenience store, she went on with her day, entertaining her good friends Megan and Jeremy at her home well into the night. But then, lights in the garage attracted her attention, and when she went to look she saw Melissa's dead body in the front seat of her Jaguar, a needle sticking out of her arm and several more around her. Then, she says, she and Craig did the inexplicable: You walk up on someone and obviously they're not moving. You know it's pretty, pretty scary—actually, hysterical. She wasn't stiff; she was very heavy. Very heavy. Very, very. And I remember that she was a mess, and so heavy I probably ended up dropping her. Then we basically, ah, just got rid of the body. We thought that by burning the car, you know, it would get rid of, ah, of the person.

Detective O'Kelley asks: But why did you get six bottles of Kingston and one bottle of—

That's all they had, she says. That's all they had.

She is very slow and tactical with her answers, O'Kelley would recall, and all she wants to talk about is Melissa embezzling their money, stealing their identities, so that with every question we asked she found some way to wind right back to an anecdote about Melissa mulcting them of all their credit and forgiveness.

Or about Melissa doing methamphetamines. She had a boyfriend who got her into it, Kelly says. She was shootin' it. We'd find needles and stuff like that.

Did you ever do with her? the detectives ask.

Kelly acknowledges yes.

I want you guys to explain to me why you think we murdered someone, says Craig, firing off without greetings.

Detective Mogg says, Well—

Should of just told me the truth, but. Listen: I've been to prison before. I didn't wanna go back to prison. I was waitin' for you guys to sort all that shit out.

In the end Craig balks at any questions whose responses he has not practiced beforehand, Detective O'Kelley would say, and he also tells detectives the same story as his wife just had, but in his typical wanton manner of speech: On Wednesday morning, the 14th, they found Melissa dead in their fuckin' car. OD'd. With a needle sticking out of her arm. They panic. That gets in the newspaper—dead girl, car, OD'd, Kelly Ryan, Craig Titus (and he's a felon)—they're fuckin' ruined. Their careers are ruined. So they think, um, okay, let's put her in the trunk and burn it and play stupid. And that's what they did. They dragged her body in the house, wrapped her face with duct tape, put her in the fetal position, put her body in blankets and put her in the trunk of the Jaguar, which fuckin' stunk and had already been ruined.

So it's real simple guys, Craig says. We took her out of my car and put her in the fetal position and put her in the trunk of my car and we burned it. Period. Finito. End of story.

"Melissa James was the live-in personal assistant of the defendant," said Daskas, rocking back and forth. Everyone but the defense attorneys were engrossed. He continued: "They had a motive to kill Melissa: they believed Melissa was stealing from them. And there is overwhelming evidence that defendants Titus and Ryan murdered James.

On december 15, the day after the 2003 Jaguar was found burning in the desert, the Clark County Coroner performs an autopsy on Jane "Sandy Valley" Doe, and through the use of dental records he would determine the victim to be Melissa James, a 28-year-old woman who once stood five-foot-five and 120 pounds, with blue eyes and white skin, before fire had charred her identity.

Furthermore, upon unwrapping the blanket that covered her head, the coroner reveals that Melissa's face has been mummified with gray duct tape, sealing off four of her five senses, and that two ligatures, a piece of white fabric and an insulated wire, have been knotted around Melissa's neck, leading him to suspect she died from asphyxiation. But it's not conclusive. And more than three months later a cause of death has still not been determined (even with toxicology tests completed, evincing high levels of morphine in Melissa's body at the time of her death). A fact that continues to burden Robert Daskas' case against Kelly Ryan and Craig Titus.

Later that day, detectives dig up cell-phone records that indicate there were 14 calls between the phones of Kelly Ryan and Craig Titus on Tuesday, December 13, all occurring between 12:18 and 1:41 in the afternoon. Or, in other words, less than an hour before an Air Taser Gun had been shot six times in Melissa's room, as detectives would learn a month later. And there were 13 calls between the phones of "really good friend" Anthony Gross and Craig Titus, with the first occurring early Tuesday evening and the last at 4:28 Wednesday morning, just 13 minutes before Dick Draper received a dispatch to a burning vehicle on Sandy Valley Road.

Melissa's phone records, which bore an area code from Florida, the state in which she was birthed and spent most of her life, show that Melissa had called Craig's cell at 3:33 Tuesday morning (not too long after Craig left her hotel room, by his own admission), and then again at 11:06 and 11:19. At 20 minutes to noon she called her mom, and it was the last time Maura James would ever hear from her daughter.

Detective O' Kelley is quick to call Maura James, for he says that in the daily uphill struggle of his job, nothing fuels his engine more than bringing resolution and a sense of justice, to a victim's family. Maura tells him, Yes, I received a call from Melissa at about 2:40, New Jersey time. Melissa said, Mom, I'm getting lunch at KFC right now, but I look forward to seeing you tonight. Because she already had a plane ticket to New Jersey to spend Christmas with me, and she had even talked of moving for good. Well, I could hear someone in the background, and I heard my daughter ask that person, What do you want to eat, but when I asked who it was, she said she had to go, and that she would call me back after lunch. She didn't. Those were her final words to me.

The catalyst for the case comes through the detectives' phone line on the night of December 16. A woman, she says she has information pertinent to the case of the burned body found in the Jaguar two days earlier, but, if possible, she would like to remain anonymous. Yet, before she hangs up, she makes an appointment to visit the offices of the homicide section the following day, and identifies herself as Mandy.

She comes. But she is a little reserved, Detective O'Kelley would say. Not only because Kelly Ryan turns out to be her friend and trainer, but because she is thinking of her own personal and professional life as well, and the potential repercussions being involved with an event like this can have on it. It is a constant variable with many of Kelly and Craig's associates, both inside and out of the muscle and fitness industry, for public image is delicate and invaluable.

Nevertheless, in a recorded statement Mandy identifies herself as Lauren Amanda Polk, a 20-year-old amateur fitness competitor who had moved to Southern Nevada last October to train under Kelly Ryan, and who has since then, in fact, been living with her boyfriend, Ryan Chastain, in a house rented out by Kelly. Then Mandy recounts the evening of Thursday, December 15, with so much conviction that Detective O'Kelley doesn't doubt a letter of it.

She says that Kelly and Craig came over her house at about 5, completely flustered and utterly paranoid, saying that Kelly's Jaguar had been stolen and found burnt in the desert with a dead body inside, and though they knew little about the incident except what detectives had told them yesterday, when they had come snooping around, the less they told Mandy and Ryan the better, for they did not want to involve their friends in such a terrible mess. But later that night, as Mandy and Kelly were driving to retrieve dinner, the latter purged her soul, stating, I can't lie to you anymore, Mandy, we found Melissa, you know, our roommate, overdosed in her room, and I can't even begin to describe to you what she looked like because it would traumatize you for life, but now I'm fucked because I bought seven bottles of lighter fluid from Wal-Mart with my credit card at 3:30 yesterday morning. Then we drove pretty far out there and took care of it.

Why didn't you call the police, Mandy says she asked.

Kelly said: Craig told me "No body, no crime." And I just did whatever he said.

Detective Wilson then takes down the statement of Ryan Chastain, Mandy Polk's boyfriend, who says that he obliged Craig and Kelly's request to spend the night at his house, and at one point in the course of Thursday night he heard Craig say:

She'd went down the stairs and she was done. That was it. I mean, you gotta understand.

And further, Ryan says that Craig expressed intentions to trade in his Dodge truck for a new one, and soon thereafter leave America for a country with a non-extradition policy.

Half of that, at least, is unequivocal: On the same day that Ryan Chastain tells detectives of Titus' plans, Craig turns in his truck, along with a $2,000 down payment, to an Integrity Dodge dealership 10 minutes from his house, in exchange for a new, white 2006 Dodge Ram 2500 Megacab, a perfect vehicle for the cross-country trip he and Kelly are about to embark upon, for its spacious cabin—over 10 feet of length, and 145 cubic feet of space—can be converted into a makeshift hotel room on demand, and he and his wife have no intention of staying anywhere they might be recognized.

Also on that Saturday, detectives place a call to the parents of Anthony Gross, in search of their son. Anthony's worried mother tells detectives that she will try to locate him, and that in the meantime he is driving a charcoal gray 2003 pickup truck registered under her name.

While Daskas spoke, Kelly looked at him with the attentive eyes of a schoolchild. She let out a sigh, or gulped, or sunk into her chair every time murder and Melissa were mentioned. And through it all, she looked as if she were in perpetual disbelief that her life's path had led her to the seat in which she currently sat.

She had been born in Minneapolis, with a small stature, thin lips and a vocation for athletics; by the time she was 9 years old, she was training in gymnastics under the world-renowned tutelage of Bela Karolyi. She continued to excel in sports as she moved from state to state with her small, nomadic family, and on account of her good genes and restless exercise habits she maintained a gymnast's body, even after she had departed the mat and taken up cheerleading in South Carolina, where she lived long enough to grow into a woman. But her real praise was her personality, so upbeat, energetic and congenial that one of her friends from those days captured Kelly best with a perfect cliché: She an all-American cheerleader.

That's how she was in college, too, says Karen Campbell, who knew her at the University of South Carolina.

"Her voice is something I can never forget: very high-pitched yet raspy," Karen says. "All of our conversations were light-hearted, fun and typical of college girls."

Gayle Moher, who won the women's bodybuilding title at the reputable IFBB Jan Tana Classic the same year Kelly won her first title in its fitness competition, says this of her friend and professional colleague: "I remember her as the person whose footsteps you'd most want to follow, because she did things the right way."

Then she married Craig. He had first tried to approach her in 1995, after having watched an on-stage performance of hers at a muscle and fitness show that inspired his heart but failed to give him the necessary courage to ask her out. It was because she was a daddy's girl, Craig has said of that first abortive attempt. She never left his side. A couple years later, she moved out to Craig's city, Venice Beach, California, where there's never an end to the little summer birds who flock to rich, muscular men. Craig had been known to easily succumb to their batting eyes and flirtatious little chirps, but he tried his luck with Kelly again instead, several times, but she maintained her resistance. He knew why, too: He had earned an apt reputation as a player, and she wanted absolutely nothing to do with his type. But he persisted. On January 12, 1999, he asked to hang out merely as friends. She capitulated, and a little more than a year later they were exchanging vows in the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas.

They would return to the city of their union in 2002, buying a house in the booming southwest suburbs, at the foot of the Red Rock Mountains, and there they would push each other to the limits with everything they did together: working out, making love, dieting for contests, throwing parties, expanding their business ventures, taking drugs. Craig continued to be Craig—and he has garnered a lot of respect for never pretending to be anything different, at any rate—but at some point Kelly changed. Her lips and breasts bloomed from cosmetic surgery. Her definition and means of fun altered. And she became capable not of just biblical rages but also of putting a dead girl in the trunk of a car and lighting it on fire. If not of worse.

It's common knowledge that Kelly and Craig were neither monogamous nor drug-free, but only their close friends understood just how far into the quagmire of drugs, dissolution and undisciplined habitudes they had sunk in the past six months. (That is: How far they had fallen from the spirit of muscle and fitness.) And only those who knew Kelly when she was a cheerleader with thin lips and a puppy's gait could see the 180-degree change she had undergone in not just her reputation and appearance, but also her character.

"You can imagine my surprise when I saw the article [detailing Kelly and Craig's arrest] in a late December issue of People magazine," says Karen Campbell, who still lives near the University of South Carolina. "I can tell you the people here who know her are shocked. It's so unsettling to us."

Nevertheless, everyone knows she loves Craig. To death. And sitting at the defendant's table on February 10, bound by chains and split by attorneys, they looked on as Daskas proffered the state's case in successive singular points, like rapid fire.

On Monday, December 19, Detective Wilson obtains surveillance footage from the Shell station on the northwest corner of State Route 160 and Rainbow Boulevard, dating back to the early morning of December 14. It shows a charcoal gray pickup truck, followed by a red, midsized, four-door car, driving into the parking lot at 4:12 a.m. The truck pulls up to a gas pump.

I was sleeping with my girlfriend when Craig called and said he needed my help, Anthony Gross says to detectives later that day, under the sentinel's gaze of his lawyer, T. Louis Palazzo. He didn't give me any details, just said to meet him. So I left my apartment with my pajamas still on and found Craig already parked by the side of the Shell station on Blue Diamond and Rainbow—

Anthony, detectives say. This here is surveillance footage of you pulling into the gas station in your charcoal gray truck in front of the red Jaguar.

(It was one of the many falsities the detectives were to catch him in. Another was that he had gone to the Shell station straight from his apartment. For detectives also have footage of both Anthony's charcoal gray truck and Kelly's red Jaguar at the Green Valley Grocer across the street from Wal-Mart, just after Kelly and Craig had left the store with seven bottles of lighter fluid. Sometimes you want to see people hang themselves, Detective O'Kelley, a father of two boys, would later state. But not with Anthony, because I had spoken with his parents and they were such good people. Every time Anthony lied I felt terrible for them. I could tell he was scared, but he had a story and he was sticking to it.)

That's right, Anthony says. We pulled in together, but it was mere coincidence. Well, anyway, then I put some gas in the gas can I brought and put it on the center console.

Because Craig asked you? detectives say.

Yeah, Anthony says. Yes. And then we left. Craig called and said to go right on Blue Diamond. So I did. I didn't get another call from him until just before we got to the road he wanted me to turn on. When he flashed his lights I pulled over on the right side of the road, and that's when Kelly jumped into the passenger seat of my vehicle. She told me to turn around, which I did, and pull up next to the Jaguar, which I did, and then I passed the gas can out of my window to Craig. Kelly told me to pull forward, so I did.

Why such unquestioning loyalty? detectives ask.

That's just how it happened, Anthony says. That's all. Anyway, I didn't see what happened from there, because Kelly was talking to me, telling me not to say anything to anyone about what we were doing. Then Craig returned with the gas can in his hand, less than minute after he left, and jumped in the back seat through my door, and yelled "Go! Go! Go!"

We found a kinetic flashlight at the scene, Anthony. Do you own one?

Yes. It must have fallen out of my truck while Craig was jumping in. Anyway, we didn't talk about what happened on the drive back. I dropped them off at their house, passed on their invitation to come in, and went back to sleep at my apartment. Was gone for a total of about 45 minutes.

Will you allow criminalistics personnel and detectives to meet with you for photographs of your truck?

Well, I blew a tire the day after all of this, and now two of the tires are at a tire shop and two are with friends.

By the way, Anthony: Did you know there was a body in the Jaguar?

No. Not until the following day.

The detectives then meet with a man named Gregory Ruiz, a business partner with Craig who says that on December 17 Craig asked to meet him at a Subway for lunch. There, Gregory tells Detective Wilson, Craig said he needed to leave the country to one with a non-extradition policy; but first, he needed to see his bodybuilding friend in Boston, to help liquidate his assets. And then, without preface and in haunting brevity, he offered a glimpse into his state of mind:

I'm guilty, Ruiz says Craig mumbled.

On December 20, Sgt. Rocky Alby obtains the condemning surveillance footage from Wal-Mart that shows Kelly buying seven bottles of lighter fluid, and then loading it with Craig's assistance into the Jaguar in the parking lot. In addition, he secures a reproduction of the receipt of Kelly's predawn purchase on December 14, which shows that Kelly had also bought a barbeque tool set.

And with that case file of evidence and witness statements, Metro on December 20 issues an arrest warrant for Craig Titus, 40; Kelly Ryan, 33; and Anthony Gross, 23—all in connection with the murder of Melissa James.

What sticks out to me most in this case, Detective O'Kelley would say, is the good fortune we've had in gathering evidence. It was phenomenal. Everywhere we dug, we came up with something good. Guys on other squads were giving us a hard time for having it so easy. I wish we could spread the fortune around to other cases.

But Detective O'Kelley's squad hasn't stopped. Not at all: They keep digging. Which is to their gain, because on December 22, another golden nugget of evidence surfaces. Kelly's best friend, a young amateur fitness athlete who had worked with Kelly as a loan consultant, arrives at her lawyer's office prepared to give detectives her statement, and just as importantly, a gym bag that the paranoid couple had given to her and her boyfriend after the travesty of December 14. Her statements contained information that solidified the detectives' case against Craig and Kelly, and that reiterated the couple's suspicion that Melissa was embezzling from them; and the gym bag contained an Air Taser Gun which, its manufacturer would later prove, had been shot six times between 2:10 and 2:12 p.m. on Tuesday, December 13, a time frame during which both Craig and Kelly have said Melissa was in their house. It was the same Taser whose discharge remnants—called dots—would be found by detectives in Melissa's room. All six of them.

"The actions OF Titus and Ryan mandate that this court set bail high enough to ensure their appearance for future court hearings," said Daskas, downshifting into his second argument. Craig rustled in his seat and shook his head often. Daskas went on: "The notion that Titus and Ryan were on vacation when they were arrested 3,000 miles from Las Vegas, in Massachusetts, as their attorneys have said, is laughable, and it's belied by the their actions and their own statements. Melissa James was murdered, most likely, on December 13, 2005, and the defendants were contacted by homicide detectives on December 14, 2005. Almost immediately after detectives left their residence, the defendants fled and never returned."

Detectives Mogg, Hardy and Wilson leave Kelly's house on December 14 without enough substantial evidence to make an arrest, but with their intuitive alarms blaring. That night Kelly and Craig do not dare to sleep in the familiarity of their own home, but rather, go to the house of Jeffrey Schwimmer, the cousin of television star David Schwimmer who, according to statements he would later give detectives, had once hired Craig as a personal trainer. To Jeffrey, just like to most witnesses from whom detectives have statements, Craig tells of his plans to flee to a country with a non-extradition policy. On the night of December 15, the couple crashes on the floor of the master bedroom in Mandy Polk's house, making a conscious effort to avoid windows. Mandy's boyfriend reserves a room for them at the Holiday Inn Express on West Sahara for the following night, and that is the last honest bed in which Kelly and Craig would sleep, for on the next day, December 17, Craig trades in his truck for the capacious Dodge Ram 2500, and he and Kelly embark upon a cross-country trip, roaring through several states, steering clear of hotels for fear of being recognized, which becomes much more likely on December 20, the day their arrest warrants are issued and their pictures are thus plastered upon Internet and television screens all across the country.

With pay-as-you-go phones, Craig tries to contact his good friend of 16 years, Matt Cline, who lives in Boston, and whom Craig believes will be able to help him resolve his problems with money and passports. But the FBI, tipped off by Gregory Ruiz, have already tapped Matt's phones and maintained an inflexible surveillance over his house. They tried to get me to set up a drop with Craig, Matt would tell Ron Avidan from getbig.com just after Craig's arrest, and I said, no way—no way I'm going to set up my best friend—you guys are the FBI, you guys do your own job. Then Craig text-messages Matt on the morning of Friday, December 23, stating that he is in El Paso, Texas, when in reality he is just north of Boston. And then Craig starts to call again. Finally I talked to him, Matt would say, and I said it wasn't smart to be around here, the feds are everywhere. He said, Dude, I just need some money, and I'll be on my way. I told him, You don't get it, the feds know you're here. But he wasn't trying to hear what I was saying. Right after we talked the feds show up, and at 3:30 they found him in his new truck while Kelly was getting a pedicure.

Some 2,750 miles from Las Vegas, Kelly Ryan and Craig Titus are arrested without incident. It marks the beginning of their indefinite separation.

"Therefore it is clear, Titus and Ryan are severe flight risks," says Daskas, uninterrupted and unflagging. "There is, therefore, no amount of bail this court can set to ensure their future appearances. But let's put that aside for now, and let's look at the defendant Craig Titus for a moment. His character. Now, the mother of Melissa James, Maura James, who is in court today"—it was true; sitting in the back, right behind Anthony Gross and his parents—"became very worried when her daughter did not arrive on the plane she was scheduled to be on. So she called airport personnel, she called the hospitals in Las Vegas, and she naturally called Mr. Titus, who did not pick up the phone. Frantic now, she continued to call, but he wouldn't pick up. Until finally, three days later, he called her, telling her it wasn't Melissa's body in the trunk; it belonged to someone else. Telling her that Melissa had faked her own death to assume a new identity. Telling her that his friend had actually spoken with Melissa since the incident. That will tell you something about this man's character," Daskas said, pointing at Craig, who sat just a short jab away.

Craig's character has been questioned ever since he was a pugnacious teenager in Texas, trying to confine his aggression to the high school wrestling mat, where he would win a state championship his senior yer at 132 pounds. But never more so than the day he walked out of federal prison in April 1999, having served nearly two years for his troubles with recreational drugs and steroids.

Yet, Craig found a way to turn his misfortune into money, instantly capitalizing off his prison record and beefs with other bodybuilders by establishing himself as the bad boy of bodybuilding.

That, however, made him an unlikely candidate for Kelly's heart, which was his genuine desire, but he worked hard to convince her, and her father, of his commitment. The truth is, he would come to love her more than anything, despite the myriad birds he watched and trained outside of his marriage. That much his friends, enemies and associates agree upon. Kelly had even once told a friend, not too long before she and Craig would flee Las Vegas last winter: He still calls me in the middle of the day, all choked up, saying how happy he is to have me, and how he looks forward to growing old with me.

Dan Solomon, who hosts the talk radio show Pro Bodybuilding Weekly, had interviewed the couple at their home for an Internet article, in which he wrote of admiring Kelly's cherry-red Jaguar and her relationship of mutual admiration with her husband. Craig was really proud of everything she did, Solomon says.

Even when he confessed to burning Melissa James' body, it was Kelly's career he maintained he was thinking of. And in his flustered and distraught phone calls to best friend Matt Cline just before his capture, all Matt could gather from him was concern for his wife:

"I can't let Kelly sit in jail."

Kelly's attorney, Tom Pitaro, short, rotund, a bit cartoonish, even, stood up. A venerable lawyer known amongst his peers for his quirky yet effective talents, Pitaro offered the court a soporific lesson of the fundamental principles of bail. He invoked the U.S. Constitution, the country's forefathers and countless precedents. Then Pitaro said: "The burden is on the prosecution to show the 'proof is evident or the presumption great,' and he has not." Pitaro said the prosecution has all types of evidence and statements, but they don't know how Melissa died, and so they are left with nothing but multiple theories. It's like throwing harpoons in a pond. "It sounds like nothing but sound and fury," Pitaro said.

On February 1, District Attorney Robert Daskas announces that the state of Nevada has upgraded the charges against Tom Pitaro's client, Kelly Ryan, from accessory to murder to murder itself. Moreover, he says, one count of kidnapping has been added to both her and Craig's charges.

Prior to the announcement, which came during the couple's arraignment in Las Vegas Justice Court, Kelly had been facing the same charges as Anthony Gross—third-degree arson and accessory to murder—and so she was hoping to receive the same bail as Anthony had received one month earlier: $13,000.

Yet, she does not react to it at all. She continues to sit just as she had during the entire proceedings: quiet and impassible. Craig, who is sitting two rows ahead of her amongst two dozen other detainees, had mouthed to her upon taking her seat to not say anything. And she doesn't. She just sits there and accepts her lot. In fact, it isn't until the prisoners, chained together, stand in unison to file out of court that she cracks. For just then Craig sneaks her a few furtive glances, and six clandestine words that make her eyes swell red and teary: I love you, I love you.

As she walks out, her lips tremble, and in her baggy Clark County Detention Center jumpsuit she looks like nothing more than a frightened little girl.

Pitaro, however, would read over the amended criminal complaint—which accuses Kelly and Craig of killing Melissa James by applying an Air Taser Gun to her body, and/or asphyxiating her, and/or suffocating her, and/or administering morphine, and/or manner unknown—and he would come to the conclusion that the prosecution, like everyone else who was not in Kelly's house on December 14, 2005, does not know for sure exactly what happened.

After Richard Schonfeld adopted Pitaro's words, he presented a ardent case as to why his client was being entirely mistaken, but he, like Pitaro before him, did not even seek to refute any of the evidenced proffered by Robert Daskas. Then a recess was called, to give Judge Bonaventure time to make his decision.

During the break, the journalists speak in whispers. Some gossip and others exchange theories as to what really happened on December 14 or predictions as to how this nonfiction story will end. The attorneys confer with one another. And Craig and Kelly share glances—looks of concern for each other.

The judge re-enters.

"I don't have enough evidence before me to make a decision," Judge Bonaventure said. "Their status will thus be upheld, and I'll reserve my decision until March 29, during the preliminary hearing."

On Wednesday, March 15, defense attorneys confirm their clients received notice that prosecutors will seek an indictment by a grand jury, which would be a private hearing between prosecutors and jurors to determine if the state's evidence warrants a trial. And which, of course, would negate the need for a preliminary hearing. The court date that had been set to consider the defense's motion to suppress statements recorded in Massachusetts is vacated, and pushed back into the March 29 vacancy. Defense attorneys say if there is a trial, it might not begin until early next year.

Also on Wednesday, Melissa James, beloved daughter, sister, and aunt, was given a proper funeral in her hometown of Panama City, Florida, in front of the many people she touched as a dance instructor for children and a friend to anyone. She had been born on March 23, 1977.

  • Get More Stories from Thu, Mar 23, 2006
Top of Story