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Killer Bodies: A Glamorous Bodybuilding Couple, a Love Triangle, and a Brutal Murder (St. Martin's True Crime Library Series)

Killer Bodies: A Glamorous Bodybuilding Couple, a Love Triangle, and a Brutal Murder (St. Martin's True Crime Library Series)

by Michael Fleeman

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Craig Titus once earned the championship title of Mr. USA, but that was before his illegal drug use and terrible temper got the best of his body—and his career. Soon he would redirect his attention toward a young, bubbly fitness professional who looked up to Craig as a mentor…and later became his wife.


Craig Titus once earned the championship title of Mr. USA, but that was before his illegal drug use and terrible temper got the best of his body—and his career. Soon he would redirect his attention toward a young, bubbly fitness professional who looked up to Craig as a mentor…and later became his wife.

Kelly Ryan quickly rose to the top of her field. She appeared on the cover of Ironman magazine's swimsuit issue and was named Ms. Fitness America. A crowd favorite, her fans were shocked to learn that Kelly had been taken into custody, along with Craig, on charges of murder. The victim: the couple's personal assistant, Melissa James.

Did Craig have a romantic relationship with Melissa? And did Kelly find out about—and force Craig to put a deadly end to their affair? When Melissa's corpse was found in the back of Kelly's Jaguar, police made an arrest. Now, the burning question that remains is: Is America's favorite celebrity bodybuilding couple guilty as charged? With this shocking exposé, author Michael Fleeman attempts to find out.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
St. Martin's True Crime Library Series
Product dimensions:
4.22(w) x 6.67(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


The phone rang.

It was her ex-husband, Dennis James, the car salesman who lived in Florida. He had just received a call from a woman in the coroner's office in Las Vegas.

She was asking about Melissa, their daughter.

THE FIRE COULD BE SEEN FOR MILES, BURNING IN the black nothingness of the desert. A frigid December wind had kicked up, temperatures hovering just above freezing, sand and dust blowing everywhere.

There's a reason they called this Sandy Valley Road.

One gust and the tinder-dry brush could catch fire, and then Dick Draper would be in trouble. As it was, his fire truck was running low on water and foam. The burning Jaguar was all blistering red paint and collapsing roof, a crackling, flaming skeleton.

Draper wanted to keep the fire right where it was, on a bluff at the end of a wash, in the middle of nowhere—the valley on the other other side of the "hump to Pahrump," as the locals called the mountains that separate Las Vegas from the closest town where hooking is legal.

A trucker rumbling down Route 160 called this one in about 4:30 a.m. He could see the fire from the highway, barely a quarter mile away, in the morning darkness. Las Vegas Metro dispatch relayed the call to the closest fire department, the Mountain Springs volunteers, headed by Draper.

He responded himself in his truck loaded with water and foam.

The drive from his home at the Mountain Springs summit took Draper down a sharp incline that opened to a vast desert floor, the dim lights of Pahrump's homes, stores and brothels twinkling in the distance.

As the road leveled, the fire came into view a few hundred yards off the highway.

Draper pulled his truck off at the Sandy Valley sign and hit a bumpy, barely graded, undercarriage-shredding road full of rocks and deep holes. He negotiated around the worst of the dips to the end of the wash, where the Jaguar blazed like Christmas, just eleven days away.

Draper opened his truck door and was hit by a blast of winter-in-the-desert temperature: 34 degrees that morning.

As he readied the hose to spray down the flames, Draper noticed that the fire was moving from the rear of the car to the front, with flames shooting from the back seat and heading toward the hood, taking out the roof along the way. This was fortunate. The fire was going away from the gas tank in the back.

Draper unleashed a spray of water to keep the fire from spreading to the brush. After a few minutes, he had things sufficiently under control to switch to the foam to fully extinguish the blaze, including the burning magnesium car parts, which can't be put out with mere water.

After forty-five minutes, Draper had run out of water and foam. The once-roaring fire had been reduced to a charred car skeleton with a few glowing hot spots. Draper believed the blaze had been contained enough for him to leave the scene for his base atop the mountain and get another truck with more water and foam.

The trip there and back took less than twenty minutes—it was after 5 a.m. by now—and Draper again went to work, dousing the remaining stubborn areas. Having responded to dozens of car fires in the desert, Draper knew the car had to be cool before the tow truck could safely take it away. He poured water and foam all over a section in the middle of the car, but the smoke kept coming.

Working in the darkness, he poked at the area with a pole, stirring the ashes, and sprayed it some more.

It was slow work and Draper struggled to see. He got out his flashlight and directed the beam toward the rear of the car.

That's when he first saw the body, lying on its side, in what used to be the trunk, only now was a cavity separated from the back seat area by nothing, the fire having destroyed the barrier.

The flashlight beam shined on a head swaddled in cloth, then landed on a blackened hand.

Draper put his pike back in the truck and dialed dispatch, asking them to alert Metro.

THE HOMICIDE UNIT OF THE LAS VEGAS METROPOLITAN Police Department got the call at 6:31 a.m. on December 14, 2005. The detectives on duty that morning were Robert Wilson, Clifford Mogg, Ken Hardy and Dean O'Kelley. The rotation had O'Kelley up as the lead investigator.

Their supervisor, Sergeant Rocky Alby, briefed them: a car fire in the desert west of Las Vegas, with an apparent victim in the trunk. The report came from a volunteer fireman who had put out the blaze and then found the body. No known witnesses, nothing else to report.

As dawn broke on what would be a crisp, clear winter day in southern Nevada, the detectives headed for Pahrump. The drive took them west on Blue Diamond Highway, on the fringe of Vegas, where the desert is fighting a losing battle against the bulldozer. On both sides of the highway, housing tracks are sprouting, miles of identical stucco boxes with Spanish-tiled roofs, advertised on billboards with names like "Trail Ridge" and "Parkview Estates," despite the absence of any obvious trails, ridges, parks or views. Realtors' flags in red and yellow strain against the fierce desert winds.

By day, so many construction trucks clog Blue Diamond Highway that traffic backs up for a half-mile or more at intersections closest to the Interstate 15 on-ramp, itself a work in progress, plunged into a major renovation.

But at this hour—shortly before 7 a.m.—traffic was light and the detectives made good time.

Soon, the highway narrowed, and the construction zones gave way to the desert. In the distance to the north, the jagged outcroppings of Red Rock Canyon rose and the road signs warned, "LOOK OUT FOR WILD HORSES AND BURROS ON HIGHWAY." The road twisted and rose up into the mountains, the desert scrub replaced by cool pines. In the rearview: miles of housing tracks and the towering gambling palaces of The Strip, just now shaking off its daily hangover.

After the 5,490-foot Mountain Springs summit, where Dick Draper made his base, the road dipped down to a valley floor. From there, it was a couple miles to the turnoff to Sandy Valley, with the fire scene just off the highway.

The trip from Vegas took about a half-hour, something to keep in mind for a time line in a homicide investigation.

ARRIVING AT THE SCENE, THE FOUR METRO DETECTIVES found the charred remains of the 2003 Jaguar on the side of the graded road, the ground around it muddied by the water and foam. This once-lonely spot in the desert started buzzing with activity. Additional fire trucks would arrive, as would squad cars and vehicles for the coroner and crime-scene analysts.

The detectives received a briefing from Dick Draper about how he had put out the fire and found the body while dousing the hot spots. Draper led them to car, now little more than a darkened frame, the fire having peeled away the paint and blown out the windows, headlights and taillights. Red molding had fallen to the ground, as had the back license plate, burnt so badly that only the number 9 and the letters PPL remained.

What appeared to be shoe marks had been pressed into the dry ground, but they were of little evidentiary value now because the wind had filled them with dirt and sand. There were fading tire marks, an old beer can and other garbage in the brush, all of it old and weathered and unrelated to the case.

The car held all the evidence they would find. In the front seat area lay a blackened flashlight, and nearby, broken pieces from the light littered the ground. In the back sat the last vestiges of a burned suitcase—just the frame—surrounded by its former contents: blackened clothing, keys, tweezers, ceramic salt and pepper shakers, barbecue tools, makeup case, burnt food and syringes.

The ignition held no keys, nor were any to be found.

The trunk lid was locked, so the detectives pried the metal away with a crowbar. Inside the trunk cavity were the fire-ravaged remnants of material: scraps of a fleece blanket dyed purple, blue and black, a second blanket with what looked like a tiger print in orange and black, and a thick off-white cotton fabric.

Beneath the blankets lay the body, clad in a blue hooded sweatshirt, denim jeans, and red panties visible through the burned-out holes in the jeans. The head was facing the passenger side, the left arm folded under the torso, a metal bracelet around the wrist.

No face was visible. A woven fabric covered the head with only wisps of reddish-brown hair visible where the cloth had burned away. A wire was wrapped around the neck, like a ligature.

Based on the size and build of the body and what little remained of the clothing, it appeared to be that of a young woman or older girl.

The fire had claimed any personal identification, such as a passport or driver's license, if any had existed.

The car's owner couldn't be immediately determined, as registration papers had perished and flames had destroyed the Vehicle Identification Number plate and much of the license plate.

But in talking to Draper, it turns out that before the fire had gotten too out of control, the volunteer chief had taken the time to write down the license plate number. A check with the motor vehicle department found that the Jaguar was registered to Kelly Ann Ryan, a 33-year-old woman who lived on Adobe Arch Road in Las Vegas.

Lead Detective O'Kelley stayed at the fire scene to continue investigating. The three other detectives—Robert Wilson, Cliff Mogg and Ken Hardy—headed back to the city to the home of the car's owner, whose physical description, as reported on her driver's license, matched that of the body in the car.

The detectives prepared themselves for what could turn out to be a death notification to Ms. Ryan's next of kin.

AT THE SAME TIME THE DETECTIVES HAD RECEIVED the call about the fire and the body, Maura James was starting to panic. It was 9:30 a.m. in New Jersey and she had just arrived at the Delta airlines baggage claim at Newark Liberty International Airport—forty-five minutes late.

Once a Florida resident, Maura had only recently moved to New Jersey, and the turnpikes and parkways still confused her. She had gotten a late start from home, only to become lost on the way to the airport. By the time she'd gotten there, her daughter Melissa was nowhere to be found.

Maura tried her daughter's cell phone, but got no answer. She asked a man at the Delta counter if the flight—Vegas to Atlanta to Newark—had arrived or if it had been delayed. He told her that it had arrived on time and all the baggage had been claimed.

She asked if there was a Melissa James on board. He checked the computer. He said a Melissa James had been ticketed, but she'd never boarded the flight—not in Atlanta, and not in Las Vegas before that.

Maura James didn't know whether to be angry or afraid. Her daughter had irritated her before, failing to call when she said she would, but had never done anything as serious as miss a flight and not call or text-message her.

She called her daughter again and left a message.

"Melissa," she told the voice mail, "call me."

This was not how the trip had been planned. Just the day before, on Tuesday, December 13, Melissa had sent her mother a text message at 11:18 a.m. from Las Vegas:

I leave tonight. Delta. At 10:30. Get to Atlanta at 5 a.m. Leave 6:45 a.m. Get to Newark 8:42 a.m. I'll give you flight numbers before I leave.

Melissa then called her mother a half-hour later, at 11:42 a.m. Maura James was at her desk at a construction site job in the Bristol-Myers building when her cell phone rang and her daughter's name popped up on caller ID.

When they spoke, her daughter seemed preoccupied. She appeared to be calling from a store or restaurant. There were noises in the background, people talking, and at one point Maura heard her daughter say to somebody with her, "What do you want to eat?"

Maura asked her daughter who she was with. Melissa didn't answer. There were more noises in the background that Maura couldn't make out, then Melissa said, "I'm getting ready to eat."

"Where are you?"

"KFC," said Melissa. "Hey, Mom," she added, sounding distracted, "I'll call you back after I eat."

Her mother started to ask her for the flight number, then instead asked how long Melissa planned to stay with her. All she had was the arrival information. She didn't see anything in the text message about a return flight.

Melissa paused.

"I don't think I'm coming back," she said, and then hung up.

Maura knew that something was wrong, again.

It had been like this for years now, ever since Melissa had met a muscular man named Craig Titus, who persuaded her to move from Florida to Los Angeles to live and work with him and his muscular wife.

The couple were professional athletes, Craig a bodybuilder who had modest success, Kelly a superstar in women's fitness. Melissa, who'd done modeling and acting in her hometown off Panama City, Florida, found the couple glamorous, their lifestyle exciting, and dreamed of meeting movie stars and becoming famous herself.

She first stayed with them in 2001, when they lived in the bodybuilding mecca of Venice Beach, California, but fame and stardom didn't come as easily as she had hoped and soon Melissa was back in Panama City.

She didn't stay long, reuniting with the couple when they moved to Florida a year later. Again, it didn't work out, and back to Florida she went. Several times this went on, and each time it ended in disappointment and frustration, Melissa's plans to finish college and get on with a career forever being put on hold.

The latest time came in October 2005, when the couple—now nearing retirement from sports—recruited her to help run a store they were opening that sold fitness apparel. Called Ice Gear, the store was to open in December 2005, just days from when Melissa had called her mother and said she wasn't going to return to Las Vegas.

Maura James didn't know what the problem was this time. Melissa had complained about how the couple used to argue bitterly, especially when they were training, making Melissa—who usually lived with them, helping out with their various business enterprises—feel uncomfortable.

Vegas had also treated Melissa badly. Maura noticed that her daughter had lost weight and was stretched financially. She didn't pry into her problems.

Whatever the reason, Melissa would tell her mother when she got to New Jersey. They had always been close. Maura was willing to wait.

Yet now Melissa had not arrived. Maura called her daughter again, and got only voice mail.

IT WAS 10:24 A.M. WHEN ROBERT WILSON AND THE two other detectives, Ken Hardy and Cliff Mogg, arrived at the two-story stucco home on Adobe Arch Road, a cul-de-sac of like-looking houses about a block away from Tropicana.

When Wilson knocked on the wooden door, a brown-haired, 30ish woman with deeply tanned skin and a powerful, athletic build appeared. Wilson identified himself, then asked her for her name.

She said Kelly Ryan. The detective did a double take. Later he said he was "puzzled" and "kind of surprised." He had thought Kelly Ryan was dead in the desert.

Composing himself, Wilson explained why the detectives were there: Kelly's Jaguar had been found burning in the desert with a body in the trunk.

She reacted with shock, saying, "Oh my God!"

"Can we come in and talk to you about it?" asked Wilson.

She let them into the house. It was a home like so many in Las Vegas, spacious, new and fresh, with all the latest, from flooring to appliances—and a fraction of the cost of a similar home in LA, which had been sending so many new residents to Las Vegas.

As Kelly led the detectives through the entryway, Wilson asked if there was anybody else in the house. She said her husband had been there that morning, and then a bald, muscular man with a powerful jaw emerged on the second-floor balcony and walked down the stairs.

When he reached the detectives, he identified himself as Craig Titus. He was even more impressive up close, with bulging biceps, massive forearms, hulking shoulders and barrel chest. Together, the couple were physical specimens.

The detectives asked if the couple would speak to them about the burning Jaguar. They readily agreed, with Kelly heading off to the kitchen with Detective Robert Wilson while Craig went to the living room with Detective Mogg.

Given permission by the couple to look around the house, Detective Hardy poked around the downstairs area, including the living room and what appeared to be a bedroom off the hall that led to a laundry room and the three-car garage.

Although interviewed separately, both on tape, Craig and Kelly gave similar theories of why Kelly's Jaguar had ended up on fire with a body inside.

The night before, Kelly and Craig said, they had entertained friends—Kelly's best friend, Megan, and Megan's boyfriend—until 2 a.m., watching a movie on the big-screen TV upstairs, listening to music and talking. After the friends had left, Craig stayed up longer and Kelly went to bed.

Always an early riser, Kelly said she'd gotten up at her usual 5 a.m. to go to the bathroom and walk the dog. As she got ready to leave, she went into the laundry room to wash a load of clothes and noticed a glow coming through the door to the garage. It was her posing lights, which she shined on herself to strike practice poses for competition. Kelly explained she was a professional fitness competitor, her husband a professional bodybuilder.

Kelly said that she'd gone into the garage to turn off the lights. That's when she saw that her Jaguar was missing.

Immediately, she believed that it had been stolen by somebody they knew, and she now feared and believed the body in the truck was Melissa.

In his interview, Craig said the same thing.

The body was probably that of Melissa James.

It was the first time police had heard her name.

Asked what she had been wearing the last time they saw her, they said she'd had on blue jeans and a blue long-sleeved shirt, and that her hair had recently been dyed to a reddish-brown. Detective Mogg called Detective O'Kelley at the scene. That was the same clothing and hair color found on the corpse. A records search also found that Melissa James was a white female, 5-foot-5, 120 pounds, which matched the victim.

The couple explained that Melissa was a longtime friend they had met in Florida and was now an employee who had been living with them since October in a downstairs guest room, handling their financial matters and helping them start a clothing store. They paid her in room, board and expense money, but no salary, until the store opened.

In recent weeks, they said, they had begun to suspect that Melissa was stealing from them. New credit cards they hadn't applied for started showing up in the mail. ATM charges for items the couple hadn't bought began to register on their statement. Other financial irregularities cropped up. The couple had entrusted Melissa with their private financial information, including PINs, and now suspected she had violated that trust.

In what way? Detective Wilson asked Kelly as they sat in the kitchen.

"OK, one example, she went online and changed my pass codes," Kelly said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which printed excerpts from the interview. "She requested new security information be sent to her and new banking cards sent to her."

At the same time, Melissa's behavior had deteriorated. Kelly said that she'd appeared ungrateful and begun to act like she expected them to take care of her. Kelly began to fear Melissa would hurt them. Kelly had seen some powdery material in their drinking glasses and thought it was poison put there by Melissa.

Kelly told Detective Wilson that she'd confronted Melissa, giving her a letter that detailed all of the alleged misdeeds. This led to an argument, and life on Adobe Arch Road became so tense that Melissa had to move out, checking into a room at La Quinta Inn & Suites on the corner of Fort Apache and Sahara, about five miles away. Kelly was a little uncertain of the exact night she was there, saying just a night or two earlier.

The cooling-off night didn't work, and by the next day Melissa was back at the couple's home, getting into another argument about the finances. The most recent spat was just the afternoon or evening before, on Tuesday, December 13, Kelly said.

Meanwhile, Craig had purchased airline tickets for Melissa to travel back East that night—Kelly didn't have the details, but thought Melissa was going to a small town in Florida. The flight was to leave around 10 p.m.

Tensions ran high as Melissa packed. Kelly tried to help her, but Melissa was so upset she threw her things into the suitcase, while Kelly kept trying to fold them neatly, Kelly told the detective.

Kelly and Craig discussed who would take her to the airport and which car to use. They settled on Kelly driving the Jaguar. Kelly said she and Melissa left at about 3:25 p.m., but they never arrived at the airport, getting only as far as a mini-mart called the Green Valley Grocery at the corner of Fort Apache and Hacienda, just around the corner from the couple's home.

Melissa demanded to be dropped off there. Kelly obliged. Kelly was so tired of the problems with Melissa that she didn't ask why she wanted to be dropped off, or why she had wanted to go to the airport so early.

That was the last time that Kelly saw Melissa, she said.

Kelly said she turned around and drove a quarter-mile home, where she stayed the rest of the day. At some point, Craig left in the truck to run errands.

Detective Wilson asked Kelly why the couple thought Melissa was stealing from them. She only had guesses. She mentioned that Melissa was involved in drugs with a man who had once threatened to kill her. The couple had recently found drug paraphernalia in Melissa's room, which they threw away. Kelly couldn't remember the name of the man for certain.

That was it. When pressed, she said she had no firm idea what had happened to Melissa or to the Jaguar, only that she was suspecting that Melissa's troubles were to blame. The car keys were kept in a basket at the foot of the stairs, and now they were missing. She said they had a house alarm, but that it wasn't set when the car disappeared.

"I'm fanatical about locking the doors," Kelly added. "I always lock the doors."

Asked if she ever reported any of this to police—the suspected theft, the drugs, the missing car—Kelly said she had not.

During the interviews, Detective Mogg searched Melissa's room, which was a mess: the bed unmade, clothes strewn about, items piled on the floor and on the bed. A small metal strongbox appeared to have been forced open with papers still inside. And sitting on a chair, as if placed there, was Kelly's credit card.

The detective also found numerous syringes, bloody tissues and about a dozen bottles of prescription medication.

Where, the detective asked Kelly, did she think Melissa had gone?

"I don't know," Kelly stammered. "Maybe Wal-Mart?"

The detective pressed on, asking Kelly if, when they suspected Melissa had driven off with her Jaguar, they'd called any of her friends or relatives to see if she was with them.

Kelly said she hadn't, but added that Craig had gone out looking for Melissa.

The detective asked if Craig had recruited anybody to help him.

Yes, said Kelly, he'd called a friend named Anthony Gross, whom she described as somebody Craig felt he could rely upon.

"I have his phone number in my cell phone," Kelly said. "Do you want it now?"

Detective Wilson told her he'd get it before the other detectives left.

AS KELLY SPOKE IN THE KITCHEN, DETECTIVE CLIFF Mogg was conducting his interview in the living room with Craig Titus.

Craig's account matched that of his wife, relating his concerns about Melissa's drug problem and suspicions she was stealing from them. He said she might have been committing identity theft.

Craig had additional details about Melissa's stay at the motel. He said he'd driven her to the hotel in the Jaguar the night of December 12 and checked her in late at night. He said he'd stayed with her for a couple of hours, returning home the morning of December 13—just the day before.

Craig gave a rosier view of the household situation than Kelly did, saying that when Melissa returned the day before, tensions had eased. In fact, Craig suggested that although both he and his wife had issues with Melissa, it was Kelly who had the most problems with her. He said that the two women had spoken the previous afternoon and smoothed things over, with Kelly driving Melissa to the airport at about 3 p.m. the day before, but dropping her off at the grocery store a quarter mile away. He said she'd driven the truck, not the Jaguar, as Kelly had indicated.

After Kelly returned, Craig said, they ransacked Melissa's room, finding mortgage papers for an investment house he rented out, a number of other financial documents, including tax papers, as well as an ampoule of morphine, methamphetamine and several bloody needles.

He said that later that night, about 12:30 or 1 a.m., he and Kelly had been worried that Melissa never made her flight. He said that he'd driven his truck to the Palace Station, a casino frequented by locals, looking for a man whom Craig described as a methamphetamine dealer Melissa knew. Craig thought Eddie may have pressured Melissa into stealing from Craig and Kelly.

"He's real cool, drug dealer, you know, 'Pay me, I'll kill ya' type, [expletive] idiot," Titus told detectives, according to the Review-Journal.

He added: "I'll tell ya something right now, if I find this [expletive] guy before you guys do, I'm gonna [expletive] him up. I'll call you when I do."

Craig told the detective that he and Kelly had searched the casino parking lot for Eddie's black Jeep Cherokee, but didn't find it.

When they returned home, the Jaguar was still in the garage, Craig said. Craig didn't mention the late-night visit by friends. Instead, he said that after returning from the Palace Station, he and Kelly had sat up in the bedroom, talked and watched TV. He said he'd also attended to paperwork in the office.

Asked for his theory of what had happened, Craig said he guessed that at some point Melissa had come home, disabled the house alarm and driven off in the Jaguar. As Craig spoke, Detective Mogg noticed that the house alarm was on—it was now around 1 p.m. on Thursday.

During the interview the alarm would beep, and each time Craig would turn his head in the direction of the noise. It was one of two nervous tics. The other: Craig would start clicking his lighter during pointed questions, then stop clicking it when the queries were more mundane.

The detective asked Craig about the now-operating alarm system, and he suggested that Melissa may have reset the alarm after pulling out of the driveway.

When the Jaguar had gone missing, Craig said he didn't call Melissa, but did send her a text message reading, "Where the fuck's my car?"

The outgoing message was still on Craig's cell phone, time stamped at 4:28 a.m. He showed it to Detective Mogg.

As Craig spoke about Melissa—the hour or two that he'd spent with her at the motel, the tension between her and Kelly—the detective pressed harder on the nature of the relationship. Craig acknowledged that more was going on than just work.

He and Melissa had been having an affair, and his wife didn't know.

AS MAURA JAMES STOOD AT THE AIRPORT, THINKING of how she would try to track down her missing daughter, it occurred to her that of all the phone numbers programmed into her cell phone, none belonged to the people who had been such a large part of Melissa's life, Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan. Maybe they knew what had happened to her daughter.

But how to reach them? All she knew was that about two years earlier she had written down Craig Titus' phone number—for some reason Melissa had given it to her—and thought she had left it in her desk. Maura drove home and searched the desk. To her relief, she found it in a drawer.

She dialed and got Craig's recorded message on his cell number. Maura went to work and called Craig several more times that day, leaving messages, but never getting a call back.

Maura didn't panic, yet. She told herself it was too early to call the police. At work, she looked up the names and phone numbers of Las Vegas hospitals on her computer. She called them, one by one, asking if a Melissa James had been admitted. None had anybody by that name.

As the day wore on, Maura told herself that if she didn't hear from Melissa, or from Craig or Kelly by that night, she would call the police.

It was when she got home from work that she got the phone call from her ex-husband Dennis, saying that a woman from the coroner's office in Las Vegas had called asking him if he had a daughter named Melissa James. He told her that he did, but he wasn't aware that she was in Vegas. He told the coroner's assistant that Maura would have more information and that he would pass on the number to her.

Maura told Dennis that Melissa had in fact returned to Vegas, just eight weeks earlier in October, and that she was supposed to have arrived in New Jersey just that day to spend time with her for Christmas, but never made her flight.

Maura then made the most difficult phone call of her life. The woman who answered at the coroner's office was pleasant and professional.

"Is your daughter in Las Vegas?" the woman answered.

Maura told her that she had been.

The woman asked for a description. Maura said that Melissa was slim, about 5-foot-3, with brown hair, blue eyes, pierced ears and a pair of ballet dancers tattooed on her lower back, a memory from Melissa's days as a dance student and later as the operator of her dance studio.

When Maura asked what was going on, the coroner's assistant said that a body had been found in the desert. She said nothing of the circumstances—only that it was a body.

"I'm not saying this is her," the woman said, but Maura didn't hear the rest. The room began spinning. She tried to regain control, telling herself this wasn't happening, that it was all a bad dream.

THAT NIGHT, IN LAS VEGAS, THE DETECTIVES ASSESSED the case. They had tape-recorded the interviews with Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan, they had searched the house and found the drug material in Melissa's room, and they had the phone number of Anthony Gross.

Although a woman living in their home had turned up dead in their burning car, the couple were not arrested and not questioned further. There was more to do and learn.

For one, the detectives had no positive identification on the body. The couple seemed certain the victim was Melissa—but a slim doubt remained.

Investigators also needed to confirm the couple's story, starting by interviewing the friends who'd been with them the night before, plus this friend Anthony who'd helped Craig look for Melissa. They needed to track down these associates of Melissa's—Ben and Eddie, if they were indeed two people, or different names of the same man.

Mostly, they needed to know just whom they were dealing with.

Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan, though living in a lovely house in a nice neighborhood, and though cooperative and seemingly open with investigators, might still be holding back. There were minor discrepancies in their stories—Kelly said she'd driven Melissa to the mini-mart in the Jaguar, while Craig said she'd used the truck—and certain remarks didn't add up, including Kelly's peculiar suggestion that Melissa had stolen the car to go to Wal-Mart, and Craig's seeming nervousness about the alarm system.

More critically, detectives got a hint of a motive when Craig had mentioned the affair with the apparent victim—while Kelly had said nothing about it. There was certainly tension in the house in the hours leading up to the car fire. Was the affair the cause of that?

They called themselves athletes and business people, and a quick Google search could confirm it. They were good-looking, physically fit and successful, celebrities even.

But who really, investigators needed to know, were Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan?

KILLER BODIES Copyright © 2007 by Michael Fleeman.

Meet the Author

MICHAEL FLEEMAN is an associate bureau chief for People magazine in Los Angeles and a former reporter for The Associated Press. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.

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