Single mum murdered in her bed for an iPhone as her eight-year-old daughter slept next door
The luxury apartment in a leafy area of Raleigh, North Carolina, was supposed to be a fresh start for Melissa Huggins-Jones and her young daughter Hannah. Melissa, 30, was newly divorced and adjusting to life as a single mum.
She’d chosen the flat as a sanctuary to start again and was comforted knowing it was in a good part of town. But after just two weeks of living there, eight-year-old Hannah ran out onto the street barefoot and crying out, "My mum’s hurt." A concerned construction worker came to her aid, but when he walked into the flat, he was confronted with a truly savage scene.
Little Hannah had woken up to discover her mum had been stabbed and beaten to death in her bed. Just how had Melissa’s new beginning triggered her brutal end?
Covered in blood
Church-going Melissa had moved from Tennessee with Hannah in 2013 after her recent divorce.
Her older son had stayed behind with his dad so he could finish his school year – education was important to Melissa.
A good school was one of the reasons she’d chosen a second-floor apartment in a complex in the North Hills area of Raleigh. It had a good reputation and was a peaceful place for Melissa to raise her daughter. She was due to start a job as the manager of a new bank branch, but being a mum was always her priority.
But on the morning of May 14, 2013, Hannah ran out of the flat dressed in just her nightwear and sought out a nearby construction crew. She was crying as she told them her mum was covered in blood and wouldn’t wake up.
Inside the flat, Melissa’s body lay on a blood-soaked bed. One of the construction workers checked her pulse but Melissa was cold to the touch. He dialled 911. "There’s blood everywhere, ma’am," he stammered to the operator.
Emergency services rushed to the scene but there was nothing they could do. A stunned Hannah sat with paramedics, shaping a heart out of paper in memory of her mum. She knew she had gone forever.
An autopsy revealed Melissa had received 18 blows to the face, neck and body with a knife and a blunt object. Somebody had killed the young mum as her daughter slept in the next room.
Officers later said they were haunted by the idea that Melissa had feared for her daughter’s safety as she fought off her attacker. Experts couldn’t say whether it had taken several minutes for Melissa to bleed to death, or several hours.
Police searched the home and found footprints. They worked out that Melissa’s attacker had managed to get in through an unlocked sliding door on the second-floor balcony. Melissa’s iPhone was missing – could she really have been killed for the sake of a phone?
On the night Melissa was killed, best mates Travion Smith, 22, Ronald Lee Anthony, 25, and Ronald’s ex Sarah Redden, 20, had been out together breaking into cars – but their crime was about to quickly escalate.
Pulling up to the flats where Melissa lived, Travion and Ronald got ready to break into the building, while Sarah acted as a getaway driver. The pair managed to climb up onto Melissa’s balcony and get into her house. When Melissa had woken up and screamed, Ronald and Travion silenced her for good.
Sarah watched them wash blood off their hands with water bottles. This was a burglary that had gone very wrong.
The flat below Melissa’s had also been broken into, and a stolen laptop led police to a nearby district where the killers lived.
All three were arrested. When questioned, Sarah placed the blame on the others.
"Travion said the woman shouldn’t have screamed," she explained.
Melissa had died so she couldn’t identify them.
In late 2015, Ronald Lee Anthony pleaded guilty to first degree murder in order to avoid a possible death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Former girlfriend Sarah testified against Ronald saying he was the ring leader and that she had loved him until he’d "turned nasty".
At Travion’s trial in February this year, a medical expert described Melissa’s horrific injuries.
"Not counting the bruises on her extremities, she suffered at least 18 different blows," they said. "Most of them were concentrated on the face, neck and upper chest."
It was tough for Melissa’s family to hear the details, including the fact one stab wound was to her face.
Sarah testified against Travion and confirmed he’d broken in to rob the apartment, but added that Ronald was the ring leader who had manipulated them both. Travion claimed he wasn’t in the room when Ronald attacked Melissa, but the prosecution argued that he’d actually delivered one of the first fatal blows.
A loving mum
The prosecution were damning of the senseless crime: "Melissa went to bed with her daughter down the hall and these guys came in and did this! Why? For an iPhone?"
The jury found Travion guilty of first-degree murder and, at the sentencing, the jury recommended a life sentence without parole. Melissa’s loved ones could finally have their say. Hannah, now 10, bravely spoke to the jury about her ‘loving’ mum who always had a smile on her face.
She talked about the murder and explained that she slept with a loud fan on so was confused about the sounds that night.
"I heard a screaming noise and went back to sleep," she said. "It didn’t sound like it was in our apartment."
Hannah went on to describe what had happened when she’d woken up the next morning.
"I walked into the room and saw that she wasn’t alive," she said. Lawyers showed the jury the paper heart Hannah had made in the ambulance after finding her mum’s body.
When Hannah was asked what she’d miss most about her mum, she replied, "I’m not going to be able to have her at my wedding. For the important times."
In April this year, Sarah Redden, now 21, pleaded guilty to accessory to first-degree murder. She was the lookout and as part of the deal, she also pleaded guilty to breaking and entering. She got 54-77 months and was given credit for time served.
The crime was utterly senseless. That fateful night, they thought they were robbing Melissa of an iPhone, but they stole her whole future.