"I felt overwhelmed at the time. It felt like I needed to do something. And I did."
It was the 14th of September 2016. A Wednesday. A fire was reported early that morning at Acorn Woods at Grapevine Lake, Texas, United States and firefighters put it out. They discovered what appeared to be a melted child's paddling pool. There was a charred body inside. They could not determine if the body was the body of a man, woman or child.
The body was identified via fingerprints and it was the body of Jackie Vandagriff. Jackie was a twenty four year old licensed esthetician and was studying nutrition at the Texas Woman's University in Denton. She had not been reported missing so police believed she must have been killed shortly after she was last seen. They quickly established that Jackie was last seen out the night of the 13th of September, just one night before her body was found on fire. Jackie had been to two bars in Denton that night. One was called Fry Street Public House and the other was called Shots and Crafts.
In addition to being set on fire, Jackie had been dismembered and decapitated, and her heart had been removed. It was of extreme importance that whoever was capable of such barbarity was found as a matter of urgency. Police received a number of tips about a man seen beside the fire and they found footage of Jackie from the night of the 13th of September. She was seen on the footage talking to a man. A group of women who were at the bar that night told them that the man had given one of them his business card as he said as he was a fitness instructor and she was looking for a personal trainer. His name was Charles Bryant.
Surveillance Footage of Charles and Jackie at the bar
Police established that Jackie and Charles had just met that night, the night of the 13th of September. It was a chance encounter as Jackie initially only went to the bar to see if there was any work available. She planned on meeting someone she met via Tinder that night but changed her mind. When she was at the bar, she spoke to the bartender and thirty one year old Charles. Then they met a group of women and spent time with them. Jackie's friends described her as sociable and told police it was not unusual for Jackie to talk to different people she met on a night out.
Charles was at the Fry Street Public House from around 7pm that night. He had been out with friends earlier in the evening but he was alone at the bar. Jackie got there around 8pm, she asked the bartender if there was any work available and she stayed for a while at the bar talking to the bartender and Charles. From the footage police had obtained from the inside of the bar, it appeared that Jackie was having a good time. Just 45 minutes after she arrived at the bar, she tweeted:
"I'm glad I decided to get off tinder and walked to a bar."
The three of them, Jackie, the bartender and Charles, left the bar at 9pm and went to another bar nearby. It was at that bar that they met a group of women and they remained at the bar for around 45 minutes. At that stage, the weather was bad, it was raining heavily, and everyone began to head home.
Jackie is seen on the footage leaving the bar with Charles and then at a convenience store. That was the last time Jackie was seen alive.
When Jackie met Charles that night she would not have been aware of his past. In the weeks leading up to that night, Charles had been arrested three times. He was in the Denton area for one reason and one reason only, his ex girlfriend Caitlin Mathis. Charles did not live in Denton, he lived twenty miles away in Haslet but Caitlin had recently moved to Denton to attend the University of North Texas and lived on campus in Denton. She had filed a restraining order against him. After just a few months of dating, Caitlin ended the relationship in August 2016 as she described it as toxic due to how manipulative Charles was and his narcissism.
Despite Caitlin ending the relationship and moving to Denton, Charles would not let her move on with her life. Police found him wandering around the campus and banned him from the campus. But he was determined to make Caitlin talk to him. He showed up at the restaurant where she worked on the 31st of August and on the 6th of September, despite being banned from the campus, he knocked on Caitlin's door. She felt scared and didn't answer the door. She called the police. Charles left flowers and a letter outside her door and police found him outside. He was arrested for trespassing.
Charles being arrested on Campus
Within a matter of hours, he had posted bond and was released and immediately contacted Caitlin via a new email address he set up:
"here i am heartbroken and with a criminal record for bringing the girl i love flowers."
Caitlin got an emergency Protective Order.
He continued to try to make contact and was arrested for stalking. He was released two days later when he posted bond. A week later, on the 13th of September, he returned to Denton. He went to the bar Fry Street Public House as he knew Caitlin often went to that area.
Even though police were aware of what had happened between Charles and Caitlin, there was not enough evidence to arrest him in relation to Jackie's murder. They knew he was with her that night but that was all they had. They needed more. And they got their chance to question him shortly after Jackie's body was found. Charles tried to contact Caitlin again and as a result, he was brought in for questioning as he had violated his retraining order. He was questioned on the 18th of September 2016 in relation to Jackie's death.
By that point, police had obtained surveillance footage from the area and spoke to people who were at the bars. They also tracked his movements and discovered that in the early morning hours of the 14th of September, at 4.41am, Charles went to Walmart and purchased a shovel and there was a children's paddling pool missing from his backyard.
Surveillance Footage of Charles purchasing a shovel
When police spoke to Charles, he said he saw Jackie at the bar but that was it. But as the Detective took Charles through all the evidence they had, in a detailed and chronological order, it was clear that Charles knew that there was no way he could deny not being with Jackie that night. He eventually admitted that Jackie died when she was with him but it was accidental. He told the Detective that she died when they had kinky sex. According to Charles, when they got into his car that night after leaving the bar together, Jackie wanted him to choke her with a zip tie. He had a zip tie in his car. Police did not believe him and he was charged with murder and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.
It was the Prosecution's case that Charles met Jackie that night and after they went to the second bar together, they went back to his house. The Jury heard from the Medical Examiner that they ran tests on Jackie's remains and found no evidence of sexual assault. It was the Prosecution's case that Jackie did not die as a result of any type of sexual encounter. They believed she was viciously assaulted and strangled to death with a zip tie before being cut up with a knife and set on fire.
The Prosecution told the Jury that the evidence would prove that they both met on the 13th of September at the bar and left together and there was just the two of them when they left in his car. There was nobody with them. They also heard that the evidence, such as items found and DNA, would prove that Jackie was inside his house. The Jury saw the surveillance footage from the bars and heard from patrons and employees from the bars who testified that they saw Charles and Jackie together. The surveillance footage that was shown to the Jury showed Charles and Jackie leaving the bar together and they got into his car at 9.46pm. The footage revealed that they did not leave the carpark until thirty minutes later.
Surveillance footage from a gas station in Denton showed Jackie inside his car at 10.30pm. That was the last time Jackie was seen alive. Jackie's phone had utilized a cell tower that night at about 1.30 am on the 14th of September in a coverage area of Haslet, Texas. That area included his home.
The Jury heard that Jackie had a TWU bag (Texas Woman's University) with her when she was at the bar and police found a TWU bag at his house. They found a zip tie that had hair on it in the trash can outside his house. There was a blue children's paddling pool in his backyard that was the same design as the one that was found on fire. Beside the pool, there was a circular barren area which indicated that there had been another pool there.
Evidence Photo of the Zip Tie with Hair
Police found a knife, that police believed was used to stab Jackie and dismember her, inside his house and a stun gun in his car and they were submitted into evidence.
The Medical Examiner told the Court that Jackie died as a result of homicidal violence.They testified that Jackie did not have soot in her airways. That indicated that she was not alive when her body was set on fire. The Medical Examiner testified that Jackie had fractures of the hyoid bone. This was caused by “force applied to the upper neck.”
A forensic anthropologist told the Court that the hyoid bone is “a U-shaped bone that is deep in the throat and anchors the tongue.”
Jackie had a broken hyoid bone and fractured ribs. The forensic anthropologist testified that the injuries were perimortem and not attributable to decapitation or dismemberment. She testified that injuring the hyoid bone is consistent with strangulation. It requires direct pressure which is usually a result of strangulation by hands or a ligature. It could not be determined in Jackie's case if the bone was fractured manually with hands or due to the use of a ligature as her soft tissue had been burned due to her body being set on fire. She testified that in her opinion the injuries were caused by strangulation and agreed, when asked, that a zip tie could have caused the injury.
Evidence Photo of the Knife found
Jackie received an injury that resulted from blunt force trauma to her head. It was unlikely to be post-mortem because of the amount of hemorrhaging. There were stab wounds that did not appear to be part of the process of dismembering her body. The State’s expert testified that from the nature of these wounds, they appeared to be inflicted while Jackie was still alive:
“Well, the fact that there was some bleeding around those stab wounds suggests that she was alive at the time they were received, which means that those could have bled.”
The Jury heard that other injuries on Jackie's body were inflicted after death. Her chest was opened and her heart was removed from her body. Multiple ribs on Jackie’s body were fractured.
A DNA profile extracted from the zip tie, stun gun and knife made it almost statistically impossible that the sample came from someone other than Jackie. The DNA analyst testified that DNA was found on the stun gun recovered from his car and that Jackie could not be excluded as the major contributor.
It was the Defense's case that there was no evidence that Jackie died of violent means caused by Charles. It was their case that Jackie died during “consensual, risky, kinky sex.” As a result of that, Charles panicked and made an attempt to dispose of Jackie's body.
The Jury heard from Defense witnesses in relation to “erotica asphyxiation” and people who take part in it do so to derive pleasure from depriving their brain of oxygen.
It was the Defense's case that a zip tie was placed around Jackie’s throat as part of a consensual sexual act and she died due to the zip tie and as a result of that consensual act. The Court heard from the Defense that Jackie’s body went limp and Charles "freaked out." His lawyer argued that the dismemberment, decapitation, and setting the body on fire afterwards was a drunken chaotic reaction to the panic he was experiencing.
His attorney, Joetta Keene, in closing arguments, said that Charles made a bad mistake:
"He's guilty of making a horrible mistake when something went wrong. There was no motive for a good looking guy to kill that good looking girl."
The Prosecution, in their closing, told the Jury there was no evidence that they even had sex. They claimed the Defense's argument that he panicked was nonsensical due to his actual actions:
"The Defense says he freaked out. But their own expert said it was homicidal violence. Why cut out the heart? What does it have to do with disposing of a body? He cut her heart out. I want that image to sink in."
The Jury had to decide whether they believed that Jackie was murdered and it was a deliberate act or if she died as a result of a consensual sex act. They found Charles guilty of murder and tampering with evidence. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder conviction and 20 years’ confinement for tampering. The sentences will be served concurrently.
Before the Trial, there was a lot of discussion as to what the possible motive could be. Prosecutors tend to worry if there is no clear motive as Jurors like to hear a full story and explanation of what happened. They have to be certain of their verdict before they convict and in many cases, a motive adds huge weight to the Prosecution's case. In this case, the Prosecution had no motive. But does that matter? When the evidence is clear, do we need a motive? In cases like this, the motive is usually a sexual one but the Prosecution argued there was no evidence any sexual activity took place. But we don't need to know what went through the mind of Charles Bryant that night. He wanted to do it and he did. The Prosecutor in the case, Lucas E.Allan, laid out one of the basic facts in this case. He cut her heart out. There is no motive that can ever explain such an act.
Jackie’s parents have partnered with Texas Woman's University to offer an endowment in Jackie's memory.
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