"Las Vegas is a city built on hopes, dreams, and a little bit of crazy."
It was the 14th of December 2005. A Wednesday. Melissa James was due to return home from Las Vegas for the Holidays to visit her mother, Maura, in New Jersey, United States. She called Maura that day from a KFC and told her she was having lunch and she would see her that evening. That was the last time Maura ever heard from her daughter.
As a professional dancer and trained ballet instructor, 28 year old Melissa was destined for stardom. She had spent her life on the stage and lived for and loved to dance. It was a dream come true for Melissa to open her own dance studio and she did so when she was just 19 years old in Florida. That dream was short lived though when a bad business deal put her dance studio in jeopardy. She needed to look elsewhere to make some money.
Not one to give up, Melissa continued networking and putting herself out there to build a name for herself and it was at a fitness competition where she met Craig Titus. He saw the passion and fire that Melissa had to work and succeed and urged her to move to Las Vegas as there would be more opportunity for her there. That's how Melissa ended up in Las Vegas.
Melissa hoped to make enough money in Las Vegas to get her dance studio back. She loved children and that's why she wanted to teach them how to dance. She loved seeing children become beautiful little dancers. That wasn't her only passion though. She enjoyed the spotlight too and took part in promotional campaigns and modelling work.
Craig was no stranger to the spotlight, he was part of a power couple in the world of body building and was well known in Las Vegas along with his wife Kelly Ryan. Kelly was known as "Flyin' Ryan" and had held the title of Ms Fitness America. She won numerous titles and competitions including Ms Fitness Olympia and Fitness International. Craig seemed like the ideal match. He also had titles in the fitness world such as Mr Olympia and Ironman.
Kelly was described by those who knew her as an American cheerleader. She got that description due to her cheery and energetic nature, she was always happy. She began training as a gymnast at a young age and in any team she joined she would always be made the leader. When she became involved in fitness and body building it was no different and she loved to perform and train others. Craig and Kelly were different in the sense that Kelly was sweet and Craig was extremely arrogant and a player but they were similar in their work ethic and drive.Initially, she refused Craig's advances a number of times but he persisted and she eventually agreed to date him and they later married at the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas.
Kelly and Craig
When they joined forces, they really dominated the fitness market. They appeared on the covers of magazines, got endorsement deals and attended glitzy events. They were well known in Las Vegas and they were the couple that people in the fitness world looked up to.
So when they said that Melissa could live with them , she couldn't believe her luck. This was her chance to really make it. After four months in Las Vegas however, Melissa told her mother that it wasn't how she thought it would be and she was thinking about moving home for good. Craig bought her a ticket home for the Holidays but Melissa never made it back to New Jersey. Melissa never got the chance to even leave Las Vegas.
On the 14th of December 2005, a trucker, heading towards Las Vegas saw a car on fire on the Sandy Valley Road and it was reported to the fire authorities and police.
A jaguar automobile had been torched and abandoned just outside Las Vegas. When police investigated, they discovered that there was a charred body in the trunk of the car. The car was registered to Kelly Ryan. Police called to her home and when Kelly answered the door, they realised that while the car may be registered to her, she obviously wasn't the body in the trunk. So if that was her car, then why was there a body in it?
Detectives entered the home. It was a 5 bedroom home in a quiet area in Las Vegas. Detectives told Kelly that they found her car and she informed them that she noticed it had been stolen at 5 am that morning and she thought that Melissa had taken it. She told police that Melissa was their roommate and assistant. Kelly seemed eager to tell them about a fight that her and Craig had with Melissa. She told police she was furious with Melissa as they just discovered she had stolen from them and was now missing. Detectives asked why the car had not been reported as stolen to police. Craig told them that he thought it was a private matter, as they believed Melissa was involved so called their friend Anthony Gross instead. They then went out and looked for Melissa and the car but could not find them.
Detectives split Craig and Kelly up as they wanted to know more about Melissa and about what happened. They both said that Melissa was a live in assistant , she was there to help them with their personal affairs. Craig told them an extra piece of information and said that he and Melissa had had sexual relations in the past but Kelly was not aware of that. This was information that the Detectives made sure to take a note of.
Craig and Kelly
Craig and Kelly both believed that Melissa had been stealing from them. They said that she stole money from their bank accounts and charged items to their credit cards. Kelly asked her about it and there was a fight so Craig booked a room for Melissa for the last two nights at the La Quinta on Sahara and Fort Apache. Detectives checked with the hotel and Room 232 had been reserved by Craig. He told Detectives that on the first night, he was there with Melissa. That was on the Monday night. On the Tuesday afternoon, Melissa went back to the house. Kelly told her she could no longer live there and Craig booked her a flight to New Jersey. That flight was due to leave that very night. Kelly told Detectives Melissa packed her things and Kelly dropped her off at a convenience store to wait for a lift she was getting to the airport. That was at around 2.30 pm that afternoon (the Tuesday) and that was the last time Kelly saw her. Craig also confirmed that but he told Detectives Kelly dropped Melissa off in his car, Kelly had told them she was driving her own car at the time.
Craig and Kelly
After the interview, it was confirmed that the body was that of Melissa James. The autopsy revealed two ligatures, a piece of white fabric that appeared to be rope from a bathrobe and an insulated wire, had been tied around Melissa'a neck and this lead the coroner to suspect she died from asphyxiation but that was a belief and was not conclusive. Toxicology tests confirmed there were high levels of morphine in her system.
Detectives had to build a case to try to establish what had happened to Melissa as they believed that Craig and Kelly were involved in her death.
Craig and Kelly knew it was only a matter of time before Detectives would question them again so they wasted no time. They made plans to not only leave Las Vegas but planned to leave the United States. They were looking into how to liquidate their assets, get new travel documents and looked into moving to a country that had no extradition agreement with the United States. It was clear they were trying to escape and Detectives knew they had to gather evidence and gather it quickly.
It didn't take long for Detectives to have what they needed to arrest Craig and Kelly. They were arrested a little over a week after Melissa's body was found just outside of Boston.
When they were arrested, Kelly and Craig had a story prepared for Detectives. They told them that when Kelly dropped Melissa off, they had a dinner party at their home with friends, Megan and Jeremy. Kelly noticed the light on in the garage and found Melissa in the car. She had a needle in her leg and there were several needles around her. Kelly told Detectives they burned the car to get rid of the body. Kelly told them she knew Melissa was doing methamphetamines as she found needles in the house before that date. Craig provided further details. He said when they found Melissa dead, they knew she had overdosed and knew that their careers would be ruined as a result so they wanted to get rid of the body. They dragged her into the house and wrapped her face with duct tape, wrapped her body in blankets and put the body in the trunk of the car.
Craig and Kelly's house
Detectives did not believe their version of events.
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 and Craig, showed Kelly purchasing seven bottles of lighter fluid at 3:30 a.m., on Wednesday, December 14.
Detectives received a call from Lauren Amanda Polk. 20 year old Lauren was an amateur fitness competitor who had moved to Nevada to train under Kelly Ryan. She lived with her boyfriend, Ryan Chastain, in a house rented out by Kelly. She told Detectives that on the 15th of December, Kelly and Craig came over her house at about 5 and were anxious and paranoid. They told her that Kelly's Jaguar had been stolen and found burnt in the desert with a dead body inside. Later that night, Lauren drove to a restaurant to collect dinner with Kelly and it was then that Kelly confided in her. Kelly told her they found Melissa overdosed in her room and she bought seven bottles of lighter fluid from Wal-Mart and they drove the car out to where it was found and took care of it.
Along with that , police had other evidence from other friends that Kelly and Craig had confided in and a taser gun that had been used on Melissa was found in a duffle bag. If Melissa had overdosed, why would a taser be needed? The taser also showed it had been used five times that day. It was clear that only Craig and Kelly knew exactly what happened in their house that day.
Detectives alleged Craig and Kelly attacked Melissa with a Taser, drugged her with morphine, duct-taped her face, restrained her and beat her. They then put her in the trunk of Kelly’s car, drove it into the desert and set it on fire. However , as the autopsy revealed that morphine had been found in Melissa's system and as Craig and Kelly alleged she had overdosed, it is easy to see why a plea deal was agreed instead. Nobody wanted to risk Craig and Kelly receiving no punishment at all.
As part of the plea deal, Craig plead guilty to the second-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and arson in the death of Melissa and Kelly pleaded guilty to the arson and battery with a deadly weapon with significant bodily harm.
Craig was sentenced to spend 21 years to 55 years in prison and Kelly was sentenced to 6 years to 26 years for her role in prison. In Court, Craig told the Judge that he had killed Melissa in a drug fuelled fight but had not meant to take her life. Their actions in the aftermath tell a different story though. They wanted to get rid of any trace of Melissa and when that didn't work they tried to evade justice by fleeing the state. They had no concern for Melissa or for her family. They were only concerned for themselves.
Craig and Kelly
On Tuesday 24th October 2017, Kelly was released on parole after serving a nearly 9 year prison sentence and she divorced Craig. Whatever happened that day, it is clear that both Craig and Kelly were involved in Melissa'a death and they should have both been sentenced accordingly. For Kelly to be free now is an insult to Melissa's family. The couple who once had it all allowed themselves to get caught up in the darker side of fame. Their addiction to perfection made them into monsters. Their happy life was just a front and behind closed doors, they took drugs and cheated on each other. There is no doubt that Kelly was jealous of Melissa but instead of just letting her fly to New Jersey, she had to make sure she was gone from their lives for good. Melissa would have been no match for Craig and Kelly and knowing that they still made sure to taser her five times which meant that there was absolutely nothing Melissa could do.