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Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
Kelly Ryan was born in 1972 and grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. She was a gymnast and studied under a legendary coach named Bela Karoli. When she started at the University of South Carolina, Kelly led both the dance team and cheerleading squad.
Talking to Oxygen’s “Snapped,” Kelly’s friend Mandy Polk said: “She was good at everything, she was always the captain of the team, she did a lot of the choreography for the team, so she was always very athletic.”
Kelly had been in the process of training to be a Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader when she saw a women’s fitness competition on TV and became enamored by the bodybuilders. She immediately started training and was soon on stages competing.
Polk told “Snapped,” “Kelly came in and she was a cyclone on stage. She was unstoppable; she was a force.”
She became somewhat of a minor celebrity in the world of competitive fitness. At one competition, a bodybuilder named Craig Titus approached Kelly and asked her out.
Author Glenn Puit told “Snapped,” “Craig Titus saw Kelly Ryan competing on stage in a fitness competition, and he knew from the moment he saw her that he was in love with her.”
Kelly repeatedly declined Craig’s advances since he had a bit of a reputation.
According to “Snapped,” Craig had been arrested in the mid-‘90s for selling ecstasy, and then when he tested positive for steroids, he served time in prison.
Local news anchor Heidi Hayes told “Snapped,” “Craig Titus kind of had the moniker of the bad boy of the fitness world. He kind of had a temper; he didn’t play by the rules.”
Craig became a top builder and was open about his steroid use saying, “Dude, you don’t get this big without doing steroids.”
He was great at self-promotion and very charming and persistent, and eventually Kelly agreed to go out with him.
The two ended up falling in love and moved to Las Vegas, where they got married in July 2000 at the Little White Wedding Chapel.
According to CBS News, at this point, Craig and Kelly were “stars in the world of professional bodybuilding” who “posed for magazines and competed at events while trying to turn their chiseled muscles and crafted images into fame and fortune.”
Kelly and Craig cashed in on their success, doing articles articles, endorsing products and earning money for coaching.
The couple used their new financial success to buy a 3,000 square foot house with a gym, movie, theater and garage full of expensive cars, including Kelly’s prized red Jaguar. They partied hard as well.
Craig’s friend Wayne Dennis told “Snapped,” “Every time they would win, whether it would be win an endorsement and get paid or they had win a contest or a competition, they’d have a party. They were like sex parties; drug parties.”
Kelly and Craig wanted to make sure that their income kept up with their lifestyle, so they looked for new businesses in which they could invest. They even took on a personal assistant to help, and her name was Melissa James.
Melissa was an attractive dancer and choreographer from Panama City, Florida, who had met Kelly and Craig when she was helping out at a bodybuilding contest at Panama City Beach. During the competition, Craig and Melissa spent some “physical” time alone. Craig told Melissa that she could move out to Vegas to push her career.
She quickly got caught up in the party lifestyle and started going out to Vegas on a regular basis, usually working as Kelly and Craig’s assistant. Melissa often stayed with the couple, sleeping on their couch and eventually in her own room in their house.
Defense attorney Michael V. Cristalli told “Snapped,” “Craig Titus liked to go around and be with other women, and I think there was kind of a triangle between Melissa, Kelly, and Craig.”
Craig often hit on Melissa, and it made both her and Kelly uncomfortable. Finally in 2003, she returned home to Florida and started up her own dance studio. But over the following two years, Melissa struggled.
According to “Snapped,” she had run-ins with the law over bad checks and credit card fraud. She had been involved in a drug-filled lifestyle in Vegas and was struggling to find her way out of it.
In 2005, her dance studio went out of business, and Melissa turned to Craig and Kelly. Melissa then started working on Craig and Kelly’s latest business venture: opening a fitness apparel store. While she was happy to be back on her feet, the problematic dynamic of living together continued.
Dennis explained, “You have two competitive women trying to compete for the attention of one bodybuilding guy that’s like the harem leader.”
It seemed that Craig was playing the pair off each other.
In the early morning of December 14, 2005, a truck driver on a highway outside Las Vegas passed by a Red Jaguar followed by a grey pickup truck. Both cars were traveling very fast and disappeared into the distance.
Minutes later, the truck driver saw the pickup again speeding back from the desert onto the highway headed the other way. Then, the truck driver saw flames in the distant desert and called in the fire.
A volunteer fire chief took the call and headed down to put out the small fire.
Fire Chief Dick Draper told “Snapped,” “I moved some of the seat cushions – what was left of them there — and that's when I seen the red jacket and the arm.”
He immediately called the police, who found a body in the trunk, wrapped in charred fabric. The hands and feet had been burned so badly they appeared to be missing. The detectives tentatively identified the body as female. The officers then ran the plates of the car, which was registered to Kelly Ryan. Hours after find the burning car, officers headed to Kelly Ryan’s home.
Police headed to Kelly’s home, and they were surprised when she answered the door. She told investigators she had been planning on calling the police to report that her car had been stolen. When detectives told her that her car had been found with a torched body in the trunk, she didn’t seem fazed.
Kelly informed police that Melissa was their live-in personal assistant who had left the previous day on bad terms. She said Melissa had been on drugs and there were suspicious charges on their credit cards. After Kelly confronted Melissa about the charges, they told detectives they thought Melissa broke into their home and stole their car keys while they were sleeping.
But, they had no idea how she might have ended up dead in the trunk or who owned the grey pickup.
According to “Snapped,” the medical examiner identified Melissa, and the toxicology report revealed heroin and a synthetic opiate in the body. There was also evidence of ligature strangulation. The medical examiner, however, could not determine if she died of an overdose or strangulation.
Detectives learned that Craig had had an affair with Melissa and that Craig and Kelly were involved with drugs. Despite their wild side and their relationship to Melissa, investigators couldn’t find any evidence to connect them to the murder. But they had a strong hunch about the couple, so they pulled phone records for Craig. He had called someone a dozen times the night of the murder: a fellow bodybuilder named Anthony Gross.
On December 19, Anthony came to the station with his attorney. Immediately, detectives were aware why he lawyered up: It was his gray pickup that had been seen on the highway.
Anthony had received a call from Craig late at night asking for a favor. He followed them into the desert to ditch the Jaguar, not knowing what was in the trunk. Anthony was also caught on video purchasing a small amount of gasoline in a gas can. Both the Jaguar and the pickup were seen on video, but police couldn’t see Craig and Kelly in the car.
Then detectives searched the couple’s spending records and found transactions made at 3:30 AM that night. Kelly was seen on video purchasing a juice drink, a set of barbecue tools and seven bottles of lighter fluid. Craig and Kelly were then filmed in the parking lot putting their purchases in the back seat, not the trunk.
The investigators were also contacted by a couple, Megan and Jeremy Foley, who said they were close with Kelly and Craig. The Foleys said they were invited over for drinks on the evening in question.
Craig told them that they had thrown Melissa out after discovering she had been stealing and using drugs, and he even showed them the bloody needles in her room.
While Craig tried to build an alibi, Kelly told Megan that a fight had broken out between her and Melissa. The altercation had become physical, and Craig had to step in and took the side of his wife, repeatedly body-slamming Melissa to subdue her. Melissa continued to fight back until Craig put her in a choke hold.
Terrified of what they had heard, the couple left Craig and Kelly’s house shortly after. Before they left, Craig gave them a duffle bag he said he would recover from them a few days later. It contained duct tape and a taser. The Foleys debated what to do for the next day, but upon seeing news reports of the red Jaguar with a body inside, they contacted their lawyer who contacted the police.
At this point, the couple had fled town, but they were finally arrested in a Boston suburb after a nine-day nationwide manhunt, according to CBS News. Upon apprehension, Kelly claimed they found Melissa dead of an overdose, panicked and decided to get rid of her body.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Daskas told “Snapped,” “Craig in particular claimed that he couldn’t have a dead body, an overdose associated with his celebrity status it would ruin his career and so he claims he made the decision to get rid of Melissa, the car and make this look like something other than it was.”
While both individually producing the same story in interrogation, Kelly and Craig also both produced the same witnesses: The Foleys. They didn’t know, however, that the Foleys had already contacted the police and handed over the bag of duct tape and a taser.
Kelly and Craig were booked on multiple charges and flown back to Vegas into a media spectacle.
Something Kelly and Craig didn’t know was that tasers record a timestamp of every time they are used. That taser had been used six times in two minutes on the afternoon of December 13, 2005. Tasers also leave behind “taser dots,” which are tiny dots of foil marked with the taser cartridge serial number.
After obtaining a search warrant, detectives found that the taser had been discharged in two locations of the house five times. A grand jury indicted the two with use of a deadly weapon, kidnapping and arson.
Two-and-a-half years later, the pair stood trial. Despite the heaps of evidence, Melissa could have ultimately died from a drug overdose such as her toxicology report suggested. The day before the trial, Kelly and Craig made individual plea deals. According to CBS, Craig pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and Kelly entered an Alford plea to battery with a deadly weapon. As CBS explained, the Alford plea meant she didn’t admit guilt, but acknowledged that enough evidence existed to convict her. NBC News reported that both also pleaded guilty to burning Melissa’s body.
According to NBC, the judge sentenced Craig to 21 to 55 years. Kelly was sentenced to 6 to 26 years in prison after being convicted of battery with a deadly weapon and arson, according to Muscle Magazine Fitness.
Kelly divorced Craig while in prison, and on October 24, 2017, she was released on parole.