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Crime News Sin City Murders

Pro Bodybuilder and Wife Tase, Batter and Duct Tape Assistant Before Burning Her Body in Car Fire

“Whatever the motive was, the evidence is that Melissa James died a horrible death at the hands of Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan," a former Clark County chief deputy district attorney said.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

On the morning of December 14, 2005, emergency workers who responded to a 911 call about a burning car outside Las Vegas found the charred body of a woman in the trunk.

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The victim’s head “had been completely encircled with duct tape,” Dean O’Kelley, who was a homicide detective with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department at the time, told Sin City Murders, airing Sundays at 7/6c p.m. on Oxygen. “There was also a fabric ligature around the neck.”

The severely burned body was transferred to the medical examiner’s office, while crime scene analysts combed through the vehicle.

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Bodybuilders Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan tied to burnt car 

The car, a red 2003 Jaguar, was found to be registered to then 33-year-old Kelly Ryan. At Ryan’s residence, police found her to be very much alive. She was with her husband, Craig Michael Titus, 39.

Investigators learned that Ryan was a fitness competitor. And Titus was a top-tier bodybuilder professional, said Josh Tomsheck, a former Chief Deputy DA with the Clark County District Attorney’s Office.

Craig Titus featured on Sin City Murders episode 108

Ryan said she believed that her car had been taken by their 28-year-old live-in assistant, Melissa James. The couple said they didn’t report the Jag missing because they were hoping it would be returned and they didn’t want to involve police.

They claimed that James “was using drugs... and stealing from them,” Tomsheck said.

On December 12, the three had decided to go their separate ways, according to the couple. At this time, James was staying in a motel before she was to head home to the East Coast to be with her family, they said. 

What the autopsy of body found in trunk revealed

The autopsy showed that the victim found in the trunk was dead before the car fire, due to a lack of smoke found in the lungs.

“The fabric ligature and duct tape certainly would have been enough to strangle a person,” said O’Kelley.

Morphine, “enough to kill almost any human being,” was also found in the victim's system, said Tomsheck.

The cause of death — strangulation or overdose — was undetermined by the medical examiner.

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Once an area of duct tape that was covering the victim's face was carefully removed, the center of the victim's face was visible. Detectives, comparing the victim's face to photos of James from the bodybuilding couple's home, were now confident that they were dealing with her remains. 

Investigators had to rely on DNA evidence to confirm the victim's identity. They reached out to Maura James, the mother of the bodybuilders' assistant, to provide DNA. But detectives had to wait for the results.

Melissa James featured on Sin City Murders episode 108

Who was Melissa James?

Investigators learned that James grew up in Panama City, Florida. Her mom described her as “very confident” and “really gifted in dance.” So much so, that she launched her own dance studio.

In 2001, she met Titus by chance at a Florida bodybuilding competition. “Craig can spot an ambitious woman,” said investigative journalist Michael Fleeman, who wrote a book about the case, called Killer Bodies. Titus asked James to work for him.

She jumped at the chance and moved to Vegas, where she helped run the couple’s retail store. But by 2005, James was ready to move on and return home.

James’ mom went to the airport on December 14 to pick up her daughter. When James was a no-show, her mother worried. She told police that James had a new boyfriend, but he was quickly ruled out as a suspect.

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Was jealousy a motive in James' killing?

Sexually charged text messages on James’ phone hinted that she might have been having an affair with Titus. Investigators dug deeper into the married couple’s background.

They found out that Titus had a criminal record. “When he was starting his pro career, he was arrested for dealing steroids,” said Fleeman.

Titus “spent some time in prison for some drug violations and probation violations related to those drug charges,” said O’Kelley.

Kelly Ryan featured on Sin City Murders episode 108

Early on in their relationship, Titus and Ryan were at the top of their fields. Over the years, that changed. “They started to party,” said pro bodybuilder and journalist Shawn Ray. “The temptations of Sin City crept into their house.”

Around this time, James came on to the scene. She helped run their equipment store and moved in with them. “The word on the street is that there were threesomes going on,” said Ray.

“Word got out that Melissa and Kelly weren’t getting along,” said Fleeman. “Jealousy is a powerful motive for murder.”

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A new lead in the Melissa James case

On December 17, Amanda, a bodybuilder who was Ryan’s friend, reached out to investigators. She shared what Ryan told her about James.

“Kelly told Amanda that Craig had found Melissa dead from an overdose,” said O’Kelley. Ryan feared the publicity would crush what was left of their careers, she said, adding that Craig arranged for the body to be taken away.

Detectives obtained a warrant for Titus’ cell phone records. They saw calls around 2:30 a.m. on December 14 with Anthony Gross, a “bodybuilding groupie,” said Tomsheck.

Gross told investigators that he had met Titus at a gas station. Ryan was with him in her Jaguar. They were filling gas cans.

Ryan got into Gross’ truck and they followed Titus to another area. Titus put a gallon of gas into the Jaguar and lit it on fire before climbing into Gross’ truck.

An Evidence Photo of a burned car on Sin City Murders episode 108

Gross told police that he didn’t know why Titus torched Ryan’s car, according to Fleeman. Investigators didn’t buy that, but they didn’t have enough evidence to hold Gross.

On December 20, James’ financial report showed that her credit card was used at a Walmart near Titus and Ryan’s home.

Store surveillance video from 3:31 a.m. on December 14, shortly before the burning Jaguar was found, showed that Ryan used James’ card to buy seven bottles of lighter fluid.

Nearby security cameras showed that Gross was across the street from Walmart at the same time.

On December 21, investigators returned to the home of Titus and Ryan. “There was ample evidence that they had fled,” said Jessie Sams, a former senior crime scene analyst for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Kelly Ryan featured on Sin City Murders episode 108

Another key witness comes forward

Police issued a press release asking for the public’s help to track down the suspects. Around the same time, investigators were contacted by a criminal defense attorney whose client, a female friend of Ryan’s, had information on the case.

The woman was with Titus and Ryan the night before the body was found. She said that Ryan confided that a fight broke out between herself and James, and that James pulled out a taser and threatened Ryan with it, according to Fleeman. Ryan was able to grab the taser and turn it on James, she said.

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Titus told the friend that “he had body-slammed Melissa and that he had choked her out,” said O’Kelley.

At the home of Titus and Ryan, investigators found tiny confetti-like dots discharged from a taser. Detectives determined that a taser was fired five times on December 13 at 2:10 p.m.

Craig Titus featured on Sin City Murders episode 108

Craig Titus, Kelly Ryan, Anthony Gross arrested

Gross was arrested for his role in disposing of James’ body. A manhunt for Titus and Ryan ended on December 23 about 20 miles from Boston, NBC News reported at the time.

The couple was arrested and extradited to Vegas. They denied killing James. Finally, on January 18, 2006, DNA results confirmed that the victim found in the car was James.

Through another witness, investigators learned that Titus had said he tasered James and poured morphine down her throat, according to O’Kelley.

“There is overwhelming evidence that Melissa James was assaulted, battered, taped, tased and burned,” said Tomsheck.

Was the motive jealousy? Were drugs involved? Investigators aren't sure. “Whatever the motive was," Tomsheck added, "the evidence is that Melissa James died a horrible death at the hands of Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan.”

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In May 2006, Titus pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 21 to 55 years in prison.

Ryan — who pleaded guilty to arson, and entered an Alford plea to battery with a deadly weapon resulting in significant bodily harm — was sentenced to two consecutive terms of three to 13 years behind bars. She was paroled in 2017.

For his cooperation in the investigation, Gross was given a probationary sentence but was never incarcerated.

To learn more about the case, covered in the “Fit for Murder” episode, watch Sin City Murders, airing Sundays at 7/6c p.m. on Oxygen.