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On the morning of Saturday, March 4, 1995, two joggers at Eastside Park in Paterson, New Jersey spotted a dead body wrapped in a sleeping bag.
The victim had no identification, and she was "young, 18 or 19, fairly tall, young lady, about 130 pounds, Black female,” retired Paterson Police Captain Frank Robina told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
The victim had experienced massive trauma to the back of her head, and the lack of blood outside the sleeping bag suggested that she had been murdered elsewhere.
When the victim’s fingerprints were run through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, investigators got a hit: 18-year-old Tara Carter.
Tara, who was born in 1976 and grew up in Paterson, was part of a tight-knit family.
“My mom was churchgoing, and my dad was a hard worker,” her older sister, Rosie Carter, told producers. “There’s never been a time I could remember that it wasn’t all of us together.”
Tara was sociable with "a very bubbly personality” and had no problem making friends, according to Rosie. One of Tara’s close friends was Wendy Payne, whom she met at school. The girls' parents also became friends; Wendy’s father, Alfonso Payne, was a driver for Tuxedo Enterprises, while her mother, Celestine Payne, was a homemaker.
In 1991, tragedy struck when Alfonso was found dead on the street in an area of Paterson known for heavy drug traffic. His death was ruled accidental, a result of mixing drugs with alcohol.
Change also came to the Carter family. After Tara and her mother moved to Alabama, Tara became pregnant at 14 and gave birth to a daughter. Tara's father, who still lived in New Jersey for work, later moved down south, and the family relocated to Albany, Georgia.
Missing her hometown, Tara eventually returned to Paterson with her sister. She rented a room at Celestine’s house and began focusing on her goal of becoming hairdresser. Tara planned to get a cosmetology license and move back to Georgia to be with her daughter, who was living with her parents at the time.
Her plans for the future were cut short, however, when her remains were found at Eastside Park.
Police quickly located Rosie, who was devastated by her little sister’s death and told authorities that they had planned to return to Georgia that week. The Friday night before they were set to leave, they were going to attend a concert together, but Tara never showed up.
Investigators next spoke with Celestine, who said she had not seen Tara since Friday, March 3, 1995 before she left to visit her two oldest daughters in South Carolina, where she remained all weekend. Celestine agreed to let authorities come to her house to search through Tara's belongings. After handing over Tara's suitcase, Celestine told investigators that Tara also kept belongings in the basement.
“They all went down to the basement to look through some more stuff, and while they were down there, detectives noticed a brown stain on the floor,” Chief Assistant Prosecutor John A. Snowdon Jr. told “Snapped.”
The mark appeared to be dried blood, and when investigators looked at the support beams above, they saw more even more stains, leading them to suspect Tara had been murdered on the upper level and that her blood had seeped through the floor.
“That of course did narrow down the suspects to someone that knew her and had access to the house. Celestine’s son, Celestine’s daughters, there were several men that lived in or frequented Celestine’s house. A lot of people were coming and going, so there were quite a few potential suspects at that point,” Snowdon told “Snapped.”
While searching Payne’s house, investigators found a life insurance policy on a man named Eugene Cooper, which named Celestine was the beneficiary. The name was familiar to authorities — they had investigated an attempt on Cooper’s life the previous year.
At the time, Cooper told police he had been stabbed by a man named Charles Darby and that they had met at Payne’s house, where Cooper was a tenant. Investigators were never able to locate Darby, and the case stalled.
Investigators then tracked down Cooper, who said he had no knowledge of a life insurance policy with Celestine as the beneficiary. He did, however, have a life insurance policy through his work, which Celestine had pressured him to sign over to her, but he refused.
Cooper said that his assailant frequently hung out at Celestine's home and had dated one of her daughters. While no one by the name of Darby had come up in Tara's investigation, Celestine had told police that her daughter Wendy was dating a Charles Pinchom.
Wondering if the two men were the same person, investigators showed Cooper a photo lineup including an image of Pinchom, and he identified him as the attacker.
Authorities located Pinchom at his mother’s house and took him into custody. When asked about the attempted murder of Cooper, he admitted to stabbing him, but he said that the plan had been hatched by someone else.
“He went into telling us that he had basically been recruited by both Celestine and Wendy to do this,” Robina told “Snapped.”
He said he had been promised money from the insurance policy to commit the murder.
Pinchom was also questioned about Tara’s murder. He claimed that Celestine asked him to kill her, but he refused. On the day of the murder, he said he went over to the Payne house and saw Celestine and her son, Aubrey Payne, dragging Tara's body across the floor.
As they continued their investigation, authorities unearthed a second life insurance policy naming Celestine as the beneficiary. This time, it was for Tara.
“So now we’ve got two individuals here that Celestine Payne has insurance policies on. What possible reason would somebody have life insurance policies out on these two individuals? They’re not even blood relatives,” Robina told producers.
Authorities secured arrest warrants for Celestine and Aubrey, and they tracked them to a family friend's home, where they had been staying since Tara’s murder investigation began.
“It appeared to us that they were trying to leave town,” retired Patterson Police Lieutenant Ron Humphrey told “Snapped.”
After learning that her son was being charged with murder, Celestine came clean to detectives.
“She admitted to the fact that they conspired to kill [Tara]. She knew we knew all about the insurance policies and everything,” Robina told producers.
Celestine said she instructed her daughter Wendy to impersonate Tara and obtain the life insurance policy, according to court documents. Pinchom was recruited as the killer, just as he had been with Cooper.
Knowing Tara was about to leave town, they decided to enact their plan on March 3. As she sat at the kitchen table curling her hair, Pinchom came up behind her and struck her several times in the back of the head with a crowbar, according to court documents.
When confronted with Celestine’s statements, Pinchom admitted Aubrey had nothing to do with the murder. He said Wendy had asked him to kill Tara in exchange for some of the insurance money.
“Charlie said he was sitting in the living room, and Celestine Payne came walking in with this crowbar and she said, ‘OK, now’s your chance,’” Snowdon told producers. “He just took the crowbar, walked into the kitchen, bashed Tara Carter in the head with it several times.”
After killing Tara, they moved her body into her bedroom and cleaned up the blood. They then dumped her remains at Eastside Park, and Celestine went to South Carolina.
After Celestine and Pinchom's confessions, Wendy was taken into custody. During questioning, she admitted that she was involved in the planning of both Tara's murder and Cooper's attempted murder. Wendy went on to claim that her mother’s insurance scams went beyond what investigators knew and that Celestine was tied to multiple arsons.
“She also said that she had no doubt that her mom poisoned her father,” Robina told “Snapped.”
Authorities subsequently learned that Alfonso had overdosed on drugs that had been prescribed to Celestine, and that she was secretly feeding him her drugs. Following her husband’s death, Celestine collected $56,000 in life insurance benefits, according to "Snapped.
“Based on all the facts, the totality of it, she was then charged with Alfonso Payne’s murder,” Robina told producers.
Wendy pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit murder in the second degree and one count of attempted murder in the first degree, and she was sentenced to 28 years in prison, according to court documents. She was released from prison in 2009.
In order to avoid the death penalty, both Celestine and Pinchom pleaded guilty to all counts and were sentenced to life in prison with a 30-year parole disqualifier, according to court documents. They will be eligible for parole in 2034.
To learn more, watch "Snapped" now on Oxygen.com.
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