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Author Diane Fanning has again found an intriguing and disturbing Triangle story to tell.

Fanning, who lives in Virginia, wrote the definitive account of the Michael Peterson case with her 2005 book Written in Blood. Her 14th true-crime book, Bitter Remains: A Custody Battle, a Gruesome Crime, and the Mother Who Paid the Ultimate Price (Berkley, 416 pages) was released last week.

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The book chronicles how a contentious custody fight led to the grisly death and dismemberment of Kinston’s Laura Jean Ackerson (left), a 27-year-old entrepreneur and graphic artist. She visited the Raleigh apartment of Grant and Amanda Hayes on July 13, 2011, to pick up her two sons from Grant, their father and her former boyfriend.

Ackerson’s chopped up remains were found in a creek near Richmond, Texas, later that month, leading Grant and Amanda Hayes to be charged, then convicted in separate trials.

Diane Fanning

“The thing that amazed me most of all was the level of venom and the total human disregard of Laura and lack of understanding of her importance to her children,” Fanning (left) said. “It’s one thing to, in a moment of rage, murder another human being. It’s quite another to kill that person and then methodically dismember the human body that gave birth to the boys you claim you love.”

Convicted of first-degree murder in September 2013, Hayes (top photo) is serving a life term without hope of parole in the Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg. His appeal for a new trial was denied in March 2015. His former wife (below photo), convicted of second-degree murder in February 2014, is serving a 13- to 16-year term at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. She hasn’t filed an appeal, and Fanning doesn’t expect one.

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“She’s not a stupid woman,” said Fanning of Amanda Hayes, an actress who had very minor roles in The Sopranos and other shows, and in the movie The Stepford Wives. “She knows that if she went for a new trial, there’s a strong possibility that, this time, the jury wouldn’t be convinced that she was partially a victim. I think that she should have gotten prison for life too, honestly. Just for what she did to those children is horrible.”

After being granted a divorce in October 2014, she now goes by Amanda Smith.

Divorce is a common thread in the book, from the divorce of Ackerson’s parents when she was young to the multiple marriages of Amanda Hayes’ mother, to the multiple marriages of both Amanda Hayes and Grant Hayes. Because Amanda Hayes’ mother worked at a purported whorehouse, Fanning writes, she never knew the identity of her father. One of her husbands suffered paralysis after jumping into a shallow lake and died months later, leaving her with quite a bit of money.

Fanning has written about other cases that got much more media coverage, such as the death of Caylee Anthony. That, and the story of Michael Peterson’s conviction in the death of his second wife, Kathleen Peterson, commanded worldwide attention.

While Court TV covered the Peterson trial, the two Hayes trials were only streamed by Triangle TV stations. If you’re like me when I read Bitter Remains, you are curious to see some of the trial highlights. WRAL has archived Grant Hayes’ trial video here and Amanda Hayes’ trial video here.

Peterson is living in Durham, and has been seen working out at the Lakewood YMCA. He was released from prison after a December 2011 ruling granted him a new trial. The Durham district attorney’s office still hasn’t announced when or if Peterson will be retried.

“It wasn’t as big of a deal nationally as Peterson,” Fanning said of the Ackerson case. “With Peterson, I was dealing with a lot of national media. With this case, it didn’t stir up interest.

“A lot of that is dependent on timing and social standing,” she said. “Amanda at one time had a lot of money, but by the time the crime was committed, she was broke. Although Grant really wanted to be a big-time celebrity, he never got there. So you were looking at people who got to the edge of success but never reached it unlike Michael Peterson, who really did have a number of points of success in his life. Kathleen was a freaking star.”

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Peterson was a successful author of books such as The Immortal Dragon and A Time of War, but a failed candidate to be mayor of Durham. Grant Hayes was a musician who performed under the name Grant Haze, but his career never reached the stardom he expected.

Ackerson’s murder clearly didn’t command nearly the same spotlight, but it caught Fanning’s attention.

“The fact that you have an actress and a musician and a graphic artist all involved in this case, that was very unusual,” Fanning said. “Also, it seemed to me that Laura shouldn’t really have been a victim. She was just an ordinary person trying to go about her life and thinking she was married and trying to be supportive of her husband, and it got her nothing but grief.

“The thought that the body was cut up by a couple with no criminal record was pretty odd,” Fanning said. “And also the fact that they transported it across such big swaths of the country to dispose of the body. It almost defies logic.”

Instead of disposing of the body parts in, for example, swamps along Louisiana, they did so in part of Texas where Amanda Hayes had a connection. Amanda Hayes’ older half-sister, Karen Berry, who was like a mother to her, lived near where the body parts were dumped.

“In order to get rid of the body, they drove past so many ideal places that had no connection to them,” Fanning said. “That made it very illogical.”

A conversation between Amanda Hayes and Karen Berry during that visit to Berry’s Texas home would not only shift the investigation of Ackerson’s disappearance, but would provide key evidence for both trials.

In Written in Blood, Fanning showed that the arguments of Peterson’s defense team — that his wife died from injuries suffered in a fall down stairs while he lounged at the pool — weren’t plausible given other evidence.

She also dismisses the defense contentions in the Ackerson murder. The defense argument in the Grant Hayes’ trial was that Ackerson died in an accidental fall. In an interview with WRAL after his conviction, he said that she died in an argument with Amanda Hayes. In Amanda Hayes’ trial, her defense contended that she wasn’t aware that Ackerson was dead until they arrived in Texas.

Fanning isn’t sure who actually killed Ackerson. But she’s positive that they were both involved, and she doesn’t buy the argument put forth by Amanda Hayes’ defense team.

“I think both of them were involved and I think that they are both pointing fingers at each other almost confirms that,” Fanning said. “It seems very likely that, through some kind of threat of physical violence, they made [Ackerson] sign an agreement to turn over custody of kids to them and nobody who knew Laura believes that she would ever do that.”

In the months before her death, Ackerson recorded every conversation with Grant and Amanda Hayes with a small tape recorder, and documented all correspondence. It was partly because of fear and partly to gain evidence for the custody hearing that would have been held the month after she was killed.

“She had friends in Raleigh and friends in Kinston and they all knew about this recorder,” Fanning said. “Friends in Raleigh shared an email address with her where it was used for archiving everything. She sent everything, emails that they exchanged, to that email address. She downloaded recordings and sent them over that email address.”

There is no recording of their last meeting since she never made it out of that Raleigh apartment. In the prosecution’s closing arguments in Amanda Hayes’ case, Wake County assistant district attorney Boz Zellinger suggested that Ackerson bragged about those recordings that night and that Grant and Amanda, at that point, may have said, “now we need to kill her.”

It’s a complicated story with a lot of people woven in. Before the first chapter, there are three pages listing notable people along with a brief description of each person. It is a helpful reference as the reader progresses through the in-depth page-turner.

Ackerson grew up in Michigan and, after enduring her parents’ divorce, graduated from high school in Iowa in 2003 at age 19. She moved to North Carolina, first living in Youngsville, then moving to Raleigh in 2004, where she was an Applebee’s waitress. In 2007, she exchanged vows in front of the justice of the peace with Grant Hayes on April 30, the birthday for both of them.

They weren’t legally married, though, because Grant didn’t sign the paperwork. So, when he married Amanda in April 2010, no divorce was needed. On the same day, Ackerson learned that Grant Hayes had married Amanda, and that she never really was married to Grant Hayes.

Fanning chronicles Hayes’ various issues, including being prescribed medications for depression and bipolar disorder, smoking marijuana and using cocaine and heroin. He was sometimes delusional and always controlling, demanding that Ackerson stay away from her best friend and even her brother. He thought aliens were following him.

Fanning writes that Ackerson entered her relationship with Hayes without a strong since of self, and that was eroded by Hayes. Once she was pregnant with the first child, she grew more under his control in what became an abusive relationship.

Fanning says lives shattered by the killings went beyond the kids, Ackerson’s two sons and a daughter born to Grant and Amanda Hayes a few weeks before Ackerson was murdered. Those three kids live with Grant Hayes’ parents in Kinston. Those parents had to close their day-care business after their son was charged because parents pulled their kids from the day care.

Fanning obtained whatever documents she could find to research the book. But she said that the most informative source was Amanda’s daughter, Sha Elmer, who is now in her mid-20s.

“She was extremely helpful,” Fanning said. “She could give me a lot of information on the story of her mother’s life before Grant and I did talk to some of Grant’s friends and they filled me in on the story of his life.”

If you’re a fan of true-crime books or followed the two trials, Bitter Remains is a
must-read for impressive detail and insights on the case.

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