Craig Titus pleaded guilty on May 30 to second-degree murder, kidnapping and arson. Kelly Ryan pleaded guilty to arson and Nevadaâ€™s equivalent of no contest to battery with a deadly weapon.
According the sources, Kelly read a statement, and could not stop crying.Â Then Craig came up, said he was sorry, and called himself a coward for his acts, and apologized.
Then Maura James came up, and begged the judge for the maximum sentence, and asked for a gag order on Craig and Kelly. The judge decided not to impose a gag order, then proceeded to lecture Craig and Kelly, and then he threw the book at them, and gave them whatever he could.
Kellyâ€™s sentence of 6 to 26 years means that in 6 years, she will be eligible for parole, although she has served close to 3 years, with a maximum of 26 years she can spend in jail.Â Craigâ€™â€™s sentence of 21 to 51 years means that in 21 years, he will be eligible for parole in 21 years, less time served already.
Both defendants and the mother of the slain woman shed tears during an emotional and sometimes contentious sentencing that featured Titus’ first on-the-record account of James’ death and a challenge by Titus’ lawyer of his sentence.
Clark County District Court Judge Jackie Glass stopped the sentencing hearing briefly and met behind closed doors with defense lawyers and prosecutors after Titus’ lawyer stood and complained he was â€œblindsidedâ€ by the imposition of a 21-year sentence.
Defense lawyer Marc Saggese said he had been assured before Titus pleaded guilty May 30 to second-degree murder, kidnapping and arson that Titus would have a chance at parole after 15 to 17 years.
The plea deal avoided trial and spared Ryan from pleading guilty to murder. She pleaded guilty to arson and entered an â€œAlfordâ€ plea, or Nevada’s equivalent of no contest, to battery with a deadly weapon.
The judge reconvened the hearing and told Saggese he could seek to invalidate the plea agreement, but that would open Titus to facing life in prison under the more serious charge of first-degree murder.
Saggese said outside court he would ask Titus if he wants to appeal.
Titus had claimed the couple found James dead of an overdose, panicked and disposed of the body.
But the judge declared from the bench that she didn’t believe a word of Titus’ account of James’ death and the couple’s gruesome attempts to dispose of her body. She dismissed Titus tears as â€œcrocodile tears.â€
â€œHe’s a murderer,â€ Glass said.
The judge said she also was not swayed by Ryan’s sobbing plea for forgiveness from the court and from James’ mother, Maura James, of Lambertville, N.J.
James, who spoke of the pain of her daughter’s death â€œat the hands of people she thought were her friends,â€ implored the judge to consider how her daughter died and to impose the maximum possible sentence.
â€œI am truly, truly sorry,â€ Ryan said. â€œI know I did not kill. But I did aid in the events. I know I was not in a state of mind emotionally or physically to make the right decisions or to, oh God, to take appropriate control of what was happening.â€
Titus, in his turn to address the court, declared himself â€œashamed and sickened of my actions after Melissa passed away,â€ and said he was so affected by drug abuse that he â€œwasn’t thinking straight.â€
â€œI let drug use get way out of control in my home,â€ he said. â€œI failed my wife. I failed my family. And most regretfully, I failed Melissa, who was my friend.â€
Titus had a drug history. He served almost two years in federal prison after being convicted of selling Ecstasy in October 1995. He got probation, but it was revoked when he tested positive for steroids. He was released in April 1999.
Friends told police that Titus and Ryan used the prescription painkiller OxyContin, and a witnesses testified that Titus once bought $500 worth of morphine. Both Titus and Ryan told police they injected the synthetic opiate Nalbuphine, and that Ryan tried methamphetamine.
In pretrial documents, prosecutors also raised the issue of steroid-induced aggression sometimes called â€œroid rage.â€
Through his lawyer, the heavily muscled Titus maintained Friday that James’ death was an accident â€“ that he beat and body-slammed her several times in a drug-fueled rage after arriving home to find James fighting and using a Taser stun gun on Ryan.
Saggese said Titus and Ryan then heard James ransacking her room, and later panicked after finding her dead of a drug overdose.
â€œThere was no premeditation,â€ Saggese said. â€œHe went too far. His actions caused the death of Melissa James.â€
â€œThen, all of the brutal chain of events starts,â€ Saggese said, â€œonce they decide they’re going to dispose of the body.â€
Prosecutor Robert Daskas said James’ head was encased in duct tape, and showed the court graphic photos of a â€œdeath maskâ€ formed by her face when it peeled away with the heavy tape during her autopsy.
Daskas said James was beaten, drugged, stunned with a Taser, injected with morphine and strangled before she was â€œburned beyond anybody’s recognitionâ€ in the trunk of Ryan’s car.
But he said investigators could never say for sure whether James was still alive in the back of the red Jaguar caught on videotape outside a Wal-Mart â€“ where Ryan bought charcoal starter fluid and a backyard barbecue set at 3:30 a.m. â€“ or at a gas station where Titus, Ryan and a friend allegedly bought another $2.66 worth of gasoline. The barbecue set was later found burned in Ryan’s car.
The friend, Anthony Gross, 26, remained free Friday without bond awaiting a separate trial on felony accessory to murder and third-degree arson charges. He has pleaded not guilty, and is due in court for a status check next Tuesday.