From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Tiny footprints, made of blood, were everywhere. More blood was splattered on a wall. Meredith Fisher, cautiously making her way through her sister's Raleigh, N.C., home, then saw her niece Cassidy, not yet 3, alone and unharmed. And there, in the master bedroom, the thing she feared the most: a battered body crumpled on the floor. "I need an ambulance, it's an emergency ... I think my sister's dead!" Fisher, 26, cried to a 911 operator. "She's, like, cold ... and her body is stiff ... oh my God!"

Two months later the murder of Michelle Young remains a mystery full of troubling clues and questions. Young, 29—a vibrant former cheerleader who was several months pregnant—had been bludgeoned to death while her young daughter was in the house. Worried for her mother, Cassidy wandered the house searching, she later told her aunt, for Band-Aids to fix her mother's "boo-boos."

The murder happened sometime between the evening of Nov. 2—when a friend last saw Michelle—and the following afternoon, when Fisher found her body. Investigators soon learned that Michelle's husband of three years, medical-software salesman Jason Young, 32, had apparently been away on an overnight business trip. What happened next surprised them. "I talked to [Jason], offered him condolences and said, 'I'm sorry for the timing, but we need your assistance in this case,'" says Wake County Sheriff Chief of Operations Richard Johnson. "And he has refused to comply."

Through his lawyers Young has repeatedly declined to speak with authorities (he also declined to comment for this article). Since the murder police say they have learned the Youngs were having financial difficulties. A source close to the couple told PEOPLE that Michelle—who had planned to cut back on her hours as a senior financial specialist for a power company once her new son was born—was covered by a $1 million insurance policy that her husband took out three months before her murder and that made him the beneficiary. So far, police have not named Young a suspect, and those who know him defend him as a kind-hearted husband and father. "Jason dearly loved Michelle," says Spencer Smith, who lived down the street from where Jason grew up in Brevard, N.C. "He was looking forward with a great deal of anticipation to the son that was going to be born. This is a double loss for him."

Still, there are several matters police would like to discuss with him. Why were there no signs of forced entry in the Youngs' two-story, redbrick home on four wooded acres in Raleigh's upscale Enchanted Oaks subdivision? How to explain the two drops of what appeared to be blood on the Youngs' 2004 Ford Explorer? (Police won a court order to get fingerprints and DNA samples from Young, but at press time no test results were available.) Why did Young ask his wife's sister to retrieve a document from their home on the afternoon of Nov. 3, when the body was found, if he was due back that night?

And what about Young's relationship with Michelle Money, 30, who was Michelle's close friend and former sorority sister? Police say Young had been corresponding with Money almost daily by phone and e-mail in the three months before his wife's murder. "When we found out [about Money], we started looking a little closer" at Young, says Sheriff Donnie Harrison. As for Young's whereabouts the night of Nov. 2, a hotel receipt and telephone records show that he was "at certain places at certain times," says Richard Johnson, adding that Young "has not been ruled out as a suspect."

While police continue an investigation they say has been hampered by Young's silence, Michelle's loved ones struggle to cope with a staggering loss. She was raised in Sayville, N.Y., by her mother, Linda, 56, coach of her daughter's JV cheerleading squad, and her father, Alan, 55, an automobile dealer (they divorced in 1996). Although Linda is still too distraught to talk to the press about her daughter's death, she did correspond by e-mail with PEOPLE. "Even as a child," she wrote, "you could see how nurturing she was, with her Cabbage Patch Kids and with her younger sister Meredith. She had lots of friends and we always had pool parties and sleepovers." Close friend Jennifer Powers says of Michelle, "She was incredibly smart, very focused, a real joiner. I hate to use the word popular, but she was—in every sense of the word." At North Carolina State University, Michelle scored straight A's before earning a master's in accounting and passing her CPA exams on her first try. "She was good at everything," says lifelong friend Marybeth Loughlin. "She cheered at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Atlanta; who can say that? That was so Michelle. She was really someone to look up to."

Friends say the same about Jason Young. A former Boy Scout who loved the outdoors and once hiked the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail, "he's one of those guys who made friends with everyone," says Layton Parker, who went to the same Brevard high school as Young. "He never said anything negative. He had a magnetic personality." His mother, Patricia, a fifth-grade teacher, raised him after his father died when Jason was a child. He met Michelle when both were students at North Carolina State University; they married in 2003 and later settled in Enchanted Oaks, living what seemed like a busy, ordinary life. "Michelle had a huge network of friends," says Loughlin, "and there were always parties, barbecues, football games, baby showers and birthdays."

When Michelle got pregnant in 2003, "she was thrilled and could not wait," says Powers. "She had everything ready when the baby came. The closet was filled with beautiful outfits and the room was apple green with pink curtains. She loved every minute of being a mom." Michelle and Cassidy "had their routines, especially at bedtime," remembers Linda. "Cassidy would take her bath and brush her teeth, and Michelle would sing 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.' She would tuck her in, kiss her good night, and Cassidy would go right to sleep. You could see the love both ways ... Cassidy has that same sparkle in her eyes that Michelle had."

Young, too, "dearly loves Cassidy," says his friend Spencer Smith. The notion that Young could have been having an affair with Money—a part-time community-college math teacher who lives in Ocoee, Fla., with her husband, Steve, 34, a golf-course superintendent, and their 2-year-old son—"would absolutely floor me," Smith says. "He's always been an ethical man."

On Nov. 2, the night in question, Young says he left his wife and daughter at home and drove to Virginia for a meeting the next day; police won't say whether such a meeting ever occurred. On Nov. 3 Young left a voicemail for Michelle's sister Meredith, asking her to go to their home to pick up a fax; a source told PEOPLE it was a receipt for a purse that Young planned to give Michelle as a gift. When Meredith arrived around 1:30 p.m., she found her sister's black mixed-breed, Mister Garrison, acting frantically and then discovered Michelle's body.

Later that day Young stopped to see his parents in Brevard on his way home; his stepfather Gerald McIntyre told authorities that when he broke the news of the murder to Jason, he was stunned and dropped to his knees. Authorities digging through Young's computer, travel and financial records say they are in no rush to make an arrest. "Now's the time to be methodical and sure," says investigator Johnson. "This case will be solved, and when we're there, we'll know we're there."

On Nov. 9 some 200 mourners gathered at the Brown-Wynne Funeral Home in Raleigh for Michelle's funeral. Jason Young was there, and so was Michelle Money, but Cassidy was kept away. At the gravesite—which for now is marked only by a small card attached to a temporary tin stake—Michelle's relatives sat at the opposite end of the front row from Young and his family. Linda, who has not seen her granddaughter since the time of the funeral, "had played an active part in Cassidy's life," says someone close to the family. "That is not the case now."

Still, Linda has found some measure of solace in poring through old photos of Michelle—and in the lace handkerchief Michelle gave her just before walking down the aisle at her wedding. "It says, 'Mother, In Loving Thanks, for all the years, You dried My tears,'" says Linda. "And now I use it to dry my tears."

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Truesdell/Raleigh,
  • Kristen Mascia/Sayville,
  • Siobhan Morrissey/Brevard,
  • Steve Helling/Ocoee,
  • Michaele Ballard/Charlotte,
  • N.C..