Nicole Weisensee Egan
01/09/2006 at 01:00 AM EST
To married bodybuilding champs Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan, primping was second nature. But vanity may have proved their undoing. According to police in Las Vegas, after being questioned there in the grisly death of their personal assistant, the couple were making plans to skip the country—but not before Ryan stopped for a pedicure. While the former Fitness International champion was having her feet pampered at a salon in Stoughton, Mass., Dec. 23, a SWAT team burst in and arrested her, then busted Titus as he waited in a truck parked outside.
Within hours Titus, 40, was charged with the Dec. 14 murder of Melissa James, 28, with whom, police say, Titus has admitted to having an affair. The muscleman, 1996's Mr. USA, whose pumped-up physique has appeared on the cover of dozens of bodybuilding magazines, is accused of stuffing James's bound body into the trunk of his wife's Jaguar and setting it on fire. Ryan, 33, was charged as an accessory along with the couple's friend Anthony Gross, 23, who allegedly bought fuel for the fire, according to police. (Lawyers for Titus and Ryan did not respond to calls for comment.)
The murder sent shock waves through the tight-knit world of muscle modeling. “It's a sad situation,” says Frank Bohm, a bodybuilding promoter from Vancouver who has known Titus for years. “He was very hotheaded, but Kelly is just the sweetest thing.” Titus, who spent two years in prison for drug-related offenses in the late'90s, had moved to Vegas to find new business opportunities as his strongman career wound down. “He sounded perfectly normal. He sounded upbeat,” says Ron Avidan, who runs a bodybuildingweb site and spoke with Titus Dec. 12. “I'm stunned by all this.”
Of course, stunned doesn't begin to describe Maura James's feelings after learning of the death of her daughter Melissa. Maura says she last spoke to Melissa on Dec. 13, the day her daughter planned to fly home for the holidays. When Melissa failed to get off her flight and calls to her cell phone went unanswered, “I really started to worry,” Maura says. In fact, at just about that time, cops were finding Melissa's charred body in the trunk of Ryan's car along a lonely stretch of highway 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas.
According to the Dec. 20 arrest warrant issued for Titus and Ryan, in the early hours of that morning, Titus made 14 phone calls from his cell phone between 12:18 a.m. and 1:41 a.m., and surveillance footage from a Wal-Mart allegedly shows Ryan buying seven cans of charcoal lighter. At 3:28 a.m., according to the police document, Titus called his friend Gross, who allegedly told police he left home in his pajamas and purchased a can of gasoline. Gross then drove to a rendezvous outside Las Vegas and handed the can to Titus, who walked away. Moments later, Titus returned, jumped into the backseat of Gross's vehicle and yelled, “Go, go, go!” Gross told cops he didn't see a fire.
Interviewed after James's body was found, Titus and Ryan told police they fired James Dec. 13 because she had been embezzling from them and that she had returned that night and stolen Ryan's Jaguar. Although suspicious—the couple hadn't reported the car missing—police released the couple due to lack of evidence. An arrest warrant was issued after interviews with the couple's friends turned up inconsistencies in their story. Given the success the suspects enjoyed in bodybuilding, Las Vegas homicide Lt. Tom Monahan says he finds it hard to imagine they may have blown it all with one senseless act—but that's where the evidence points, he says. “I suppose life's a game of Chutes and Ladders,” says Monahan. “They climb to the top, and then, I guess, they hit one of the chutes.”
Titus and Ryan arrive at Stoughton District Court on Dec. 27; Ryan changed her appearance after the crime, dying her hair from blonde to brunette. Police say Gross was a bodybuilder groupie.