Police say mentally disabled victim was abused for days before stabbing
February 13, 2010 3:00 PM
Joy Burkholder, with her husband, Lance, talks about her sister, Jennifer Daugherty. Police say Ms. Daugherty was stabbed repeatedly in a second-floor Greensburg apartment.
By Sadie Gurman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The upstairs neighbors would often yell and fight, but Wednesday night seemed worse.
"I heard a girl scream, like someone was beating her, body-slamming her on the floor," said Floria Headen, who lives below.
More disturbing, she said, was the eerie quiet that followed.
The silence followed a frenzy of beating, bizarre abuse and the stabbing of a young woman that ended in her death "right above our heads."
Police said Jennifer Daugherty, 30, of Mount Pleasant, had been held against her will inside the Greensburg apartment at 428 N. Pennsylvania Avenue, since Tuesday by six people she believed were her friends.
Orchestrated by a ringleader, police said, the group beat Ms. Daugherty with their hands and feet, then struck her with a towel rack, a crutch and a vacuum cleaner hose. They bound her with Christmas decorations, shaved her hair, and painted her face with nail polish. They fed her vegetable oil, spices, detergent, medications and urine, according to police, and fatally stabbed her, carting her body a half-mile to Greensburg Salem Middle School in a neighbor's garbage can.
The group forced Ms. Daugherty to write a fake suicide note, which police found among her belongings and items that had been used to clean up her blood.
Charged with homicide, kidnapping, aggravated assault and conspiracy were Ricky Smyrnes, 23, Robert Masters Jr., 36, Melvin Knight, 20, Peggy Miller, 27, Amber Meidinger, 20; and Angela Marinucci, 17, all of Greensburg. Ms. Daugherty was acquainted with all of her assailants, police said, but had "some relationship" with Mr. Smyrnes, a man with court records that indicate an abusive past.
Ms. Daugherty's relatives said she had a mental disability that made her especially friendly and trusting. Her social life and appointments often brought her to Greensburg, police said, and she went willingly to the apartment. Her stepfather, Robert Murphy, told officers he took her to the County Market in Mount Pleasant on Monday to catch a bus to Greensburg. She brought a small duffel bag with a few pairs of jeans and some shirts. It was the last time her family saw her alive.
Police wouldn't comment on a motive for the slaying. Although toxicology tests are not complete, they said there were no obvious signs of drinking or drug use.
"She was exploited," said Ms. Daugherty's older sister, Joy Burkholder. "Her kindness and her handicap made her very, very vulnerable. She trusted anybody. If you met her today she would be your best friend for life."
Relatives recognized some of the suspects' names, but Ms. Burkholder said her sister "was very secretive about her Greensburg life."
Some of the suspects played a larger part in the crime than others, Greensburg police Chief Walter Lyons said, though officials declined to elaborate on their roles. Mr. Knight told police he stabbed Ms. Daugherty in the chest, side and neck, according to a criminal complaint. He and Mr. Smyrnes carried the handled garbage can to the middle school parking lot, where a truck driver found it Thursday. The suspects cooperated with investigators and implicated each other, according to the complaints.
Though police said Ms. Daugherty likely did not leave the apartment from Tuesday to Thursday, it was unknown exactly when she arrived there. At 6:16 p.m. Tuesday, police said they responded to a fight involving another roommate who was moving out. Officers talked to Mr. Smyrnes and Mr. Knight but made no contact with Ms. Daugherty, nor was there evidence to suggest she was there.
Bill Miller, who owns the property and described it as a revolving door of colorful renters, said one of the female suspects called him early Wednesday morning, concerned that a roommate, Robert Cathcart, was stealing their stuff while moving out. On a voice mail message, she told Mr. Miller she didn't want to call the police because she "did not want to cause trouble."
Mr. Miller said he received a call from Mr. Smyrnes Thursday. Mr. Miller, who had not learned of the slaying until contacted by a reporter at his home Friday, said he returned Mr. Smyrnes' call Thursday evening and learned police were at the apartment. He did not go there because he figured the roommates were having a domestic dispute and did not want to step into a fight.
Robert Masters Jr.
Ricky V. Smyrnes
Amber C. Meidinger
Peggy D. Miller
He said the only two people officially on the lease were Mr. Cathcart and another man who was not charged in the killing. Neighbors frequently called to complain about their fights. He would tell them to call police, who confirmed that they had been to the house. Ms. Headen said at one point she was calling police "every other day." She called Tuesday, but said "nothing happened," so she opted not to call Wednesday.
On a recent trip, Mr. Miller found the apartment without much furniture, as if people were "all laying on the floor. It was like an old hippie den."
Mr. Cathcart, 19, knew Mr. Smyrnes and considered Ms. Daugherty a best friend. The two met about seven months ago at Threshold Inc., a mental health, drug and alcohol treatment center, according to Carol Pedder, 40, of Greensburg.
Staff at Threshold referred callers to Westmoreland County's mental health/mental retardation program. Its administrator, Kathleen A. Wohlgemuth, said she could not comment because of confidentiality.
Ms. Pedder said Ms. Daugherty considered Ms. Marinucci and Ms. Miller friends, but they did not feel the same.
During a telephone interview, Ms. Pedder served as an intermediary with Mr. Cathcart, who stood near her and furnished answers while she spoke with a reporter.
Ms. Pedder, who knows Mr. Cathcart through her son, said she took him in after Mr. Smyrnes and the other suspects forced him from his house.
"Rob let Ricky stay there for a few days, and he took over and kicked Rob out," Ms. Pedder said.
Several of the defendants have been arrested in the past, but Mr. Smyrnes' record is the most extensive. Police had already issued a warrant for his arrest at the time of the killing, court records show, for possessing instruments of crime on Jan. 30. He has a pending assault case in Allegheny County, and court records show he had at least four cases in Westmoreland County. He pleaded guilty in the past to charges including assault, harassment, theft and conspiracy.
Several women, including his wife and his mother, asked for protection from abuse orders against Mr. Smyrnes, writing in court filings that he beat and threatened to kill them.
His wife, Karena Smyrnes, told police in October that he assaulted her after arguing over sex at their home in McKeesport. He went to jail after the incident and continued to contact his wife, despite the protection order, said her aunt, Treasure Martinez. The pair have an infant son, Manny, and Ms. Martinez said Mrs. Smyrnes wants a divorce.
She said Mr. Smyrnes has been out of jail only about two weeks.
Ms. Daugherty's relatives did not know the nature of her relationship with Mr. Smyrnes. Her sister said she enjoyed wrestling, singing and dancing and "believed everyone was good, and no one would hurt her."
On her MySpace profile, Ms. Daugherty speaks lovingly of her mother and stepfather, calls herself a "country girl" and said she was in trade school for mechanics. She says she has "good friends that I can go to for advice" and knows how to make people laugh.