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Accident or fake death?

A fiery car crash with a badly charred body seemed like a tragedy for one family...  but was it? Investigators followed a trail of clues to the grave and beyond. Dennis Murphy reports.

Lying for eternity beneath a Texas Live Oak tree—or so everyone assumed, until one dark night, a grave yawned open and told a ghoulish tale, a story of obsessive love and treachery.

Along the way so many people would be injured, so many had to turn their eyes away from what the lovers had done. It was an outrage as big as the Lone Star State.

It began as simply as a car leaving the road in rural Burnett County Texas. It plunged down this embankment and ended up in this ravine in a ball of fire. Inside the burned out vehicle, they found a single body, but little remained more than cinders. Had the driver maybe fallen asleep at the wheel? It had all the earmarks of a grisly highway accident.

By the time Cpl. William Talamantez of the Texas Department of Public Safety got to the scene, on the morning of June 18, 2004, barely anything was all that was left of the Chevy Cavalier.

Cpl. William Talamantez: It was burned up where I couldn’t even tell what color the vehicle used to be.  The wheels were melted. The tires were gone. And the person inside? Just 12 pounds of ashy stump remained. I didn’t see a head, and both legs were gone.Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: You’ve seen bad stuff.Cpl. Talamantez: Yes sir.Murphy: Where does this fit in?Cpl. Talamantez: This is the worst. I’ve seen burned bodies before. I worked accidents like that, but never this bad.

Authorities quickly traced the car to a young married couple, Molly and Clayton Daniels. When investigators called, Molly told them that Clayton had driven his car to his mother’s house the night before and still hadn’t come back by morning.

It was up to the medical examiner in nearby Austin to confirm that those 12 sad pounds of human remains were those of 23-year-old Clayton Wayne Daniels. The examiner ruled that they were.

Amy Birkenfeld, one of Molly’s friends at the home remodeling company where they worked together, got a glimpse of the gruesome autopsy report.

Murphy: Did you see the name Clayton Daniels on it?Amy Birkenfeld, Molly’s friend: Oh yeah. It was right across the top of the page: Clayton Wayne Daniels. It went from head to toe of what everything looked like. It was charred. Murphy: It was some hard reading?Birkenfeld: It was really tough.

Immediately after the accident, friends and family rushed to comfort Molly at her home in Leander, Texas.

Murphy: How was she?Birkenfeld: Pretty distraught.Murphy: She was a mess, huh?Birkenfeld: Yeah, yeah.

Molly’s younger sister, Melissa, coming down from Abilene was all jagged nerve endings.

Melissa, Molly’s sister: I was pretty hysterical myself. I cried the majority of the way down there just thinking, “What am I going to say to her?”

Or maybe even tougher was what to say to Molly’s two young children, a boy from another relationship, and the little girl she had with Clayton?

Melissa: The person that my nephew called “dad,” and my niece was never going to have a father. I just thought, I was devastated.

A memorial service was held in Burnet, Texas, where Clayton grew up. No dusty old hymns for Clayton, his favorite song, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” filled the funeral home as 100 mourners signed the guest book.

Co-worker Amy Birkenfeld certainly thought that Clayton and Molly had been a love-match.

Birkenfeld: He was the love of her life. (Laughter). And vice-versa. She felt comfortable around him and he loved her for who she was.

Clayton, an auto mechanic, hadn’t worked much lately. Mostly, he stayed home to care for the two kids.

But if anything competed for his love of Molly, it was motorcycles. He loved bikes so much, he named his daughter “Harley”—as in Harley-Davidson. She was just a year old, too young to understand. But not her half-brother Caleb who was 4 years old when told of his father’s sudden death, unhappy news that fell to Molly and her mother to break to the boy.

Melissa: And they told him that he, daddy had gone to heaven. Caleb asked about the car. He wanted to know where the car was. And my mom, I believe, told him that he needed the car to get there.Murphy: To get to heaven?Melissa: To get to heaven, yeah.

Clayton and Molly were living week to week on her paycheck so it was a godsend to the young widow when her co-workers raised a $1,000 cash to help with the bills until Molly could get back on her feet. It was understood it would be some time before the $110,000 life insurance policy on Clayton paid off.

Melissa: Her job, they paid for her utilities for a couple of months, and put groceries in the house. Even while I was there I watched them carry in loads of groceries.

Without Clayton at home, childcare was looming as both a worry and a big expense.

Neighbor Jenna Panas noticed a flyer Molly posted on a fence near the community mailboxes: “Newly widowed mother of 2 needs help.”

Jenna, with a young boy of her own, felt sorry for Molly, even though she’d never met Molly or Clayton before. Jenna agreed to look after Caleb and Harley in her own home for a cut-rate fee of $120 a week.

Jenna Panas, neighbor and kids' babysitter: It’s your neighborhood. It’s your neighbor. And you could potentially be in that situation someday. And you kind of want to help.Murphy: And you get a little bit of angel wings for helping somebody out who needs it.Panas: Exactly. You know? I’m gonna go to heaven someday.

But while friends and perfect strangers were going out of their way to do the decent thing for Molly Daniels, investigators— including none other than the legendary Texas Rangers— were starting to poke about in the accident and they were asking some pointed questions:

How could one car end up so damaged? Was it really an accident at all? Or, just perhaps, something much more sinister?

After her husband and car exploded in flames in June of 2004, Molly Daniels, with two young kids and bills piling up, had little choice but to get on with her life.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Did she seem like a good mom?Jenna Panas, babysitter: Yeah.

Jenna admired her grace under pressure.

Panas: I thought she was handling the loss of her husband really well.

And in Molly’s first days back as the receptionist for the home remodeling company, her friend Amy was pleased and a little surprised that the young widow was as efficient as ever despite her ordeal.

Murphy: You thought she was smart?Panas: Oh yes.Murphy: You had confidence you told her to do something that it’d get done?Panas: Oh yeah. It always got done.

Molly was settling into a new routine but the investigation into the death of her husband was going down quite a different road from what most people had expected.

Investigators didn’t think they had a grisly accident. They thought they had a deadly crime.

The first arriving trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety had doubts early on.

Cpl. William Talamantez: This was not an accident.

Corporal William Talamantez had seen more road wrecks than he could count in his 23 years as a trooper and this one looked fishy from the get-go.

Take the road: there were no tell-tale skid marks or other usual signs of a high-speed crash.

Or the car itself: the dents in it weren’t consistent with missing a curve and sailing down an embankment.

And most of all, the fire itself seemed suspicious.

Cpl. Talamantez: I really thought there was a murder.

The trooper had more theory than hard evidence: He speculated the victim had first been killed and stuffed in the Chevy, then rolled over the cliff.

But who might want to kill Clayton Daniels?

As it turned out, getting people to say bad things about Daniels wasn’t all that hard. People like his sister-in-law:

Melissa, Molly's sister: I got the worst feeling from him. I just did not trust him. I didn’t like him. He just flat out gave me the heebie-jeebies.Murphy: What do you think she saw in him?Melissa: I think she saw the first person who showed interest in her. I don’t think that it was him. I think it was the fact that somebody liked her.

His wife’s co-worker thought Daniels was a loser, plain and simple.

Amy Birkenfeld, Molly’s friend: I always thought she could do so much better. I mean he just seemed like he could be the troublesome type.

Amy, the co-worker, remembered the time she’d treated Molly and Clayton to dinner out and, as a bonus, agreed to baby-sit their kids till they got back. But when the children were dropped off, Clayton, she says, made a scene with the upstairs neighbors, complaining they were making too much noise, daring them to come out and fight.

Murphy: Did he have kind of a hair-trigger anger, did you think?Birkenfeld: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.Melissa: Several scenarios played out in my head. You know, I thought maybe somebody was tailgating him. And, you know, Clay was the type to pull over and, you know, confront the person.

But there was another investigator—a private investigator—who also thought something bigger than road rage had ended Clayton Daniels. Maybe something premeditated.

Clark Dickenscheidt was a private investigator working for the insurance company that had sold Daniels a $110,000 life-insurance policy a little less than two-years before.

Clark Dickenscheidt, private investigator: My biggest thought, at the time, was a possible homicide.

Like the Department of Public Safety officers, the private investigator had written up lots of road wrecks and this one just smelled bad.

Dickenscheidt: It just sounded a little strange that he would just drive right off the road and burst into flames.

And his suspicions grew when he conducted what he figured would be a standard interview with Molly Daniels—the beneficiary of Clayton’s policy.

Dickenscheidt: I had never in my career interviewed a wife who had lost a husband in such a manner, or even anything close to it, and showed absolutely no emotion.Murphy: So that put up red flags for you?Dickenscheidt: Very much so.

It was premature to think the wife might have done in her husband for the insurance money, but still. Something, he thought, was off here.

Dickenscheidt: Not suspecting the wife per se, but obviously she would be the number one suspect.

Even her friends and her sister said Molly could be sweet and affectionate, for sure, but they knew not to cross her.

Melissa: You think you’re having a conversation. Everything was going well. And you would say something that she just didn’t like. And it was, “oh my goodness.” You, you know you set off a time bomb.

People did notice how quickly Molly seemed to get through her period of mourning.

Birkenfeld: We went out one night, she even asked me and another co-worker when an acceptable time to start dating was? We were like, “Wow. Already? It’s only been about a month.”

Was it suspicious that Jenna the babysitter was hearing about a new man in Molly’s life from Molly’s own son?

Who was this “Jake” character?

Panas: He’d talk about his friend, Jake. And Jake was so much fun. And they’d wrestle and they’d go to the races.

Molly told the babysitter that Jake was nothing more than a “family friend.” Until that is, one morning Molly’s car needed a jump-start and all became clear about Jake.

Panas: Here we are, two gals who can’t figure out how to hook those cables up. And out comes Jake in his boxer shorts. And I went, “Oh, oh, oh goodness. What a fool am I? Of course he’s not a family friend.”Murphy: Jenna, if first impressions do matter, what were your first impressions of Jake?Panas: It’s a terrible class-bias. But I mean, just trailer-trash.

While Molly’s neighbors quickly began buzzing about the widow’s new man around the house, other whispers would soon draw the attention of this lawman—Texas Ranger Garth Davis.

Ranger Davis would be nursing his own suspicions about what was happening inside Molly’s house.

The slogan warns: “Don’t Mess with Texas,” but most people here would agree—you really don’t mess with the Texas Rangers.

They are lawmen descended from tough hombre gunslingers of the 19th century frontier.

Got a civil disturbance in your town? No problem. The lore goes: one riot, one ranger. So whenever the Texas Rangers ride in to a case, the investigative ante is raised.

In late June, 2004, Sgt. Garth Davis of the Texas Rangers was called into the Clayton Daniels affair and he’d testify later there was evidence of foul play.

Sgt. Garth Davis: The pathologist found that there was no soot in the lungs of the victim. That caused us to become involved in the investigation.

Smoke-free lungs meant to investigators that the victim was already dead— and possibly murdered— before the car fire ever started.

But the nature of the fire may have been the biggest clue of all. Deputy Fire Marshall Janine Mather found that the hottest spot of the inferno was the driver’s seat. Why? Someone had doused it with charcoal lighter fluid.

Ranger Davis now knew he had a bonafide criminal investigation, giving rise to a whole new set of questions.

The car is just in bits and pieces now, but the Texas Ranger took his case back to basics and asked whether the medical examiner had gotten his autopsy I.D. right in the first place. Was the body recovered here in fact that of Clayton Daniels?

To be scientifically certain, Ranger Davis decided to get a DNA match analysis—a sample from the body in the burned out car compared to a DNA sample taken from Clayton Daniels’ mother.

The body had been reduced to a stump of ashes. To extract some viable amount of DNA the Ranger performed an unusually macabre task. He opened the remains of a hip bone with a hacksaw.

On TV shows like “CSI” DNA lab work comes back by the third commercial break. But in real life, it can take months— and that’s what happened with the comparison samples from the body in the car and Clayton Daniels’ mother. It was an agonizing wait for investigators.

Meanwhile, back at the split-level ranch, Molly’s new man Jake was still topic no. 1 among family and friends. Her sister got the lowdown, sort of.

Melissa, Molly Daniels’ sister: She said that he was somebody she had met at the bar that she met Clay in, the same bar. And that he was also a good friend of Clay’s.

Molly’s sister hadn’t met Jake yet— she was told he was a truck driver constantly on the road, but she heard lots about him from her nephew.

Melissa: Everything was Jake. “Jake this, Jake that, you know with Caleb.”

The sister did get a peek at Molly’s cell phone one day and the text messages stored there were more than platonic.

Melissa: One of the text-messages said, “I love you,” and I thought, “Whoa, that’s a little soon.”

At work, Amy hadn’t met the new boyfriend, either, even though he’d occasionally pick up Molly in the parking lot.

Amy Birkenfeld, Molly's friend: She never really talked a whole lot about this person to me because at that point in this whole thing, I had started getting suspicious. She was always on the Internet a lot at our office. And I had noticed that. Because every time I’d walk up front to see her, she would minimize the screens really quick.

Jenna the babysitter was also picking up on changes in Molly: Her getting back into the dating game—a rebound that disgusted Jenna.

Jenna Panas, babysitter: Screwing around that soon just, just kind of set my teeth on edge.Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: And with the guy she was with…Panas: I mean you’re not screaming “family man.”

And all the while, Molly’s boy Caleb’s behavior was deteriorating, according to the babysitter.

Panas: He’s trying to push children down the stairs. He’s trying to hurt our animals. You know, he’s just really out of control.

Jenna said she tried to convince Molly that Caleb’s problems were very serious.

Murphy: Did his mother get it, Jenna? I mean what you were trying to tell her? Panas: No.Murphy: Did she see the behavior?Panas: She said he was fine at home.

By early December 2004, on a Thursday, Jenna had become so frustrated with Molly’s casual parenting that she planned to give her an ultimatum the next day: Get counseling for Caleb or find yourself another babysitter.

Panas: And on Friday, I got a knock on my door. And the whole world fell apart as far as I was concerned.

It was Texas Ranger Garth Davis at the door and he had both questions and some stunning answers.

After a five month wait, the Texas Ranger finally had his DNA work back from the lab. And it told him definitively who the charred body found in this ravine wasn’t: It wasn’t Clayton Daniels.

There had been no DNA match between the sample taken by Ranger Davis from the body in the car and the one compared to Clayton Daniels’ mother.

So, whose body was it in that car? And, how did that person come to be dead?

When the Texas Ranger got his startling DNA lab work back, he filled-in some of the other lawmen working the case with him.

One of them who got the shocking news was the Burnet Police Department’s chief investigator, Captain Paul Nelson.

Capt. Paul Nelson: He asked me if I was sitting down. And of course I was. And he stated that he got the DNA results back. And that the DNA was not of Clayton Daniels.

The police detective had had run-ins with Clayton Daniels before, serious ones, and believed there was little the local man could do that would surprise him any more.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: It’s good you were sitting down.Capt. Nelson: Yes sir.

If the body in the car wasn’t Clayton Daniels, where was he... and who was Jake?

On Friday, Dec. 3, 2004, the city detective and the Texas Ranger divvyed-up a plan: Capt Nelson would stake out Molly at her house, while Ranger Davis eyeballed her workplace.

About noon, the Ranger radioed the detective that Molly had left work, joining up with a male companion. Davis tailed the pair to a Taco Bell in North Austin.

Capt. Nelson then met with Ranger Davis at the restaurant. They went in with back-up and guns drawn.

Capt. Nelson: When I walked through the front door, the first person I saw was Clayton eating a burrito. He looked at me and I looked at him. And he pretty much stated, “Oh f - - - .”

The jig was up. For a dead-man Clayton was looking pretty good. All’s that changed was his sandy hair had been dyed black.

Murphy: No rubber nose or glasses or caps?Capt. Nelson: No. He still looked like Clayton Daniels to me.

Though his fake driver’s license identified him as Jacob Alexander Gregg  or “Jake,” as he’d come to be known to Caleb, his wife’s bewildered and lately emotionally troubled young son.

The Texas Ranger and the city detective cuffed Clayton Daniels and placed him under arrest.

Capt. Nelson: I told him, “Welcome back.”Murphy: Now, what’s Molly doing all the while?Capt. Nelson: She was yelling, profane language. I don’t know all she was yelling. She made a mistake of telling ranger Davis that he couldn’t arrest her. At which time she was placed under arrest.Clayton was charged with violation of probation and later indicted for arson. Molly was charged with hindering apprehension and later indicted for insurance fraud.

It was hours after the bust at the Taco Bell that babysitter Jenna Panas got that surprise visit from Ranger Davis—remember: she didn’t know Clayton Daniels. The Texas Ranger had photos to show her.

Jenna Panas, babysitter: “Does this look like Jake, is this Jake?”  And I look at it—sure enough, yeah, sure is, yeah, sure is.  That’s Jake.  No problem.  Takes his hand off the name and it’s “Clayton Daniels.”  And I’m looking at the name, reading it.  That’s her husband.  Her boyfriend is her husband.  Her dead husband. I was so stunned and so horrified and so angry I couldn’t speak.

Why did they do it?

In large part, authorities believe, for the money, a big, fat $110,000 insurance payout.

Cpl. William Talamantez: Clayton and his wife wanted to start a new life together and they needed some money so what better way to do it than fake his own death, get the insurance money and go live somewhere else?

But the even more fascinating question—ghoulish, really—was how did they do it? A car, a body, a fireball?

Murphy: Do you get surprised what human beings will do sometimes?  Or have you seen so much that you’re hard to surprise?Cpl. Talamantez: No sir.  I wouldn’t say that.  But I was surprised by this. 

In jail, Clayton wasn’t talking to the cops, but he was blabbing to a cellmate, a would-be snitch who in turn spilled the beans to the authorities on Clayton and Molly’s repulsive and deeply creepy scheme.

They were body snatchers.

Investigators confronted Molly about it and she confirmed, that yes, Clayton had dug up a grave way out in the country. Someplace with a utility works or gas pipeline nearby. She was vague about details.

Cpl. Talamantez: The trooper who’d responded to the initial report of a fatal accident—recalled coming upon a similar sounding cemetery while working another case.

It was in a remote part of the county where they buried the paupers and indigents, a place called Pebble Mound.

Cpl. Talamantez: I went by that cemetery and I found the grave...Murphy: Pretty secluded, huh?Cpl. Talamantez: Yes sir.Murphy: And you just walked in and looked around?Cpl. Talamantez: I just drove up to the fence and I saw one of the plots there right by the fence that was disturbed.  And you could tell somebody had messed with it.

Days after the trooper’s discovery— February 2005— a funeral director with a backhoe was joined by a large team from law enforcement at the Pebble Mound Cemetery. They dug for two tough hours until they finally hoisted up a damaged and drenched casket.

Murphy: So the seal had been broken? Cpl. Talamantez: Yes sir.Murphy: And when you pried open the coffin what’d you find?Cpl. Talamantez: Lifted it out. We opened up the coffin. There was nothing in here except the pillow.

After that, it became a matter of tying up loose ends. And Molly’s work-computer proved to be a treasure-trove of evidence: The hard-disk tattled on her fevered Internet searches with "how to" questions: how to fake a death, and how to come up with a new identity, among other things.

Texas Ranger Garth Davis explained it all later in court.

Garth Davis: There were numerous Internet searches done for burning up bodies, car fires, and how hot the bodies have to burn.

And still more solid stuff for a jury at the Daniels home. Phony state records, dummied-up school transcripts, credit reports for the fictitious Jacob Alexander Gregg.

And there was reason to believe that Clayton Daniels was thinking bigger than just dying his hair.

Davis: These documents were in a folder titled Mexico. There were searches to locate plastic surgeons in Mexico and also dental surgeons in Mexico.

The whole sordid business— the car off the road, down the embankment, into the ravine in a ball of flames: We know now that was a hoax as big as the state of Texas. Authorities said that she did it for greed. But Molly Daniels says she did it for love.

Meet 23-year-old Molly Daniels. Curious? We were too. She didn’t look like a body snatcher so much as a woman swiping bar codes at a big warehouse store check-out counter.

We sat down with her in a Texas jail where’s she’s been serving a 20-year sentence—the maximum—after pleading guilty to insurance fraud and hindering apprehension.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Molly, my first question: what could you have been thinking?  I mean how did this whole deal come together?Molly Daniels: It was crazy really.  My husband was in prior trouble and it was just gonna change our life dramatically.  And I guess one day watching CSI, one of those shows, that just got our minds to thinking and we both sorta came up with the idea.Murphy:  Look let’s talk a little bit about Clayton. What did you see in Clayton, ‘cause there had to be more there than other people see in him.Molly Daniels: He was a really wonderful person.  Yes he had a reputation for being bad.  Yes he had a reputation for being just a pain in the butt in general but he actually has a very good heart.Murphy: You fell for him huh?Molly Daniels: Yes sir, hook line and sinker.

But Clayton was far more than just the local bad-boy rogue. This grimy shed is part of his sordid history. He’d been charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child for raping his 7-year-old cousin here when he was 16.

The girl came forward several years later, confiding in Capt. Paul Nelson, chief investigator for the Burnet Police Dept.

The detective brought Clayton down to the police station for a talk. He denied his cousin’s allegations.

Capt. Paul Nelson: He asked me what made it aggravated.  And I told him that when he sexually assaulted her, that he beat her up real bad, and that’s what made it aggravated.  At which time he got real upset and stated, “I didn’t—I didn’t beat her up when I raped her.”Murphy: So, you fed him a little story, and he took the bait, huh?Capt. Paul Nelson: Yes sir.Murphy: I didn’t beat her, but I did rape her.Capt. Nelson: Yes. And once he said that, he just put his head down and I asked if he was ready to confess his sins, and he said yes he was. 

In June 2004, seven years after that sexual assault, Clayton Daniels pleaded guilty in this courthouse and was sentenced to probation and 30 days in jail.

Molly claimed she didn’t know about the sex charges pending against Clayton when she married him a few years earlier.

Molly Daniels: But I’m the type of person who takes all the information given to me, analyzes it and makes my own decision, regardless of what other people think.

Molly says she convinced herself that Clayton wasn’t a sexual predator of children, just a hard-luck guy who’d been unfairly railroaded into accepting a guilty plea.

Now with Clayton about to go away to serve 30-days in jail, her single-minded plan to keep her family together at all costs shifted into high gear.

His conviction meant Clayton would be registered as a lifetime sexual offender—more than just a shameful scarlet letter—it would be an earthquake, altering every aspect of their lives as parents, husband and wife. It would even dictate where they could live, not across from a school as they were now.

Molly Daniels: We’d lose our house. We were going to have to move. We’d lose a lot of different things that had to do with our kids. He won’t be able to be a stay-at-home dad anymore.  He wouldn’t be able to take the kids to school, pick them up from school.

The grave beckoned.

Murphy: So what did you all decide Molly? “How we’re going to get out of this?”

Molly Daniels We decided to give him a new life.  He was going to go away, become somebody different.  And I was gonna start over again, get back on my feet and we would meet in the future if that was what it’s supposed to be.

Murphy: How are you gonna do that?Molly Daniels: We created a new identity for him.  And we faked his death.Murphy: You had to kill Clayton Daniels to pull this off, huh?Molly Daniels: We faked it.  Yes sir. I admit now that it was absolutely a crazy idea.  Wasn’t something I should have done.  But hindsight is 20/20.Murphy: Now this is where it really gets ghoulish.  You’ve got, the two of you’ve got to come up with a body.  Am I right?Molly Daniels: Yes sir.Murphy: Either have to kill somebody or find a corpse.Molly Daniels: Yes sir.  And killing somebody was never on our list to do.Murphy: Was it?Molly Daniels: No.  From the get-go we had thought about obtaining a corpse through a mortuary or a grave.

Molly said they drove around, looking for out-of-the-way gravesites, and came upon the remote Pebble Mound Cemetery and searched for a candidate in the headstones.

Molly Daniels: The body had to be you know a certain amount old.  If it was too old it wouldn’t work.  If it was too new it wouldn’t work.Murphy: Wouldn’t work how?Molly Daniels: Too old it wouldn’t probably be feasible to get the body outta the grave.  Too new it wouldn’t burn the way it needed to.

The plan was in place. On the night of June 17, 2004— the Thursday before the Monday Clayton Daniels would be sent to jail— Molly said she stayed home while he went to the dark of the Pebble Mound Cemetery to dig up a corpse.

Murphy: Did he tell you anything about that night Molly about going out there, what he felt, what he was thinking? Molly Daniels: We never talked about that sir.  It wasn’t a subject he wanted to dwell on and I never asked him.

Clayton sped away from the fiery scene on a motorcycle that the couple had hidden in the bushes.

Murphy: So what do we get to?  The next morning Molly or how’s this go together?Molly Daniels: The next morning about six o’clock approximately, he called me and let me know it was done.Murphy: How’d he say it?  What were the words?Molly Daniels: Just “done.” Murphy: What’d you say to him?Molly Daniels: Nothing. Hung up the phone. Composed myself to become, I guess, award-winning actress for the day.  Murphy: You put some tears on and be the grieving widow?Molly Daniels: The tears were real.  The grieving widow part was not.  I used other emotions for it sir.  The hardship that we were going through, the fact that we actually went through this.

And what about the friends and family who grieved, put themselves out, and supported her with time and money?

Molly Daniels: I didn’t want their money.  I didn’t ask them for it.  And though I took it which was the wrong thing to do it was upsetting.  I shouldn’t have done it.Murphy: Molly the events that happened later, were they driven by that insurance policy?Molly Daniels: No. Murphy: We need to pretend that you’re dead in order to get the money and that’s mainly why we’re doing this?Molly Daniels: No. The reason behind it was to get him a new life. Murphy: Did you want the money?Molly Daniels: No sir.Murphy: Woulda been nice to have.Molly Daniels: It woulda helped.Murphy: A $110,000 pay off?Molly Daniels: It woulda helped sir but it wasn’t about the money.

Molly insisted killing off Clayton and replacing him with Jake was a ruse to keep their family intact... even though her own child would be tortured by the hair-brained scheme.

Murphy: Molly, inside your house is Caleb.  He has known Clayton as his father.  In comes Jake with a little hair color on, it’s the same man.Molly Daniels: Yes.Murphy: How confused did your little boy get?Molly Daniels: He was a little confused at first.Murphy: A little?Molly Daniels: I know that he acted out a little bit, but he was four years old.  All four year old boys act out, regardless of their circumstances.Murphy: You know, of all the crazy things that you two did—Molly Daniels: That was the worst.Murphy: The jury said they wished they could have given you more than 20 years for what you did to your boy.  Messing with his head like that.Molly Daniels: And I believe that to be very ridiculous.  My crime was not hurting my son. My crime was insurance fraud.Murphy: You were telling him his daddy’s dead and you say, “Here’s Jake.”Molly Daniels: Yes sir.Murphy: That’s not being very destructive to your own child?Molly Daniels: It was hurting him yes sir.Murphy: Why would you do that molly?Molly Daniels: To get on with the plan sir.

In the plan, Molly and Clayton were supposed to stay apart, assume new identities and later find a new place to restart a life together.

In fact, Molly was set to move to Florida in mid-December, 2004, except for one small detail—she’d been arrested at the Taco Bell two weeks before.

Their best-laid plans had been undone by some dogged investigators, but also undone because Molly hadn’t moved away and because the scheming lovebirds just couldn’t keep their hands off one another.

So, now, Molly’s here in a Texas jail, and Clayton’s in shackles in this Texas courtroom.

In January, 2006, in a court in Burnet County, Clayton Daniels acknowledged guilt for the felonies he committed arson and desecration of a cemetery.

In sentencing Clayton to 10 additional years, on top of the 20 he’s currently serving for probation violation on the aggravated sexual assault, the judge said the evidence ...

“Allows the court to see deeply into the heart and the soul of this defendant, and the court does not like what it sees.”

Mostly what repulsed the court was the ghoulish ransacking and incineration of the human remains which turned out to be those of an elderly woman who deserved to rest in peace. Her name was Charlotte Davis, and in an awful irony, she had but one wish before dying: not to be cremated.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Why would you pick the body of an older woman to be posed as the body of a young man?Molly Daniels: There wasn’t supposed to be anything left sir.

Charlotte, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, had been a mentally handicapped woman. Her favorite song in the memory of those who tended to her reflected the joy she found in each new day. Charlotte: a fundamentally happy person despite a lifetime spent in a wheelchair in group homes.

Laura Loveless, caretaker (in court): Charlotte just hit my heart so special that I wanted the world to know that Charlotte meant something to someone. I wanted her to go out of this world with dignity.

When Charlotte passed away, her caretaker, Laura Loveless, had her buried in a special dress in a donated burial plot at Pebble Mound Cemetery.

Laura Loveless: Her spot was behind the gate because charlotte was the type person who always wanted to see what was going on. Charlotte looked so peaceful and so at rest and so dignified in her coffin (crying). But I don’t have that anymore. (cries)

Not since Molly and Clayton Daniels cooked-up their scheme to let him— a convicted sexual offender—be born again by violating Charlotte Davis in her grave.

Molly Daniels: Those people out there who are upset with me about it are supposedly god-fearing, Christian people and they need to understand it was just a body.Murphy: Just a body. You were body-snatchers.Molly Daniels: She was in heaven like they said. She was a good woman who went with god. It was just a body.Murphy: When humans put their loved ones and people who passed away in the ground in a cemetery with rituals they usually let them stay there.Molly Daniels: Yes sir.Murphy: They don’t dig them up a few years later to have this greedy little scheme come together for them.Molly Daniels: No sir.Murphy: You don’t seem to show much remorse about all of this huh?  Do people look for something in you that they’re not finding and get disappointed?Molly Daniels: I can tell you that being locked up 13 months has made a great impact on my life and I don’t feel right now.  There’s a wall up. And I wish people could actually see how I feel on the inside.Murphy: What do people not know about you?Molly Daniels: That I care about what I did.  That I’m sorry for what I did, that I want to be a good mom. That I can’t believe that I did this.

Molly’s sister can’t believe it, either, and she’s not ready to forgive Molly for the emotional damage she caused her own son.

Melissa, Molly’s sister: What they did to Caleb, convincing him that Jake was not his daddy— that is where my anger comes from.

Her supportive co-worker, Amy, feels betrayed, but she also feels a little sorry for her former friend.

Murphy: She really messed up her life royal, didn’t she?Amy Birkenstock, friend: Yeah, she did and it’s sad.Murphy: Wrong guy syndrome or what do you think?Birkenstock:  I think so. She really could’ve gone somewhere with her life.Prosecutor (in court): Are you planning to move back in with Mr. Daniels if you all ever get out of prison?Molly: “When we get out of prison. Yes ma’am.”Prosecutor: And he’ll be a registered sex offender for life. Do you realize that?Molly: Yes ma’am. I understand the consequences.(Dateline interview) Molly Daniels: I still do love him.  He is a good man.Murphy: You still love him now.Molly Daniels: Yes sir.Murphy:  Was it really love?  What was it all about? Why would you make such a mess of your life for such a mess of a guy?Molly Daniels: ‘Cause I like to fix things.  I like to make things better.  Yeah.Murphy: Well you sure did, didn’t you? You fixed yourself good.Molly Daniels: And I did. And I made a mistake.

A mistake that still haunts the people who loved Charlotte Davis. Her remains were returned to the plot at Pebble Mound Cemetery just inside the gate, back again under a live oak—the innocent with a cruelly interrupted eternity.

In December 2007, Molly Daniels peaded guilty to the remaining criminal charges against her -- arson and desecration of a cemetery. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison on an arson charge, and 10 years on a desecration charge. These sentences will run concurrently with the sentences she is already serving.