Jennifer Daugherty's mom and stepdad didn't press for details when she mentioned she had made some new friends. The 30-year-old had the mental abilities of an adolescent but wasn't the kind to get in trouble, and she was even thinking about getting her own place soon.
Police found her body Friday stuffed into a garbage can in a school parking lot; they say she had been forced to consume detergent and urine — and to write a fake suicide note — before she was fatally stabbed by attackers who also shaved her head and painted her face with nail polish. Six suspects have been charged, including her new "friends."
"She was exploited, and her kindness and her handicap made her very vulnerable," Daugherty's sister, Joy Burkholder, said. "She trusted everybody; she believed everyone was good, and no one would hurt her."
Daugherty's stepfather said she often traveled on her own by bus from her home in Mount Pleasant to Greensburg, about 10 miles away, for dental or counseling appointments. After she hopped onto a bus Monday, she called her folks later in the day seeking permission to spend the night at "Peggy's" house.
It was the last time she would talk to them.
Daugherty went willingly went to the apartment where she was killed about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, according to police, who wouldn't discuss a motive or details on how the visit turned deadly.
Wrong place at wrong time?
Police say she was beaten with a towel rack, vacuum cleaner hose and a crutch, and her body bound with Christmas decorations, an affidavit said. Police said she was fed vegetable oil, medications and spices in addition to soap and urine.
She was stabbed multiple times with an unknown weapon in the neck, chest and head, Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth Bacha said. Authorities said they found the victim's belongings in the building's attic, as well as items that had been used to clean up blood.
"She was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, stumbled into a bad situation," said Greensburg Police Chief Walter Lyons.
Six people were charged with criminal homicide, kidnapping and other counts: Robert Loren Masters Jr., 36, Ricky Smyrnes, 23, Melvin Knight, 20, Amber Meidinger, 20, and Angela Marinucci, 17, all of Greensburg; and Peggy Darlene Miller, 27, of Mount Pleasant Township. All were being held without bond in the Westmoreland County prison. Prosecutors didn't know whether any of them had attorneys.
There was already a warrant for Smyrnes' arrest at the time of Daugherty's killing, according to a review Friday of criminal records available online. He was charged Jan. 30 with possessing instruments of crime, but the records don't detail the allegations. He was also awaiting trial on simple assault and harassment charges and pleaded guilty on four occasions to charges ranging from burglary to simple assault, theft and trespassing.
Lyons said he believed Daugherty had "some relationship" with Smyrnes.
Stepfather Bobby Murphy, 62, of Mount Pleasant, told The Associated Press that Daugherty had the mental abilities of a 12-to 14-year-old.
Murphy said he was the last family member to see Daugherty alive, on Monday, when he took her to get on the bus to Greensburg. He was not sure with whom Daugherty had an appointment, but said that later that day, she called home and asked about going to her friend Peggy's. Murphy said his stepdaughter planned to return home Tuesday.
Daugherty had become involved in a community center in Greensburg where she met several people whose names she mentioned as friends, Murphy said — including several whose first names share those of some of the defendants.
"I don't know them personally, but Jennifer mentioned some of their names as being her friends — but evidently not," he said.
According to an affidavit of probable cause, Knight admitted stabbing Daugherty in the chest, side and neck, and he and Smyrnes carried her body to the parking lot. All six defendants admitted their involvement and implicated others, according to police.
A neighbor in a first-floor apartment reported hearing a "tussle upstairs and a 'heavy bam'" as though a body fell, causing the ceiling to shake before the apartment went quiet Wednesday night, the affidavit said.
Another resident of the first-floor apartment said Smyrnes and two women came to their apartment afterward, and that the man asked them to turn their television down, the affidavit said.
The neighbors, Floria Headen and Angela McGowan, said that people frequently came and went from the apartment and that they had called police about a half-dozen times to complain.
"They was coming in droves. You didn't know who was living there," McGowan said. "It was unreal. All the noise and the pounding and the fighting and the drinking, you thought the ceiling was going to come in on you."
'Gentle, laid-back person'
A man found Daugherty's body Thursday morning when he saw the garbage can partially beneath his truck.
Headen has since learned that the Christmas lights police said were used to bind Daugherty had been taken from her porch. The garbage container in which her body was found belongs to Headen's daughter, who lives several houses away, she said.
"I'm in shock, and I'm angry," McGowan said. "I'm angry and it's like you want to cry because that poor child was tortured."
Burkholder described her sister as kind and said she liked scary movies, wrestling and college football.
Daugherty's family moved to Mount Pleasant from Mesquite, Texas, about two years ago to be closer to Murphy's mother-in-law, who is ill, Murphy said.
"One thing I can tell you is there is no reason for them to do what they did to Jennifer," Murphy said. "Jennifer was just a gentle, laid-back person.
"There wasn't a mean bone in her body."