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2 Charged in Desert Killing

Professional bodybuilders Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan are accused in the Las Vegas slaying of their personal assistant, Melissa James.

February 02, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — As a middling player in the world of professional bodybuilding, Craig Titus stood out more for his snarling bad-boy image than for the few awards he garnered for his chiseled physique.

"I'm like a Rottweiler in a land of golden retrievers," he told a Florida newspaper five years ago.

But whatever act Titus may have cultivated in his competitions, he now stands accused, along with his bodybuilder wife, of a real-life gruesome killing.

In a lurid case here that allegedly involves sex and money, both are accused of stun-gunning, drugging and suffocating their live-in personal assistant, then stuffing her body in their Jaguar and setting the car aflame with charcoal lighter fluid on a desert highway outside the city, an apparent effort to make the crime look like an accident.

Titus, 41, and his wife, Kelly Ryan, 33, appeared in court here Wednesday morning, shackled to other jail inmates and seated two rows apart. Both were formally charged with murdering Melissa James, 28, a former fitness instructor from New Jersey who had moved here to serve as Titus and Ryan's personal assistant.

Titus, who had made the cover of several bodybuilding magazines over the years, replied "absolutely" when Clark County Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure asked whether he understood the charges; Ryan answered "yes, sir" to the same question. They did not formally enter pleas, but lawyers for each said they intended to plead not guilty to all charges.

The sensational case has generated much attention here, with details emerging of Titus' apparent confession to his wife that he had had an affair with James. Though that may have factored into a possible motive in the slaying, thought to have taken place Dec. 13 or 14, another motive could be an alleged financial dispute between the couple and the assistant.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that they would let the indictment speak for itself. It outlined the alleged crime but did not address motive.

Shortly after the car was set ablaze, the couple left Las Vegas for the Boston area, where they were arrested Dec. 23 at a Stoughton, Mass., salon as Ryan was getting a pedicure. Las Vegas police said the couple were trying to liquidate their assets in Massachusetts and had planned to escape to Greece.

A third person has been charged as an accomplice in the slaying. He is Anthony Gross, 23, a fan and workout partner of Titus' who, police said, drove a second car to the spot where the Jaguar was ignited and then took Titus home.

Security videotapes show Ryan buying seven half-gallon containers of charcoal starter fluid and a barbecue tool set at a Las Vegas Wal-Mart around 3:30 a.m. Dec. 14, police said. Shortly after that, the Jaguar with James' corpse inside was torched; police found the charred body inside when they responded to a report about the fire, and they quickly concluded arson was involved.

Outside the courthouse Wednesday, one of Titus' lawyers, Steven Boozang, described how his client had told him he was "100% not guilty."

On Bodybuilders.com, a website for participants and fans, Titus is listed as 5 feet 9 with an off-season weight of 267 pounds and a competition weight of 242 pounds. Though his muscles could be seen bulging through his blue jail suit in court, he appeared far more muscled in the photograph posted on the website.

The website describes a few competitions Titus won in the 1990s, as well as lower-placing finishes since then, including 11th place at the 2002 Mr. Olympia competition and ninth place at the British Grand Prix. The site indicates he is 39, but court records list him as 41. It also gives an old address of his in Marina del Rey, and lists Tom Cruise as a person he admires.

Titus was imprisoned for drug-related offenses from 1997 to 1999.

Ryan is listed online as 5 feet 3, with an off-season weight of 125 pounds and a competition weight of 120. She is described as a onetime gymnast who had "spent most of her life preparing to win an Olympic gold medal," but who decided that "the lonely, spartan life of elite Olympic-level gymnasts was not for her." She thus "left the mats and parallel bars behind," and switched to bodybuilding.

She had first-place finishes in the Jan Tana Pro Fitness, Show of Strength Pro Fitness and Southwest Pro Fitness competitions in 2002, and the Pittsburgh Pro Fitness show in 2001.

Under "marital status," Ryan is listed as "happily married to Craig Titus."

A neighbor of the couple's, Alzina Miller, said the two were away a lot, and that she thought that James was a housesitter who also looked after the couple's dog.

"They have always been very nice to us," Miller said of Titus and Ryan, "and very considerate. When they put their pool in a few years ago, they welcomed us to use it anytime. Kelly was very nice. She baked me Christmas cookies, in fact."

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