Bodybuilders charged in killing

Las Vegas couple accused of murder in suffocation of personal assistant

February 04, 2006|By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK | SAM HOWE VERHOVEK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 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 might have cultivated in his competitions, he now stands accused, along with his bodybuilder wife, of a real-life gruesome killing.

In a lurid murder case here, both are charged with stun-gunning, drugging and suffocating their live-in personal assistant, then stuffing the body in their Jaguar and setting the car aflame with charcoal lighter on a desert highway outside the city, apparently an effort to make the crime look like an accident.

Titus, 41, and his wife, Kelly Ryan, 33, appeared in court this week, 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 to Las Vegas 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; his wife answered, "Yes, sir," to the same question. They did not formally enter pleas, but lawyers for each said they intend 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. While that was one possible motive for either or both in the Dec. 13 killing, another could be an alleged financial dispute between the couple and the assistant.

Prosecutors said they would let the indictment speak for itself. And while they described the crime, they did not include any discussion of 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 having a pedicure. The Las Vegas police said they were trying to liquidate their assets in Massachusetts and had planned to escape to Greece before they were caught.

A third person has been charged as an accomplice. 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.

On Bodybuilders.com, a Web site 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.

It also describes a few competitions he won in the 1990s, as well as lower-placing finishes since then, including 11th place at the 2002 Mr. Olympia and ninth place at the British Grand Prix. The Web site indicates his age as 39, but court records list him as 41.

Titus was imprisoned for drug-related offenses in 1997-1999.

Kelly Ryan is listed as 5 feet 3 inches, with an off-season weight of 125 pounds and a competition weight of 120, and is described as a one-time gymnast.

Sam Howe Verhovek writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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