One of the family members of the quadruple murder victims in Troy, NY, told The Daily Beast that victim Brandi Mells, 22, was friends with Justin C. Mann, 24, who is charged with slaughtering her and her girlfriend's family.
Police say Mells, who was born with dwarfism was targeted by the killers. Mells, pictured above with girlfriend Shanta Myers, 36, was also the target of school bullies due to her small stature.
Mann, of Schenectady, and his accomplice James W. White, 38, were arrested Friday night at Mann's Schenectady residence and arraigned Saturday morning in Troy City Court. They were both charged with one count of first-degree murder and 4 counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Mells, Myers, 36, and Myers's children Jeremiah, 11, and Shanice, 5.
White arrived in court wearing a tear-resistant white paper jumpsuit that is provided to inmates who express suicidal thoughts. He appeared emotional during his arraignment.
Tips from the public and surveillance video, both public and private, led police to Mann and White, officials said. The use of surveillance video prompted speculation that the killers rode public transportation to and from the murder scene.
Troy's public transportation department installed high-res surveillance equipment on all city buses.
Troy Police Chief John Tedesco said the four victims were brutally slaughtered around 9 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 21 -- about the time when communication between Mells and her family stopped.
5 days later, Mells's relatives asked the property manager to check on Mells in the basement apartment -- 1 of 5 apartments in the house along the east bank of the Hudson River.
Mells’ cousin, Sharonda Bennett, told The Daily Beast that repeated calls to Mells' cellphone went unanswered on Dec. 21. She said every time she called Mells, her calls went to voicemail.
Bennett said she last spoke to Mells on Dec. 19. Mells was considering whether to spend Christmas in Troy or Paterson, New Jersey, where Mells' family lives.
Her options were limited due to the couple's finances. Both Mells and Myers were short on cash, and neither woman owned a car.
The family would have taken the Greyhound bus from Troy to New Jersey, Bennett said.
Mells and Myers met 3 years ago in Troy. Mells invited Myers to move in with her after the older woman and her children were evicted from their apartment in April. Bennett said the two women got engaged this year.
“If you would have been in that household, you would have felt they were together for centuries,” Bennett said.
Due to the lack of space in the small efficiency apartment, Myers asked her sister, Shakera Symes, to take in her eldest son Isaiah Smith, 15.
The teenager told reporters he went to the apartment on Dec. 23 to deliver Christmas presents for his younger siblings, but no one answered the door. He left for Massachusetts believing the family had stepped out for a bit.
Isaiah was away at a basketball tournament when he got the shocking news that his mother and siblings were killed. He took the news hard. "I fell down to the floor right in the bathroom and cried thinking who would've done this?" he told CBS6.
Mells’ mother last saw her on Dec. 21st but couldn’t reach her by phone after 11 p.m, according to the Times Union. She tried getting into the Second Avenue house that night, but the door was locked, Bennett said. The next day, she asked Bennett if she had talked to Mells.
“We were kind of worried,” Bennett said. “It was unlike Brandi not to be contacted.” The family initially assumed Myers and Mells decided to spend Christmas in Troy.
When Christmas came and went without a phone call from Mells, her anxious mother asked the property manager to check and see if Mells was at home or if she packed up and left for New Jersey.
The property manager entered the basement apartment the day after Christmas and discovered the grisly scene. The four bodies were in one room, Bennett said.
Police say a bloody knife was found on a ledge near a closet, and a second blade was found on a bed near the children's bodies.
The children were found kneeling on the floor with their heads and chests resting on the bed.
According to the Albany Times Union, one of the women was found on a mattress on the floor. The other woman was discovered face down on the floor with a sheet covering her body.
Bennett said Mells worked odd jobs after dropping out of high school. She planned on obtaining her GED, and she talked of becoming a counselor for troubled children.
Brandi was the youngest in her family and the only girl raised in a house of boys. She was born with dwarfism, which made her a target for bullies in school.
Bennett said she would be ready to snap at people if they looked at Mells the wrong way for having dwarfism, but Mells would tell her, “No, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
“She started accepting [her dwarfism]. She started embracing it, making jokes” Bennett told The Daily Beast. “She was okay with it after a while.”
“She never would have wanted to have a confrontation at all. She hasn’t had a problem with anybody. That’s why I don’t understand how or why. Who would make her an enemy,” Bennett said.
Mells eventually moved to the Syracuse, NY area to live with her father and attend high school there.
"Brandi was loving,” Bennett told The Daily Beast. “She was the sweetest person you could ever meet. She had such a big heart. She would give the shirt off her back. Honestly, what would anybody get or gain from harming her?”
Days before Brandi was murdered, she scoured Facebook classifieds searching for gifts for Myers' children.
The 22-year-old, pictured above right with Shanta and Shanice, offered tires for sale, desperate to scrape together money for Christmas presents.
“Is anybody still adopting kids for xmas i have a 5, 11, an 15 year old,” Brandi wrote on Dec. 19, in a local Facebook group. “Pockets are tight dont really have it anything helps. Games toys clothes shoes.”
In another Facebook group on Dec. 17, Brandi Mells wrote: “If anyone have ps3 or xbox1 systems with games for my two boys they don't have anything for Christmas anything help."
A week before that, she gushed about raising Myers' kids.
"Having kids doesn’t make you a parent. Rasing [sic] them does.”
Friends of Shanta Myers say she struggled to overcome obstacles as a single mother to 3 children.
America Ray, 33, says she met Myers six years ago at a WIC office where Ray worked in Troy. At the time, Myers was pregnant with her youngest child, Shanice.
The women quickly bonded when they discovered they were neighbors at a River Street apartment complex.
After Shanice was born, Myers asked Ray to be the baby's godmother.
“It’s hard to imagine that this is real,” said Ray. “She was a hardworking mom. Her kids were her world.”
Ray said Myers did maintenance and outreach for the Joseph’s House shelter, and worked various jobs cooking, cleaning and babysitting around the Troy area.
Ray said Myers was an amazing cook, who was well-known on the block for her macaroni & cheese. “People would beg her to eat her food,” Ray recalls.
After Myers moved in with Mells, Ray moved to Albany. Myers wanted a new beginning, Ray said. She wanted to relocate to Albany and land a new job so she could provide for her children.
“When someone wants a new start, they’re not happy,” Ray said, adding, “I have no idea who could do this to her.”
“It’s important that the community remember who Shanta was,” Ray added. “She really did care about people. No matter what she was going through, I mean some hardcore stuff, she just cared about people.”