Except for the whole murder thing, Courtney James seemed like a lovely young woman. She was bright, articulate, a dedicated college student and well liked waitress at a popular restaurant.
I met her when she was sitting in an interrogation room at the precinct. She was a bit on the larger side, dressed conservatively in pastel colors and minimal makeup, and when I came in, she introduced herself with a polite smile, as if we were meeting for a job interview as opposed to a police investigation. She had declined to have an attorney present, so I got right to business.
“You understand why you’re here, Miss James?” I asked, both to get it on the record and to verify for myself. It wasn’t often that I met with such calm people.
“Yes. Officer Clarent, I believe, explained it to me. He was very nice.”
“I’m sorry this has turned into such a mess.” She said.
And she really did look apologetic; not so much over what she’d done or even getting caught, but over the fact that we were now having to take our time to piece together a case against her. I’d definitely need to get a psych eval done on her.
“Why don’t you tell me about this ‘mess’. Help me understand what happened.”
“I thought you’d know already. Isn’t that why I’m here?”
“Yes, but I’d like to hear your side.”
“Oh. You mean, like, why I did it.”
She glanced contritely down at her hands, which were folded in her lap, and sighed. “Because no one else was going to.”
“She was just going to be allowed to keep on doing what she was doing and no one was going to stop her.” She looked up and, for the first time, I saw a glint of something dark flash through her eyes. It vanished with a blink. “So I did.”
In order to move things along and, I decided to get a bit more direct with my questions. I flipped open the folder in front of me and took out a photograph to slide across the table to Courtney. “You know this girl?”
She nodded. “I did. Melissa Del Hanes.”
“How do you know her?”
“I killed her.” She said it so plainly, like it was just a routine part of her day.
“She was a classmate and customer at the restaurant where I work.”
“You see a lot of other students and customers. Why her?”
“Because she wasn’t a good person.”
Getting Courtney to talk in more than short, semi-vague sentences was a challenge. While she didn’t seem remorseful over what she’d done, she also wasn’t eager to discuss it. After a frustrating hour of back and forth during with she gave me little new information, I opened the file again and tossed another picture in front of her, one of her deceased victim as she’d been found at the crime scene.
“Let’s start over at the beginning.” I said, steering her away from the murder itself for a moment. “Where’d you get the pig face?”
“My uncle’s a butcher. I took it from his shop.”
“And why did you take it?”
“Because I finally actually wanted to do what she was always saying I did.”
Courtney squared her shoulders and met my gaze steadily. “Put lipstick on a pig.”
The darkness appeared in Courtney’s eyes again and, this time, it remained. A single tear slipped down her cheek and she wiped it away hurriedly. She exhaled slowly and smoothed her blouse with exaggerated care.
“I’m sorry. You must think I’m being difficult; I don’t mean to be. It’s just that…it’s hard for me to talk about. You understand, right?” She asked.
“I understand you killed a girl who, by all accounts, didn’t do a thing to deserve it.”
“Then, with all due respect, Detective, all accounts are wrong.”
“Unless you tell me what happened, it’s all I’ve got to go on.”
Courtney leaned forward, her fists resting on the table, and her previously pleasant expression was consumed by one of trembling hurt and anger. The perception that Melissa had been a good person acted as a switch and the floodgates opened.
Once she started talking, she barely even paused for breath.
Courtney had met Melissa in college during one of their second year courses. Initially she’d seemed nice enough, when Courtney was still willing to “share” her work, but that changed once Courtney grew a spine and told Melissa to stop being a parasite. Melissa, as Courtney put it, started an all out smear campaign, claiming that Courtney was trying to get her in trouble by accusing her of cheating.
She went to their professor and said that Courtney was harassing her and threatening her over an assignment they’d done as part of a group, claiming that Courtney was going to try and take credit for doing all the work and leaving her to fail. The professor had documented the incident and told Courtney that she needed to make sure everyone in the group was treated fairly. He didn’t say that Melissa had complained, but Courtney knew.
Mutual friends and classmates slowly started to alienate Courtney, going quiet when she would come near and leaving her out of conversations. They stopped inviting her to join them for outings and getting into a group for projects became almost impossible.
“It was like being in my high school gym class again.” Courtney said. “Nobody wanted me on their team. I was just put in that last spot that needed to be filled.”
When Courtney finally cornered a classmate that she had previously been close to, the girl admitted that Melissa had told them how awful Courtney was being over a few copied homework answers and that she was worried that Courtney might escalate it. Courtney didn’t even have a chance to give her side; they’d all already decided Melissa was the victim.
Courtney had resigned herself, as she had done a number of times in the past, to being the subject of cruel rumors and ridicule. She had thought she could handle it.
Things changed when the start of a new semester brought with it a transfer student, Kyle. Courtney admitted she developed a crush on him after they became casual acquaintances and started dressing up a bit more when she knew she’d be seeing him. Melissa noticed and upped her harassment.
“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Melissa had said as she passed in the halls.
It became a running joke that a few others got in on. They’d oink and snort quietly at her, make thinly veiled pig comments if she was within hearing, and, sometimes, she’d find half used tubes of lipstick left on her desk along with crude drawings or photos of pigs.
“It’s all so high school, isn’t it?” Courtney asked me dejectedly. “I had thought that kind of behavior would be behind me, but nope. It just ended up being the same kinds of people with different faces.”
Courtney had thought she was safe from their harassment outside of classes, but it soon followed her into work. Melissa started asking Kyle to join her at the restaurant during Courtney’s shifts and would complain to him that they were getting poor service because Courtney had an unfounded grudge against her. Management overheard and reprimanded Courtney despite her protests.
Whatever interest Kyle might have had in her quickly vanished.
Courtney couldn’t say when exactly she started planning to kill Melissa or even if that was what she intended. She wanted to hurt her, yes, humiliate her, of course, but kill? That just kind of happened.
As she’d said, Courtney had taken a pig’s head from her uncle’s shop. At first, she’d only planned to leave it at Melissa’s house to scare her, but that didn’t seem like it would be enough. Not after what she’d done. She started to put together a plan of revenge that would make it so Melissa never treated anyone so badly again.
A few google searches had taught Courtney how to skin the head well enough to take the flesh off in sizable strips, which she then stapled together into a rough mask using a borrowed staple gun. She hid the skin in her freezer. It took a few more days of waiting, but soon an opportunity presented itself that Courtney couldn’t pass up.
It was after an evening class, when she caught up to Melissa on her way through the parking lot back to her car. They were alone, it was dark, and Courtney was angry. She smashed Melissa over the back of her head with a rock and dragged her into her car, where she bound her hands and feet. Melissa was still unconscious when they got back to Courtney’s apartment.
“I tied her to a chair and gagged her and then waited for her to wake up.” Courtney said. “She was surprised, to say the least, and nervous. I told her I wasn’t going to hurt her, but I think we both knew I was lying. She started to cry. I had thought maybe I’d feel a bit bad if she did that, but I didn’t.”
“I told her exactly how miserable she’d been making me, how I’d lost friends and was on thin ice at my job. She mumbled something, maybe an apology, but I couldn’t understand through the gag. Honestly, Detective? I didn’t really care.”
She’d taken the pig skin mask out of the freezer and forced it over Melissa’s head. When it kept flopping awkwardly, Courtney decided to get the staple gun out again.
“Melissa was screaming, but it was muffled and I didn’t worry too much about anyone hearing. It only took a few staples and then the mask looked mostly right. It was only missing one thing.”
Courtney had smeared lipstick all along the pig’s mouth.
“I used the tubes she and her friends had left me. It seemed wrong to waste them. She was still crying, but I couldn’t see her face anymore, just the pig. She’d been right about the lipstick; it didn’t help it look less ugly.”
“And then what happened?”
Courtney finally paused. She looked uncertainly down at the table and shrugged. “I don’t really know. I mean, I know I killed her, but I hadn’t really meant to at first. I was sitting there, looking at her, and suddenly it felt like anyone could be under the mask; old bullies, mean teachers, bad bosses. Anybody. I guess I’d let some resentment build up.”
“So what did you do?”
“I shot her a few times with the staple gun.” She said. The frankness of her statement was almost chilling. “She was moving around a lot and fell over. The next bit is kind of a blur; I don’t really remember it very well. I know I must have gotten a knife from the kitchen. I know I stabbed her. I just don’t remember it.”
“You don’t remember killing Melissa?”
“Not really. I do remember her lying there with the pig face and all of this blood. It was horrible. I knew I’d really made a terrible mistake, it shouldn’t have gone that far, so I took a shower-”
“You took a shower?”
“Yes. She was already dead, I was covered in blood, ten more minutes wasn’t going to change anything. I called the cops right after.”
“And that was last night?”
“Yes. Probably around 10, 10:30.”
“Do you have anything else you’d like to add to your statement?”
Courtney shook her head. “No. Maybe that I’m sorry? I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter.”
I shuffled my notes and put them into the case folder, which I tucked under my arm as I stood.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Miss James. An officer will be in to start processing you.”
As I turned to go, Courtney spoke up once more.
I half turned towards her and she forced a sad smile.
“What do you expect people like me to do? We can only take so much, right? Should I have killed myself? Would that have been a better answer?”
“No.” I said.
“Then what should I have done? No one ever listened. No one ever helped. It wasn’t going to end. What was I supposed to do?”
I left her when the processing officer came in. Courtney continued to look at me, helpless and a little defiant, waiting for my answer even as I was walking out, but I didn’t have one for her.
Even now, after her trial is done and she’s imprisoned for the rest her natural life, I still don’t, and I wonder if that’s a small crime all on its own.