The murder of Mary Collins

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In March of 2020, Mary Collins was a 20-year-old woman living in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was described as lovely, gracious & kind. Her elementary school principal would use the word innocent, while others felt she was vulnerable & sweet. She was someone who saw the best in people, loved to be silly & was said to have a light about her.  Mary was born with 22q deletion syndrome, which is also known as DiGeorge Syndrome & it’s the second most common genetic disorder after Down’s Syndrome. It can affect any system of the body though typically causes heart, immune, learning, speech and/or behavioral issues. Her aunt, Kara Williams said that Mary had the mentality of a 14 or 15-year-old as well as a severe speech impediment. Simple tasks like counting change or navigating her neighborhood could be a challenge. Mary had a pure heart & always saw the best in people; this made her vulnerable since she expected that others were good & could be trusted. Her elementary school principal described her as innocent, always giving her hugs in the hallways. Mary was a petite girl at 5’4” and 112#.

On March 28, 2020, in the midst of the beginnings of the COVID pandemic lockdowns, Mary was invited to the home of 24-year-old Kelly Lavery & 21-year-old Lavi Pham at the Yards at NoDa apartments. NoDa is a neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, short for North Davidson. Pham & Mary were high school friends & had dated for a short time but at this point, he was dating Lavery & they lived together in the upscale apartment complex. They invited Mary over that day & sent an Uber for her since she didn’t know how to drive & Lavery paid for the ride; Mary was excited to be hanging out with friends that day.

Yards at NoDa apartments

At the time, Mary was living with her grandmother, Mia Alderman & on the evening that Mary was picked up by the Uber driver, Mia tried to stop Mary from going but the driver stepped in, saying that Mary was a grown woman, capable of making her own decisions. Because of Mia’s disability, Mia said that Mary would try to say things but get them backwards though she always knew what she meant & they always understood each other.  Mia knew where Mary was headed; she also knew that Lavery had been bullying Mary on social media for months & felt that she was a jealous, mean-girl, making comments such as, “Eww, nobody would want you. If I were you, I would want to disappear as soon as possible.” That night, Pham posted a video; Mary was walking happily down the hallway of the apartment to pick up a sushi delivery. The video was posted to give the family false reassurance that all was well & sadly, it worked. 

When Mary stopped replying to her grandmother’s texts & didn’t come home, Mia became very worried. She was able to track Mary’s phone to the apartment complex & went there two days later, on March 30th, hoping to pick her granddaughter up. When Mia arrived, she was screaming Mary’s name; Kelly & Pham told her that Mary had left but she knew they were lying since Mary would never have risked leaving the apartment without her phone. Mia & Mary’s mom, Kasei Delpezzo were allowed into the apartment to look around, but the couple prevented them from thoroughly searching the back bedroom.  Mia searched around the complex & inside the apartment for hours, but couldn’t find any sign of Mary. She called 911 & an officer from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department or CMPD responded to the apartment complex at 11:09 pm; Mia explained that she was Mary’s guardian & Mary had left their home at 2:30 pm on March 28th & she hadn’t seen or heard from her since.  She also explained that despite Mary’s age, she was at a greater risk because of her disability, but regardless, she was told that a standard missing persons report would need to be completed. When the office knocked on Lavery & Pham’s door, there was no answer, so they left. 

Mary’s family was told by the detective to stop harassing the couple though this absolutely did not deter them. Because only 10% of missing person cases involve foul play, the detectives of the Missing Person Unit have the discretion to determine the legitimacy of each case. 

As investigation continued, on April 4th, homicide detectives became involved after receiving credible information that Mary had been beaten & killed inside the apartment. They learned that on the night of the 28th, Mary had been at the apartment with Lavery & Pham as well as 20-year-old Jimmy Salerno who later told a friend that while he was at a party with Mary, Lavery & Pham tied her up, beat her to death in the bathtub & placed her body in a mattress that they planned to burn. After Mary had been murdered, Salerno called 18-year-old America Diehl, a girl he’d met on Tinder, to come to the complex to help them clean up.

Lavi Pham, Kelly Lavery, James Salerno
America Diehl

This person went to police to report what they had been told & detectives went to the apartment; Pham agreed to let them come in & look around. Police walked through the apartment, going into the primary bedroom, where Pham lifted the mattress but there was no sign of Mary. Two days later, that witness as well as a second witness went back to CMPD headquarters to again speak with police & insist that Mary’s body had been hidden in the mattress. 

After obtaining a search warrant, police made contact with Pham as he left his apartment; as they entered the unit, they found Kelly in bed & she appeared to be under the influence of drugs. When the apartment was cleared, police stripped the bed in the primary bedroom, cut the mattress open & found what appeared to be a body wrapped in two layers of trash bags inside the mattress. As the trash bags were removed & opened, officers found a body wrapped in several layers of duct tape & saran wrap. The bags contained Cascade dish soap & pumpkin spice shower gel that had been used  to mask the smell. Detectives were shocked at how well Mary’s body had been concealed. Her body was partially clothed with articles of clothing tied around her neck & right ankle. An autopsy was completed on April 4, 2020; Mary’s body was in the early stages of decomposition & determined that she had been stabbed approximately 133 times in the head, neck, torso & extremities. None of these caused injury to an internal organ or major blood vessel which indicates she had been left to slowly bleed to death in the bathtub. She had a facial laceration & multiple facial & scalp contusions. Mary’s license & bank card were found hidden under a stack of papers inside the bedroom. Blood was located throughout the bedroom & bathroom. Saran wrap, duct tape & contractor grade trash bags were found inside the apartment. Kelly & Pham were taken into custody. Pham’s phone was also seized. 

Mary’s case didn’t receive the attention it would have gotten in normal times because of the timing with the early days of COVID lockdowns. 

On April 5th, Jimmy was found & taken into custody but he didn’t have his cell phone on him at the time, but after obtaining a search warrant, his parents turned over his phone. After searching the phones, investigators found  that conversations about Mary’s murder were discussed on multiple platforms & photos & videos may also have been taken on the night she was murdered. America Diehl had fled to Colorado & wasn’t arrested until nearly two months later, on June 2, 2020 & she was later extradited to Charlotte. She had turned herself into the Thornton PD in Thornton, Colorado though was ultimately released on a $100k bond in September of 2021 & is living with her family in Clover, South Carolina, awaiting her trial. 

Prosecutors alleged that Pham & Lavery put Xanax in Mary’s drink, tied her up, put her into the bathtub where they beat & stabbed her to death; an autopsy determined that she had been stabbed 133 times.  Phone records place Salerno in the apartment during the attack. Text messages detail their decision to murder Mary because she refused to participate in a threesome with them.  America Diehl claimed that Lavery was the ringleader, giving orders to everyone as to what needed to be done.

Mary’s aunt Kara Williams struggles to wrap her head around how this happened, knowing that Mary would have been excited to hang out with some friends. She can’t imagine at one point in the evening they turned on her & how confused & scared Mary must have been when it happened. The hardest part is thinking about the torture that Mary endured & the pain she must have felt before she died.  Because Mary didn’t want to feel lonely & she managed to see the best in people, she tolerated Kelly. Mary’s family wasn’t happy that she was spending time with her, but they never fathomed that she could have been capable of physically harming her. 

Pham, Lavery & Salerno were charged with kidnapping, murder & concealing a death; Diehl faced charges of accessory after the fact & concealing a death. Pham has pleaded not guilty & his next court date hasn’t been determined. On January 13, 2023, Salerno appeared before a judge for a bond hearing & was granted a $250k secured bond; he has pleaded not guilty & remains in jail. Mia is disgusted that this bond was granted & that this person that helped bludgeon her granddaughter to death may freely walk the streets. The judge didn’t offer a reason for the bond & the DA’s office offered no rebuttal. Mia felt that Salerno & his family showed no sense of compassion toward their family, laughing & acting jovial in their presence. 

Kelly Lavery pleaded guilty to 2nd degree murder, 1st degree kidnapping  & concealing/failing to report a death & was sentenced to 25-32 years in prison. At first the family was outraged since they felt she deserved life in prison though after the DA explained that if the case went to trial, Kelly could actually get less time & even avoid conviction. Mary’s mom Kasei felt powerless, unable to have a say in getting justice for her own child that was tortured & murdered. 

Mary’s sister, Rylee said, “She was goofy, she was sweet, she was given, she was elegant. Graceful in everything she did & you couldn’t help but notice. The world doesn’t have enough women like her  in it. The world didn’t deserve to lose her before she had  the chance to explore it. We have lost one of our best angels. She deserved better because she was better. I love you forever baby sister. I will never stop sending you love.”

Mary’s family runs an organization called Mary’s Voice that petitions for changes in missing person investigations involving those that are disabled. Mary’s mom Kasei feels her religious faith is what keeps her going & she hopes this tragedy can bring a positive change.

References:

  1. Scribd: Search warrant
  2. WCNC: ‘They tortured her & let her bleed to death’
  3. The Netline: Mary Collins’ Story – Her tragic murder
  4. WCNC: Man accused of brutally killing woman in NoDa granted $250k bond  on murder charge
  5. ID Crimefeed: North Carolina Couple Accused Of Murdering Woman Who Refused Threesome With Them
  6. The Charlotte Observer: For Mary Collins’ mother, Charlotte woman’s lengthy sentence  for murder ‘isn’t enough’
  7. Nationwide Children’s: 22q Deletion Syndrome

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