The Wake County Sheriff’s Office charged two people with killing 28-year-old Brittany Smith and her unborn child after officials confirmed the missing woman’s body was in a suitcase found near the Neuse River Trail, Sheriff Gerald Baker said Wednesday night.
Thomas Clayton Johnson, 37, and Emmalei Grace Trevathan, 24, have been charged with murder, murder of an unborn child and concealment of body.
They were arrested Wednesday in Raleigh at a traffic stop.
What started as a missing person’s case turned into a homicide investigation Monday morning, Baker said. Raleigh police contacted the Sheriff’s Office after a witness reported a body had been found along a section of the Neuse River Trail, near Allen Drive.
An arrest warrant says the body of Smith, six months pregnant with a baby boy, was found in a purple suitcase tossed in the Neuse River on or about Friday. The remains were taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office, which identified the body as Smith’s.
Baker said many aspects of the case remain under investigation, including a possible motive and whether Smith knew Johnson and Trevathan.
Detectives said Wednesday that the initial cause of death is strangulation.
Smith was reported missing Thursday, The N&O reported. She was last seen near Fox Run Drive in Wendell. Dale Williams told The News & Observer Tuesday that Smith and her boyfriend had been living in a tent in the backyard of his Wendell home since June.
Baker said detectives searched the property for clues to her disappearance. But further investigation led detectives to Johnson and Trevathan at an unidentified motel.
“A search warrant at a motel that’s involved gave us some of the missing pieces to the puzzle that led us to these two individuals,” Baker said.
Baker said he didn’t know if they were trying to leave Raleigh when they were stopped Wednesday, and detectives are still piecing together their story from interviews.
Living in Wendell man’s backyard
Williams said Smith and her boyfriend had been squatting in a home and then in a tent on a vacant lot. They were only going to stay in his backyard for a couple of weeks, but those weeks turned into months, Williams said.
“It is better than having them on the streets,” Williams said.
Smith’s grandmother bought the couple a space heater when it got cold, and Williams ran an extension cord from his house so they could plug it in. Sometimes they would come inside to do laundry, use the shower and cook.
The last time Williams said he saw Smith was the night of Feb. 3, a Wednesday, when he dropped her off at the Zebulon grocery store where her boyfriend works.
Smith’s boyfriend told Williams he last saw Smith either that night or the next day getting into a car with two people and later spoke to her on the phone while she was in the car, Williams said.
Smith’s boyfriend reported her missing to police after she had not returned home for hours, Williams said.
Baker said his detectives have been working “around the clock” to find Smith. And while they’re trained to handle sensitive cases, this type of case can take its toll, he said.
“No one deserves to have their life taken, for it to end the way this one ended,” Baker said. “We’re law enforcement officers, but we’re human, too.”