‘Light-hearted’ and ‘happy’ were words used to describe 30-year-old Jennifer Daugherty outlook on life. Though handicapped, she didn’t let her cognitive challenges affect her willingness to make the best of every circumstance. She gave even those who were unkind to her the benefit of the doubt, trusting that there was good in everyone. When she made six new friends, it seemed she’d gotten closer to becoming part of a group, something she diligently sought. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When Jennifer Daugherty called her parents to let them know she would spend the night with a friend, they had no idea she would disappear for two days. The sweet-natured, mentally challenged 30-year-old didn’t have a penchant for trouble. All she wanted was to have friends. Unfortunately, the six people with whom she spent the worst hours of her life were anything but friendly.
Kind and Trusting Jennifer Daugherty
The mental challenges limited Jennifer Daugherty to the reasoning skills of a 12 or 14-year-old. These challenges could have affected her quality of life. However, Daugherty made the best of things. According to an NBC News article, she maintained a sunny outlook and a determination to make friends and improve the happiness of those around her. Despite her disability, she held a level of independence, utilizing public transportation between her home in Mount Pleasant, PA, to Greensburg. The possibility of her living on her own in the future was even under consideration.
She enjoyed scary movies, wrestling, and college football and ‘trusted everybody.’ In an article by Ashlie Hardway of WATE, Joy Daugherty Burkholder described her sister this way:
On a Monday in February of 2010, NBC News reports that Daugherty called her parents. She asked if it was alright for her to spend the night at a friend’s apartment. She joined six acquaintances, a few of whom had become her ‘friends’ in their Pittsburg dwelling. Daugherty had begun to frequent a local community center where she presumably became involved with the clan of roommates. It was believed that Daugherty had a romantic interest in one of the men, Ricky Smyrnes, who was 23 years old. Robert Loren Masters Jr., 36 years, Melvin Knight, 20 years, Peggy Darlene Miller, 27 years, and Amber Meidinger, 20 years, were also present. The youngest of the group was 17-year-old Angela Marinucci, who also harbored an interest in Smyrnes, according to Rich Cholodofsky of TribLive’s 2018 article.
From the outside, it appeared that Daugherty had just gained many friends. And it was a mess. Her family would discover just how big of one in the days that followed.
Bullying and murder of Jennifer Daugherty
For someone so eager to find acceptance, being invited into a hang-out would have been the equivalent of uncovering a treasure trove to good-hearted Daugherty. However, it quickly became apparent that her new friends were anything but gold. The group members started abusing their eager guests early in the gathering. It started with stealing and vandalizing her belongings, taking her money, gift cards, and phone, and filling her purse with various liquids. The taunting grew cruelly as they cut her hair and hit her with soda bottles. Meidinger and Marinucci raised even more violence, assaulting Daugherty with a metal towel rack.
The degradation escalated when they painted her face with nail polish, took her clothes, and shoved her into an attic where Knight raped her.
Smyrnes and Knight tied Daugherty up with a string of Christmas lights.
Smyrnes had gathered the group the previous night when they’d decided to kill Daugherty. When this was once again voted the best solution to their ‘problem,’ Smyrnes grabbed a steak knife. He gave it to Knight, who stabbed her in the side, chest, and throat before Smyrnes took a turn. What Daugherty had believed to be a welcoming sleep-over had turned into a brutal murder.
No Reason For Them to Do What They Did
Rich Cholodofsky’s 2013 TribLive article reports that she was discovered on February 11th, 2010, still wrapped in Christmas lights and a garland.
NBC News said all six group members admitted to participating in the disaster.
Occupants of the apartments surrounding the crime scene reported hearing thuds and banging on the night of the murder. They also said that people were constantly coming and going from that apartment, and the police had been summoned multiple times due to complaints against the unit’s inhabitants. “You didn’t know who lived there,” one neighbor declared. “It was unreal. With all the noise, pounding, fighting, and drinking, you thought the ceiling would come in on you.” As if the unit’s surrounding occupants hadn’t been made to feel enough a part of the raucous group’s violent antics, neighbor Floria Headen later learned that the lights used to tie the helpless Daugherty had been stolen from her porch.
“One thing I can tell you is there is no reason for them to do what they did to Jennifer,” Daugherty’s father, Bobby Murphy, said. “Jennifer was just a gentle, laid-back person. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body.”
The discovery of what had happened to Daugherty begged the answer to a horrific question: What kind of people would be capable of something so terrible? Disturbed and ill, that’s what kind.
According to Rich Cholodofsky’s 2013 TribLive article:
It was suggested that his main goal had been to demonstrate his devotion to Marinucci in light of Daugherty’s expressed interest in him. It was also discovered that he’d beaten his ex-wife and threatened to kill his adoptive mother. He was given the death penalty. However, this fate was later negotiated as further details about his past were uncovered.
Defense attorneys presented evidence that Smyrnes’ traumatic childhood involving sexual abuse from his father and being coerced into male prostitution by his mother to pay for her drug habit contributed to his sick mental state. They suggested life in prison instead of death. Mark Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, supported this alternative, labeling Smyrnes as a ‘very low-functioning person.’ Assessment of his IQ further deemed the murderer ineligible for death row.
Sentences for the Rest of the Murderers Jennifer Daugherty
Attention was then turned to the other group members, including Knight and Meidinger, Knight’s former fiance. In his 2018 TribLive article, Rich Cholodofsky records that Meidinger, who gave birth to a child by Knight while imprisoned, came forward to testify on the fourth day of his murder trial. Emotion got the better of her on more than one occasion, reducing her to tears.
Meidinger had first encountered Knight at a homeless shelter in Washington County. They stuck together, eventually ending up in Greensburg, where they met Smyrnes and Daugherty at a bus station. Smyrnes already had two roommates but invited Meidinger and Knight to move in. They became a part of the clan and were therefore included in the gathering on the night of the murder. The rest is morbid history.
WTAE-TV video footage captures reporters seeking to obtain a statement from Meidinger. Her words are few, but she says she regrets what happened. Daugherty’s sister’s response is solemn and controlled when asked for her opinion on the idea: “I feel nothing for her… I believe she is remorseful, and she should be.”
As for Marinucci, it might appear a wrong crowd had swept up the teen. However, Meidinger’s remark that Marinucci had grown angry when the Christmas lights wrapped around Daugherty to make her look like a Christmas tree didn’t blink is a chilling testament to the twisted, cold-heartedness she had to have possessed. She was given a life sentence that was later renegotiated due to her age.
Heinous crime’s two other participants both pleaded guilty to murder. Robert Masters will be behind bars for 30 to 70 years, and Peggy Miller will serve 35 to 74 years.
An Unjust End for a Pure Heart by Jennifer Daugherty
All Daugherty wanted, according to her family, was to be a part of something, no matter what, WTAE records. Heartbreakingly enough, her sweet, trusting nature led to her death. “She’d do anything in the world you’d ask her to do,” Bobby Murphy, her stepfather, explained.
The brutality of six humans who saw fit to degrade Daugherty’s kindness left an unfillable hole in the lives of her family members. “I didn’t realize at the time how she did add to life until she was murdered,” her mother testified.
One can dissect the unspeakable situation and ask ‘why?’ Facts can be presented. TribLive’s 2018 article records that Daugherty herself begged her captors for a reason behind her torture and mistreatment. She received no answer, and her family wouldn’t either. There was no justification in the world for it. None.