Police arrested two men in connection to the murders of a family in upstate New York, bringing relief to a community on edge over the brutal slayings.
James W. White, 38, and Justin C. Mann, 24, were arraigned Saturday morning in Troy City Court and pleaded not guilty. They each face one count of first-degree murder and four counts of murder in the second degree.
Both suspects, who live in Schenectady, are being held without bail in Rensselaer County Jail and have criminal records.
“I don’t need to tell you how good it feels to have these two defendants in custody,” Troy police chief James Tedesco said at a press conference.
Cops cuffed the suspects Friday around 9:50 p.m. at Mann’s Hamilton Street residence in Schenectady, Tedesco said. He wouldn’t comment on what led police to Mann and White, but said one of them was acquainted with one victim.
A motive or manner of death hasn’t been released, but Tedesco said police believe the massacre took place Dec. 21 — which relatives told The Daily Beast is when the victims became unreachable.
Brandi Mells, 22, and her 36-year-old girlfriend Shanta Myers were found slain inside their basement apartment on the day after Christmas. Myers’ 5-year-old daughter Shanise and 11-year-old son Jeremiah were also killed.
The heinous killings have rocked the city of Troy, about a 15-minute drive north of Albany, as police worked to nab the alleged murderers and piece together a timeline of events.
One of Myers’ family members told The Daily Beast that Mells was buddies with Mann, who is now accused of butchering her and her girlfriend’s family.
“I never seen him before a day in my life, neither of them,” Shanta Myers' nephew Khalif Coleman said. “But some of my family members recognize him as Brandi’s friend. He supposedly always hung out with her.”
Department of Corrections records show Mann was released on parole in June. He was convicted of first-degree robbery in 2014.
White’s rap sheet wasn’t immediately clear. Tedesco told reporters the suspects have criminal records but declined to comment further.
Earlier this week, Tedesco called the slayings the worst “savagery” he’d ever seen in his 42-year career.
Police sources told the Albany Times Union that the victims’ hands and ankles were bound and their throats slit. The children were found kneeling with their heads and chests resting on a bed, and one woman was on a mattress on the floor. A fourth victim was discovered face down and covered with a sheet, the Times Union reported.
Cops found a bloody knife on a ledge near a closet, and a second blade on a bed near the victims, the newspaper reported. Investigators reportedly zeroed in on the suspects after reviewing video from security cameras in the city of Troy.
Myers’ oldest son, 15-year-old Isaiah Smith, was out of town during the slayings.
The teenager lost his entire family in a single day. And, according to an Times Union report, he was terrified the killers would target him, too. “I’m scared to go to the corner store,” Smith said. “I’m not sure if they’re coming for me next.”
The Myers family moved in with Mells following an eviction earlier this year. But because of the basement pad’s size, Isaiah crashed with a relative.
Mells’ cousin, Sharonda Bennett, told The Daily Beast that the couple became unreachable around 11 p.m. on Dec. 21.
Two days later, Smith stopped by his mother’s house to deliver Christmas presents for his siblings but no one answered the door, which was locked. He left for a basketball tournament, thinking they’d stepped out for a bit, Bennett said.
“He maybe thought they wasn’t home at that moment. Nobody would have thought anything like this would have been going on,” Bennett said.
Bennett said she last spoke to Mells on Dec. 19, and they discussed getting together for the holidays. They were deciding between celebrating in Troy or in Paterson, New Jersey, where the Mells family lives, she said.
“It was undecided due to finances, because Shanta didn’t have the money to come,” Bennett said, adding that neither Mells nor Myers owned a car. The family would have taken a Greyhound bus to New Jersey, she said.
Mells’ mother last saw her on the 21st but couldn’t reach her by phone after 11 p.m. 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.
Bennett said that every time she called Mells, the phone went straight to voicemail.
“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.
The day after Christmas, Mells’ mom called the property manager and asked to see if her daughter was there or had packed up to leave. The manager found the bodies, Bennett said, and immediately called cops.
“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 would get or gain from harming her?”
Days before Brandi Mells was murdered, she scoured Facebook classifieds for Christmas presents for Myers’ children.
The 22-year-old was trying to hawk some winter tire at the same time, apparently desperate to put enough gifts under the tree.
“Is anybody still adopting kids for xmas i have a 5, 11, an [sic] 15 year old,” Mells wrote on Dec. 19, in a local Facebook group for trades. “Pockets are tight dont really have it anything helps. Games toys clothes shoes.”
She also searched a garage sale group for Troy, New York. “If anyone have ps3 or xbox1 systems with games for my two boys they don't have anything for Christmas anything help,” Mells wrote Dec. 17.
One week before, Mells wrote a gushing, emoji-filled post: “Having kids doesn’t make you a parent. Rasing [sic] them does.”
Family was important to Mells, and Myers and her children welcomed the Mells family with open arms, according to Bennett.
Mells was working odd jobs and on attaining her GED, Bennett said. She talked of becoming a counselor one day for troubled children.
Bennett, 30, and Mells grew up like sisters in New Jersey.
Mells was the youngest of the family and her mother’s only daughter. She’d overcome being picked on as a child for having dwarfism. She eventually moved to the Syracuse area with her father for a fresh start in high school.
“She started accepting it. She started embracing it, making jokes” Bennett told The Daily Beast. “She was okay with it after a while.”
If people would look at Mells the wrong way for having dwarfism, Bennett would be ready to snap at them. Mells would tell her, “No, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
“She never would have want 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 loved music, dancing and dogs, especially pit bulls. “She was the life of the party,” Bennett said. “We don’t go out to clubs or anything, but we always had our own gatherings at my house. She really liked to dance.”
Mells and Myers met about three years ago and got engaged earlier this year. The couple hadn’t set a date for their nuptials, Bennett said, but were considering moving to Paterson to be close to Mells’ family.
“If you would have been in that household, you would have felt they were together for centuries,” Bennett said.
Meanwhile, friends say Shanta Myers had overcome obstacles of her own, as the single mother of three children.
America Ray, 33, said she met Myers six years ago at a government office where Ray worked. At the time, Myers was pregnant with Shanise and a client of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
The women quickly bonded when they discovered they were neighbors at a River Street apartment complex.
“It’s hard to imagine that this is real,” said Ray, who was Shanise’s godmother.. “She was a hardworking mom ... Her kids were her world.”
“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.”
Myers lived in North Carolina and Arizona before moving to upstate New York, Ray said. She did maintenance and outreach for the Joseph’s House shelter, and worked various jobs cooking, cleaning and babysitting.
Most of all, Myers was an amazing cook. She was a master at mac and cheese and all types of meat dishes, and “people would beg her to eat her food,” Ray recalls.
The women were neighbors until around April of this year, when Myers moved in with Mells and Ray found an apartment in Albany.
Myers wanted a new beginning, Ray said. She wanted to relocated and land a new job so she could provide for her children as best she could.
“When someone wants a new start, they’re not happy,” Ray said, adding, “I have no idea who could do this to her.”