How is a murder prosecuted without human remains as evidence?
What is justice? For some people, it’s finding the missing remains of the person they love. For others, it’s convicting the person responsible for taking a life. Sometimes, it’s both. In this episode, we take you into the belly of the criminal justice system and show you how it tries to find resolution for families in some of the most difficult cases. We tell the story of Monica Moynan, a young mother missing and presumed dead – and why the local district attorney believes she can prosecute the ex-husband for murder without a key piece of evidence – Monica’s body. Without human remains, is there a solid case? How do you take a case like that to court when you have no definitive proof a person has even been killed? Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Amanda: On May 5, 2020, Brian Sluss was arrested at his parents home in Bluefield, Virginia. He was charged with murdering Monica Moynan, his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his two children. She was known as Moni to her family.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Debra Morgan, WRAL News Anchor: WRAL’s Amanda Lamb has been following this investigation from the beginning and she joins us now from the jail with what she’s learned. Amanda?
Amanda: Brian Sluss was indicted by a grand jury yesterday here in Wake County. Arrested in Virginia. This morning he had a hearing there, he waived extradition, which means he was willing to come back here. About two hours ago he was processed here into the Wake County Detention Center.
Amanda: I spoke with Moni’s family two days after the arrest. They were at their home in Mebane, North Carolina. Her mother, Melanie Tucker, and her stepfather, Brandon Tucker had been waiting almost a year for this day to come.
Melanie Tucker, Moni’s mother: My first reaction was I just started balling. I was really shocked and it was kind of like the first moment I felt like oh my God, it’s really happening, it’s really happening.
Brandon Tucker, Moni’s stepfather: It was a huge relief and moment of joy for us to know that the first steps of real justice have been set in motion.
Melanie: I was super-determined and still am super-determined to get justice for Moni, it means everything to me, because it’s the only thing I can have a part in now, that I can do for her.
Amanda: But what makes this case so unusual and particularly difficult for Moni’s family: her body is nowhere to be found.
Melanie: That’s the hardest thing for me. I want her back so badly. I just want her to be able to rest. I have that need.
Brandon: Yeah, that’s the number one priority for us. Getting justice is number two to getting her back. They have in custody the one person who does know, has the answers, knows exactly where she is, what exactly happened.
Amanda: In this episode, how prosecutors take a murder case to court even when they don’t have physical proof a murder has actually happened -- when they can’t find the body.
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Samantha Moynan, Moni’s sister: We were best friends. We were really close.
Amanda: Sam Moynan is four years older than her sister Moni.
Sam: Yeah, It’s tough. We had been through it all together and we always had each other’s backs.
Amanda: Sam lives on a farm an hour southwest of Raleigh, North Carolina. She talks with her hands, and even through our patchy Zoom connection, I can see the pink creeping up her neck into her cheeks as she speaks about her little sister.
Like the rest of the family, the arrest is bittersweet for Sam. It feels like a path towards what she thinks of as justice. But nothing will bring Moni back.
Sam: Every time I think about us hanging out I think about how hilarious she was, which is humor is such a bright thing to bring to any situation. She loved to dance and she loved to sing. She had this like, fiery personality about her.
Amanda: I spoke with Moni’s mother and stepfather from their kitchen over Zoom.
Melanie is a petite woman with short, light brown curly hair. When we talked, she wore an oversized blue, green and white plaid flannel shirt which seems like an odd choice for May in North Carolina, but then I think about how the loss of one’s daughter probably makes you perpetually cold.
Melanie: Moni was just kind of like a little spitfire, a little magical person.
Amanda: Melanie’s voice cracks at times when she talks about her daughter. We’ve talked a lot on the phone and through text messages over the past few months. I’ve covered the story for WRAL-TV since Moni’s disappearance was first made public by the Holly Springs Police. It’s the small suburb of Raleigh where Moni lived.
I’ve gathered photos of her from social media to include in our television coverage of the case. In some photos she’s brunette, tiny, smiling, sparkly just like her mother describes her.
The hardest photographs to look at are those of Moni with the two young daughters that she left behind: five-year-old Kayleigh and two-year-old Nova.
Melanie: She was an excellent mom. Her kids were her world. Everything about her kids she was so proud of. Everything they did she wanted to make a post about it and take a picture of it.
Amanda: In one photo, she’s breastfeeding in a yellow summer dress decorated with blue flowers. She looks down lovingly at her baby girl. Her hair was green then. It changes colors a lot, but what doesn’t change is how she beams at these girls in every single photo. These are Moni’s children with Brian Sluss, the man accused of killing her.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Gerald Owens, WRAL News Anchor: WRAL’S Amanda Lamb is at the apartment in Holly Springs where Moynan lived with her 2 daughters and her boyfriend. Amanda?
Amanda: Gerald, police told us today they have been investigating this case for months. As you can see, Holly Springs Police are still here in front of the apartment where Moynan lived with her boyfriend. They searched this apartment, you can tell that from the fingerprint powder on the door. This week they released search warrants in this case that give us details about this investigation.
Amanda: It was from those search warrants that we first learned how the case unfolded for investigators.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Amanda: On April 2, Monica Moynan posted information on her social media platforms promoting a home business she was trying to launch. That’s the last time anyone heard from her.
Amanda: In the spring of 2019, Melanie started to get worried about Moni. She had gotten a few texts from her daughter and seen some posts on Facebook, but they didn’t sound quite right. And she hadn’t seen her daughter in person for a while, which was really unusual for them. They only lived about an hour apart. Any attempts by Melanie to organize a meetup with Moni were met with vague excuses, mostly that she was busy or under the weather.
Come to find out Moni had also not shown up at the restaurant where she worked in a nearby town. Things just felt off to Melanie, something wasn’t right. So, in July of 2019, Melanie reported her daughter missing.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Debra Morgan, WRAL News Anchor: New developments in the case of a missing mother from Holly Springs. Today police are telling us the reasons they believe Monica Moynan is dead. Officers started looking for her in July after her mother said she couldn’t reach her. Police now believe she disappeared in April...
Amanda: According to court documents that would come out later, Melanie’s suspicions about the texts and social media posts were right. Investigators say those were coming from Moni’s ex, Brian Sluss and his ex-wife, Jarlyn Sluss. They allegedly impersonated Moni through texts, social media and even phone calls to make everyone believe she was still alive.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Amanda: According to search warrants, investigators say he had been using the phone to text family and friends pretending to be her. He told authorities she was on drugs and had taken off. But family and friends say that she would never leave her two little girls.
Amanda: Brian had told neighbors that Moni was at home, in bed.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Mary Southern, neighbor: The last week I saw her was that first week in April, and she got missing.
Amanda: Moynan’s friend and neighbor, Mary Southern, says she did see Moynan’s boyfriend, and the father of her two girls, Brian Sluss.
Amanda (to Mary): So you would see him and you would ask where she was?
AMANDA: And what would happen?
MARY: He’d say she’s in the house, in the bed, asleep.
Amanda: Investigators also learned that Moni had a protective order against Brian that had expired in May of 2019, right before Melanie started to get worried about her daughter. She and one of Moni’s co-workers at the restaurant told authorities that Brian had been abusive.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Amanda: WRAL has learned that Moynan took out a domestic violence protective order against Sluss in 2016 alleging that he choked her, hit her in the head and tackled her on multiple occasions.
Amanda: Soon after Brian was arrested, his ex-wife Jarlyn was also taken into custody and charged with being an accessory after the fact to murder and for obstruction of justice for lying to investigators about what really happened.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Rosalia Fodera, WRAL News Reporter: Months of questioning, investigating and waiting. Now two people are behind bars for the murder of 23-year-old Monica Moynan, or Moni as her family called her. The latest arrest is Jarlyn Lisbeth Sluss.
Amanda: What exactly happened to Moni is still unclear. But the detailed search warrants for Moni’s apartment and Jarlyn’s house tell some of the story of what police suspect took place.
Among the things they found in Moni’s home was a positive pregnancy test. Investigators wrote in the affidavit for the search warrant “We believe Monica being pregnant may have been a factor in the incidents that led up to Monica’s death.”
The search warrants also noted that Brian’s contact with his ex-wife, Jarlyn, had increased a lot in the months after Moni was last seen.
They also found a letter Moni had written online that appeared to be about Brian Sluss.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Julian Grace, WRAL News Anchor: And then there was this letter that Moynan wrote online which some say is her crying out for help. She details the pain of being in an abusive relationship.
Amanda: Also taken out of Moni’s home: letters, a journal, a life insurance policy, curtains, silver latches off several doors, a knife, bleach, and 35 kitchen floor tiles. They thoroughly investigated the drains in her home, from two sinks and a washing machine. The list, well, it makes it pretty clear. They think whatever happened to Moni, happened in her own house. And then, someone tried to cover it up.
Jarlyn ultimately caved to the pressure of police, and before they were both arrested, she agreed to tape her phone conversations with Brian for investigators. In a vague conversation about why police are pursuing him he says to Jarlyn “I really don’t think like there’s anything. Because there’s no evidence or anything like that.” And then he goes on to ask her “You don’t think I should run?”
But even with all of this circumstantial evidence that makes it look like Brian did something to his wife, and then Jarlyn helped him cover it up, there’s one very important piece of evidence missing – Moni. Moni is still missing.
So it was a very unusual move when Wake County District Attorney, Lorrin Freeman, agreed to charge Brian and Jarlyn without Moni’s remains.
Amanda: Lorrin, how important is it to have a body when you're prosecuting a murder case?
Lorrin Freeman, Wake County, NC District Attorney: Yeah, I think it's obviously a key piece of evidence in the vast majority of homicide cases that we prosecute. Um, and certainly, you know, helps to establish that the victim, you know, in fact died as a result of someone else's actions.
Amanda: With the proliferation of crime dramas over the past decade, there’s this issue we’ve talked about before where prosecutors have to deal with the so-called the “CSI Effect.”
These kinds of shows suggest to audiences that holographics can reconstruct a body from bits of remains or that with a few quick clicks on a keyboard, a test can immediately determine what substance is on a victim’s shoes or clothing.
The earth-shattering physical evidence in these shows helps investigators crack a case beyond a shadow of a doubt. And so increasingly jurors think real-life investigators can wave a magic wand and make scientific evidence magically appear – blood spatter, fingerprints and DNA linking the bad guy to the victim.
But this level of scientific surety, it’s not real life.
Especially if you’re trying a case where you don’t even have a body, much less all this other stuff. It’s going to be really hard to convince a jury a defendant is guilty.
So, for a prosecutor to move forward without it – it’s a very big deal.
How do they do it?… after the break.
Amanda: In the absence of a body, district attorneys like Lorrin Freeman do the best they can to build the story of what happened to a victim through circumstantial evidence.
Lorrin: Jurors want the story. They, they want to know, uh, how something unfolded and part of what we have to put forth… I'm relying on all of the evidence available to us as a theory of the case. You know, what happened? How did this person die?
Amanda: Freeman is limited in what she can say since this case is still pending, but she does tell me she wouldn’t have agreed to an arrest in this or any other case unless she thought investigators had enough evidence to take it in front of a jury.
Lorrin: The Holly Springs Police Department worked that case for a year before we authorized an arrest, or close to a year, before we were willing to authorize charges in it.
Amanda: It may seem obvious that someone is dead, they’ve disappeared without a trace. But you have to actually establish every piece of evidence in a court of law, proving that someone has died, or been killed.
Lorrin: Part of the effort there was not only, you know, gathering all of the evidence in regards to what could have happened, but also trying to foreclose any other explanations.
Amanda: Basically, investigators have to eliminate the possibility Moni didn’t just run away. They check to see if she’s had any contact with family and friends, they check for credit card and bank account activity, they check phone records, and social media accounts. It became pretty clear to them that Moni had been silent on all these fronts since April of 2019 even though it appears others had pretended to be her in several instances.
Amanda: Without getting into the details of the case, you believe that you had a strong case without the body?
Lorrin: We did. I mean, we got to the point in the collection of evidence and the analysis of what had happened, uh, that we felt comfortable moving forward and believe that we had sufficient evidence to support the charge and that it's something that a jury needs to make a decision on.
Amanda: A lot of factors and a lot of meetings go into making the decision to prosecute without a body. Investigators and the DA must both agree that they have enough to move forward.
Lorrin: Obviously it is something that we don't do very often. In the last case between the time we charged it and that case was resolved, that body was found.
Amanda: This other case Freeman is referring to is the case of Jennifer Arrington. The 44-year-old disappeared in August of 2017. When she didn’t show up for work or contact her family, they got worried and reported her missing.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Ken Smith, WRAL News Reporter: Neighbors say days after her disappearance, Raleigh police put up fliers around the complex looking for leads in the case.
Amanda: Police found Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend, Andrew Meeks, driving her car in Illinois and he didn’t have a strong alibi. Investigators also found blood in the car and in her Raleigh apartment. Tests confirmed it was Jennifer’s blood. Inside the apartment, there were signs of a struggle – a broken lamp, blood spattered on the Venetian blinds. So, even without her remains, investigators were pretty sure Jennifer was dead and they had some strong physical and circumstantial evidence pointing to Andrew Meeks. Police arrested him even though they had not yet recovered Jennifer’s body.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Adam Owens, WRAL News Reporter: Though Jennifer Arrington is still missing, her boyfriend has been charged in her murder and those recently released warrants walk us through the investigation and how police were able to build a case against him.
Lorrin: In the Meeks case, uh, which was the first one we handled since I've been here where we charged without having the victim’s body, you know, in that particular case, paint ballers, uh, came upon the body.
Amanda: Jennifer’s body was discovered four months after Andrew’s arrest. It was about thirteen miles away from the apartment where Jennifer and Andrew had lived together.
Lorrin: She was out in the woods and you know, not far, frankly, from a residential neighborhood and they, you know, literally stumbled upon her remains. It was reported and, um, you know, we were able to go out and retrieve her body and then have the medical examiner examine it.
Amanda: A few months after her body was found, Andrew Meeks pled guilty to killing Jennifer Arrington and was sentenced to a minimum of 24 years in prison.
In cases where charges are brought but there’s still no body, Freeman says the search continues, it doesn’t stop with an arrest.
Lorrin: And we do that, you know, of course, to strengthen the investigation, but quite frankly, also for the victim’s family. I mean, so often in these situations, as tragic and horrific as they are, for many families knowing and having their loved one returned to them is really important. And so we try to exhaust all means that, you know, we have all leads we have before we ever even charge a case. But often what happens is, you know, once someone is charged, we get new leads, we get new information.
Amanda: This is what Moni’s family was hoping for.
When someone is arrested for murder, they may be more willing to talk, to cut a deal, to tell investigators where the body is in return for a lighter sentence like escaping the death penalty. This is something prosecutors always discuss with the victim’s family before they go forward with a decision like this. Are they willing to accept that the killer may get less prison time in return for information that leads to recovering their loved one’s remains?
Lorrin: You know, sometimes defendants know that that is something that is of tremendous interest to the family. And so in consultation with their attorney they may decide that it's in their best interest to offer that information up.
Amanda: And so being a prosecutor, it's a lot of things that we don’t think about, like being a negotiator on the family’s behalf in these really difficult situations.
Amanda: How do you separate your emotions when you're dealing with these very emotional cases?
Lorrin: You know, I think it certainly can be challenging because we want at all times for victims’ families to know that we care about them and that we care about their loved one and what happened to their loved one. Um, at the same time we have to take somewhat of a clinical approach. You have to be able to have a good understanding of what the law is, what the law requires, what juries are going to require and what their level of expectation is in terms of forensic evidence.
Amanda: Freeman says she never stops thinking about the family of the victim in every single case that her office handles.
Lorrin: You know, for that family and for many families, knowing what happened to Monica and being able to bring her home, um, is critically important to them.
Melanie: Moni was a light, she truly was a light.
Amanda: For Moni’s mother, Melanie, the word “justice” doesn’t just mean one thing, like prison for Moni’s killer, it’s more complicated than that.
Melanie: First and foremost I want to know where my daughter is so she can be brought home to rest. And then the person who murdered her needs to pay for his crime. He needs to admit it and he needs to tell. He needs to tell it all. And I beg him to do that and just tell us where she is.
Amanda: Brian Sluss did not cooperate with investigators and they’ve STILL not been able to find Moni’s body, but in April of 2022, prosecutors were able to do something else. They put Sluss on trial for Moni’s murder. Prosecutor Kathryn Pomeroy told the jury just because he was able to hide the body so well does not make him innocent of murder.
Kathryn Pomeroy/Prosecutor: Don’t reward him for what he did to her body. The only thing that has done is torture this family. That’s all that’s done. We all know she is dead. How dare you not let them bury her.
Amanda: Sluss testified in his own defense at the trial.
Tommy Manning/Defense attorney: Do you deny strangling her to death or beating her up and killing her?
Brian Sluss: Yes sir.
Pomeroy: How about we stop the game. Where did you put her body?
Sluss: I have no clue where Monica is.
Amanda: On April 28, 2022, the jury gathered in the courtroom in front Moni’s family...
Court Clerk: Your foreperson has returned a verdict in Case # 20 CRS 866. The State of North Carolina vs Brian Sluss. We the jury by unanimous verdict found the defendant, Brian Sluss to be guilty of first degree murder involving domestic violence.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Amanda: Monica Moynan's family embraced as they heard the jury pronounce Brian Sluss guilty of first-degree murder. Her parents addressed the court before his sentencing.
Melanie: I will never get to hug my middle child again. Don't ever get to listen to her. Be cozy with her or talk to her about all the things literally all the things.
Amanda: Sluss was sentenced to life in prison. He showed no emotion in the courtroom, but some people who did show emotion—the jurors. They cried after this verdict and they came back into the courtroom after the sentencing and one by one they hugged the family members of Monica Moynan. I have never seen that happen in any case I've ever covered. Very emotional for all of them.
Amanda: On the next episode of What Remains… DNA solves a missing person case decades later.
Cathy Blevins Howe: I would say don't lose hope. I would say certainly keep the wheels turning because if it could happen for me after 37 years, it could happen for a lot of folks. Follow the DNA trail, and be persistent with law enforcement.
Amanda: This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb, and produced by Anita Normanly. Our executive producer was Wilson Sayre who also edited the episode with mixing from Marc Maximov. What Remains was directed by Shelly Leslie. Please subscribe to our podcast on whatever app you use. That makes it easier for us to get you the latest episode. Thanks so much for listening.