Jennifer Lee Daugherty was born on November 8th, 1979, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania to parents Denise and Richard Daugherty. Jennifer’s parents ultimately divorced, with Denise remarrying a man named Bobby Murphy of Mount Pleasant. Jennifer grew up just an hour southeast of Pittsburgh, where her father ultimately relocated. She had two sisters, Joy and Jamie, and a stepbrother named Dave.
Although she never received a specific diagnosis, Jennifer had a developmental disability of some kind. She struggled with social cues and judgment and was frequently targeted by bullies as a child. This same bullying would follow her into adulthood. While at school, she was pushed around by the other girls and would have gum mashed into her hair.
Jennifer would often come home from school in tears. She once told her mother that she sometimes wished she could be, what she referred to as, a normal girl. Jennifer aspired to do the kinds of things that able-bodied people usually take for granted: to live on her own, belong to a community, have a job, get married, and have children.
By all accounts, Jennifer was sweet-natured and trusting; sometimes to a fault. When others were cruel, Jennifer would reason that they might be having a bad day and would try even harder to be kind to them. She would see the good in people above all else. Even though she was the target of some pretty nasty bullying, Jennifer was also quick to make friends due to her warm demeanor. According to her mother, Denise, “Jennifer was very easy-going. She liked to have fun. She was trusting. She made friends easily. She loved to dance and she loved to sing.”
She enjoyed helping to care for her nieces and nephew and loved working on vehicles with her uncle. She hoped that she might be a mechanic like him one day. Jennifer’s favorite foods included lasagna and cheesecake. She was a big fan of scary movies, college football, and wrestling.
In 2010 at the age of 30, Jennifer was on her way to achieving some of her aspirations. She very much wanted to live her life independently. For her, this meant moving out of her mother’s house. In order to facilitate this, Jennifer partook in living skills classes at a local community center called the West Place Clubhouse in Greensburg. Jennifer would often take the 20-minute bus ride from Mt. Pleasant to Greensburg, where she was training to become a mechanic, like her uncle. She would also make the trip with some regularity for dentist and counseling appointments.
According to their website, Clubhouses provide comprehensive and dynamic opportunities for persons living with severe mental illness to participate in housing, employment, education, and health and wellness initiatives that renew and reconnect them with mainstream society. Members play an active role in their own recovery and that of their peers by working alongside staff to organize and run programs.
Although a grown woman now, she still functioned at the emotional level of a 14-year-old girl. Her eyes still sparkled with a childlike wonder unlike those of her peers who had become hardened by the burdens of adulthood. And although Jennifer’s whimsical nature made her a beloved figure in her community, it also made her vulnerable to those who would wish to take advantage of her good-natured spark.
Due to this, Jennifer’s mother and sister were particularly protective of her. They wanted to shield her from outside influences that would seek to do her harm, but they also recognized that she was a grown woman who deserved all that adulthood had to offer.
Jennifer had recently told her family that she made a group of new friends at the West Place Clubhouse. Thrilled about the prospect of Jennifer expanding her network and building confidence, she had her family’s full support. However, these were exactly the types of people that they were trying to shield her from. The group consisted of Angela Marinucci, Ricky Smyrnes, Amber Meidinger, Melvin Knight, Peggy Miller, and Robert Masters Jr.
Born on January 12th, 1990, Amber Christine Meidinger met Melvin Knight at a homeless shelter in Washington state in January 2010. Melvin was born on October 27th, 1989 to a drug-addicted father who was imprisoned during the early years of his life. Melvin desperately wanted to be different from his father. Sadly, he developed lifelong learning and social problems after he fell out of a moving vehicle and hit his head at the age of 5. Amber and Melvin soon became a couple and decided to leave the state of Washington for a shot at a better life. The two moved to several different locations before settling in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Amber and Melvin met up with Ricky on February 8, 2010. At the time, Amber was pregnant with Melvin’s child, and the couple had been staying at a Greensburg-area hotel. Melvin and Ricky were already familiar with one another from a stint in jail. It should be noted that some publications claim that Amber and Ricky met in jail, but there are no sources confirming this. Even though the three didn’t really know each other that well, Ricky offered Amber and Melvin a place to stay at his apartment located at 428 North Pennsylvania Avenue in Greensburg.
On March 6th, 1986, Ricky Ven Edward Smyrnes was born to a drug-addicted Philadelphia sex worker and a Pittsburgh gang member. It’s also been stated in other publications that Ricky was actually the sex worker and gang member, but there are no sources confirming this either. Abandoned at birth, he was moved in and out of foster homes as a child and was treated for mental health disorders as early as age 4. He suffered harm and neglect until he was taken in by the Smyrnes family in North Huntingdon at age 10.
Ricky suffered sexual assault and physical harm from his adoptive father and his uncle. He had tried alcohol and an array of drugs by the age of 6. Ricky had been diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 8 and had undergone 103 therapy sessions by age 10. In addition, he was diagnosed as having as many as seven different personalities, and 15 total psychiatric issues. Ricky’s criminal history started off pretty early. In 1997, at the age of 11, he burglarized his neighbor’s home and stole knives, guitars, coins, bullets, and cash. That same year, he sexually assaulted a woman in her basement.
Also staying at Ricky’s North Pennsylvania Avenue apartment was 17-year-old Angela Lynn Marinucci. Born July 14th, 1992, Angela was Ricky’s teenage girlfriend who had some challenges of her own. Angela suffered a head injury when she was hit by a truck in 2008, at the age of 15. The injury substantially altered her behavior and pushed her into a downward spiral. People who’ve experienced brain injury may experience changes in behavior and emotional state. These may include among others: Difficulties with self-control, risky behavior, verbal or physical outbursts, lack of empathy for others, and anger – among others. For Angela, being a teenager with a TBI proved to be an explosive combination.
Angela was the first member of the group to befriend Jennifer. The two met at the West Place Clubhouse and became fast friends. Despite their difference in age and polar opposite personalities, Jennifer and Angela would talk on the phone for hours. Through Angela, she met the rest of the friend group. Jennifer increasingly spent more time in Greensburg with her new friends and felt like she had found kindred spirits. They were all struggling with their own hardships, and in Jennifer’s opinion, were still able to make their way in the world. Also living in Ricky Smyrne’s apartment were Peggy Darlene Miller, born February 2nd, 1983, and Robert Loren Masters Jr, born December 22nd, 1973.
However, Angela began to notice that her boyfriend was taking a special interest in Jennifer, talking to her in a flirtatious manner. She also had allegedly overheard Ricky talking to Jennifer on the phone, proclaiming his love for her. Ricky would later confess that he had loved Jennifer, and she loved him too. Allegedly, Jennifer rode the bus to his apartment to meet with him in secret and carry on an intimate affair while Angela was out. However, Angela had some idea of what was going on and hatched a plan to get back at her friend. After conspiring with others in the group, she invited Jennifer to a sleepover, and Jennifer excitedly agreed. However, fun and games were not what Angela had in mind.
On February 10th, 2010, Jennifer told her parents that she planned on going to her friend’s apartment in Greensburg for a sleepover that day. As everyone lived with Ricky, and she wasn’t about to tell her parents that she was staying at a guy’s place, she claimed it was her friend Peggy’s apartment. This also worked out, as she’d be traveling in that direction anyway for a scheduled appointment. Seeing this as another opportunity to assert her independence, her family was all for it.
By the time Jennifer was getting ready to leave, her mother was already at work. So she left a handwritten note with Peggy’s contact information in case of emergency, and a thoughtful message that read, I hope that you will have a good day at work, and I also love you very much. Her stepfather, Bobby, dropped her off at the bus stop. Jennifer kissed him on the cheek before saying her final goodbyes. The last message she posted to her MySpace and Twitter accounts was, “This is my time to make a new start for myself, and making new friends and not being afraid of anything.”
Upon arriving in Greensburg, she was met by Amber, Melvin, and Ricky. who took her back to their green two-story apartment building just a half mile away. There, she was greeted by the remaining members of the group, Angela, Peggy, and Robert. Almost as soon as Jennifer entered the apartment, things took a horrific turn. It should be noted that many publications have covered Jennifer’s story in great detail, with slightly different accounts of what happened over the next 36 hours. With that being said, I don’t know if anyone can correctly convey the level of depravity that took place next.
Upon entering the apartment, the group began taunting Jennifer, which would have been terribly confusing as these were supposed to be her friends. They rummaged through her purse and took her money, gift cards, and cell phone, after which they ruined it by pouring fluids all over the remaining contents.
Then things turned physical. Amber and Angela took turns beating Jennifer with a towel bar, crutches, a 2-liter bottle full of lemonade, and a vacuum cleaner hose. All the while, the helpless woman had no idea why this was happening to her. To add insult to injury, the group held her down and repeatedly stomped on her chest and stomach.
They also forced Jennifer to consume an array of liquids such as vegetable oil, laundry detergent, urine, and nail polish. She was also made to eat feces, which was forced down her throat. These same substances were poured over her head, along with porridge oats and spices. She had begged her friends to stop because she was in pain and her eyes were burning, but the group refused to yield.
Jennifer tried to fight back and managed to punch Amber in the stomach. Amber, as we mentioned earlier, was pregnant at the time. Her earnest attempt at defending herself against her attackers only escalated matters. Jennifer was bound with strings of Christmas lights so that she no longer could fight back. Unable to move, the group humiliated Jennifer further by shaving her head bald and painting her face with nail polish.
If this wasn’t already enough, Melvin decided that he needed to take things up a notch by stripping Jennifer of all of her clothing, gagging her, and sexually assaulting her while the others watched and taunted her further. After going through unimaginable suffering, she was told to take a shower because she smelled bad.
When the group grew bored of tormenting Jennifer the following morning, they decided that the only option was to kill her. They couldn’t let her go home and run the risk of her reporting what had transpired in Ricky’s apartment. The group took a vote on the matter, and all six agreed that Jennifer had to die. As such, they forced the scared woman to write a page-long note that implied that she had decided to take her own life. The note, written in cursive, read:
“I haven’t been happy for a while and I also feel like that everybody would be better without me on this earth. I will always love my mom and stepdad no matter what and I will always love the rest of my family also. My nieces and nephew would be lucky to have a better aunt than me. I am done with life. Goodbye. – Jennifer”
Jennifer was given sleeping pills and antibiotics, and she begged to be allowed to return home, but it was all for naught. Jennifer was stabbed in the chest and lungs by Melvin Knight. According to Melvin, “Ricky got a knife and told me to stab her…and then I stabbed her in the chest three times.” However, Jennifer managed to survive the attack. Upon noticing this, Ricky allegedly exclaimed, “Dang, this bitch is still alive.” Ricky then grabbed the knife and slit Jennifer’s wrist.
Still clinging to life, the men then choked Jennifer with the Christmas lights that she had been bound by. In a final act of depravity, the group decorated Jennifer’s dead body to look like a Christmas Tree. Allegedly, Angela became enraged because the lights weren’t flashing. As such, she decided that they needed to dump her body. Now, let that sink in for a second. What if the lights had worked? Were they going to keep Jennifer on display in their home for a time? Although that might seem macabre, after all that Jennifer endured, nothing would surprise me.
After removing the lights and stuffing the note in Jennifer’s back pocket, the group, who would soon become known as The Greensburg Six, stuffed her body inside of a trash can. It was left under a truck in the snow-covered parking lot of Greensburg Salem Middle School located just a block away. A truck driver noticed the trash can in the parking lot while driving and decided to investigate further. In doing so, he discovered Jennifer’s body inside. Although it is a tragedy for anyone to come across such a horrific scene, the silver lining is that an adult managed to find Jennifer rather than a child on their way to school. It wasn’t long before police realized who had committed such heinous acts upon Jennifer. All were arrested and quickly began to talk. Jennifer’s mother had to identify her body.
At the start of the trial on November 3, 2010, the prosecution sought the death penalty for Ricky, Melvin, and Amber. As Angela was 17 years old at the time, she was ineligible. At trial, forensic pathologist and former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht, who conducted and reviewed thousands of autopsies of homicide victims, stated, “…This is one of the most horrific cases I have seen… You have one young, defenseless woman, six people who are keeping her captive and doing all of these things, knowing she is mentally challenged. Put it all together, it is bizarre, it is extreme barbarism.”
On April 12th, 2012, Melvin Knight pleaded guilty to first and second-degree homicide, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit homicide and kidnapping. It was also reported that upon hearing his confession tape being played in the courtroom, he laughed out loud. On August 30th of the same year, a jury deliberated for several hours, before voting to put Melvin to death. In September of 2014, Melvin appealed his sentence. His trial was delayed several times, and his sentence was upheld in March 2019. In November of 2020, he attempted to appeal his sentence via the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The appeal included statements and claims that jurors acted with passion and prejudice and arbitrarily imposed the death penalty. However, it was unanimously rejected by the judges.
According to Chief Justice Debra Todd, “Following our thorough review of the record, in this case, we conclude that the appellant’s sentence of death was not the product of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor, but rather was fully supported by the evidence that Knight and his co-defendants held the intellectually disabled victim against her will for several days, during which time they continuously subjected her to myriad forms of physical and emotional torture, eventually stabbing her in the chest, slicing her throat and strangling her.”
On February 28, 2013, Ricky Smyrnes was sentenced to death. He appealed his sentence, but in February of 2017, it was upheld. His execution was delayed in July 2017. It is unlikely that either Melvin nor Ricky will ever meet the gurney and needle. An execution has not been carried out in Pennsylvania since 1999 – and that was of serial killer Gary Heidnick. As we shared with you in our Darisabel Baez case, only 3 executions have been carried out since 1976 due to a moratorium put in place in 2015. As we also noted previously, this does not stop death sentences from being issued even today. Both men are currently being held in the State Correctional Institution – Phoenix.
On December 4, 2013, Amber Christine Meidinger was sentenced to 40 to 80 years in prison after pleading guilty to third-degree homicide, kidnapping, and conspiracy. While awaiting trial, she gave birth to her baby, who was placed in foster care. She almost received the death penalty until she agreed to testify against the others. In November of 2019, Amber filed paperwork with the state’s Board of Pardons, seeking early termination of her prison sentence. She is currently being held in the State Correctional Institution – Muncy.
The police did not accuse Robert Masters and Peggy Miller of participating in the entire act of torture and killing of Jennifer. However, the evidence from confessional tapes suggests that they were part of the meetings in which the whole ordeal was planned. They had also voted for Jennifer to be killed.
In addition, it was alleged that Robert and Peggy had been left alone with Jennifer while the other four left the apartment for a while. Robert claimed that he helped retrieve her clothes that Melvin and Ricky had stripped from her and tossed out a window on the first day of the beatings. During this time, Jennifer begged them to let her go, or to call for help. But they didn‘t, and their inaction directly led to her death.
Their lawyers attempted to argue that they were scared of the others and feared that they too would be killed. The couple made tearful pleas for leniency, with Robert stating, “I was scared for my life. I should have done something, but I didn’t because I was scared. Can the family forgive me?” and Peggy stating, “I am sorry and I am guilty. She was my friend, and I should not have voted for her to die.”
Jennifer’s family blamed Peggy heavily, claiming that Jennifer told them she was going to spend the night with her and her friends in Greensburg. Jennifer’s family requested that both Peggy and Robert receive lengthy sentences. Jennifer’s stepfather, Bobby Murphy made an emotional request, “The same way they chose not to show compassion to Jennifer, I ask you not to show compassion to them.” Jennifer’s sister Joy Burkholder, has pointed words directed at Peggy, “You had my sister as a friend. She loved Miller and valued her. You didn’t value her, you probably value a hairbrush more than you value her.”
Robert Loren Masters Jr, the eldest of the group, pleaded guilty to third-degree homicide, conspiracy to commit homicide, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping on December 19, 2013. He was sentenced to 30 to 70 years in prison. His attorney, William Gallishen, helped him reach a plea bargain against the other five. After he agreed, Robert was moved to another jail for protection. He did not publicly share any information related to the plea bargain. He is currently being held in the State Correctional Institution – Greene. Peggy Darlene Miller was sentenced to 35 to 74 years in prison. She is currently being held in the State Correctional Institution – Muncy.
Several neighbors and fellow inmates testified against Angela, claiming that she had planned to kill Jennifer several days before her body was discovered. Neighbor Anthony Zappone heard Angela say, “I’m going to kill that bitch.” Tina Warrick testified that Angela told her that she was disappointed with the type of Christmas decorations that Peggy had purchased to tie Jennifer up with. Floria Headen heard body slamming and screaming. Felisha Hardison, who was a cellmate and friend to Angela, testified that she was jumping on her bed, excited to be on the news.
On August 3rd, 2011, Angela Marinucci, the youngest of the group, was formally given a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole after being found guilty in May of first-degree homicide. She later had her life without the possibility of parole sentence revoked. However, on July 1st, 2015, a jury decided to re-sentence her to her previous sentence. Finally, in May of 2022, Angela was resentenced to 60 years to life in prison with parole eligibility in 2070. She is currently being held in the State Correctional Institution – Cambridge Springs.
Jennifer’s sister, Joy Burkholder said after the sentencing, “My biggest regret was forcing Jennifer to act as an adult, I would go back and do many things differently.” She also noted that “Jennifer was exploited, and her kindness and her handicap made her very vulnerable.” Outside of court, Bobby, Jennifer’s stepfather, said: “Closure is Jennifer coming back to us, and Jennifer won’t come back, so there is no closure…” According to Jennifer’s parents, whatever happened to her could not be justified in any way, she did not have a single mean bone in her body.
Jennifer’s memorial services were held at Kepple-Graft Funeral Home located at 524 N. Main Street in Greensburg. Sadly, the funeral home was located just around the block from where Jennifer met her fate. Jennifer’s family requested no flowers. Instead, memorial contributions could be made to one’s favorite charity.
On April 23, 2012, at a conference, Pennsylvania State Senator Kim Ward proposed legislation named Jennifer’s Law. The legislation would require the reporting of violent crimes to law enforcement officials immediately. Failure to report the crime would be a misdemeanor of the third degree. The individual would not be required to immediately report it if it would place the person in immediate physical harm.
Jennifer’s family was on hand as the legislation was announced. Her sister Joy shared this emotional statement, “Over the course of 30-plus hours, six people had the opportunity to help my sister and nobody did. Legally they didn’t have to. It seems wrong to me that you can be a spectator during a murder and not be responsible to intervene in any way. I know my sister is not coming back and we accept this. However, this law could and will save lives.”
According to Senator Ward, “It is heartbreaking to think of what Jennifer went through, and the fact that one phone call to police might have put an end to these cruel crimes. Sometimes society has to compel people to do the right thing. This legislation is aimed at preventing further tragedies.”
She went on to state, “Since 1973, 11 states have enacted statutes requiring some form of aid or assistance when witnessing a violent crime. By making Pennsylvania the 12th state, we can make a statement in Jennifer’s memory. We can say, ‘The world may be cold, but we do not live in a heartless society. We do not look on while evil is perpetrated. We are better than that.”
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