Murdered in North Carolina: The Case of Mary Collins

Mary Santina Collins was born in July of 1999. Mary was a small, beautiful, gentle, loving young woman who was born with 22q Syndrome.  

“The 22q11.2 deletion syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by a missing section (microdeletion) of chromosome 22, which is present from the time a child is conceived. The 22q11.2 deletion is almost as common as Down syndrome. It is present in 1 out of every 1,000 live pregnancies, in 1 in 68 children with congenital heart disease, and in 5 to 8 percent of children born with cleft palate. The deletion has the potential to affect almost every system in the body and can cause a wide range of health problems — although no two people are ever exactly alike or affected in the same way. “

From the International 22q Foundation:

Mary had a submucosal cleft palette which she had to have surgery to improve at three years old. Though the doctor was skeptical she’d ever be able to talk, she began using signs and her lively personality to communicate her needs. By 6 years old she was able to speak, but her speech was always impaired, making it challenging to advocate for herself. One of the heartbreaking things that the family points out now is that Mary was not able to scream for help the way you or I might assume someone could- a fact that has really pushed them to scream for justice on her behalf. 

Mary lived with her grandmother, and the pair had a very close loving relationship. I asked her to tell me a little bit about Mary. There was a lot that was still so painful and raw to her so it was hard. I could really feel the longing when I spoke with her. 

“Mary loved music and had an excellent ear for it. She liked photography and was very talented at it. She liked makeup and hair colors. She loved her family and friends deeply. She adored Sushi. She loved to shop. She loved The World Market and Japanese Candy. She liked Coconut cake. She liked spicy foods and snacks. She loved to try new foods. She was giving and loved to give to people and to give them gifts…My memories are deep and those of a parent who was deeply loved by a child. I can not simply remember Mary, she is a part of my own soul”

– Mary’s grandmother to LSA

Mary was stunningly beautiful, I personally think she looked a lot like Jessica Simpson with a bit more of an edge- incredibly gorgeous and photogenic.. Her family says she was shy, and because of the 22q her cognitive abilities were somewhere around 15 years old- in some areas maybe higher, in some areas maybe lower. Mary needed some help with a lot of the tasks we associate with independence. Getting around, shopping, making change, she didn’t drive, etc..  Though her loving, sweet nature was something her family remembers with fondness, it also meant she always wanted to see the best in people. Because she was so trusting, she became an easy target for manipulative predators. 

On March 28th, 2020, authorities say that Mary was sent an Uber by some people claiming to be her friends. Lavi Pham knew Mary from highschool and he lived with his girlfriend Kelly Lavery at an apartment in the arts and entertainment district known as NoDa in Charlotte North Carolina. Social media shows Mary, Lavi, and Kelly joyfully bringing take out up to the apartment- sushi- Mary’s favorite. According to some reports, this was not a spur of the moment thing- Kelly had been grooming Mary for months leading up to this night, making Mary believe that she had grown a trusting friendship, something she desperately wanted and was eager to pursue. Mary thought Kelly and Lavi cared about her, something the social media videos demonstrate as Kelly lovingly touches Mary’s face in the elevator. 

Also on Saturday March 28th, 2020, after Mary had left the home to meet her friends, the Governor of North Carolina officially shut everything down due to the new at the time problem of Covid 19. At the time, Mary wasn’t responding to any calls or text and it appeared as if her phone had been shut off. But then Lavi posted those social media photos and videos, which left Mary’s family with a false sense of security for about a day. 

When Mary still didn’t come home though, her grandmother knew something was very wrong and went directly to the apartment herself. She knocked on the door and Kelly answered. She was told that yeah, sure, Mary had been here but Mary had left at around 11am. As her grandmother stood there yelling for Mary, calling her name, the couple let her take a quick glance around the front room of the apartment, and then had her leave. She searched outside of the apartment grounds for hours, and eventually called 911. One of the most powerful things she told me was “I did not call 911 to report her missing, I called to get help. To make them give Mary to me.“

The 911 operater told Mary’s grandmother to go home and wait there, because that’s where Mary had last been seen, that an officer would come by the house to take a report and another would go to the apartment to check for Mary. She says she was completely distraught and didn’t want to do that at all, still knowing that Mary was somewhere in that apartment. But she says she trusted the police, and went home reluctantly and waited for them to collect Mary and bring her home. The officer who responded to the NoDa complex did a “well check” knocking on the apartment door and no one answered, so the officer left. 

Police did file a missing person’s report on behalf of Mary, and her case was assigned a detective to investigate. The next day, Detective Gaskin called Mary’s grandmother on the phone while she was standing outside the apartments again, searching for Mary. He told Mary’s grandmother that he would not be able to make it out there that day. Mary’s family says that he was notified and aware of Mary’s diagnosis, and when her family members didn’t want to leave the apartment grounds, Detective Gaskin simply told them they could call 911 again. She stood there, knowing Mary was trapped inside and she was locked outside, feeling helpless and hopeless. 

Not knowing what else to do she took matters into her own hands and called the apartment manager who told her he’d look at the security camera footage for the time Kelly told them Mary had left the apartment. While he was searching for that footage, the police officers responded to the new 911 call but Lavi Pham would not let them in. Lavi did let Mary’s mother in briefly, and it’s reported that she saw someone laying on the bed, tucked it- he told her it was his girlfriend Kelly who was asleep. The apartment manager was also told at this time to STOP looking at the security footage by the 911 responding officer, for unknown reason, and Det. Gaskin later said that he was waiting for a warrant. 

By April 1st, Mary’s family was completely frantic with worry. No one felt the police were taking them seriously, or understanding that Mary was not just some average 20 year old who’d run off in search of some independence. They begged him to understand that Mary COULD NOT have simply left on her own. She wouldn’t have, but more than that she couldn’t have. She needed help navigating those matters and it simply wasn’t possible. 

Meanwhile the community banded together to conduct a search for Mary. Flyers were made and distributed, organizations were contacted, bloodhound searchers were hired, and physical grounds searches for nearby areas were conducted. They spoke to sex trafficking experts, and were willing to explore any possibility to find her. The kids of the family all took to social media to spread the news far and wide. The police didn’t contribute to these search efforts at all- they were on their own. Police even told a local news station that they didn’t believe Mary was in danger. 

But Mary’s grandmother knew where Mary was. She wasn’t missing. She was inside the apartment. And no one would listen to her cries for help. Detective Gaskin actually told her that Lavi and Kelly felt threatened by her, and she was asked to stop knocking on their door.

Eventually on April 2nd, five days after Mary was last seen, Detective Gaskin conducted a search of the apartment himself. He sat on the couch and interviewed them. He walked around. He looked in closets and corners, he even lifted up the mattress. He then reported to Mary’s family that the search brought up nothing. According to her grandmother, he said “Do you understand Mary is not inside that apartment?” She told him no, she didn’t understand that, and that if Mary’s not there you need to make them tell us where she is and what they did with her. 

At that time, Mary’s uncle contacted the CEO of the apartment complex and within ten minutes they were able to get their answers from the security footage. No warrant needed. Unfortunately some of the footage had been deleted because of the new calendar month, but in any case it showed what was known by her family all along- They watched every moment of days of footage, just to verify- No footage of Mary ever leaving the complex. 

On April 4th, around 10pm, Mary’s grandmother received a phone call telling her that authorities were at the complex and there was an ambulance. She ran out the door headed for the local ER looking forward to seeing Mary alive and safe. When Mary wasn’t at that ER, she headed on her way to the next ER when another phone call told her she’d misunderstood. She needed to come and be with family. They had found Mary. She had been murdered.

When they recovered her body from the apartment, Mary had been tortured and assaulted. They stabbed her frail frame at least 133 times and left her to bleed to death. They then wrapped her in saran wrap and duct tape, and hid her in the mattress. The very mattress that police had lifted as part of their search before. She was just 20 years old. And she had been there all along. 

What got police to finally take the search seriously was not Mary’s family’s cries for help. A witness had actually come forward and said that a young man named James Salerno had told him he was at a party with Mary, and Lavi and Kelly had beat her in the bathtub, tied her up, murdered her, and hid her body in a mattress with intent to burn it later. That witness allegedly had to call the police twice to get them to listen to the claim with sincerity. 

According to authorities, Lavi Pham, Kelly Lavery, and James Salerno committed the brutal murder of Mary, and then the three called in a fourth friend, America Diehl, to help with clean up. All four were arrested and are currently awaiting trial.  Pham, Lavery, and Salerno have all been charged with kidnapping and murder. Lavery and Salerno are set to be arraigned on April 21st, 2022. Pham’s arraignment is June 21st. America Diehl has only been charged with concealing a death and accessory after the fact. She is currently out on bond, living with family, and facing very few restrictions. America Diehl’s bond has been yet another trauma in an agonizing two year ordeal for Mary’s family. How can someone take part in a horrific prolonged murder, and be out free? 

In Mary’s honor, her family and friends have created Mary’s Voice 

“We are a grass roots movement first for justice for Mary but we have goals in addition to change the police policies and procedures to better protect people with disabilities and young adults like Mary. We wish to advocate for an independent alert tailored to the disabled. We also plan to share our experiences with the justice and legal system as well as law enforcement to better inform families of people with disabilities…Right now we fight for justice for Mary first and foremost, we have begun to reach out to the state regarding the alert system.”

Mary’s Voice

MARY’S VOICE GOALS

Increased Police Response

1.  Increase police response time for a missing or endangered person with a disability.  If a person with a disability is missing or endangered, police must respond more rapidly to this urgent emergency.  We would like to help draft legislation that would mandate more immediate response protocols to locate missing or endangered persons with disabilities. As well as seeking policy and procedure changes at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department.

Critical Code Alert

 2.   Create, develop and implement an additional national alert system for missing or endangered persons  with disabilities, much like Amber Alert for missing/abducted children https://amberalert.ojp.gov/ and Silver Alert for seniors, especially those with Alzheimers, dementia or other mental disabilities https://silveralertbill.com/ 

The Death Penalty and plea deals for murder.

3. Increase awareness of how the death penalty is flawed.  Increase awareness of how plea deals are used. Increase awareness of inequity in the justice system and how it applies to Mary’s case. And differently abled persons.

Increase awareness of what is happening in our justice system. Including BONDS FOR MURDER and VICTIMS RIGHTS …

“What “Just Is” is not always justice” – Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate

We asked Mary’s Voice what we as the public could do to help support them :

We hold an online vigil for Mary marking each day they had her this illustrates to people how long that was and Mary more than deserves this. We ask for candles or whatever the individual would like to display online during March 28th thru April 5th.  Please use hashtag #MarysVoice, #MaryCollins  We ask people to change their profile pictures to Mary’s Voice for this week. Many have masks and display a photo of themselves wearing them. Some use a photo of the mask or a photo of Mary. The tagging is important to help people find the vigil and share Mary’s story. We hope people get to know Mary as we do. We have multiple sites, @Mary’s Voice Facebook Group, Mary’s Voice Youtube, Justice for Mary and marysvoice org Instagram, Mary’s Voices Twitter. Marysvoice.com is the website.

Mary’s Voice

Lost Souls of America will be participating in the online vigil for Mary and we hope that you will join us.

Your call to action for tonight is to join the movement with us! Links for all of Mary’s information will be in our show notes and on our website lostsoulsofamerica.com but one more time that’s Mary’s Voice- Justice for Mary on twitter, instagram, and facebook. Mary’svoice.com 

Sources: 

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