Doug Hays would do anything for “the Family,” a tight-knit group of suburban outcasts living together in the campus area—including killing one of their own.
Editor’s note: Our True Crime Classics series continues with Eric Lyttle’s shocking 1998 story about the death of Thomas Beckett, whose cold-blooded murder at the hands of his friend Doug Hays shined a light on an unsettling group of misfits called “the Family” living in the shadow of Ohio State University.
Doug Hays is hardly intimidating. He is surprisingly small, a good 6 inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter than the medium-build guard who escorts him in. A wispy beard, youthfully thin and soft, grows along his jawline, with a mustache to match. And there's a submissiveness about the way he takes his seat at the table. He sits upright, hands clasped together in front of him. Prison-issued blues, covered by a hooded sweatshirt, are buttoned tight against his throat, and his clean white Converse tennis shoes sit squarely on the floor. There is no hint that he is capable of the appalling crime he has committed.
His disarming appearance is belied when he begins to speak. The closet-sized room suddenly feels tighter, the air heavier; a certain imbalance takes over. The story he tells is almost excruciating in its details, a stone-cold confession of murder. Yet, there’s no trace of intensity; his voice is soft and monotonous. His expression and body language reveal little, and his eyes, concealed behind a pair of large, amber-tinted lenses, reveal less. He seems distant, barren, like the block buildings and razor-tipped fence lines of the Warren Correctional Institution itself. Here at Warren, Doug Hays surely will lose even the youthful innocence of his appearance.
Only a few months earlier, he was living the life he enjoyed, free of responsibility, surrounded by friends. He now realizes his loyalty to those friends may cost him the better part of his adult life. Hays, 20, is serving a 15-to-life sentence for killing one of those friends, chopping at him repeatedly with a hatchet, then loading the body into the back of a car, driving it across town, dumping it in a shallow ravine and setting it on fire.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
As police began to investigate the violent murder of Thomas Beckett, they uncovered an unsettling web of circumstances. They found a group of young, white, suburban dropouts who had bonded together on Ohio State University's South Campus. Others might call it a gang, a cult, a clique; they called themselves the Family, and numbered more than a dozen. Hays was a member. So was Beckett. And so was Jeremy Northam, who detectives say ordered the murder. The reason? It seems Beckett had become annoying.
The morning fog had lifted, revealing Thursday, Nov. 6, 1996, as a still hazy, overcast day. Gary Jones was tinkering in his pole barn on Columbus' southeast side, enjoying the unusually warm weather, when he spotted his neighbor Paul Miller.
Though the 77-year-old Miller lived at the other end of Courtright Road, almost within sight of Eastland Mall, it was not uncommon to see him enjoying a leisurely morning walk around Kessler Pond, which adjoins Jones' property.
On this particular morning, however, Jones could tell something was wrong as Miller approached the barn. “I thought he was going to have a heart attack," Jones says.
Miller immediately delivered his news: "I think I found a body behind the lake."
Jones picked up his cellphone and grabbed the keys to his golf cart. Miller climbed in with him, and they headed down the path that circled the lake. "We got within 25 or 30 yards of where it was, and Mr. Miller asked me to stop," says Jones. “He said he couldn't go on.”
Jones proceeded alone. At the bottom of a dry drainage ditch beside the path, amid a pile of smoking leaves and brush, he saw it: a charred corpse. Its blackened legs stuck out awkwardly from beneath the wrap of a still-smoldering blanket. “It was the worst thing I'd ever seen," says Jones. "It looked like a mummy wrapped in rags."
Overcoming his shock, Jones tried to see if there was any life left in this horribly burned body. “The way it was positioned, it was like he was trying to climb out of the ravine," he says. “It had a leg up, and an arm up, like maybe he was trying to crawl to the lake to put himself out. I could see the blood, and flesh, charcoaled. I bent down, probably 12 inches from him, looking to see if there was any movement."
There wasn't. Jones immediately called 911, and soon the property around Kessler Pond was swarming with members of the police and fire departments from Columbus and Madison Township. It wasn't until the body was removed from the ditch, however, that police made another grisly discovery. What initially had appeared to be just another burnt stick in the ditch was actually the fire-blackened handle of a hatchet, still buried in the victim's skull.
By that afternoon, Madison Township police had issued a press release describing the body as that of a white male, age 20 to 25, adorned with "extensive body piercing” and “tattoos on various areas of the body," wearing a "gold necklace with a pendant in the shape of a star inside a circle," and a belt “with a large buckle of a marijuana leaf.” Polaroid photographs of certain tattoos located on the less severely burned portions of the body were released to television stations. That evening, shortly after the newscasts aired, the phones began to ring.
Within 24 hours of Paul Miller's gruesome discovery, Columbus and Madison Township detectives, working in tandem, had received a number of tips that provided the outline: the victim's name, a blood-soaked apartment and a list of possible suspects.
Wednesday, Nov. 5, was supposed to be a night of celebration. One of their own was being released after spending 90 days in the Delaware County jail, and the members of the Family were going up for a party in his honor. Nathan Douglas Hays was among them, as was his best friend, Dave Morrissey, 20. The two had met in the ninth grade at Hilliard High School, a year before they both dropped out. Also making the trip were Hays' roommates, George Demico, 23, and Rob Kessler, 19, as well as Kessler's girlfriend, Tiffany Gould, 16, a sophomore at Delaware Hayes High School. Jeremy Northam was there, too, with his girlfriend and his roommates, one of whom was John Mertz.
While the rest of the Family celebrated, another of their number, Thomas Beckett, spent most of the evening brooding on the couch after getting into an argument with the party's honoree. It wasn't surprising, says Hays; Beckett was always causing trouble, acting as if he was running the show. His nickname was "Noy," because that's what he did best—annoy people. Beckett was an outcast in a group of outcasts.
Only a few months earlier, it had seemed Beckett finally had his life on track. Adopted at the age of 2½ and diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome at the age of 4, he had found life a constant struggle. By the time he was in ninth grade, the problems caused by FAS had become so severe that he was sent to Buckeye Ranch, a residential treatment facility in Grove City for children with emotional or behavioral difficulties. He stayed for almost four years, until he turned 18.
After his release, he drifted toward High Street and moved in with a girl and her young son. Soon, Beckett and his girlfriend had a daughter together. “We went up and visited them Christmas, '95," says David Beckett, Thom's father. "It wasn't the nicest apartment, but it was clean and the kids were clean. They had the apartment decorated nicely and had a nice Christmas tree. And I thought, ‘Boy, this is what's going to turn him around.' " A couple months later, David Beckett learned Thom's girlfriend had taken the kids and moved out.
Hays was 18 when a former girlfriend introduced him to a group of her friends who lived in Delaware, the original nucleus of what would ultimately become the Family. At the time, Hays was drifting from place to place—"couch surfing," as he called it—and the group took him in. But Delaware was no place for the Family. The group's fondness for the macabre, as well as the cross-dressing of some of its members, made their North Union Street house a target of ridicule and harassment. Columbus, specifically Ohio State's campus area, was more congenial.
In early 1996, a handful of Family members moved into an apartment on Courtland Avenue, which runs south of Seventh Avenue, just east of High Street. They found kindred spirits in the anti-conformity crowd that seemed to collect particularly around 12th and High, where a 24-hour coffeehouse and the cul-de-sac outside seemed to be a magnet for the gothics, reveling in ghoulish, vampirelike looks, and the gutter punks, in black leather and body-pierced glory.
But even in the anything-goes atmosphere of South Campus, the Family stood out. “That was a strange, strange group,” says Gary Wolf, owner of the String Shoppe music store near 12th and High. "I see lots of long hair, colored hair, body piercing. That stuff's not that strange. But these were strange kids—frighteningly strange. Their hostility and weirdness was very apparent.”
Hays says the term "the Family" originated in the fact that they extended a hand to those who, like themselves, were without roots, alienated from broken homes or conservative suburban environments. “Anybody that needed help or anything around the campus area, we was always there for them, no matter what was going on," he says.
The Family appealed to a drifter's desire to belong. A ganglike structure evolved: Leaders were selected, and subordinate members were assigned ranks, providing security and order—the very things that had been lacking in many of their lives. Loyalty was rewarded, dissension was punished and a strong bond was forged. Hays says he would have done anything for the Family. Ultimately, he proved it.
When the story of Thomas Beckett's murder first broke, news accounts said that Hays had killed Beckett as an act of rage, because Beckett, who was HIV-positive, according to the coroner, had slept with Hays' girlfriend. Hays, however, says that while Beckett did indeed sleep with his girlfriend, and that it did upset him initially, it wasn't the reason for the killing. "It was just open," says Hays. "I mean, we all just kind of figured that everybody's got needs, and we all loved each other so much and everything, so we just slept with each other." And, he says, no one in the Family knew Beckett was HIV-positive.
The real reason for the murder, according to Hays, was one more shocking revelation in an already shocking confession: Hays killed Beckett because Northam had ordered him to.
Not long after the group's move to campus, Thomas Beckett drifted in. He fit in well with the couch-surfing lifestyle, and even provided a service with his experience in body-piercing and tattooing. "He gave me my nose ring," says Hays.
But Beckett fell out of favor, Hays says, when he became allied with the person who was the Family's leader at the time. “Thom and [the leader] kind of started having a thing together," says Hays. "Thom just decided, 'Well, the person I'm with is over everybody else, so that automatically gives me the OK to start running people and doing what I want to.' So that's pretty much what he started doing. A lot of people started getting tired of it."
Hays says talking to Beckett did no good. At one point, Hays and his roommates even tried to move without telling Beckett, but he found out and “really started going off the handle," Hays says. "When everybody started basically to rebel against him, he started threatening people, hitting on people, threatening to put out hits on people.”
The threats became a reality, Hays says, when Northam told him Beckett had actually asked some friends to kill not only Hays, but the Family's leader, too. Was Beckett in fact arranging for murder? Hays seems to believe it, for he describes the incident as if hit men were just a phone call away around OSU's campus. And Hays' believing it may have been all Northam needed to push Hays to the next step—the murder of Thomas Beckett. “Jeremy came to me and told me that it needed to be done, and he said that he wanted me to do it," Hays says. He says he never questioned Northam's request. “Jeremy was our strong point. He thought a lot of things out clearly."
Hays wasn't the only one who said Northam had ordered Beckett's death. According to Columbus homicide detective Pat Dorn, virtually everyone in the Family knew it. “Everybody's statements support each other about Northam's involvement,” Dorn says. “We had statements from about 10 individuals that were all approximately the same."
Hays had a responsibility to the Family. It was his duty. “Hays' rank was HP, which stands for Head Point," says Dorn. "The way I understand it, he was the enforcer."
"I knew something had to be done," says Hays. “I kind of figured I could honestly get away with it."
The final straw came after the party in Delaware. Upon returning to Columbus, Beckett disappeared immediately. Hays says Northam told him Beckett had gone to place another hit—this time, on their newly released friend in Delaware.
It was nearly 3 a.m. when Hays returned from the Delaware party to his Courtland Avenue apartment. Beckett returned a short time later, sat on the couch and began flipping through the pages of a couple of magazines he'd carried in. Hays sat down with him “and started talking about some of the stuff in the magazines," he says. He was only buying time to get his courage up.
Three other Family members also were there, says Hays: Morrissey was lying on the floor with Gould, who'd fallen asleep, while Demico, sitting at the other end of the couch, also had drifted off. Hays asked Morrissey to go into the kitchen with him to help fix something to eat. There, Hays says, he told Morrissey, “ 'Well, I'm gonna go ahead and do it and get this over with now.' So I picked up my ax, and had given him my knife, and told him, 'Here, hold this. If anything would happen, you'll know what to do. If he would see me and dodge the first time, you'll know what to do.' ''
But Beckett never had time to fight for his life. "I just—it seemed like all in the first second I just went from the kitchen sink right to the couch, and that's when I hit him the first time," says Hays. "He raised up his arms after the first hit went, and that's why I started hitting him again.” Sitting in the cell at Warren Correctional, Hays demonstrates where some of the blows fell, touching his own head with his hands.
According to the coroner's report, Hays struck Beckett as many as 12 times with the hatchet, stopping only when it got stuck in Beckett's skull.
Hays says Beckett was still breathing. "So I'm thinking he's still alive or something, and just basically, that if he lived through it, he's going to be a vegetable," Hays says. “And I just started thinking about it, and I said, 'I can't do that to somebody.' "
"So I had taken out my knife, and I went to go slice his throat to make sure that he will die. But my knife wasn't completely that sharp, so it wouldn't completely slice as far as I know, because it was dark. So I just stuck it in one side of his neck," says Hays, pointing to his own neck to illustrate the point of entry, and made the blade come out the other, and then I just grabbed the both sides and pulled."
Hays' brutally detailed description of the murder is more chilling for its lack of emotion. There's no evident braggadocio, nor shame, nor sorrow. He denies being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time; "I'm just ... my adrenaline is pumping a whole lot."
Hays says he actually tried to remove the ax, so he could hang it on his wall, "Just to show people, 'Don't mess with us.' "
Demico, who later told detectives that he woke up to the sounds of Beckett's life being hacked away at the other end of the couch, leaped up and raced out the door, bursting into Northam's apartment on East Eighth Avenue a short time later, yelling, "Doug just killed Thom!” Hays says Gould slept through it all.
A short time later, Hays says, Northam and the Family's leader arrived at the scene. (Police have refused to release the name of the leader, who was never charged.) Hays says he asked Northam to help clean up and dispose of the body. "He's like, 'No. You guys done it, so you guys have to take care of it. That's the way it's going to work," " says Hays. Northam, the leader and Gould then left, leaving Morrissey and Hays alone in the darkened apartment with Beckett's mutilated body.
While they were there, Hays says, two police cruisers and a paddy wagon arrived in the alley behind his Courtland Avenue apartment. The police were answering a domestic violence call nearby, but Hays and Morrissey were alarmed. They walked out the front door, then raced to Northam's apartment, where a number of other Family members were gathered. And though they all knew what had just happened, Hays says no one expressed outrage or fear. In fact, Hays says, most were only concerned with his well-being. "Everybody was kind of like, 'Are you OK?' 'Are you all right?' Everybody was just making sure that I was OK.” No one expressed any remorse for Beckett, he says.
Three Family members—Kessler, Gould and Mertz—agreed to return with Hays and Morrissey to the apartment. But in the darkness—“We didn't dare turn any lights on," says Hays—cleanup was difficult. Blood had splattered everywhere, and the couch was saturated. Hays says they decided to finish the job in the morning and dispose of the body first.
They wrapped Beckett in blankets and dumped him in the hatchback of Mertz's gray Ford Escort. Kessler agreed to drive Gould and Morrissey in Morrissey's father's station wagon because he knew where the body was to be dumped. “I still didn't know where they was putting it at until we got there," says Hays.
The first signs of sunrise were beginning to show on the horizon when the two cars arrived at the site: Kessler Pond, where Kessler's grandparents, his uncle and his aunt still lived. On the way back the long private drive to the pond, Kessler passed the house he grew up in—the house where Gary Jones now lived.
The two cars pulled around behind the pond, under the backdrop of I-270 near Rt. 33. Hays says they pulled Beckett's wrapped body from Mertz's hatchback, and began to carry it back toward the woods. But someone lost a grip, and then everyone lost their grip, and Beckett's bloody corpse dropped, rolling to the bottom of a ravine.
Kessler, Morrissey and Gould then left, but Hays had one final goodbye to offer his former friend. He says he grabbed Beckett's bandanna—"It was his prized possession"—set it on fire and threw it on top of the body. “But then I decided, “No, I ain't gonna burn the body,' ” says Hays. "So I jumped down there to stomp the fire out. But it caught the leaves on fire. Me and Forty [Mertz's nickname] was still there trying to pat the leaves out. Everybody else had left. We thought it was out."
As they were leaving, however, Hays says he could see the fire flaring up behind them as they turned onto Courtright Road. It wasn't until the ride back home that a realization struck him: “I had actually done this to one of my good friends."
Approximately four hours later, Paul Miller walked up the drive toward Gary Jones, working in his barn.
It was shortly after the 6 p.m. newscasts that Madison Township detective James Galvin "received a phone call from Dayle Kessler, who, according to police documents, stated that his son, Rob, might be involved with the victim. Kessler told Galvin that his son had grown up on the property where the body was discovered, and that his Rob "had been associating with a group of individuals who believed in body piercing and tattooing." He then gave his son's address: 1344 Courtland Ave., Apt. G.
Galvin immediately drove there but found no one home. He talked to a neighbor who, according to police documents, reported hearing "strange goings on" and "loud noises and arguing" in apartment G at approximately 4 a.m., and hearing someone leave the apartment at about 4:45 a.m., and someone return around 6 a.m.
Three more officers were dispatched to the Courtland Avenue apartment about 11 p.m., and when again no one answered, they walked around back and peered in a window. The place had been ransacked.
Columbus police officer Mark Helber entered the apartment through the unlocked window and discovered a gory scene inside. A blood-soaked couch was tipped over. Blood was on the walls and on the floor. It also appeared someone had attempted to clean up the scene. “They cut away some of the fabric on the couch, took the foam cushions out and stuffed them in trash bags like they were going to take it out to the trash,” says Dorn.
Through the night and the next day, a number of other phone tips came in, including one from Northam himself. He told police that a group of friends, including Beckett, had attended a party in Delaware the night of the murder, but when they’d returned, Beckett had left and no one had seen him since. Kessler and Gould were brought to Columbus police headquarters Friday morning, and they relayed the same story Northam had told. But, says Dorn, “it was obvious they were lying.”
Saturday morning, police got a warrant to search Northam’s apartment, and Northam, Mertz and the leader were taken in for questioning. “We kind of bluffed Jeremy a little, and told him we knew what we had, and he gave it up,” says Dorn. The murderer, Northam said, was Hays. Mertz admitted he had been instructed to drive the body, with Hays, to Kessler Pond. The detectives learned that Kessler, Gould and Morrissey also had helped dispose of the body.
Later that morning, Kessler and Gould were arrested at Dayle Kessler’s home in Dublin. At 2:45 p.m. the same afternoon, Madison Township detective James Galbin and Dorn proceeded to the Sawmill Road home of Roland Morrissey, where his son, David, as well as Hays and Demico, were located and arrested. Later, all confessed to their roles in Beckett’s murder. (Demico admitted he helped dispose of Hays’ knife.)
Hays pleaded guilty to murder on April 21 and was sentenced to 15 years to life. Over the next few months, Kessler, Morrissey, Mertz and Demico all pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence. Kessler and Demico were sentenced to three years of probation, while a more closely supervised intensive probation was assigned to Morrissey (two years) and Mertz (three years). All five earned reduced charges in exchange for their guilty pleas and their promise to cooperate in the case against Northam.
Gould, who was only 16 at the time, was sentenced in Delaware County Juvenile Court to 90 days in the Five County Joint Detention Center in Marysville and an indefinite term of probation on one count of tampering with evidence and one count of obstruction of justice.
Building a case against Northam was more difficult. The only evidence prosecutors Doug Stead and Peggy Trent had were the statements of a confessed murderer and a group of waywards. But Trent and Stead were convinced Northam belonged behind bars. “If both Hays and Jeremy were released to the streets, who poses the most danger to my community? I’d say Jeremy,” says Stead, because of his ability to manipulate and control.”
Northam vehemently denied any role, maintaining he knew nothing of Beckett’s murder until Demico came rushing in later that evening. Northam did admit he’d heard Hays threaten to kill Beckett, and says he’d even talked to Beckett about it. But Beckett didn’t take the threat seriously, Northam said.
Even when Northam accepted the prosecution’s deal to drop a count of complicity in exchange for his guilty plea to conspiracy, he entered an Alford Plea, which allows a defendant to avoid the potential consequences of a trial. “All the co-defendants but one were going to testify that Jeremy ordered the killing,” says Dennis Day, Northam’s attorney. “We saw that as pretty serious.”
At his Jan. 15 sentencing, Northam made one last plea. “My heart goes out to the Beckett family,” he said, looking directly at Beckett’s mother, father and sister. “I know they probably think I’m guilty, and if I was in their shoes, I would probably think the same thing.” He said he had nothing to do with Beckett’s murder or the disposal of his body. “I’m guilty by association,” he said.
Beckett’s father was unmoved. “To think that he will not get near the sentence that Hays got, just because he didn’t have enough guts to do it himself …,” David Beckett said at the sentencing.
Judge John Bessey handed Northam the maximum sentence allowable on the charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder—10 years in prison.
“I won’t say Tommy was a perfect kid. He had his problems,” says David Beckett. “But nobody, no matter what, deserves to die like this. I guess we’ll never know what really happened. There’s only one person who really knows. But in the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter anyway.”
The one person who knows sits in a cell at Warren Correctional Institution. “Sometimes I wish it was a dream, and I’d wake up and remember all this and see that maybe this was God’s way of telling me that maybe I need to change before this really does happen,” says Hays. “But I know it won’t ever happen. I wish it would. Maybe for once, I could actually start a good life that I’ve always wanted.”
Hays says when and if he’s released, he wants to move back to Central Ohio, and he doesn’t want the people of Columbus to think he’s dangerous. “When I was out there, I was just, I was young,” he says. “I let everybody put things in my head. I just, I helped other people. I didn’t think of the consequences.”
“I’m not a killer,” he says. “I just messed up.”
This story originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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