Sobering crime behind a laughable scheme
(“Grave Danger,” Forensic Files)
Anyone who watches the “Grave Danger” episode of Forensic Files can’t help but be taken aback by the ridiculousness of Molly and Clayton Daniels’ crime.
Molly, an office receptionist, and Clay, an unemployed mechanic, robbed the grave of Charlotte Davis — who had died at the age of 81 in 2003 — then placed her body in a Chevrolet Cavalier along with some of Clay’s belongings. They pushed the vehicle off the road and set it on fire on June 18, 2004, in the hopes of collecting $110,000 in life insurance money upon Clay’s “death.”
OMG, it’s working. Things went as planned at first for the Leander, Texas, couple. Family members identified items from the burned car as having belonged to Clay. Molly used her new status as a widow with two children to coax aid from sympathetic community members. Clay hid himself from public view.
But Molly, 21, and Clay, 24, had always intended to remain together. Instead of moving someplace far away where no one knew them, they stayed in the same area. Clay dyed his hair black, and Molly began introducing him as her new boyfriend, Jake Gregg.
That didn’t work out so well. The authorities caught on pronto. A DNA test proved the charred remains in the car belonged to someone other than Clay Daniels.
Worldwide ‘what?!’ The insurance company got justice at the subsequent trial, as did the late Charlotte Davis, when her former caretaker testified.
The macabre element of Clay and Molly’s scheme may have made members of the general public shudder and grimace — but they still wanted to hear all the details. Prosecutor Jane Starnes wrote in an article* in “The Texas Prosecutor” newsletter:
My sister-in-law in Hawaii called to say she read about me in the Hilo paper. Molly’s dirty deeds were reported in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. A producer from CNN called. [A] People magazine reporter kept calling. A reporter from Tokyo called, asking insightful questions such as, “What color [was] Clayton Daniels’ hair before he dye[d] it black?” We got a call from a reporter in London from The Sunday Magazine.
Clay Daniels ended up receiving 30 years in prison for offenses including insurance fraud, arson, and desecration of a cemetery. Molly Daniels got 20 years for insurance fraud and hindering her husband’s apprehension. Molly’s family members took custody of the two small children the couple shared.
The redeeming part of this whole mess seemed to be that at least it didn’t cause bodily harm to any living person.
A live victim. But the motivation for the outlandish string of events had its roots in a real, devastating crime committed by Clay when he was 16 years old.
He raped a 7-year-old cousin of his circa 1996, although the assault came to light only years later. Clay pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault on a child and, under a deferred adjudication deal, had to serve 30 days in jail, to start on June 21, 2004 (three days after the car “accident”) and then 10 years probation. His name would appear on the Registered Sex Offenders list.
Molly said on Dateline NBC that she believed the legal system had railroaded Clay and that a “good man” like him could have never molested a child. She wanted him to continue as a stay-at-home-dad without any limitations on where they could live, and that’s why they hatched the insurance fraud plan, she explained.
Leniency…in Texas? Arson investigator Janine Mather, however, told Forensic Files that she believed Clay’s motivation was a reluctance to go to jail and be memorialized on the RSO list.
But here’s the question that remains: Why did Clay initially get only 30 days in jail for rape? One third of the 30-year sentence he ultimately received was in connection to a “probation violation” for the aggravated sexual assault to his cousin — but that wasn’t handed down until after the burned-car caper.
I did a little nosing around online for information about Texas sexual assault laws and found that aggravated sexual assault on a child younger than 14 years of age, under certain circumstances, means a minimum sentence of 25 years. It’s automatically a minimum of 25 years if the child is under 6 years of age. But Clay’s little cousin was apparently already 7 when the attack occurred.
The most recent U.S. Sentencing Commission fact sheet listed average sentences for sexual abuse offenders as 139 months to 235 months.
So had Clay Daniels done something to redeem himself in the years between the sexual assault he committed at 16 and his initial sentencing for that crime at age 24? It didn’t sound that way. “Grave Danger” mentions that, even during the eulogy at Clay’s funeral (held, of course, before he was discovered alive and raven-haired), his best buddy felt compelled to acknowledge that Clay was a seriously flawed character.
Minor on minor crime. The only, meager explanation I could find for the light sentence Clay received is suggested by a University of New Hampshire study commissioned by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which suggests that the age of an offender can affect sentencing favorably.
The research revealed that “juveniles account for more than one-third (35.6 percent) of those known to police to have committed sex offenses against minors” — but that “a large majority (about 85–95 percent) of sex-offending youth have no arrests or reports for future sex crimes.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that these folks stay on the right side of the law: According to the UNH research, “[Of the youths who do] have future arrests, they are far more likely to be for nonsexual crimes such as property offenses.”
There’s one area in which Clay, with Molly’s help, exceeded everyone’s expectations.— RR
* To read Jane Starnes’ entire article in “The Texas Prosecutor” newsletter, scroll down to page 22 of the pdf document. It includes some B&W photos from the crime scene.