How Did a Date End in Death and Dismemberment for a TWU Student?

Jacqueline Vandagriff met him at a bar in Denton, where she’d been sitting a seat over from him. He was 30, bald, lightly bearded and muscular with tattoos of stars, a clock, the DNA double helix and Chinese symbols on his arm. A former fitness trainer from Haslet, Charles Bryant could have been a nontraditional college student like her, who at 24 had recently arrived from Frisco to study nutrition at Texas Woman’s University. One of his friends said he looked like “a hipster superhero.”

It seemed like the kind of innocent meeting that happens nightly in a town where two public universities bring thousands of young people together each semester. She couldn’t have known that he’d been stalking an 18-year-old former girlfriend who attended the University of North Texas, that he’d been sending Facebook friend requests to other young women whom he didn’t know or that a protective order had been recently filed against him in Denton County.

Like other tormented lovers, Bryant often took to Facebook to share his sorrow and longing for his ex-girlfriend. “There’s no question if you speak to him he’s suffering and very much in love,” he posted on Facebook a day after his release from jail for stalking his ex-girlfriend. “Unrequited love kills more people than cancer every year and in matters of the heart, people do foolish things. I’m not shallow or seduced by cheap glamour. I value substance and character. What is age? What is time? Nothing means anything if you’re actually in love. Sleepless nights and distracted days, I speak of Platitudes. When it’s right you just know it. Trials are inevitable but love, well it can conquer all.”

He followed his post with an afterthought that may explain why he selected Vandagriff. “Foolish thoughts, he said to himself, trying to hide the pain and embracing another half heartedly,” he wrote three days before he met Vandagriff in the bar.

They left Public House together shortly after 9 p.m. on Sept. 13, a Tuesday, about an hour after her arrival. They headed to Shots & Crafts, another bar a few doors down on Fry Street. In surveillance video taken at Shots & Crafts, they looked like two interested people falling into conversation. They had a few drinks and laughs. He touched her arm, and she let him finish her drink. They had a couple of more shots, a few more drinks and left the second bar together about 45 minutes later.

That would be the last time anyone besides her killer would see Jackie Vandagriff alive. Her dismembered body was found early the next morning, burning in a small blue plastic swimming pool in a heavily wooded area near Horseshoe Trails in Grapevine.

Less than a week after her body was discovered, Bryant was arrested on capital murder charges and booked into Grapevine jail. His bail was set at $1 million.

“Do something today that your future self will thank you for” was just one of the many inspirational quotes Bryant posted on Facebook.

Since Vandagriff’s murder a few weeks after she started college, police investigators, the public and her friends and family are left to wonder what might have possessed a 30-year-old man who once posted “life is precious” on his Facebook page to murder, mutilate and burn a young woman whom friends and family remember as someone who loved to laugh and everyone loved.

“If she had indicated to the bartender that she was in trouble, we would have called the police,” Public House bar management says. “But there was nothing out of the ordinary.”

Amanda Green met Vandagriff in high school in Frisco in 2006. She’d been sitting in front of Green in world geography class. They’d often gossiped about how other girls in the class thought their teacher was hot. They’d pass notes in class, making each other laugh. They both lived in the same blue-collar neighborhood in the not-so-rich part of Frisco, close enough to walk to each other’s houses. At times they lived at each other’s house.

“It was just easy when you meet someone and you have that connection,” Green says. “A big personality in a tiny body” is how she recalls her friend. Vandagriff was the kind of person who always had a plan, though they would sometimes change day to day. She also loved music, attending concerts and listening to her dad play guitar.

They made memories together throughout high school. Green still remembers lying upstairs in her friend’s living room as she searched for the perfect picture to post on Myspace. They laughed about the bad ones and snapped more. “The best thing about her with makeup,” she begins, “there are people who hide themselves with makeup, but she used it to express herself.”

"You get older and you get busy. The problem is you think you have more time." — Amanda Green, high school friend of Jackie Vandagriff

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After high school, they stayed relatively close with mutual friends and Facebook. Vandagriff became a  licensed esthetician and later enrolled at Texas Woman’s University to study nutrition. Green took a different route and married. They kept in touch on Facebook, but they hadn’t seen each other since Vandagriff had begun attending college in Denton in late January.

The last time she saw her, it was actually just another boring night, Green says. They hung out at Green’s apartment for a bit, then walked across the street to grab a drink at a bar. “You get older and you get busy,” she says and pauses. “The problem is you think you have more time.”

Bryant had been sitting at the bar across from the university for an hour when she walked in. Vandagriff was blond and tiny, unlike his ex-girlfriend, whose brown hair was long, but they both had brown eyes. She was from Frisco; his ex-girlfriend was from Grapevine. Vandagriff was a college student like his ex-girlfriend Caitlin Mathis, who attended the University of North Texas.

The fact that he leaned over to talk with Vandagriff isn’t a surprise. He’d been sending random friend requests to young attractive women in Denton. The bartender told local news that Bryant appeared to be waiting for someone to arrive. It’s unclear if that someone was Vandagriff.

He’d been having a rough time accepting that his three-month relationship had ended, Mathis stated in her affidavit for a protective order. Ever since their breakup in late August, he’d been making random appearances at her job and her dorm room.

“[In early September] I was in my dorm room at UNT when I heard a soft knock on the door,” Mathis reported in her affidavit for a protective order on Sept. 15, two days after Vandagriff’s death. “I looked out the peephole, and I saw Charles. I was alarmed to see him because he had recently been criminally trespassed from the property. I heard Charles say that he had something for me. I walked into my roommate’s bedroom and called the UNT police.”

He was arrested for criminal trespass on Sept. 6, released the same day on a $500 personal recognizance bond and returned to jail the next day for stalking her, only to be released two days later on a $5,000 surety bond.

The Public House is directly across from the University of North Texas where his ex-girlfriend attended school. He lived much closer to Fort Worth, where he worked as a bartender at Urban Cowboy Saloon, a gay bar on East Lancaster Avenue.

“He just loved being in this bar,” says Chris Ray, the general manager of Urban Cowboy Saloon. “He loved seeing people. He loved meeting people. And I think he loved how much people loved him.” He’d been working at the bar since August. He also worked as a personal trainer at Procore Fitness in Southlake, where he’d often go for early morning weight-lifting workouts, then head over to Horseshoe Trails on the south side of Grapevine Lake for a jog. He often visited parks across the area to run, walk or play guitar.

When he answered the online job ad for a bartender position at the Urban Cowboy Saloon, Bryant immediately gained Ray’s trust. He was a people person whom Ray says the ladies and men seemed to fawn over. He was also a “30-year-old man-child,” he says. “The only vibe that I ever got from him was that he was woman crazy. He loved women. He loved women’s attention.

“Even that didn’t stick out to me because he was a straight, good-looking guy,” Ray says. “Of course he’s going to be interested in women. A pretty girl would walk in, and he would be right there. I just thought, ‘You’re a man-child, and a girl’s going to grab your attention.’” 

Bryant posted inspirational messages on his Facebook page as if he were offering a window to his soul. His cover photo reads, “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.” He seemed to be a hopeless romantic, longing for his Juliet. “Every man needs that one woman that calms down the beast in them,” read a meme of King Leonidas wrapping his arms around his queen from Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. “I’m still looking,” he added.

But he wasn’t just a man-child. He was also a soldier, if only for a short time. He enlisted in the Army in early 2006 and left in mid-2007, according to news reports. Details about his time in the service or where he landed once he left military life weren’t available. He’d been living with his roommate in a sea of cookie-cutter neighborhoods on the outskirts of Haslet for about a year or so when he landed the bartender gig at the Urban Cowboy Saloon.

Bryant and his roommate were both martial artists who met studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu, one neighbor says. They lived in a neighborhood of mostly rental houses. It was the kind of place where you don’t really know anyone by name. One of his neighbors only spoke with him a couple of times, but told the Observer that he avoided him whenever he walked his dog. “People like that, you can always tell something is off,” he says. “I don’t know how or why, but you just kind of can.”

Ray and others who knew him saw nothing odd about him. Ray says the only thing awkward was the fact that Bryant never invited his friends to hang out at the bar like the other bartenders. He was private but not secretive, Ray says. He never brought up conversations and avoided discussing politics. But he was a lot of fun to be around and knew how to make people laugh.

“I could see that there was a switch,” Ray says. “He never talked about emotions. But I feel like straight men don’t talk about emotions. Gay men will talk about emotions all night, and girls will talk about emotions all night. So it never stuck out to me.”

A few minutes before Bryant and Vandagriff left the Public House together, Bryant posted on Facebook, “Teach you tricks that will blow your mind.” Vandagriff tweeted, “I’m glad I decided to get off Tinder and walk into a bar.” Her cell phone pinged a cell tower near his two-story brick house in Haslet at 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 14.

She was found burning in pieces near the southern shores of Grapevine Lake. An unidentified caller contacted 911 to report a brush fire not far from the parking area of Acorn Woods Park in a densely wooded area where people often jogged and walked the trails. Police arrived on scene shortly before 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 14. to investigate the discovery of a body found in what was left of a blue plastic kiddie pool once the flames were extinguished.

A witness reported seeing “a white male standing over the fire” before he left the scene in a light-colored SUV. Police discovered an accelerant had been used to start the fire, and the FBI was called to help search the area for clues. They checked the picnic and walking-trail areas and a small portion along the southern side of Grapevine Lake.

“The body was burned to a certain degree,” Grapevine Police Sgt. Robert Eberling told reporters later that morning. “The body appears to be dismembered to a certain degree.”

Onlookers gathered on the other side of the yellow crime scene tape. Some worried the body belonged to a fellow jogger. It was the first homicide in three years in Grapevine, leaving many speechless. One onlooker said she was thankful that she carries Mace. Another captured what many people were feeling when news of Vandagriff’s murder spread: “It’s sickening, horrific.”

The next day, investigators learned through fingerprint analysis that the partially burned and dismembered body was indeed 24-year-old Jackie Vandagriff from Denton. It would take less than a week for investigators to connect Bryant to the crime. They collected surveillance video from both of the bars, interviewed witnesses, traced her cell phone and discovered Bryant’s 4 a.m. trip to Wal-Mart to purchase a shovel. He also drove a light-colored SUV. 

Two days after her body was discovered, Vandagriff’s Twitter account published a single tweet, “Never knew I could feel like this.” Investigators are trying to determine who sent the tweet. 

Three days after investigators found Vandagriff’s remains
, Bryant finished wiping down the bar at the Urban Cowboy Saloon and offered Ray and his friends a ride home. It was Ray’s night off, and he’d been drinking with a few friends who wanted to continue the party. So they hopped into Bryant’s SUV and headed toward Ray’s apartment near downtown Fort Worth to continue the party in the early morning hours.   
Bryant sat among his coworkers and their friends, talking and laughing and listening to music. He’d never been to Ray’s apartment, and he kept telling him how much he loved it. “It’s like really nice,” he said. “It was normal,” Ray says. “It was so normal. Everything was normal. There was nothing out of the ordinary.”

Bryant had been following his routine since the witness saw a man standing over the fire containing Vandagriff’s remains. He tended the bar at the Urban Cowboy Saloon, took early morning trips to local parks and posted cryptic quips on social media. “Full moon … let’s see what kind of trouble I can get into,” he wrote on Facebook a day after investigators discovered Vandagriff’s body in the woodland near his running trails.

Two days after her body was discovered, Bryant checked in at Lake Cliff Park on East Colorado Boulevard in Dallas. “Early mornings and sleepless nights, but she’s got you feeling alright,” he wrote at 4 a.m., then later asked if anyone was up for a five-mile jog. The next day he sent a series of emails to his ex-girlfriend who had already filed her protective order against him. In the emails, he professed his longing for her to reconcile with him and begged her to drop the stalking and trespassing charges against him.

The day before his arrest for Vandagriff’s murder, he checked in at Reverchon Park near Harry Hines Boulevard. “Little guitar in the park is in order,” he posted at 11:24 a.m.

"That’s the thing that I have to grapple with, and a lot of my friends who were with us that night have to grapple with, and even some of our patrons." — Chris Ray, general manager of Urban Cowboy Saloon, where Charles Bryant worked

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It would be his last post.

Bryant’s coworkers were shocked when they heard the news that Bryant had been arrested on a capital murder charge.

“That’s the thing that I have to grapple with, and a lot of my friends who were with us that night have to grapple with, and even some of our patrons,” Ray says. “It’s just how nice he was, how much they liked him, and what he was capable of. I think that we’re all grappling with that. You want to believe that you have a good sense of judgement. You want to believe that people are good. But he was good. He was good to me. He never did anything to me. He never even so much as rolled his eyes or had an attitude with anyone.

“To think that he had that switch or whatever that happened to made him so crazy, but he had to be able to calm down to dismember her, to haul her body back to Grapevine,” he says and shakes his head. “It was completely out of left field. Completely out of left field.”

As the sun set on the Wednesday night a week after her murder, dozens of family members, friends and people who simply wanted to pay respect gathered at a park in Frisco to light a candle in honor of Vandagriff. They stood upon a cement stage, some alone and others together, to share memories of their loved one whose death was still too hard to accept.

They called her a free-wheeling spirit, a wonderful person, someone who brought energy everywhere she went. Jackie Ton, who’d known Vandagriff since freshmen year of high school, recalled her friend always saying they were married because they had the same first name. She told reporters, “When I couldn’t sleep alone, she would always come over and sleep with me. We would talk until 6 a.m. We were ‘the Jackies.’”

Vandagriff’s parents spoke briefly, thanking law enforcement for their diligence to investigating their daughter’s murder and making the arrest. “It allowed me to focus on my daughter’s legacy,” her mother said.

Investigators uncovered a TWU-branded black satchel in Bryant’s home, a burn pit in Bryant’s backyard with possible bone fragments, a hacksaw with possible hair on it and a twin to the blue plastic kiddie pool where Vandagriff’s remains were found.

They also found a .22 caliber rifle and a shotgun, a shovel receipt from Wal-Mart, a half a dozen knives, a UNT criminal trespass warning and possible child pornography on his electronic devices. They also collected nine different blood samples. 

Vandagriff’s loved ones still hadn’t been able to bury her when the Observer spoke with her friends. Grapevine police says investigators were still waiting for the medical examiner to determine Vandagriff’s cause of death. “A lot of details we have to shore up, various aspects of the investigation,” Grapevine Police Sgt. Robert Eberling said. “It’s obvious that he certainly had some ties to the area.”

Last week, Tarrant County Magistrate Rainey Webb ordered Bryant to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine if he’s competent to stand trial. She said reasonable cause exists to believe Bryant may suffer from a mental illness. She gave Mental Health Mental Retardation of Tarrant County 30 days to provide a written assessment of Bryant’s mental health.

At the candlelight vigil, all friends and family could do was hold on to their shared memories of Vandagriff. Emotion was strong, and the media were kept at a distance. More than 100 people gathered at sunset to light the candles. Amanda Green helped to organize the candlelight vigil with other friends who loved Vandagriff.

“This has definitely pushed me to reach out to all the people I love and care about and made me realize how short life is,” she says. "I know that she knows that I love her. I’m not worried about that part. I wish I could tell her that … ”
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.