Through the lens of social media, Matthew Phelps and Lauren Hugelmaier Phelps had the perfect relationship. They had been married less than a year and were still in the honeymoon period.
‘I am so blessed to have this handsome man to call my husband,’ Lauren wrote on Facebook. Matthew’s profile picture was the couple mucking around on their wedding day with light sabers.
The fun couple had so much in common – a love of Star Wars , their devout Christian faith and an excitement about starting a family. Lauren said she and Matthew were a ‘perfect match’, and from the outside they looked like they were.
The young couple lived in a two-bed townhouse in Raleigh, North Carolina. They had reconnected through social media years after being at school together. Never afraid to pull funny faces, or wear their heart on their sleeves, they often shared their happiness online.
Outgoing Lauren, 29, sold scented candles and taught at a local Sunday school. Matthew, also 29, had studied at Bible school and was working at a lawn service company while he strived to achieve his real passion of becoming a pastor. Everyone wanted to be a part of their love story – and soon the whole world would be.
In the early hours of 1 September 2017, Matthew made a desperate 911 call. He said he’d woken up covered in blood. There was a knife on the bed and his wife lay severely injured on the floor with multiple stab wounds. Matthew said he had no memory of what happened – but he suspected he was the killer.
‘I had a dream and then I turned on the lights and she’s dead on the floor,’ he cried to the operator. ‘Um, I have blood all over me and there’s a bloody knife on the bed. And I think I did it. I can’t believe this.’
As emergency services were dispatched, Matthew tried to explain his actions. He said he’d taken cough medicine designed for people with high blood pressure the night before. ‘I took more medicine than I should have.
I took Coricidin Cough & Cold because I know it can make you feel good and sometimes I can’t sleep at night. I can’t believe I did this,’ he sobbed. ‘Oh God. She didn’t deserve this. Why?’ Could Matthew have attacked his wife unknowingly, while under the influence of a cough medicine?
When medics arrived, they found Lauren in a foetal position with 123 stab wounds to her head, neck and arms. Forty-four were around her face, with some four inches deep. Lauren was rushed to hospital but she was pronounced dead, and Matthew was taken into custody. The community were in shock. Could an over-the-counter medicine really turn a loving husband into a killer?
The makers of the medicine, Bayer, released a statement expressing their sympathy, but insisted there ‘is no evidence to suggest that Coricidin is associated with violent behaviour’. As investigators started to look more deeply into Matthew’s life, they knew there was far more to the story than he was letting on.
While much of his wife’s social media had them looking like the perfect all-American couple, Matthew’s had a darker edge and it became clear he had an obsession with killing. Matthew had a secret Instagram account under the name ‘marty_radical’ where he shared his obsession with American Psycho – the 2000 film about wealthy New York banker Patrick Bateman, who is also a twisted serial killer.
There were images portraying scenes from the movie and the profile picture was the lead character covered in blood. The private account also had images of Matthew dressed as Bateman. Being a fan of violent films doesn’t make you a killer, but when Matthew’s friends were questioned, they said he’d expressed an interest in knowing what it would feel like to kill someone.
The picture-perfect Phelps marriage wasn’t all it seemed either. Friends said the couple had been arguing a lot, especially about Matthew’s out-of-control spending.
He had an expensive video game habit – he had $1,200 (£935) worth of iTunes and Xbox subscriptions, and he was spending more than the couple were making. Lauren had put restrictions on his finances and had even expressed a desire to walk away from the marriage if things weren’t going to change.
Family members said that, leading up to her death, Lauren seemed on edge and she’d sent texts to friends saying she was tired of arguing. Police determined that Matthew had known exactly what he was doing when he stabbed his wife to death. He’d abused cough medicine recreationally in the past and had tried to use it to excuse his actions – but even he must have known it was a long shot.
Matthew was charged with murder and was refused bail. At first, he pleaded not guilty and kept to his ‘cough medicine’ alibi, but then in October this year, he pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal to escape the death penalty.
At the sentencing, Lauren’s family, friends and church members wore blue T-shirts with #laurenslight on the front, and purple ribbons representing domestic violence awareness. Matthew stood in a prison jumpsuit with long hair and a shaggy beard – a long way from the clean-cut look at his arrest. He made a brief statement and said he was sorry. He pointed to ‘drinking, drugs and carelessness’. ‘I feel like a monster, part of the wretched, part of the darkness we don’t speak off,’ he said. ‘This was a senseless, mindless act, and I regret every step that led me in that direction.’
His defence team said he’d suffered with depression for years and had grown up in a home where he’d watched slasher films from the age of four. None of it excused his actions for Lauren’s devastated loved ones.
They had their opportunity to speak out about the tragedy.
‘Lauren was beautiful inside and out,’ said Lauren’s mum Laurie Hugelmaier tearfully, going on to describe her struggle since her daughter was murdered. ‘There are times that I feel I won’t survive it. The actions of Matthew James Phelps have forever changed me. This has broken me and my heart.’
Lauren’s older sister Beth said they’d welcomed Matthew into their home because they thought he made Lauren happy.
‘He seemed to love Lauren in spite of any flaws she could have and would do anything to make her happy. What we didn’t know was that he was playing a game. A very deadly game,’ she said.
‘He was luring all of us into a trap by taking advantage of our kindness and generosity… We never once thought Lauren was in danger.’
Lauren’s dad Dale said they’d treated Matthew like a son. ‘How could he do this to us?’ he asked. When Matthew had asked Dale for his permission to marry Lauren, he’d promised he would protect his daughter.
Matthew was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Looking back at Lauren and Matthew’s photos on social media now, it’s hard to believe how it all ended. Behind his beaming smile, Matthew was hiding a dark, sinister side.
We’ll never know if Lauren knew what her husband was capable of – but it’s likely she only found out as she took her final breaths.
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