S1/E8: Tabitha Messina


1988 Brazil

A baby boy named Carlos was born in a jail to an unnamed mother who was serving time for drug and theft charges.  He was soon handed over to his father, a gang leader, who would raise Carlos in the slums of Brazil.

October 26, 1988

Cuyahoga County, Ohio

Tabitha Messina was born to Richard and Karen Messina. Richard was a hard partying 31 year-old that hadn’t finished sowing his wild oats. Karen was an exotic dancer, and an absent mother.

Young Tabitha was exposed to drug and alcohol abuse –and worse. Her mother was often in trouble with the law for a variety of reasons ranging from domestic disturbances to breaking and entering. She was also an habitual shoplifter, and brought Tabitha with her several times while stealing merchandise from various businesses.

Despite their poor parenting skills, Richard and Karen decided to have another child, Richard JR.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, young Carlos was also a witness to his parent’s drug use and dealing.  His father was also a killer. He purposely brought Carlos with him to witness many of the cold-blooded murders he committed.


8-year-old Carlos was put into a Brazilian orphanage after his father died of AIDS while incarcerated.


Richard and Karen Messina’s relationship was at the breaking point. He filed for divorce, claiming that he wanted his children to have a better mother figure. The judge agreed, and Richard won custody of his two children.

That same year, Carlos was adopted by Lucy Anne Christopher, an American, that brought him home to Cleveland Heights, Ohio.


Richard Messina met another exotic dancer, Sandra Cover. The two became a couple and moved in together, much to Tabitha’s chagrin. Unlike Karen, Sandra was strict with the Messina children. 8-year-old Tabitha resisted Sandra’s influence and began acting out. She sought attention by acting aggressively towards other children then lying afterwards in an attempt to quote unquote “fix the problem”.

Carlos Christopher was also constantly getting into trouble. It was hard for him to adjust to a normal suburban life after living his entire life being groomed by his felonious father. He got into fist fights and rebelled against authority figures. He also struggled with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and language based learning disabilities.


Now in high school, Tabitha was attending parties and using drugs and alcohol. Her father finally took a stand and instituted new rules, including a curfew and a demand that Tabitha not use any drugs. Tabitha pushed back harder than ever before, continuing to party and spending less time at home. She constantly fought with Richard and Sandra, to the point of police being called to the home on several occasions.


Tabitha met Carlos at one of the many parties she attended.  They were instantly attracted to each other and began a tryst that would soon become a serious relationship.

Tabitha knew immediately that her father would not approve. She was right.

Richard was, by all accounts, a racist, and would not accept his daughter dating a person of color.. he was told of their romance and was furious. Tabitha was told that if she wanted to stay under his roof, she would have to break up with Carlos.  Her hand was forced, so she ended the relationship.  Shortly after breaking up with Carlos, Tabitha began dating their mutual friend, Jason Gaylord, much to her father’s delight. What neither Richard, nor Carlos knew was that Tabitha was still in love with Carlos and only dated Jason as a reason to stay in the same social circles as Carlos.  Feeling hurt by Tabitha quickly moving on one of his friends, Carlos returned the favor, and began dating Tabitha’s friend, Tammy Tabak.

While the group of friends continued partying together, Tabitha and Carlos secretly carried on their love affair.

June, 2007

Tabitha had decided to stay with her mother in Cleveland for the summer. This allowed her to avoid any scrutiny or suspicion of her ongoing relationship with Carlos from her father.


Friday, July 27

Jason Gaylord was going to be returning to his parent’s South Euclid home after a long visit to the state of Georgia. Tabitha had arranged to stay with Richard and Sandra for the weekend in order to meet up with Jason the following day.

In the early evening of Saturday, July 28, Richard drove his daughter to the South Euclid Home Days celebration at nearby Bexley Park, where she joined Jason and Tammy Tabak. Carlos Christopher arrived to the festival later that evening. Shortly after the four friends met up, they left Bexley Park and walked a half mile to Rowland Elementary School.  After talking for hours at the school playground, Jason unexpectedly proposed to Tabitha.  Carlos was surprised, but when Tabitha accepted the wedding proposal, he was downright shocked.  Spurred into action, Carlos then proposed to Tammy, and like that, the four friends were all engaged to be married.

July 29

Just after midnight, Tabitha’s cell phone rang. The phone actually belonged to her step-mother, and the person calling was Richard, demanding that Tabitha return the phone to Sandra. She didn’t want to give it back, and the conversation became heated.

Instead of turning to her new fiancée, Tabitha asked Carlos to take the phone back to her house for her. Her father made her mad, and she knew that he would be upset when he saw Carlos at his doorstep with Sandra’s phone.

After a five-minute walk, Carlos arrived at the Messina house on Donwell Drive.  Richard was keeping an eye out for his daughter when he saw Carlos arrive in her stead, he burst outside in a rage. The two quickly began shouting each other down until Carlos pushed Richard. Richard then took a swing at Carlos and connected with a punch to his face.  When Richard threatened to call the police, Carlos left the area and returned to the playground, where he told the other three what had happened.

Tabitha and Carlos split off from their friends and began to formulate a plan. They walked to a house on Stonehaven road, just a block from the school.

Police received a call at 1:22 a.m. to respond to the Messina residence. When Officer Chris Khoenle arrived with fellow officers, Richard Messina explained that someone had been bothering the vehicles he had parked in his driveway.  He told police about his earlier altercation with Carlos.

Minutes later, Police located the four teenagers in front of the house on Stonehaven Road. They warned Carlos to stay away from the Messina house. They also broke the news to Tabitha that her father was kicking her out of his house. Tabitha was devastated, and enraged. Officer Khoenle escorted her to her father’s house to pick up her belongings. While she was there collecting her driver’s license and dog, she and Richard argued the entire time.  Khoenle drove Tabitha back to her friends and advised all four of them to stay away from the Messina residence.

Tammy’s mother came to pick her up while Khonle was warning the teens. Shortly after the officer left the remaining three friends,   Tabitha told Jason that she and Carlos were going to go get Tammy back.  The two left, and were gone for hours. Jason called Tammy at 3:30 AM to find out what was taking so long. Tammy told Jason she hadn’t seen or heard from Tabitha or Carlos.

4:00AM. Patrolling officer Dustin Smoot observed Carlos Christopher and Tabitha Messina sitting and holding hands in front of the school. Smoot drove by without stopping, but had noted their appearance. Carlos was wearing bright green shorts, a gray muscle shirt, and a hat.

Tabitha and Carlos finally met back up with Jason. Carlos did not have his hat, but was sporting a cut under his eye. Tabitha had a cut on her hand. When Jason asked why they were gone so long, the pair lied to him, saying that they went to Tammy’s house, but couldn’t find her.  Jason knew it was a lie, but was too tired to challenge the story.

Carlos and Tabitha left again, telling Jason they would be right back. They returned at 7:00AM, driving both of Richard Messina’s vehicles- a Corvette and a GMC Jimmy. They also had Richard’s other two dogs with them, and had changed their clothes.

Carlos said he needed to go to his motel to pick up some of his belongings. He drove the Corvette, while Tabitha drove the GMC with Jason as her passenger.

During the drive, Tabitha told Jason she wanted to get married immediately, and suggested they leave for Georgia. When Carlos joined them, he said he wanted to start his life over, and asked to join them on their move. Tabitha called Tammy to invite her. Tammy agreed, and on the way to her house, Tabitha and Carlos bought pre-paid phones. Jason noticed that Tabitha seemed upset, but also that she suddenly had a lot of cash on her.

They arrived at Tammy’s house, but she had changed her mind and decided to stay in Ohio. By this time, Tammy had been talking about the plan with her friends, including Dustin Hruby, who liked the idea, and decided to go in her place.

Tabitha, Carlos, Jason and Dustin were on the road before noon.  When Jason’s mother, Renee Vlna hadn’t heard from him by that afternoon, she became concerned.  She knew Jason had been with Tabitha, so she tried calling the Messina house, but there was no answer.

4:00 PM

Vlna drove with her daughter to Richard Messina’s house. It seemed like there was nobody home, but the lights were on inside the house. As they walked around the house, they saw the screen door on the back porch had been cut, and the glass on the inside door was broken. Vlna immediately called the police.

Police were dispatched to investigate a possible robbery at the Messina home, but what they found when they arrived shocked them.  The master bedroom was a scene of carnage, with blood on the walls, floor and bed. On the floor were the bodies of Richard Messina and Sandra Cover. Richard was on the right side of the bed in a twisted position. A blanket was covering his face, and a crucifix lay on the floor next to his head.  He had six chop wounds to the right side of his head and neck and several blunt force injuries on his head, right shoulder and right leg.

Sandra’s body lay face down in a pool of blood, wearing nothing but a night-shirt. She had been beaten to death, with several elongated bruises on her body. A blunt force object had been used on her head, neck and legs. Patterned abrasions on her back looked like marks made by a crowbar. Her left arm showed contusions that indicated she tried to defend herself from the blows. Her left index finger was fractured during the attack. It’s estimated that Sandra may have survived between 4 and 6 hours after the beating took place.

While the first responders had thought they were dealing with a burglary gone wrong, homicide detectives formulated a different theory.  Given the positioning of the body and the two different methods of attack, detectives believed the killings to be the work of two people.

As the investigation moved outward from the crime scene, an open strong box was discovered in front of the bedroom’s closet door. Inside the closet, a floor safe was also open, and a large jewelry box on the dresser was open and emptied. A hatchet was found on the bed in Tabitha’s room. Sandra’s purse was discovered in the dining room. The purse contained Richard’s wallet, but neither the purse nor the wallet contained money.

Police searched the outside perimeter of the house and found several gardening tools in the yard. The lightbulbs from the outdoor flood lights had all been removed and carefully laid in the grass.  In the shrubs, they found a man’s hat and grey shirt, as well as a women’s white tank top with a steak knife wrapped inside.

Tabitha, Carlos, Jason and Dustin were driving through West Virginia when the phone calls came in. Mutual friends had heard about the murders and contacted Jason and Dustin. Upon hearing the news, the two young men confronted Tabitha and Carlos, but were stonewalled. They turned around and headed back to Ohio in the Corvette, while Tabitha and Carlos continued south in the Jimmy.

Tammy Tabak and Jason Gaylord gave statements to the Police. Meanwhile, the clothing found in the shrubbery was submitted for DNA testing. The clothing contained the DNA of Tabitha and Carlos as well as the blood of Sandra Cover. Police now had enough evidence to issue warrants.

A BOLO, or “Be On The Look Out”, was issued for Tabitha and Carlos.

16 hours later, authorities in Avery County, North Carolina were contacted by a motel owner. He had noticed a GMC Jimmy parked haphazardly in his lot, with litter all around the vehicle. He called police when he approached the vehicle and saw two occupants sleeping inside. When the arriving officer ran the plate, dispatch informed him of the BOLO on the vehicle, and that it was related to a double homicide.

He called for backup. When reinforcements arrived, they surrounded the vehicle and ordered the occupants out at gunpoint.  Tabitha immediately began claiming she and Carlos had nothing to do with the murder of her father and Sandra Cover, but by the time they were returned to Ohio, she had changed her story.

She told investigators that Carlos had killed both Richard and Sandra, and that she was held against her will the entire time. Tabitha claimed that Carlos threatened to kill her as well if she told anyone what he had done.

But while Tabitha was giving her story, Carlos was in another room, telling police a much different accounting of the events of July 29th.

According to Carlos, Tabitha urged him to help murder her father and step-mother and start a new life. He supposedly rejected the plan until Tabitha told him that her father had abused her since she was a child. Even then, Carlos agreed only to scare Richard and Sandra. Carlos claimed that they entered their bedroom with a crowbar and axe, and as they stood over the sleeping couple, Tabitha started hitting Sandra with the crowbar. Carlos said at this point, Richard woke up and Carlos reacted without thinking, striking him with the axe several times, killing him nearly instantly. Sandra, however, put up a fight. She struggled with Tabitha until, again, according to Carlos, Tabitha told Carlos to help finish her off.

The truth of both Carlos and Tabitha’s stories is up for debate, but police were convinced that both teens were responsible for the murders.

May 27, 2008

Carlos Christopher was found guilty on two counts of aggravated murder. He was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences.

September 15, 2008

Tabitha Messina pled guilty to two counts of aggravated murder and one count of robbery.

October 24, 2008

Tabitha was sentenced to 60 years in prison, despite claiming she was coerced by Carlos to take part in the murders. But nobody seemed to believe her. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge Timothy McMonagle said of Tabitha “She makes things up as she goes along, and she believes what she says. “

Even her own family thought she was guilty. Richard’s sister, Betty Montanez, said “When you forgot to respect him, and you forgot he was your father, we forgot you were our niece. At best, you deserve to die in prison, maybe of old age.”

She also said that the one person in the family who would have forgiven her was Richard.

Sandra Cover’s sister, Linda Moore told Tabitha Messina she deserved to die for what she had done.

Sandra’s mother, Joann Bartell said “Life in prison is more mercy than she showed Sandy and her father. “ She then held up a photo of her daughter and said “There are not adequate words in the English language to describe the pain, anguish and despair I feel.”

Richard Messina was 50 years old. Sandra Cover was 43 years old. Both Tabitha Messina and Carlos Christopher remain in prison.

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