True Crime

True Crime Wednesday: The Murder of Nikki McPhatter

Nikki McPhatter’s story caught my attention after seeing it featured on the Investigation Discovery show “Web of Lies.” She was a 30-year-old woman working in Charlotte at the time of her disappearance. A goal-oriented person who always seemed to know what that next step was, she joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school. After her time in the military, she took a job as a ticket agent for U.S. Airways at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

She was an adventurous young woman who, according to her older sister LaToya, also enjoyed skydiving in her downtime. She turned to online dating hoping to find companionship. It was on a website called Tagged.com that she met Theodore Manning, who was the same age as Nikki and had served time in the U.S. Air Force before taking a job in Columbia, South Carolina. He was also divorced and had a young daughter.

Nikki went missing in May 2009. She was driving her 2003 Black Honda Accord. Based on what I’ve read about this case, Nikki had told LaToya about her relationship, but kept a lot of the details to herself. She did seem disappointed that Theodore, who she called Teddy, seemed to be less interested in a serious relationship and more into playing the field and hooking up with other women as much as possible. After about three months, Nikki had had enough of his behavior. She told LaToya she was making the 90-minute drive to Columbia to get some things from Manning’s home and tell him she was ending their relationship. She had given him some of her jewelry that he was supposed to have repaired and she wanted it back. LaToya didn’t hear back from Nikki after that.

On May 6, Nikki had called a friend and said she was in Columbia and had run out of gas. Her friend thought this was unusual, because it wasn’t like Nikki, but she didn’t hear anything after that call, so she put it in the back of her mind.

At first, LaToya didn’t worry about not hearing from her sister. She thought maybe Nikki had gone on a trip, as she had done that before because she worked for an airline and could get last-minute tickets at good deals. But then Nikki’s boss called LaToya and told her Nikki hadn’t been into work for almost a week. This was a game changer.

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LaToya, who lived outside of Raleigh, grew concerned and reported Nikki missing at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department on May 11.

Working jointly, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and Investigators with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department immediately suspected foul play. They knew Nikki had left Charlotte and likely had not made it back. They worried something had happened to Nikki during her travels to Columbia.

Investigators knew the first place they needed to start was Theodore Manning, because Nikki had told her sister that’s who she planned to visit. They made a beeline to question him. At first, he tried to downplay his relationship, saying they were “friends with benefits” and nothing else. They took his statement but quietly kept digging.

Their suspicions were heightened when they got a notification that Nikki’s ATM card had been used in South Carolina on May 6. After obtaining video surveillance, they could see a black male using the card seven different times, eventually removing $588 from Nikki’s accounts. During this surveillance they could see him getting into the passenger side of a gold Chevrolet Lumina that was not Nikki’s, and this concerned police even further. They were pretty convinced the man in the video was Manning.

Investigators obtained a search warrant for Manning’s home and discovered receipts for cleaning supplies, including bleach, that had been purchased on May 7. He said the cleaning supplies were for another woman he knew, 27-year-old Kendra Goodman. When investigators talked to her, they noticed she drove a gold Chevrolet Lumina, the exact same car that was in the surveillance photo of the man using Nikki’s ATM card. She also tried to tell them that the cleaning supplies were for her, and she knew nothing about Nikki McPhatter. She also shared that she had a casual relationship with Manning, meaning, she was another one of the women he called “a friend with benefits.”

Investigators weren’t convinced. They pressed on, asking Goodman to take a polygraph test, which she agreed to do without a lawyer. The test showed signs of deception, and when she was pressed further, she began talking. This is what Goodman said happened.

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She said that on May 6, Manning told her to stop by his house. When she arrived, she found him working on a black Honda he said belonged to a friend. Then, he asked her to follow him while he delivered the car back to his friend and give him a ride back home.

They drove to a remote area on Peach Road in Fairfield County, and he asked her to wait in a nearby church parking lot while he continued on down an adjacent dirt road. A few minutes later, she heard a loud explosion. Manning ran back to her car smelling like gasoline. He claimed he didn’t have anything to do with the explosion she had heard and asked her to take him back to his house. Goodman said she did not know the car had belonged to Nikki, or that she had been missing for that long.

She agreed to cooperate with investigators and led them to the area where she thought Nikki’s car might be. They found a completely charred car, and the skeletal remains of a body in the trunk. The skull showed a clear bullet hold to the back of the head. Dental records later confirmed the remains belonged to Nikki. Goodman said she had no idea the body had been in the back of the car when she followed Manning to the site.

With this information, investigators went back to Manning and basically told him to stop lying, and that Goodman had led them to the car and Nikki’s remains.

Manning was arrested on May 30. Confronted with the evidence, he started talking. He tried to tell investigators, and later his defense attorney, that Nikki had come to visit him when she told her sister. He stressed to her that he was not looking for a serious relationship. After hearing that news, he said she grew enraged, grabbed one of his loaded handguns out of a nearby bag, and started waving it around. He managed to wrestle the gun from and in the process, it went off, killing her instantly.

Investigators with the Richland County Sheriff’s County Department, weren’t so sure about this scenario, as forensics determined Nikki had been shot at point blank range in the back of the head. It didn’t seem like injury that could have occurred during a struggle for the gun. But, they let him keep spinning his version of events.  

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He said Goodman had helped him clean up the crime scene in his home with the bleach, and knew Nikki’s body was in the trunk of the car when she followed him out to that dirt road in Fairfield County. He also claimed she was the one who told him they should try to get the money out of Nikki’s bank account with her ATM card.

Goodman denied pretty much every part of his story, except the part where she followed him when he left the Honda out in the country. She said the bleach they purchased at the grocery store was basic cleaning supplies for their respective homes. She said when she drove him to the ATM, she had no idea whose card he was using.

Nikki had no idea who the real Theodore Manning was. This story highlights the dangers of online dating, where people can spin fake personas for themselves and present themselves in different light. From the reports I’ve read, Nikki was probably investing more time and energy into their relationship than he was. She was, after all, the one driving back and forth from Charlotte to Columbia to see him. Meanwhile, he was sitting back, dating other women, and probably continuing to meet even more women online. He had a bit of a checkered past, as well, but that didn’t come out until his trial in 2010.

In August 2008, Theodore Manning was charged with criminal domestic violence first-degree. Columbia police said that 10 months earlier, he grabbed a 22-year-old woman around the neck and started choking her. She was a woman he had been living with.

A jury eventually found Theodore “Teddy” Manning guilty of only voluntary manslaughter. He received 30 years behind bars, a sentence which did not sit well with Nikki’s friends and family. Kendra Goodman was found guilty of being an accessory to murder after the fact, and only served a few years in prison in exchange for her testimony against Theodore.

Nikki McPhatter’s story originally appeared on Episode 7 of the “Missing in the Carolinas” podcast. You can listen to the full episode here.

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