Marnita Bynum loved to dance as a girl growing up in Galesburg, Illinois. She was a constant source of fun and laughter, according to relatives, and possessed such a bubbly personality that she was nicknamed “Champagne.”
That was years before she married Melvin Bynum, whom she met at St. Augustine College in North Carolina. Together they formed the Cry Out Loud Ministries in Sanford, NC, about 35 miles from Raleigh.
Melvin was the pastor of the church, a position with authority and power. She was the first lady, and in that role she spearheaded youth development and acted as a mentor. The couple worked side by side and tried to present an image of perfection — but after 20 years of marriage, cracks in their ideal lives became harder to conceal.
On August 2, 2014, things took a shocking and tragic turn. Marnita, 40, was found strangled to death in the trunk of her car. The vehicle had been abandoned on a rural road that was a county away from Sanford.
Maj. Jay Childers, of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, knew something was horribly amiss even as he approached the vehicle. He was hit by the smell of a decomposing body, he told “Killer Motive,” airing Saturdays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
The crime scene was dusted for fingerprints and DNA evidence. Investigators found no indication that Marnita had been sexually assaulted or signs of blunt force trauma. However, they did find divorce papers for Marnita and Melvin Bynum.
When authorities broke the news of his wife’s death to Melvin, 45, they said he “shed a few tears” and then was quickly back to being all business. They discovered the pastor hadn’t seen his wife in two days, and in their opinion, he didn’t seem particularly concerned about that.
Melvin, however, said that following a vacation, the couple was deciding whether to go ahead with the divorce or reconcile. They had kept their marital tumult to themselves to protect their public image.
He allowed investigators to search their home, where they found no signs of a struggle or evidence that a crime occurred there. Along with the couple’s sons, Melvin claimed that he had no idea who would want to kill Marnita.
Indeed, she was a woman with many friends. At her funeral on August 7, throngs of people, as many as 1,500, paid their respects to the Cry Out Loud first lady.
“She was beloved,” Gordon Anderson, former reporter for the Sanford Herald, told “Killer Motive.”
Police, meanwhile, grappled with the fact that strangulations make difficult cases because of the lack of physical evidence. Marnita’s DNA was found on the belt, but no one else’s was, according to Michael Parker, Richmond County District Attorney.
At the same time there were no surveillance cameras near the location where Marnita’s body was found. One witness came forward to say that he saw someone near the car but he couldn’t identify that person.
Working with the information that they had, officials eliminated Melvin’s sons and another young man who lived with the Bynums. However, the investigation hit a stonewall when they tried to talk to church congregants. It was as though a gag order had been imposed. A group within the ministry called “Armor Bearers” rose up to protect Melvin with a wall of silence.
Authorities regarded the more than two dozen members of the group as potential suspects and eliminated each one of them through a painstaking process. In the end, though, they found nothing to link the Armor Bearers to Marnita’s grisly murder.
What investigators did discover was that the Bynums’ carefully-cultivated personas were shams. He was having affairs with different women in the church. She was dating multiple men.
This revelation stirred up a potential motive for murder. Once again, officials worked their way through the women and men Melvin and Marnita were respectively involved with until the well of suspects was dry.
By this time, police still had no forensic or physical evidence, but their suspicions about Melvin had deepened. Through interviews they learned that Melvin monitored Marnita’s every move.
Detectives theorized that Marnita’s emerging independence was an affront to a control freak. But that was just a theory — and there’s a wide gap between what a prosecutor suspects, knows, and can prove, authorities told “Killer Motive.”
As it was beginning to look like the crime could go unsolved, investigators learned that Melvin, who said he didn’t own a cell phone, actually had one in one of his son’s names.
Cell phone records showed that Melvin had been on the phone with one of his girlfriends in a flurry of calls on the night of the murder. Reports showed that some of those calls pinged off a tower located near where Marnita’s car had been left.
This evidence was “a game-changer,” according to investigators. They believed that long-simmering tensions between the couple exploded in the early morning hours of July 30 and Melvin saw murder as the way he could keep the independent-minded Marnita from divorcing him.
Eighteen days after Marnita was killed, Melvin Bynum was arrested for first-degree murder. Asked by “Killer Motive” host Troy Roberts to her reaction to the arrest at the time, the victim’s friend said, “Why’d it take so long?”
After negotiating a plea deal, charges against Melvin were dropped to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to no more than seven years in prison. He was released in December 2009.
Marnita’s friends and family felt that justice wasn’t done, they told producers. At the time, officials likened the deal to enabling someone to “get away with murder.”
After determining that Melvin had traded preaching for haircutting, Roberts went to his barber shop and asked for a comment about Marnita’s murder.
“That’s over and done,” Melvin said, before closing the door.
To learn more about the case, watch “Killer Motive,” airing Saturdays at 6/5c on Oxygen, or stream episodes on Oxygen.com.