Got A Tip?

Star Seeker

True Crime

Was The Mysterious Death Of A Young Mom Found Unresponsive In Her Bathtub An Accident Or Murder?

Was The Mysterious Death Of A Young Mom Found Unresponsive In Her Bathtub An Accident Or Murder?

In 2020, a woman passed away in the bathtub, but investigators still haven’t confirmed whether it was an accident or not.

The tragedy began on July 22, 2020, at 9:24 a.m. when dispatchers received a 911 call from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. John “Jay” Tolson, then 29, called to seek help for 38-year-old LeeAnn Hartleben, saying:

“My friend, she’s laying in the tub, she won’t wake up.”

Related: Did Idaho Suspect Post True Crime TikToks About The Murders?!

With his voice shaking, he went on:

“I think she fell last night, I’m not sure. There’s blood coming out of her nose, so I can’t get her to wake up.”

According to the man, LeeAnn “had been drinking. She fell in the kitchen.” He even told the dispatcher she was breathing loudly but he couldn’t “get her to wake up.” Paramedics rushed to LeeAnn’s cottage in the Outer Banks community where they found her unresponsive in the tub. She was a mother of two children, who are now 15 and 8. They were not present at the time of her death.

The avid gardener was airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital on the mainland in Norfolk, Virginia. According to her first cousin Trisha Cahoon, who spoke to People about the legal case on Thursday, she was placed on a ventilator in the ICU. She recalled:

“She was still breathing but she was brain dead.”

Since it was the midst of the pandemic, Trisha noted:

“The first thing that came to my mind was that she got COVID. And her mother was like, ‘No, [it’s because of] blunt force trauma.'”

Apparently, doctors had told the family Hartleben sustained blunt-force trauma wounds to her head that were inconsistent with the fall Jay had described in the 911 call — which is why there’s so much suspicion in the case. According to Cahoon, LeeAnn had bruises on her neck and arms, injuries the doctor claimed “did not come from a standing position.” She continued:

“The doctor said unless she was on a 20-foot building and fell, this is blunt force trauma to her head.”

LeeAnn officially passed away three days after she arrived at the hospital, on July 25, 2020. Her cause of death was ruled “complications of blunt force trauma to the head with hepatic cirrhosis with clinical hepatic failure contributing,” the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Norfolk, Virginia, confirmed in an emailed statement to People. The manner of death was ruled as “undetermined.”

The cause of death raised concerns among the family members, including Trisha who felt like “something’s really shady about this.” And she had several reasons for feeling this way…

In court docs obtained by People, the police department says they began investigating the case immediately and that Tolson was a person of interest. But Cahoon and her family disagree — saying the authorities were slow to investigate the death as a homicide. She declared:

“They were saying there was no crime, there was no crime committed. That she was drunk, fell, and hit her head, and there you go. And she succumbed to her injuries. And we were like, ‘There was a crime.’ We said, ‘Please come investigate. Please do something. There’s spots that look like blood.'”

When the police didn’t do anything, Trisha and her family took things into their own hands by hiring a private investigator — who found a ton of concerning evidence. In a video published to the #JusticeForLeeAnn YouTube channel, she captured blood stains that could be readily seen in the house (as well as some that were illuminated by a chemical agent on the doors and walls in several rooms and on the victims’ mattress). You can see all the evidence, including the 911 call, for yourself – but be warned, the video may be too graphic for some viewers:

Trisha reflected on the horrifying scene:

“It was like a massacre.”

Interestingly, she noted:

“The bathtub had no blood in it.”

A social media campaign to help the case get noticed by police (as they felt they were being ignored) was launched in the summer of 2020. By August 10, 2020, District Attorney Andrew Womble claimed his office was awaiting the autopsy results before deciding whether to file any charges, The Coastland Times reported.

Finally, on October 26, 2020, Jay was arrested in Bangor, Maine, after a Dare County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging him with second-degree murder in connection with Hartleben’s death, court records show. He pleaded not guilty and is still awaiting trial, which is set to begin on March 6. Whoa… Such a long ordeal for this family as they continue to await answers and potential justice for their loved one.

Related: Scariest True Crime Documentaries That Will Keep You Up At Night!

But why does Trisha think Jay had something to do with her cousin’s death? Let’s get into that. According to court reports, LeeAnn and Jay had been dating for about a month when she died. They met at a party in June 2020 and Jay told LeeAnn he’d been kicked out of his apartment and needed a place to stay, per Cahoon.

Since her children were away “and she felt sorry for him,” the mother allowed Jay to stay for a couple of nights, Trisha shared:

“Her worst flaw is that she was too much of a giver.”

Their friendship quickly turned romantic — and then sour as they hit a rough patch a few weeks later. Among many issues, “he had become possessive,” the insider detailed. When LeeAnn was done, she packed all his stuff in bags and left them on the porch, saying she was ending the relationship. Cahoon said:

“That angered him.”

It’s unclear how much time passed between this breakup and finding LeeAnn dead. But either way, it’s heartbreaking! On why she has been fighting so hard for her cousin over the last two years, Trisha said it was “because I love her. LeeAnn was like my sister and she would have done that for me,” concluding:

“LeeAnn was a good person. She didn’t deserve that at all.”

We hope the family finally gets some answers when the trial begins next month. Thoughts? Do you think this was an accident or murder?

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, help is available. Consider calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or text START to 88788, or go to

[Image via Twiford Funeral Home]

Related Posts

Feb 02, 2023 14:30pm PDT