Accident or Murder? The Mysterious Death of a Young Mom Found Unresponsive in Her Bathtub

LeeAnn Hartleben's ex-boyfriend, John "Jay" Tolson, said she fell in the kitchen the night before and that he found her unconscious in the tub. Now he's accused of murder

LeeAnn Fletcher Hartleben
Photo: Facebook

The 911 call at 9:24 a.m. from Kitty Hawk, N.C. was chilling.

"My friend, she's laying in the tub, she won't wake up," John "Jay" Tolson, then 29, told the 911 dispatcher on the morning of July 22, 2020.

"I think she fell last night, I'm not sure," he said, his voice shaking. "There's blood coming out of her nose, so I can't get her to wake up."

He claimed that the woman in the tub, 38-year-old LeeAnn Hartleben, "had been drinking. She fell in the kitchen."

Telling the dispatcher she was breathing loudly, he said, "I can't get her to wake up."

Paramedics rushed to Hartleben's cozy cottage in the Outer Banks community where Hartleben, an avid gardener and baker, had grown up. There, they found Hartleben unresponsive in the tub.

The mother of two, whose children, now 15 and 8, were away, was airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital on the mainland in Norfolk, Va.

"She was still breathing but she was brain dead," says her first cousin, Trisha Cahoon, who learned that Hartleben was in the ICU on a ventilator in the hospital.

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

Doctors told the family that Hartleben had sustained blunt-force trauma head wounds that were inconsistent with the fall Tolson described in the 911 call, she says.

Hartleben also had bruises on her neck and arms, Cahoon says.

Cahoon says she was taken aback when she learned the doctor said the injuries Hartleben sustained "did not come from a standing position," she says. "The doctor said unless she was on a 20-foot building and fell, this is blunt force trauma to her head."

Hartleben died on July 25, 2020, three days after she arrived at the hospital.

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Cahoon says she immediately knew something didn't seem right about her cousin's death. "I was like, something's really shady about this," says Cahoon.

Her concerns grew when she learned Hartleben's cause of death was ruled as "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 statement said.

A Family's Quest for Justice

In court documents obtained by PEOPLE, police say they began investigating the case immediately. They also said publicly that they were investigating the case and that Tolson was a person of interest.

But Cahoon and her family argued that police were slow to investigate Hartleben's death as a homicide.

"They were saying there was no crime, there was no crime committed," says Cahoon. "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.'"

Wanting answers, Cahoon and her family hired a private investigator, who went to Hartleben's house with Cahoon. There, they videotaped blood stains they could readily see and those that were illuminated with a chemical agent on the doors and walls in several rooms and on Hartleben's mattress.

"It was like a massacre," says Cahoon, who posted their findings in a YouTube video on the #JUSTICEforLeeAnn YouTube channel.

LeeAnn Fletcher Rollout
LeeAnn Hartleben's house. Trisha Cahoon

But, she adds, "The bathtub had no blood in it."

Saying they felt they were being ignored by law enforcement, Cahoon and her family and others went on social media to put pressure on authorities.

In response, on Aug. 10, 2020, District Attorney Andrew Womble issued a statement saying his office was awaiting the autopsy report before deciding whether to file charges, The Coastland Times reports.

Still pushing for answers from law enforcement, Cahoon told the Island Free Press in an Aug. 26, 2020 article that she and her family had started the #JUSTICEforleeann campaign and marched to the Kitty Hawk Police station.

During a subsequent city council meeting, speakers criticized the police chief and the district attorney for their handling of Hartleben's case, The Coastland Times reported.

Then, on Oct. 26, 2020, Tolson 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 awaiting trial, which is scheduled to begin March 6.

His attorney did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

The police chief and the district attorney did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.

'Too Much of a Giver'

Hartleben and Tolson had been dating for about a month when she died, according to court documents.

They met at a party in June of 2020, says Cahoon. He told her he had recently been kicked out of the apartment where he'd been living and needed a place to stay.

Her children were away "and she felt sorry for him," says Cahoon, so Hartleben said he could stay for a couple nights.

"Her worst flaw is that she was too much of a giver," she says.

Their friendship soon turned romantic. Tolson had been living with Hartleben for a few weeks when they hit a rough patch in their relationship, according to Cahoon.

"He had become possessive," among other issues, Cahoon alleges. In response, Hartleben put all of his belongings in bags and left them on the porch and said she was ending the relationship, according to Cahoon.

"That angered him," Cahoon says.

Cahoon says she has been fighting so hard for her cousin, whom she considered a close friend, "because I love her. LeeAnn was like my sister and she would have done that for me."

Saying she hopes justice is served, Cahoon adds, "LeeAnn was a good person. She didn't deserve that at all."

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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