When Kelley Clayton, a 35-year-old mother of two, was found lying dead in her Caton, New York, home in September 2015, police were surprised to learn there was an eyewitness to her murder.
Clayton’s daughter Charlie, a precocious 7-year-old -- gifted at math and gymnastics -- told Steuben County Sheriff Jim Allard that she saw a man "hurting mommy" when he first spoke to her at a neighbor’s home shortly after her mother's body was discovered.
“She told me that, ‘a man was hurting mommy,’” Sheriff Jim Allard told "20/20." “He did this and he did that.’ So finally I said, ‘How do you know it's a he?’ And she said, ‘Because his eyes look just like daddy's.’ And that was a chilling moment for me.”
Allard felt he needed a child forensic investigator to assist with interviewing Charlie. A few hours later, the little girl was brought to a room at the Steuben County child advocacy center instead of a typical police interrogation room. This room was still small but had a soft seating and toys.
Police recorded video of their conversation with Charlie, which was played in open court.
"20/20" obtained the video of little Charlie describing to investigators, in a matter-of-fact manner, the details of what police say were her mother’s final moments.
During the interview, her mother's blood was still visible on her shirt. Kelley Clayton had been bludgeoned to death.
“In the middle of the night, this guy came and started hitting my mom with like this pipe thingy,” Charlie is heard telling Sheriff Allard and New York State Police Investigator Dianne Trickey.
“There was blood everywhere," she said. "On my door, on the floor. Not on the carpet though. And I thought she was dead when she was lying on the ground in the blood.”
Charlie labeled the intruder as "a robber" and recalled her mother screaming “Run, Charlie Run!” as, she said, the man chased Kelley Clayton downstairs.
“I saw the robber like hitting her until she was on the ground,” the child is heard telling investigators on the video. “She was sort of suffering. Then I hugged her leg.”
The 7-year-old told authorities then that the robber had on dark jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a mask.
Allard told “20/20” that Charlie said the mask was similar to one her father wore when he went hunting.
“He looked like my dad,” she said. When asked if the man was big or little, she also responded “The size of my dad.”
“Everything was 'just like daddy,'” Allard told "20/20." “Every question I asked her related back to daddy and then she looks at me. She goes, ‘But it couldn't have been daddy because then who would take care of us?’”
Allard believed Charlie’s statement was truthful and was struck at how emotionless she appeared to be at that time.
“I don’t know if she was still in shock but there were no tears on her part," he said.
"I thought, 'When is this girl going to be able to cry because she just witnessed something no child should ever have to see, the most important person in her life just be destroyed.' It just broke my heart.”
Before leaving the interview room, investigators said Charlie Clayton turned to them to ask them a question: “It’s about my mom,” she said. “Like where is she at?”
Allard and the child forensic investigator told Charlie they would find out the answer for her, believing that was not the appropriate time and place to reveal to the little girl that her mother had died.
In part because of her statement, Charlie’s father Thomas Clayton was arrested later that day, Sept. 29, 2015, for the murder of his wife. Thomas Clayton was the one who had called 911 after midnight that day when he said he had returned home from a poker game and found her body on the kitchen floor.
Charlie and her younger brother Cullen were sent to live with their aunt, Kim Bourgeois.
Investigators began piecing together what happened and trying to make sense of a seemingly senseless murder that rocked the small town in upstate New York. A police officer’s body camera had captured the savage brutality of the scene.
“This was an extremely brutal attack, a very gruesome situation,” Donald Lewis, an investigator for the Steuben County Sheriff’s Office who was on the scene that night, told "20/20" in a previous interview.
“[It was] some sort of attack in the upstairs area down the hallways,” he continued. “Down the stairs, there was a hole in the sheet rock at the bottom of the stairs and a blood trail that ended at Mrs. Clayton's body in the kitchen area.”
Lewis said Kelley Clayton had died of blunt force trauma after being beaten with a fiberglass maul handle. Investigators determined there had been no signs of forced entry or robbery.
While looking into Thomas Clayton’s alibi, police learned that a woman at the poker game said he asked to borrow her cellphone to make a call just 90 minutes before he got home to find his wife’s body. Investigators’ suspicion quickly turned toward Kelley's husband.
But a subsequent police investigation revealed a twist in the case -- Thomas Clayton hadn't killed his wife. He had hired a man named Michael Beard, who initially told police Clayton had promised him $10,000 to carry out the murder.
During an interview with police, Michael Beard, who had recently been fired at the same company where Thomas Clayton worked, confessed to investigators that his former boss had asked him to kill Kelley and burn the house down so Clayton could collect the insurance money. Beard never ended up setting the house on fire.
“I think he got scared and ran away,” said New York State Investigator Jim Vaughn who took Beard's confession. It was an extremely violent confrontation. I don't think he was expecting that."
The carnage could have been worse: the Clayton children were home that night and could have died in a fire.
Nevertheless, both Thomas Clayton and Michael Beard were convicted of first and second degree murder and are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in different New York State prisons.
“He’s a cold-blooded killer," said Vaughn of Clayton.
“If his plan had come to fruition, he would be done with his wife and his children,” Kelley's sister, Kim Bourgeois, told "20/20."
“He would've collected my sister's million dollar life insurance policy," she said. "Survivor benefits from the children. Homeowners insurance. He would've truly benefited financially from the death of all of them.”
Thomas Clayton has appealed his case, claiming that prosecutors did not prove that he was guilty of his wife’s murder. In a statement to ABC News, his family said, “Our support for Thomas is unwavering. Our love for Kelley, Charlie, Cullen and Thomas is unending. To know Thomas would be to know that he would never kill another human being nor would he send another person in to his home to kill another human being, most of all his wife, the mother of his children."
"To know Thomas would be to know that he would never put his children in the horrific situation they were put in that night, and the days since," the statement continued. "All we can do now is hope, believe and pray that the justice system will right this incredible wrong.”
Beard, too, is planning to appeal his case. He says that Charlie’s description of the killer having “eyes like daddy” clears him because he is a 6-foot-1, 200-pound African-American man who looks nothing like Thomas Clayton.
But police say that in addition to Charlie’s description of what happened that night her mother was killed, "the robber's" clothing she described matches exactly with Beard's bloody clothes that police later recovered. Beard also led police to the murder weapon and keys to the Clayton home, which had been tossed into the woods.
The Clayton children have been very resilient after their mother's death and are doing well but are still scarred by the situation, according to Bourgeois. Charlie is now 10 years old and her brother Cullen is now 6.
“Charlie still does not speak of it," she said. "She rarely talks about her mom. It’s too painful,” she said. “Cullen still cries out at night ‘I miss my mommy. I want my mommy.’”
The family is also very thankful for the support from the community -- which has raised money for Charlie and Cullen.
Purple ribbons, the symbol for domestic violence, now dot the nearby towns of Elmira and Corning, New York. “The kids will see purple ribbons, and they’ll say ‘Oh, purple for Mama, purple for Mama.’ Everywhere we go, ‘Look, that’s for Mama.’”
The children have no contact with their father.
In a letter to the court, Charlie wrote, “I feel like dad is a coward because he asked Michael Beard to kill my mom.”