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Death by the river: At trial, a detective’s testimony changes everything

Mark Carver says he did what attorneys Brent Ratchford (left) and David Phillips (right) told him to do. “I just sat there and kept my mouth shut.... I left it all up to them.”
Mark Carver says he did what attorneys Brent Ratchford (left) and David Phillips (right) told him to do. “I just sat there and kept my mouth shut.... I left it all up to them.” dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Story so far: Mark Carver is charged in 2008 with first-degree murder in the death of Ira Yarmolenko. But he insists he didn’t kill her, and his attorney is confident Carver will go free.

Even after Mark Carver was charged, prosecutors deliberated about whether to try the case.

The evidence was so weak, they hesitated to commit.

Investigators found none of Carver’s or Neal Cassada’s fingerprints on Ira Yarmolenkos’s car, none of their DNA on the bindings around her neck or on scrapings taken from beneath her fingernails.

The case came down to DNA in cells swabbed from three places on her car.

Those traces of DNA convinced prosecutors and investigators that they had the killers. They decided it was worth the risk of embarrassment if they lost.

One of the biggest holes was motive: Why would the men kill Ira? But prosecutors didn’t have to prove why. They simply had to convince jurors that they did.

[Read the full special report, Death by the river: The fisherman’s defense]

The prosecutors came up with a theory, using the little evidence available, but mostly conjecture:

They speculated that Ira photographed the men doing something – prosecutors never said what – that they didn’t want anybody to know about. So they attacked and killed her.

One held her down, prosecutors theorized. The other got a bungee cord from her car, a ribbon off the tote on the back seat and the drawstring from the hoodie she was wearing and tied all three around her neck and strangled her.

Then, according to the theory, the men buckled her in the driver’s seat and pushed her car down the embankment through briars and brush to the edge of the Catawba River, intending to sink it.

But the car crashed into a stump.

So the men dragged Ira into the river to dispose of her body. That plan failed, too. Her body wouldn’t sink. Prosecutors speculated they dragged her back ashore and left her.

Then Cassada went home, and Carver went back to fishing.

A confession

While the men waited for trial, under house arrest, police continued to rule out other suspects. They sent DNA samples from 10 people to the state forensic lab for testing, including from an inmate in the Mecklenburg County jail who said he killed Ira.

Christopher Cooper confessed in a letter to WSOC-TV anchor Erica Bryant after the men’s arrest. Cooper said he and seven friends were smoking crack cocaine in Charlotte and ran out of drugs, so they killed Ira to get money.

When he mailed the letter, Cooper was in jail on a charge that sounded eerily similar – assault by strangulation, as well as rape and second-degree sex offense. He was later found not guilty.

Investigators concluded that Cooper was infatuated with Bryant and saw his confession as a way to talk with her. Some of his alleged conspirators were in jail at the time they supposedly killed Ira.

The lab found no evidence linking Cooper’s DNA or any of the other DNA samples to Ira’s death.

Once again, that left Carver and Cassada.

Dead before trial

Prosecutors decided to try the cases separately. They scheduled Cassada’s first with jury selection for Monday morning, Oct. 11, 2010, nearly two years after he was charged. He told his wife, Kaye, he was looking forward to having his name cleared.

Neal and Kaye Cassada were childhood sweethearts. They had five children and lived about 10 minutes from the river.

Like Carver, Cassada was disabled and could no longer work in the mills. He had a heart attack at 36 and suffered from heart disease. He gardened and fished, and had a knack for brick masonry. A “jack of all trades,” a neighbor called him.

On the Sunday before his trial, Cassada read a newspaper account about his case, then stood up from the kitchen table, intending to go shower. He was having trouble breathing. Within minutes, he was dead of another heart attack. He was 55.

His family is convinced that his heart, already weakened, failed due to the pressure of being charged with a crime he didn’t commit. They still feel sad and angry. But they didn’t want to talk publicly about the case – they, too, are afraid of saying anything that might hurt Carver’s chances.

At first, a weak case

After Cassada’s death, prosecutors offered Carver a deal: Plead guilty to second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of eight to 14 years in prison.

Carver refused. He insisted he did not kill Ira.

His trial was set for March 14, 2011. Carver’s court-appointed attorney, Brent Ratchford, got permission for Cassada’s attorney, David Phillips, to help.

“There is not an ounce of me that believes that Mark Carver killed her,” Ratchford said. “When you look at the evidence and talk to your client, most of the time you know where the truth lies.”

Through the first day and a half of testimony, Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid thought for sure Carver would go free.

“The state’s case, honestly, it was pretty weak,” said Kincaid, who is now retired. “I suspected they felt like they weren’t going to win.”

Then Detective Derek Terry took the stand.

Turning point

Terry, of the Mount Holly Police Department, testified in detail about the investigation. But it was an interrogation on the day of Carver’s arrest that got the judge’s attention.

Terry was in the room when SBI agent David Crow questioned Carver.

“Did he continue to deny hearing or seeing the victim?” prosecutor Stephanie Hamlin asked.

“Yes,” Terry replied.

“But during this interview didn’t Mr. Carver actually describe the victim to you?”

“Yes, he did.”

“How did he describe the victim to you?”

“He said that she was – I believe the words he used is ‘a little thing’ or ‘a little girl.’ He described her as being little and he said that she came up to him about right here.”

Terry held his hand up to his face.

“Because he actually stood up and showed you how far she came up to him?” Hamlin asked.

“Yes,” Terry replied.

“And he indicated actually on his own body where Ms. Yarmolenko came up to on him?”

“Yes.”

“And were those his words?”

“Then he followed it with ‘I guess. I’ve never seen her.’ 

Carver is 5 feet 4. Ira was 5 feet 3. Prosecutors maintained he knew how tall she was because he killed her.

On cross-examination, Ratchford asked: “And Mr. Carver also said – during that interview when he was instructed by Agent Crow to stand up and show how tall Ms. Yarmolenko was – that ‘I guess. I saw it on TV’?”

“I believe so, yes, sir.”

Kincaid believes Terry’s testimony was the turning point in the trial. “As soon as it happened, I thought: ‘They got you.’ 

Scientific evidence

The DNA evidence was the strongest part of the government’s case. But without Terry’s testimony, Judge Kincaid said he didn’t think the DNA would have been enough. “A lot of juries, they just don’t buy the scientific stuff.”

And, in this case, the DNA was collected using a new and less reliable technique. It was “touch DNA,” discovered in cells left behind when people came into contact with Ira’s car.

A forensic scientist found a mixture of different people’s DNA in three places and concluded that the predominant DNA profiles matched the men’s profiles – Carver’s above the rear door on the outside driver’s side of the car and Cassada’s in two places inside on the passenger’s side.

She said it was 126 million times more likely the DNA above the door came from Carver than from any other unrelated Caucasian person in North Carolina.

Prosecutors anticipated questions the defense might raise, addressing them first so they wouldn’t appear to be weaknesses in their case.

If the men strangled Ira, why wasn’t their DNA on the bindings? A forensic biologist testified that moving water – in other words, the Catawba River – can degrade DNA.

Could the DNA have been transferred from the men to another person and then onto Ira’s car? The biologist thought it unlikely.

If they strangled her at the top of the embankment, why was she grasping weeds at the bottom? The medical examiner said she could have regained consciousness briefly if the bindings shifted and tension loosened.

After the medical examiner stepped down from the witness stand, prosecutor Bill Stetzer stood up. He announced:

“The state rests.”

Point, counterpoint

The judge asked jurors to leave the courtroom. He turned to Carver’s lawyers. “Any motions from the defendants?”

“We are going to move to dismiss both charges,” Phillips replied.

It’s a standard motion, arguing that the state failed to show substantial evidence of the elements of a crime. Phillips and Ratchford were confident they would prevail.

The trial would be over.

“Even if you believe all the evidence that the state presented, you don’t know who killed Ms. Yarmolenko,” Phillips told the judge. “It is still a mystery.”

Stetzer countered: “The DNA puts this defendant in incredibly close proximity to a recently murdered girl. … He lies about it to the police in six different interviews.”

After a brief recess, Kincaid agreed to dismiss the conspiracy charge. But he let the murder charge stand.

The trial would go on.

Kincaid asked a deputy to bring the jurors back in. Then he turned to the defense attorneys: “Will there be evidence for the defendant?”

“No, sir, your Honor,” Ratchford replied. “The defense rests.”

The attorneys would not challenge the accuracy of the DNA. They would call no witnesses. They would put up no defense for Mark Carver.

The courtroom was shocked when defense attorneys called no witnesses. Experts say the DNA should have been challenged.

Leland: 704-358-5074

Coming Thursday: The defense Mark Carver never got

About the story

Elizabeth Leland interviewed investigators, lawyers, witnesses, medical experts and forensic scientists. She talked with members of Mark Carver’s, Neal Cassada’s and Ira Yarmolenko’s families – as well as some of Ira’s high school and college friends. Many people agreed to talk for background purposes only.

With photographer Todd Sumlin, Leland retraced Ira’s last steps by the Catawba River and interviewed Mark Carver at Mountain View Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine.

Additional information came from hundreds of pages of court documents, police reports, trial transcripts and forensic science articles as well as from photographs of the death scene and evidence presented at trial. Researcher Maria David conducted online criminal record checks.

The trial prosecutors declined to be interviewed. Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell answered questions a year ago but declined last month to talk about developments. SBI agent David Crow did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Detective Derek Terry talked about the case in 2014 but declined all future requests.

Series box

Sunday: ‘A body’s laying there’

Monday: Search for her killer

Tuesday: A break in the case

Today: ‘They got you’

Thursday: The defense Mark Carver never got

Friday: Cold-blooded killer? Or innocent man?

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