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This true Charlotte crime story rivals ‘Serial’ and ‘Making a Murderer’

Mark Carver, 47, is a plain-spoken Gaston County man. He doesn’t have much formal education and is a former millworker disabled with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Ira Yarmolenko was a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student who had just finished up her sophomore year. She was planning to transfer to UNC Chapel Hill.

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On May 5, 2008, Yarmolenko was found dead near the bank of the Catawba River. In 2011, Carver, who was fishing nearby, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

To this day, he claims he didn’t see Yarmolenko the day she died and didn’t kill her. Now the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence is looking into the case.

Sound familiar? Fans of season 1 of the “Serial” podcast and of the Netflix series “Making A Murderer” may see many similarities in the six-part Charlotte Observer series “Death by the river,” written earlier this year by Elizabeth Leland.

Leland joined The Good News Is … podcast this week to talk about the series and the story behind the story.

Leland, who has won numerous awards for her writing, talked about the months of reporting that went into this story, and the moment she knew that she was onto something.

“I called one of Carver’s trial attorneys, and I had been covering legal issues on and off for 40 years and something happened in that interview that’s never happened before,” Leland said. “He strongly believes that Carver’s innocent, so at the end I said, do you feel responsible for him being in prison? And he choked up and was fighting back tears and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe there’s something to this.'”

Leland put herself into the story. She explains how she went down to the bank of the river, how she wandered down gravel roads in rural Gaston County to try to talk to members of Carver’s family, and what it was like to sit across from Carver at Mountain View Correctional Institution.

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“I’m surprised by his appearance,” she writes. “He will be 48 in June. But, after five years in prison, he looks much older.

“He walks with a cane now because of an aggravated childhood knee injury. His hair has receded, and he shaves what’s left close to his scalp. Large brown eyeglasses rest clumsily on his nose, and a scraggly beard covers his chin.”

At his trial, Carver’s attorneys presented no evidence and called no witnesses. In the series, Leland lays out the defense he never got.

So did Carver do it?

“I have no idea what happened. I hope that we can find the answer one day,” Leland said. “I’m not saying Mark Carver’s innocent or guilty, I’m saying we believe there are a lot of holes in his trial, we believe … people have raised many legitimate questions that need to be looked at and, if indeed he did not kill her, then it’s very important that we find out what happened.”

In addition to listening to the podcast, read the full “Death by the river” series here. It isn’t long and it will suck you in.

The Good News Is — presented by The Charlotte Observer and powered by OrthoCarolina — is a weekly podcast with a similar mission to what we do here at C5: To get you CharlotteSmart, fast with fun, interesting and useful news about the city. It’s hosted by Corey Inscoe and Sarah Crosland.

As always, you can find our episodes on SoundcloudiTunes and now Stitcher. You can follow us on Twitter @TheGoodNewsCLT, on Instagram @TheGoodNewsCLT, on Facebook and you can shoot us an email to thegoodnewsisclt@gmail.com.

Photos: Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer. Charlotte Observer file

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