Crime & Courts

12 reader questions in response to Observer series ‘Death by the river: The fisherman’s defense’

Prison interview with Mark Carver

Mark Carver speaks out for the first time from Mountain View Correctional Institution where he is serving a life sentence without parole in the death of Ira Yarmolenko.
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Mark Carver speaks out for the first time from Mountain View Correctional Institution where he is serving a life sentence without parole in the death of Ira Yarmolenko.

In response to the Observer’s six-part series, “Death by the river: The fisherman’s defense,” readers wrote in with follow-up questions and a few with tips about what might have happened the day in 2008 when Ira Yarmolenko died near the Catawba River.

The series focused on Mark Carver, who was fishing nearby and was convicted of first-degree murder. He is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole. The nonprofit N.C. Center on Actual Innocence believes Carver is innocent and is trying to prove it.

Here are some of your questions with answers:

Q. Was there unexplained DNA on Ira Yarmolenko’s body or on the bindings around her neck?

A. Yes. There were additional alleles (variant forms of genes) that could not be accounted for on the blue ribbon and bungee cord around her neck.

The ribbon came off a flowered tote on the back seat of her car. There was a mixture of different people’s DNA on it but the predominant DNA profile matched Ira’s profile. The DNA profiles of Carver and Cassada were excluded as contributors.

On the bungee cord, Ira’s DNA could not be excluded as a contributor to the mixture. But the DNA profiles of Carver and his cousin Neal Cassada were excluded.

Only Ira’s DNA was found on the drawstring from her hoodie.

Q. Were the men’s fingerprints on the camera?

A. No. A forensic scientist also testified that she found no DNA profile at all on the camera, which investigators discovered in the trunk of Ira’s car.

Q. Were the men’s fingerprints found anywhere on the car?

A. No. Of 13 prints lifted off the car, none matched Carver’s or Cassada’s fingerprints. Only one fingerprint had “a slight value” but no comparison was made with the fingerprints of the victim or suspects.

Q. The men supposedly put her in the car and sent the car down the hill, but was any DNA found on the steering wheel or gear shift or any part of the car around the drivers side?

A. A forensic scientist found a mixture of different people’s DNA in a swabbing from above the rear door on the outside driver’s side. She concluded that the predominant DNA profile matched Carver’s profile.

That was the only match she found with Carver’s DNA.

Q. Was there any indication that anyone else could have been in the car?

A. Investigators wondered that at first, too. A surveillance camera from the Stowe Family YMCA in Mount Holly showed Ira’s car driving past at 11:09 a.m. on the day she died. Investigators took photos to NASA in Florida to see if they could be enhanced but the quality was too poor.

Q. There was no motive in this case, nothing stolen from this girl, no evidence of sexual assault, so how on earth did they find this man guilty of murder?

A. Jurors said two parts of the prosecution’s case convinced them:

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

▪ A detective’s testimony. Derek Terry of the Mount Holly Police Department testified that Carver described Ira as “a little thing,” and stood up and demonstrated how tall she was with a gesture of his hand.

[Read what the jury didn’t hear.]

Q. How could he have tied three cords around her neck and her probably fighting the whole time?

A. Prosecutors speculated that one of the men held Ira down while the other strangled her with the bindings.

Q. Is it possible that when Carver handed the officer his driver’s license and fishing license that the same officer went back to the crime scene and unintentionally carried Carver’s DNA back there?

A. The N.C. Center on Actual Innocence is investigating whether Carver’s DNA may have gotten on the car by secondary transfer.

Q. Could Ira Yarmolenko have killed herself?

A. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy ruled her death a homicide. A Kentucky pathologist, who is considered an expert in the field, said a person would have time – about 15 seconds – to tie three bindings before losing consciousness. But he said he never heard of such a case and thought it highly unlikely.

Ira’s brothers and several friends said they are sure she didn’t kill herself. But the possibility of suicide has been a persistent Internet thread for years in Carver’s case.

[Read more about the theory of suicide.]

Q. Will Mount Holly police re-open the investigation?

A. According to Chief Don Roper, the case “is designated as closed, cleared by arrest/conviction.”

“I am aware that this case has taken the attention of an organization interested in reviewing the facts associated with the homicide,” Roper said in an email. “As this was certainly a tragic loss, and there is understandably a large amount of emotion still involved, I fully understand why there would be an interest in re-examining the circumstances surrounding the case.

“As far as MHPD is concerned, this case has properly progressed through the investigative, and prosecution phase. The case has been the subject of judicial review during the appeal process as well. Barring any further direction from the state or judicial system, the case remains closed and is considered solved.”

Q. If I have a tip about Ira Yarmolenko’s death, should I contact police?

A. “Please let your readers know that they are always welcome to contact MHPD with any information, including information or tips about past crimes,” Roper said.

Q. Will there be a follow-up story?

The Observer will continue to investigate. If you have any information, call or email: 704-358-5074, eleland@charlotteobserver.com

Ira Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student, is strangled on the banks of the Catawba River. Mark Carver is convicted of her murder. Five years after the trial, questions about the case linger.

Charlotte Talks

Staff writer Elizabeth Leland and editor Gary Schwab will talk about the case Wednesday at 9 a.m. on Charlotte Talks on WFAE radio 90.7 FM.

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