“There’s a car that’s run off an embankment and there’s a body … laying there!” – a terrified caller to 911.
The day in May when Ira Yarmolenko died on the bank of the Catawba River, an early-morning chill turned sunny and warm, and Dennis Lovelace and his girlfriend set off on Jet Skis with a picnic lunch.
They roared out from Dale’s Boat Landing about 12:40 p.m., heading north along the river, beneath the Wilkinson Boulevard bridge, then the Interstate 85 bridge.
Around a bend on a lonely stretch of shore, Lovelace spotted something metallic blue and out of place amid the wild tangle of briars and underbrush: a car, crashed into a stump at the bottom of a steep embankment, its front tires inches from the river, the doors on the driver’s side flung open.
He eased close to shore for a better look.
In the weeds lay the body of a young woman.
Eight years have passed since that horrific discovery, but the mystery of Ira Yarmolenko’s death persists.
She was 20, a sophomore at UNC Charlotte, finishing up the semester and planning to transfer to UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall. On the morning of her death, Monday, May 5, 2008, she dropped off a carload of belongings at Goodwill and said her goodbyes at a coffee shop where she worked near the university.
Why she ended up dead two hours later, on a remote riverbank west of Charlotte, no one has ever been able to say for sure.
A Gaston County man, who was fishing nearby, was convicted in 2011 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But Mark Carver, now 47, insists he didn’t kill Ira Yarmolenko.
He is a plain-spoken man, without much formal education, a former millworker disabled with carpal tunnel syndrome. He has never wavered in his assertion that he didn’t see Ira or her car and didn’t know anything was wrong. He has offered repeatedly to take a polygraph.
He said it again last month during an interview at Mountain View Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine: “Every day when I get up, I think about what I’m doing here, how I got here, because I’m no murderer.”
Innocence group takes case
I became intrigued with the case a year and a half ago when I discovered a video online of Carver, stunned and confused after his arrest. Then I learned that the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence is looking at the DNA evidence used to convict him.
Because of the center’s work and that of other advocates, 41 prisoners in North Carolina have been exonerated, most recently Timothy Bridges in Charlotte, who spent more than 25 years in prison for the rape of an 83-year-old woman.
The center doesn’t take on many claims. It hears from about 600 inmates each year and investigates 2 percent of the cases. Carver’s case made the cut. The center hired forensic scientists to analyze the DNA evidence that helped convict him and is waiting on the final report.
What makes Carver’s conviction especially troubling is that his trial attorneys never presented a case in his defense. I wondered if there might be evidence in his favor. I’ve been surprised by how much I found.
Could North Carolina have locked up another man for a crime he didn’t commit?
Dancing and smiling
The first place I go for clues is to a sealed cardboard box in the Gaston County courthouse. It is an old Husky copy paper box, crammed full of evidence from Carver’s trial: Ira’s camera, a ribbon from her flowered tote, the drawstring from her hoodie …
It feels personal. Spread out in front of me in a random clutter are some of the last things she ever touched.
I never knew Ira. I have only seen glimpses of her in photographs and videos on the Internet: Dancing. Smiling. Playing the piano. Reciting poetry. She wore her brown hair short, often pulled back with a headband, other times braided in playful ponytails.
In one endearing video, she hikes across Sunrise Glacier in Alaska until she’s close enough to kiss the camera lens.
She was born Irina Sergeyevna Yarmolenko, but friends knew her as Ira (prounced EE-ra). Her family immigrated to North Carolina in 1996 as refugees from Ukraine. She was 8.
She celebrated her 20th birthday three days before she died.
Body by the river
A court clerk hands me disposable gloves to wear as I sift through the evidence from Mark Carver’s criminal case. I start where investigators started, with photographs taken on the day Ira’s body was found.
I am not prepared for what they saw.
Around her neck are three bindings. A black drawstring from her hoodie is knotted in several places, wrapped twice around and tied so tightly it blisters and indents her skin.
A bungee cord is stretched around twice and hooked from behind.
A blue ribbon ripped from a flowered tote on the back seat of her car is wrapped around once and tied.
She is lying on her back, dressed in a black UNC Pembroke hoodie and a black skirt. Her brown athletic shoes are wedged nearly out of sight beneath the brambles. A detective testified that her clothes and hair were wet, but I can’t tell that from the photographs.
Stuck to her left arm are bits of torn brown leaves and a green sliver of grass.
A braided friendship bracelet is tied around her wrist. Around her thumb and middle finger, silver rings.
Her hand is balled into a fist, still grasping a clump of weeds, her thumb curled around a tiny stem.
Ira’s last dying gesture. What does it mean?
A few feet away, the doors on the driver’s side of her Saturn sedan are wide open. The grass around the front door is trampled flat, as if something happened there. The hood of the car is crumpled, wedged against a stump. The front tires rest in water at the river’s edge.
Inside, a yellow rose sprouts from the dashboard. A red Little Trees air freshener hangs from the rearview mirror. On the back seat, on top of the flowered tote, are two bed pillows.
It was exam week, Ira’s last week at UNCC. Her brother and several friends told me she was excited about moving to Chapel Hill. She was sad, though, to be leaving Charlotte and her community here.
In court, investigators referred to her as “the body.” But after talking with her friends and family, I also see a young, idealistic college student.
“She wanted to make a difference in the world and that’s how she lived,” her roommate told me. Other friends remembered her as “the best human being I’ve ever met … the most beautiful soul in the universe … an advocate for social justice.”
After poring over 35 photographs, I leave the courthouse several hours later with more questions than I arrived with.
Why would anyone kill Ira?
Frantic 911 calls
A few days later, I hike through woods behind the Stowe Family YMCA in Mount Holly and scramble a couple of hundred feet down a steep embankment overgrown with weeds and briars.
At the bottom stands a wooden cross, fashioned from two-by-fours, painted white and decorated with faded silk flowers.
The cross marks the spot where Ira died.
Lovelace doesn’t like to talk about the day they found her body. His girlfriend, Brenda Pierce, told me they are haunted by what they saw.
Her eyes were wide open, Pierce recalled, and sunlight danced across her face.
“The weeds were high so I had to get close to see her,” Lovelace told police.
He asked Pierce to ride back to the boat landing and call 911. He rode upriver to a construction site and asked workers there to call, then returned to where Ira lay. A boater approached, and Lovelace asked him to call, too.
“I did not see anyone in the immediate area around the body or the car,” Lovelace said.
About 100 yards downriver, on a sandy bank separated by trees and brush, a man was fishing.
A new fishing hole
Mark Carver had only recently discovered that stretch of the river.
The weekend before, he fished there with his cousin Neal Cassada and other family members. Carver said he returned Monday morning because he was able to drive right down to the shore. He didn’t have to haul his boat in and out of the water, which was difficult because his hands are so weak.
He said Cassada met him there that morning to pick up a salt block Carver bought at a feed store. Cassada, who pronounced his last name like Hopalong Cassidy, also was charged with murder in Ira’s death.
I follow a worn path through the woods to the fishing spot and find a blue plastic chair, a fire pit ringed with stones, a small charcoal grill and a large metal pot. It appears fishermen still gather.
If not for the roar of nearby I-85, it would be a peaceful, secluded nook. There are deer prints in the sand, beaver teeth marks on a fallen tree.
Even in winter, when the branches are leafless, you can’t see over to where Ira died.
Detectives testified during Carver’s trial that one of them stood at the fishing spot and one stood on the top of the hill above where her body was found and they could hear each other talking “in a normal voice.”
That proved, police said, that Carver and Cassada had to have known Ira was there.
A photographer and I try to replicate what the detectives did. But we can’t hear each other when we talk in normal voices. We are standing about 100 yards apart, yet have no idea what the other is saying or doing.
Finally, I yell. “Can you hear me?”
Photographer Todd Sumlin’s shouted reply sounds like a whisper.
Did the fishermen do it?
Carver told investigators he and Cassada arrived at the river about 11:30 that morning, about an hour and a half before the Jet Skiers found Ira’s body.
In multiple interrogations, both men insisted they never saw her or her car. Carver said he heard a tractor scraping dirt at a nearby construction site, but nothing else.
By the time police arrived, after 2 p.m., Cassada had gone home – to put out the salt block for his goats, he said. Police found Carver still at the river, still fishing.
He left about 2:30 to pick up his daughters from school. Later in the day, he drove back to the river, hoping to retrieve his fishing net. He talked again with an investigator.
If Mark Carver murdered Ira Yarmolenko, why did he keep fishing nearby? And why did he return?
Coming Monday: Search for her killer
Sunday: ‘A body’s laying there’
Monday: Search for her killer
Tuesday: A break in the case
Wednesday: ‘They got you’
Thursday: The defense Mark Carver never got
Friday: Cold-blooded killer? Or innocent man?
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 Institute 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 prosecutors who tried the case declined to be interviewed. Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell answered questions a year ago but declined last month to talk about developments.