Death by the River

Death by the river: Homicide ruling sends police in search of a killer

The fisherman’s defense: revisiting the Yarmolenko case

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.
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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.

Story so far: Ira Yarmolenko was strangled beside the Catawba River in Gaston County in 2008 while Mark Carver fished nearby. He said he never saw her.

At the county courthouse in Gastonia, I expect to find a huge file in the case of North Carolina v. Mark Bradley Carver. A clerk hands me a manila folder that is at most an inch thick, with routine legal motions and little else of interest.

Like the file, I soon discover, the evidence against Carver was slim.

At first, investigators didn’t suspect Carver or his cousin Neal Cassada. In fact, some first responders didn’t think Ira Yarmolenko was murdered. They thought she killed herself.

Todd Cloyd, who lives nearby on the Catawba River, told me that’s what everybody was talking about when he kayaked down to see. Ira’s brother also heard “a little bit of conversation” about suicide from investigators.

But the person whose opinion mattered – the medical examiner – ruled her death a homicide.

[Read Chapter 1, Death by the river: The fisherman’s defense]

[Read the full special report: Death by the river]

Dr. Chris Nguyen did not go to the river to see for himself. Visiting the death scene is considered best practice among medical examiners nationwide, but North Carolina doesn’t require examiners to go and most don’t.

Nguyen (pronounced Win) later looked over photographs of the scene and said they confirmed his findings: Someone killed Ira.

He performed the autopsy in the morgue at Gaston Memorial Hospital the day after she died. Several police officers watched. He told them the bindings around Ira’s neck would have caused her to lose consciousness within seconds. He didn’t think she could have tied all three before passing out.

“The cause of death for this unfortunate 20-year-old white female, Irina Yarmolenko, was asphyxia,” the official autopsy report said.

Suddenly there was a sense of urgency to the police investigation. A killer was on the loose.

Retracing Ira’s footsteps

Detectives had little to go on.

They turned to UNC Charlotte, where Ira had been finishing up the semester. They wondered whether she was abducted near campus and driven to the river.

Why else would she go to such a remote spot? How would she have known to go there?

They interviewed her roommates, friends, ex-boyfriends, co-workers.

Two weeks after she died, her brother told a reporter that police thought someone was with Ira when she drove to Mount Holly. But they never found evidence to support that theory.

They pieced together a timeline of where Ira went that morning with help from surveillance videos. She stopped at the credit union on University City Boulevard in Charlotte at 10:18 a.m., then drove to Goodwill a couple of miles up the road, where she donated large burlap coffee bags full of belongings at 10:33.

She already had given gifts to friends she was getting ready to say goodbye to – a roommate told me she still has a shirt Ira gave her.

Next, she drove along University City Boulevard to Jackson’s Java, where she had worked as a barista. She dropped off a gift and left the coffeehouse about 10:50 a.m.

From there to the Catawba River is 19 miles. A surveillance camera at the Stowe Family YMCA in Mount Holly showed her car driving past 19 minutes later, at 11:09 a.m.

Police believe the car took an immediate right out of the parking lot down a dirt road through a construction site (now the Water’s Edge development) and toward the river.

A photographer from the UNC Charlotte newspaper told investigators that a week before she died Ira had said she wanted to photograph people kayaking and rafting at the Whitewater Center, which is located up the river but on the opposite side.

The edge of the Catawba was an area, her brother thought, where Ira would have loved to be – a beautiful, unspoiled stretch of water.

Pavel Yarmolenko wasn’t surprised his sister would go to such a remote spot. She was adventurous, he told me. She once hiked the Stampede Trail in Alaska with friends, searching for an abandoned bus made famous by Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild,” about a hiker whose body was found inside, starved to death.

“I don’t think where the roads go was a problem for her.”

Family issues a challenge

For seven months, through much of 2008, investigators worked the case but uncovered few clues. They found no evidence of robbery or sexual assault.

Pavel Yarmolenko hung fliers with Ira’s picture around Mount Holly. UNCC offered a $10,000 reward.

“It was just a constant search to find out who it was,” said Yarmolenko, then a Duke University graduate student. “In the beginning we were asking questions about why somebody would do it. But that question stopped making any sense. We just needed to find the bastards who did it.”

At the end of June 2008, he issued a public challenge to the presumed killer: “If you have anything human left in you, you owe us something. Here is the least of what we want: An apology. If you face up to justice, my family will actually be thankful to you for something. Consider that.”

Investigators chased down leads on at least eight other people who were in the area around the time Ira died. They rejected them all as suspects.

That left Carver and Cassada.

Solving the puzzle

Police had no evidence the fishermen killed Ira, but the fact that they were so close and claimed not to have heard anything aroused their suspicion.

Carver and Cassada did everything investigators asked. They answered the same questions over and over. They allowed their cheeks to be swabbed for DNA. They agreed to sit for polygraphs. Cassada actually took a polygraph in October 2008 and passed. Carver wanted to take a polygraph, too, but was never given one.

Gradually, a few details about Ira’s death became public. David Belk, then police chief in Mount Holly, announced that an analysis of her car’s computer system indicated someone was sitting in the driver’s seat when it plunged down the embankment. The car was traveling about 15 mph, he said, when it hit the stump.

Belk compared solving the case to piecing together a puzzle.

“We’re doing quite well with the puzzle’s outline,” he said. “The middle design is the challenge.”

It wasn’t until December 2008 that investigators finally got the break they needed.

Mark Carver and Neal Cassada insist they didn't kill Ira Yarmolenko, but a forensic scientist says the men touched her car.

Leland: 704-358-5074

Coming Tuesday: A break in the case

Series Box

Sunday: ‘A body’s laying there’

Today: 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 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 prosecutors who tried the case declined to be interviewed. Gaston County District Atttorney Locke Bell answered questions a year ago but declined last month to talk about developments.

Have a tip?

If you have any information about Ira Yarmolenko's death, email eleland@charlotteobserver.com

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