Death by the River

Death by the river: A break in the case

A sheriff’s deputy leads Mark Carver’s cousin Neal Cassada into a Gaston County court for his first appearance. At far right is District Attorney Locke Bell who said about efforts to exonerate Carver: “These guys are guilty.”
A sheriff’s deputy leads Mark Carver’s cousin Neal Cassada into a Gaston County court for his first appearance. At far right is District Attorney Locke Bell who said about efforts to exonerate Carver: “These guys are guilty.” rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Story so far: For seven months after 20-year-old Ira Yarmolenko’s body was found by the Catawba River, police looked for a killer.

Over and over, Mark Carver and Neal Cassada insisted they never saw Ira Yarmolenko or her car. They told their families. They told police. Carver told his preacher.

But in early December 2008, a forensic scientist with the State Bureau of Investigation informed investigators that she found matches between the men’s DNA and DNA lifted from three places on Ira’s car.

All three samples from the car contained mixtures of different people’s DNA. In one spot, she said, the predominant DNA profile appeared to be Carver’s; in two spots, Cassada’s.

And so, on Dec. 11, 2008, police swore out arrest warrants. At 4:30 the next morning, they banged on the men’s front doors, rousing them from bed and taking them to jail.

The charges: first-degree murder and conspiracy.

Carver appeared befuddled that afternoon when he gave an interview from the jail to local reporters. He was dressed in a prisoner’s orange jumpsuit, his short black hair sticking up in places.

Asked why he was arrested, he said he didn’t know.

“I didn’t do it.”

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

Carver is not well-educated. He doesn’t know how to read or write well. During the 17-minute interview with the Gaston Gazette, he had trouble understanding some questions, but he answered every one.

“... What kind of evidence do the police say they have on you?” a reporter asked.

“They said that they had … my DNA and Neal’s DNA in the car. I know that’s a lie because Neal left, and they couldn’t have gotten no DNA because I wasn’t down there. I didn’t go around it. I didn’t go around the car. You know what I’m saying?”

“Did you submit a DNA sample to police?”

“Yeah.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“... to proven I was innocent.”

Asked whether Cassada might have killed Ira, Carver said, “I don’t think Neal would do something like that. He’s got four young’ uns himself.”

At the end of the video, he wiped away tears.

Cold-blooded killer?

I drive out to Carver’s old neighborhood in rural Gaston County, where members of his extended family live, hoping to learn more about the man the district attorney portrays as a cold-blooded killer.

Five miles from the Catawba River, a paved road turns to gravel and branches into two streets, one named Carver Drive after Mark Carver’s father, the other named Nolen Street for his mother’s side of the family.

Carver lived with his father in a modest home at the end of Carver Drive. The day I’m there, a Confederate flag waves in the breeze. Conch shells decorate the chain-link fence. Three discarded toilets sprout yellow and orange marigolds.

When I open the gate and walk toward the house, a dog charges, and I retreat. Carver’s father doesn’t come outside, and my subsequent requests for an interview go unanswered.

Other family members say they are afraid to talk with me. They don’t want to say or do anything to jeopardize Carver’s chances of getting out of prison. Their hopes hang on the work of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, which has hired forensic scientists to analyze the DNA used to convict him.

Finally, on Nolen Street, Michael Poindexter invites me in. He says Carver is his cousin, and other relatives live in the surrounding homes. “We’re all kin,” says Poindexter, who is in his mid-50s. “We was brought up farming, raising hogs.”

Carver spent most days “fishing or hunting or laying around making bait,” Poindexter says. “He would come down every day and stay with his uncle Ed and keep him company. That was his talking buddy.”

When Poindexter realized police suspected Carver, he suggested he hire a lawyer. He says Carver told him: “If I get a lawyer, they’re going to think I’m automatically guilty when I’m not.”

“He kept telling me, ‘I don’t know why they think we messed with that girl.’ 

A shared passion

“Simple” is the word people most often use to describe Carver.

“Simple in his routine, simple in his thought process, simple in his desires and wants,” defense attorney Brent Ratchford told me.

Carver struggled through life. He was placed in special education classes until he dropped out of school at 16 to work in a mill. At the time of his arrest, according to the district attorney’s office, he was under medication for schizophrenia.

He was 39 when Ira died in 2008. He has four children, two daughters from a brief marriage, and a son and a daughter from other relationships.

“He lived for his children and family,” sister-in-law Robin Carver said. “He didn’t really do much of anything else. Fishing and hunting and family, that was about it.”

In family photographs, Carver is often dressed in overalls or camouflage, chewing tobacco.

He quit his job at a mill in the 1980s, he said, because of the carpal tunnel syndrome in his hands. His attorneys told me that complications from surgery left Carver so disabled that he has almost no grip. They said he was under a doctor’s order not to lift anything over 5 pounds.

Cassada suffered from heart disease. The attorneys told me he couldn’t walk 50 feet without getting winded.

Their shared passion was fishing. It was how they spent most of their days.

When his daughters were young, Carver fashioned beds in the back of his minivan, and they camped by the river. But in all his many years of fishing, he had only recently discovered the spot behind the Stowe Family YMCA in Mount Holly.

A Facebook photograph shows him casting from there on the weekend before Ira died. Fishing with him were Neal Cassada, Cassada’s wife, Kaye, and other family members.

“We had so much fun here,” Kaye Cassada wrote on Facebook a couple of years ago. “Now when I look at this I feel sick. Dam (sic) them for what they done to our family.”

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.

A violent past?

It’s not unusual for family members to speak well of their own. So I remind Poindexter that Carver and Cassada were each arrested before on felony charges.

In 1995, Cassada was accused of assault by pointing a gun, assault and battery, and injury to personal property. The charges were dismissed.

In 2005, Carver faced a charge of injury to real property. The court file no longer exists. A source, who saw the police report, told me Carver confronted two people he thought were stealing his four-wheeler. He followed them and shot into a house. The charge was dismissed.

But the case that the district attorney said speaks most to Carver’s character happened in 2007, the year before Ira died. Carver was charged with shooting and wounding his son.

A father who would shoot his own son is capable of killing, District Attorney Locke Bell told me. Both Carver and Cassada, he said, had “a history of quick-temper violence.”

When I mention that to Poindexter, he shakes his head and sighs. “Mark’s not the brightest person in the world,” he says.

Father and son were wrestling, Poindexter says, and the gun went off.

The case file no longer exists. However, the original police report confirms Poindexter’s account. In an interview with police in his hospital room, Carver’s son said he and his dad often wrestled but never for long because of Carver’s carpal tunnel syndrome.

The day he was shot, the son said, they began to “poke and joke” and Carver grabbed a gun. “I got one like the Western’s got,” he boasted. The son said Carver was referring to a John Wayne movie.

The gun discharged.

“It was an accident,” his son said. The case was dismissed.

“Mark has never really been a bad young’un,” Poindexter tells me. “Just like anybody else, you come steal from me, I’m coming to see you. But murder? I can’t see it.”

Neither could his attorneys. They were confident they would win the case.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys prepare for the trial of Mark Carver.

Leland: 704-358-5074

Coming Wednesday: ‘They got you’

Series Box

Sunday: ‘A body’s laying there’

Monday: Search for her killer

Today: 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 Attorney 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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