If Mark Carver and Neal Cassada didn’t kill Ira Yarmolenko, there are only two other ways she could have died.
Someone else killed her. Or she killed herself.
Advocates for Carver have different opinions. Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, who now represents Carver, believes Ira’s death was a homicide. A killer could still be on the loose.
Brent Ratchford, lead attorney during the trial, agrees. “I don’t know what happened,” Ratchford said. “I don’t know who did it. But I know it wasn’t Mark. I know it wasn’t Neal.”
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However, Carver’s other trial attorney, David Phillips, believes it was suicide. So does Bill Lane, a private investigator hired to help the defense.
A pathologist’s opinion
I hope to speak with the medical examiner who performed Ira’s autopsy. He testified at trial that he didn’t think she could have tied all three bindings before passing out. I want to ask him whether he thinks it’s possible for someone to commit suicide with three bindings. He declines to be interviewed.
I turn instead to Dr. Greg Davis, a professor of pathology at the University of Kentucky who is a nationally recognized medical examiner. Davis says a person would have time – about 15 seconds – to tie three bindings before losing consciousness. But he says he never heard of such a case and thought it highly unlikely.
“If you ask me if it’s within the realm of human possibility that a woman who wanted to end her life could have put three cords around her neck, absolutely,” he says. “However, this would be one of the darnedest suicides I’ve ever seen. It stretches credulity.”
The possibility of suicide has been a persistent Internet thread in Carver’s case for years.
When Dateline NBC aired a show in July 2011 called “Mystery on the Catawba,” amateur sleuths became convinced Carver is innocent. A woman from Oklahoma who makes sewing patterns and a man in Texas who works in computers made it their mission to find “the real killer.”
Their research on “ligature strangulation” led to articles in forensic journals about “suicide by ligature strangulation.” They became convinced Ira killed herself.
A “Free Mark Carver” website now refers to “The Suicide Mistaken for Murder of Ira Yarmolenko.”
The family’s response
In February, I fly to Maryland to talk with Ira’s brother. Pavel Yarmolenko conducts clinical research into non-invasive cancer surgery at a pediatric hospital.
I ask what he remembers most about Ira. “She was someone who understood people really well,” he tells me. “She related to everyone.” She was the person, he says, whom friends called when they needed advice or consoling.
He says he has read most of the Internet postings about his sister and says they’re “not grounded in reality.”
“Do you know of any reason why she might have killed herself?” I ask.
“Suicide? No. Absolutely no,” he says. “There was no reason, nothing of the sort.”
“Had she ever tried to kill herself before?”
“No other attempts, anything like that.”
And then, speaking to her state of mind at the time of her death, he adds: “She was not sure how she felt about leaving Charlotte. But she was very, very excited about coming to Chapel Hill.”