The Charlotte Observer's Yarmolenko Case Report

The Charlotte Observer's Series on Mark Carver's Case

Sunday through Friday, April 3-8, 2016, The Charlotte Observer published a series of articles and videos about the Yarmolenko case titled Death by the River: The Fisherman's Defense by reporter Elizabeth Leland, editor Gary Schwab and photographer Todd Sumlin. This series is the most comprehensive look at the case by a major media outlet since Dateline NBC televised Mystery on the Catawba River on July 9, 2011. Due to length constraints, difficulty in accessing certain pieces of documentation while legal action is ongoing and other factors, both The Charlotte Observer and Dateline were unable to go into detail about some of the points mentioned in their reports. Our Dateline page and the following commentary on The Charlotte Observer's series are designed to expand upon the information available to those interested in the case. The author of this website is limited by lack of documentation, as well, and welcomes input from anyone who is knowledgeable about the investigation or the circumstances surrounding it.

Chapter 1: "A Body's Laying There"

Jetskiers

"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. . . . Lovelace spotted something metallic blue . . . He eased close to shore for a better look." - The article's wording indicates that the man who found Yarmolenko's body went immediately to the scene when he saw the car on the embankment. However, the lady who was with him testified during trial that they saw the car but passed it and went upriver before returning about ten to fifteen minutes after having started out from Dale's Boat Landing.

This may seem a minor detail, but rumors exist that Lovelace privately confessed to having seen Yarmolenko splashing around in the water during a previous pass by the area, information that could have been exculpatory to Carver had it been true and had Lovelace presented it at trial. Lovelace and Pierce knew that their DNA had never been tested against nearly two dozen unidentified swabs of DNA from the scene. If the rumors are true, they may have limited their testimony about having seen Yarmolenko alive to protect themselves. The author of this website would like to see them given immunity to offer any further possible testimony. Lovelace and Pierce have both denied the rumors when questioned by media.

Lovelace stated during trial, ". . . We actually passed the car and when we did I did like this (demonstrating) for her to turn around and let’s go back and that’s when we went back and I started to approaching the car . . ." Lovelace told news media this same story near the time of Yarmolenko's death, that he had gone straight to the car as soon as he saw it.

Later during trial, Pierce testified, "When we crossed underneath the I-85 bridge there was a blue car down an embankment, a weeded embankment, and we bypassed that and went on up the river to check the plugs in the back of the ski so that they wouldn’t sink if the plugs were not inside, turned around and came back down to the car that was down the embankment. . . . [Lawyer asks Pierce who saw the car first.] We probably both saw it at the same time. We use hand signals when we are skiing because it is loud. We pointed over towards the car and kept going . . . . [Emphasis ours. Lawyer asks Pierce how long she and Lovelace had been on the river when they returned to look closer at the car.] We had probably been on the river for maybe ten to fifteen minutes" (Pages 37, 49-50, Transcript - State v Carver, March 15, 2011). Read more about the inconsistencies in the Jet Skiers' stories on our timeline page.

Other Clarifications

  • The article states here and elsewhere that the fishermen were located about 100 yards downriver. There is no direct path between the two locations, so walking around by foot up the embankment and back down, the distance is about 100 yards, but as the the river flows, it is closer to 100 feet. It is true that you cannot hear voices between the two locations unless one is yelling.
  • "A detective testified that her clothes and hair were wet, but I can’t tell that from the photographs." - The author doesn't specify which photos she saw of all those taken from the time police arrived until the body was removed. The evidence of Yarmolenko's having been wet is important for several reasons including event sequencing in the death theories and because police and witness James Beatty observed Mark Carver's clothing and shoes to be dry at the same time Yarmolenko was wet. The detective referenced is William Derek Terry, who after testifying that he personally observed the body to be wet then pointed out areas of wetness visible in photographs shown to the jury, ". . . Her body was wet. Her clothing was wet. It appeared that her hair was wet, also. . . . This is a different angle of the same - the same photograph. It is just a different angle, taken from a different angle. As you can see, the wetness here still and her hair is wet here and these are the three items that were wrapped around her neck, just a little bit closer view. Also a closer view of the three items. Here you can see the wetness on the top of her shoulder here and from here down. . . ." (Pages 118, 128, Transcript - State v Carver, March 16, 2011).
  • "The grass around the front door is trampled flat, as if something happened there." - The author of this website has been told that several locals discussed after Yarmolenko's death was reported on a Monday that they had been to that spot at separate times the few days prior on the weekend. How the grass became flattened or on what day would be difficult to determine without more data including how popular that place was for accessing the river. Trees were thick along the riverbank, but that was one of the few open spots. A reasonable possibility is that Yarmolenko alone may have flattened the grass. After Yarmolenko's death, that access point became closed to the public with the posting of a "no trespassing" sign.
  • "On the back seat, on top of the flowered tote, are two bed pillows." - A back corner of the tote crosses underneath a corner of one of the raised pillow edges, which means the tote could have been shoved across the back seat. This is of interest for sequencing in the death theories and whether or not the pillows were moved after the car crashed. The surveillance video taken at Goodwill earlier in the day shows Yarmolenko offering her pillows to a worker for donation, but Goodwill doesn't accept pillows, so the worker refused them, and Yarmolenko returned them to the back seat of her car.A corner of the tote crossed underneath pillows in Yarmolenko's car.
  • “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.” - For a public interview, friends and family would naturally want to relate their fondest memories of Yarmolenko, which is great. When considering the case, multi-faceted testimony becomes of interest. A friend claimed by email to the author of this site that Yarmolenko tried to buy prescription Xanax from her while in Alaska the previous summer. The author of this website has received messages from several people who knew Yarmolenko well who have said she was "mopey" and "may have been very depressed" but "quickly learned to cover it up." Several independent sources have related to the author of this website that Yarmolenko attempted suicide more than once prior to her death and was hospitalized at least once for hurting herself. A key set of records that remains elusive are Yarmolenko's medical records documenting the previous suicide attempts and hospitalization for self-harm. These were supposedly obtained by the defense during pre-trial preparations for Neal Cassada but were not used as evidence in Carver's trial. It is interesting that several people who knew Yarmolenko have reported to this author the same things that several defense case workers told the Cassada and Carver family members prior to 2011, so this author assumes there must have been some way for them to have learned this.

Chapter 2: Search for a Killer

  • "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." - This is important in determining whether the death was a suicide or a homicide. Medical Examiner Dr. Chris Nguyen's claim that Yarmolenko couldn't have tied all the ligatures is inconsistent with publications documenting suicidal strangulation, but Dr. Nguyen actually allowed for the possibility later in his testimony, "After a victim loses consciousness from pressure from a ligature, for whatever reason the pressure or the tension is loosened somewhat and some blood flow is able to return and flow back into the brain. Yes, that is possible that the victim may attain some level of consciousness again." Dr. Nguyen's comments during trial also reveal that he was confused about the order of the ligatures. He thought the hoodie drawstring had been tied first which is disproved by scene photos showing the ribbon loosely tied underneath the top two ligatures. The fact that the ribbon was loosely tied first adds to the amount of time before blood flow would have been restricted by the final two ligatures. Read more questions about Dr. Nguyen's assessments on our research page.
  • "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." - News reports from early in the investigation quoted Yarmolenko's brother Pavel Yarmolenko saying he didn't think his sister even knew where Mount Holly was located. There are rumors indicating that Yarmolenko frequented the Mount Holly area, though, including one from a married couple who attended church with some of the Carver family members had seen Yarmolenko's car in front of them at a stop sign in Mount Holly with its "Coexist" bumper sticker on the back driver's side two weeks before her death. See our timeline page for more information on Yarmolenko's rumored movements in Mount Holly prior to her death.
  • ". . . She donated large burlap coffee bags full of belongings at 10:33." - Actually in addition to the bags full of items, Yarmolenko also donated a backpack and attempted to donate two pillows which Goodwill refused. She donated six armloads total, not including the pillows. The author of this website has viewed the Goodwill surveillance video from start to finish. The point is that it was a substantial donation for an apartment dweller, and finals week had only just begun. She was not scheduled to move back to Chapel Hill for several more days.
  • "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." - The fishermen said they had heard a scraping noise, but they weren't sure what it was and thought might be a road scraper. Interstate 85 noise intruded into the fisherman's hearing range, as The Charlotte Observer author noted in Chapter 1 of her series. At the time of Yarmolenko's death, there was a lot of construction and people at the top of the embankment, which leaves one to wonder why police weren't suspicious of the construction workers not claiming to have heard anything, either, but in fact they never interviewed any of the construction workers.
  • "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 did say this in an early media interview, but the expert who testified for trial put forth an alternate theory based on black box data he had analyzed. In Chapter 5 of The Charlotte Observer's series the reporter goes into detail as to why Belk was probably correct.

Chapter 3: A Break in the Case

  • The description in this article of Mark Carver's home he shared with his father and of relatives' homes nearby omits mention of Mark's white Chevy S10 Blazer and pontoon fishing boat that are still sitting around. A friend thought so highly of Carver that he prevented the Blazer from being repossessed after Carver was arrested and lost his disability income. The street itself is in a lovely neighborhood with plush lawns, so the description here leaves a stark impression to what one might observe in person.
  • Carver operated a machine at a mill until the 1980s, as mentioned in the article, and this work is what caused his carpal tunnel syndrome for which he was placed on disability income. He has been unable to do work assignments while in prison because of the severity of his condition. Viewers of Dateline have criticized the case episode's brief reference to Carver's disability, posting online comments such as how surgery should have fixed his problem. So, it is therefore helpful that The Charlotte Observer revealed surgery had created greater problems for Carver, "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." In Chapter 5, Leland relates further detail from her interview with Carver, "He rolls up his sleeves and shows me scars from surgery on the inside of both elbows and along one shoulder. Then he points to a photograph I brought of him casting for fish. He’s holding the rod with both hands. He says he’s not strong enough to cast with one hand. 'I lost my grip,' he explains. 'I can’t hold stuff a long time. Like holding a plate, I have to be careful not to hold it too long or it will drop to the floor.'"
  • The district attorney released information about Carver's medical records to The Charlotte Observer without also releasing Yarmolenko's medical history. Several original defense case workers who claimed during pre-trial preparations to have access to her medical records have said those records document a bad mental history, repeated previous suicide attempts and hospitalization for self-injury which is relevant to the controversy over whether or not her death may have been a suicide. In Chapter 5 of The Charlotte Observer's series, Yarmolenko's brother Pavel Yarmolenko claims he was never aware of previous suicide attempts. The author of this website has communicated with four separate people who knew Yarmolenko and who indicate otherwise.
  • A relative of Carver told the author of this website that he was prescribed medication for schizophrenia after his mother died at the relatively young age of 53 in 2002, and they feel that his grief over his mother's death was misdiagnosed. Carver lived with his mother and father and was very close to his mother. One relative said, "He was fine before his mother died." If Carver had been suffering from schizophrenia at the time of his arrest, he should have been evaluated before being allowed to stand trial, but nothing was ever said about this during any of the trial or appellate proceedings.
  • "[Carver] has four children, two daughters from a brief marriage, and a son and a daughter from other relationships." - This author is only aware of three biological children, a son and two daughters. To add perspective to the situation, it is interesting to note that Carver had primary custody of his two youngest children, daughters, and they occasionally visited their mother. This is alluded to in Chapter 1 as The Charlotte Observer states that Carver left to go pick up his daughters from school as police were canvassing the area near the scene of Yarmolenko's death.

Mark Carver with his daughters.Mark Carver with a raccoon.

  • The 1995 and 2005 dismissed charges against Cassada and Carver were mentioned in early newspaper articles about the case. After having personally met fourteen of the Carver and Cassada relatives, corresponded with a fifteenth member plus met a pastor who knows Carver, the author of this site has heard repeatedly about both men, "They would do anything to help anyone." Cassada's mother-in-law told me he was the best son-in-law anyone could want. She had once mentioned to him that it would be nice to have a back porch, and Cassada had it built by the next week. She told me Cassada used to go around in the wintertime delivering firewood to elderly people's homes while they were gone so they wouldn't have to thank him. Carver's 2007 accidental shooting incident has been discussed with the author of this site, and according to one relative, Carver's son went into a coma and wasn't able to confirm to police until he awakened that the injury had been an accident. For The Charlotte Observer, the background about the accident is reported secondhand from an interview with a cousin. The story related to the author of this site through a different cousin of Carver's is slightly different in that the son Bradley (named after his father's middle name and goes by Bobo) was intoxicated and reaching for his father's gun. The accidental shooting was reported to this author as having happened when Mark Carver tried to keep his son from getting the gun. Carver was so scared that he put his son in his car and drove to the nearest fire department, yelling and honking his horn. Fire department personnel then transported his son to the nearest hospital. It is evident that Cassada is deeply missed by his family and that Carver's incarceration is nearly unbearable for his family members. They visit him as often as possible. The Charlotte Observer reporter was made aware of multiple sources for character references for Cassada and Carver and apparently chose not to reference them. As a side note, Cassada is listed as having five children, but one of those is a granddaughter whom he and his wife Kaye raised and is considered to be like their daughter. See below pictures of Neal Cassada with his family and friends.

Family pictures of Neal CassadaSecond selection of family pictures of Neal CassadaThird selection of family pictures of Neal Cassada

Chapter 4:"They Got You"

This article focuses on Carver's trial. A single topic for clarification is Carver's guess of Yarmolenko's height. This is explained in detail in Chapter 5 of the series which reveals that Carver was given the information by an interrogator. Carver himself is short for a man. His father, Kyle Carver, Sr., is short as well and is lovingly called "Peewee" in place of his real name by friends and family. Yarmolenko is petite relative to other people and everyday objects in photos including one photo that was widespread of her standing next to a car, and her death and the ensuing investigation had been widely publicized by the time of Carver's interviews, despite the prosecution's claims to the opposite. Posters with photos of Yarmolenko had also been placed around Mount Holly where Carver lived immediately after her death, which is mentioned in a previous chapter of The Charlotte Observer's report.

Chapter 5: The Defense Mark Carver Never Got

The Charlotte Observer shines in this chapter with the stunning revelation that videos of one of Mark Carver's six interrogations in which he voluntarily agreed to participate page 10 of the dissent) show SBI Investigator David Frank Crow feeding information to Carver about Yarmolenko's size and height and that Carver repeated it back to him and, at Crow's insistence, mimicked a gesture that the investigator had done to indicate Yarmolenko's height. Carver repeated said, "I guess. I've never seen her." Prosecutors used Carver's statement and gesture out of context during trial to cast doubt on Carver's truthfulness, and it went unchallenged by the defense. Had the jury known Carver was fed the information, this could have changed the course of the trial according to the presiding judge who was also interviewed for the article.

The medical examiner who was interviewed for this article was apparently never given copies of the suicidal strangulation studies that could have informed his advice. The author of this site contacted him five times in 2016 over a period of several months via email, USPS mail, two phone messages left with a secretary and one direct voicemail. He has responded to none of these efforts which included additional written information about the case with a request that he confirm receipt and indicate if he still wishes to publicly stand by his comments in this article. If he responds, this paragraph will be updated. Suicidal strangulation is rare, and it would have been only fair to provide him with published research from the last several decades before asking for evaluation of the death. Also, the reporter doesn't mention if she provided photos of the ligatures which shows the first binding loose on the neck. The author of this website provided full-text copies of 15 suicidal strangulation research articles to Leland in early 2015.

Chapter 6: Cold-Blooded Killer? Or Innocent Man?

Inconclusive Touch DNA in JonBenet Ramsey Case

The Charlotte Observer did a stellar job of explaining the touch DNA in the Yarmolenko case. However, this author feels that the JonBenet Ramsey case which was cited in the final article as an example of touch DNA being used to exonerate is rather another example of a wrong use of touch DNA results. A public apology which was reported by media as an "exoneration" of JonBenet's family was issued in 2008 by Boulder, Colorado, District Attorney Mary Lacy shortly before she left office. James Kolar, who was for two years the chief investigator of the JonBenet case under Lacy, questioned the touch DNA results in a book he wrote in 2012 and an interview about his book. He said in the interview he believes that if Stan Garnett, who succeeded Lacy and her predecessor Alex Hunter, had been district attorney at the time of the grand jury's vote to indict JonBenet's parents on charges of child abuse resulting in death that the case could have come to a resolution. Some documents from the grand jury proceedings had still not been made public at the time of The Charlotte Observer's article. The JonBenet touch DNA results were explained in an article by Westword, as follows:

. . . The Ramseys received a highly unusual apology and 'exoneration' from [Boulder, Colorado, District Attorney Alex] Hunter's successor, Mary Lacy, based on DNA evidence that now appears to be far less conclusive than Lacy claimed.

 

. . . Since it was issued, Lacy's exoneration has been routinely cited in most news stories about the Ramsey case, usually in a way that implies the Ramseys have been positively and unambiguously "cleared by DNA." But Kolar considers the letter to be misleading at best. . . . "DNA can be very helpful in any criminal investigation, but it needs to be looked at in the context of all the other evidence," Kolar says. "If you look at all the trace samples involved in this, if you follow the DNA evidence solely, then we should be looking for six perpetrators, not one."

Lacy's assertion that there's no "innocent" explanation for one partial DNA profile showing up in three locations is also dubious. Dan Krane, a biochemist who's testified as a DNA expert in criminal cases around the world, says the ability to gather ever smaller amounts of DNA has raised increasing concerns about the "provenance" of that evidence. "The DNA in your tests could be there because of a contact that was weeks, months, even years before the crime occurred," he says. . . . Even if the DNA samples Lacy cites did belong to someone involved in the crime, Krane is skeptical that such material could ever be admissible in court. At the moment, there's no generally accepted method for assigning a statistical weight to a mixed sample with as few genetic markers as the male DNA found in JonBenet's underwear, he explains. No statistical weight, no way to explain to a jury the likelihood that the sample belonged to the accused.

John Beckner, who was the chief of police of Boulder, Colorado, during the JonBenet Ramsey investigation, talked about the case in 2015, revealing several previously unknown facts about the case. His views clearly include the parents as suspects, but when asked directly he responded, "I have avoided saying who I believe is responsible and let the facts speak for themselves. There are several viable theories."

Divided Opinions on Murder vs. Suicide

As a disclaimer, this author has no knowledge whatsoever of the approach that NCCAI is taking with Carver's case beyond what has been stated to the media and acknowledges that NCCAI may alter its approach at any time without notice.

The question of whether Yarmolenko died by murder or suicide formed the basis of several reader questions Leland answered after the series concluded. Leland mentioned in her series that opinions are split about murder vs. suicide among the professionals who have contributed to Carver's defense. Of particular interest to this author were statements from The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence Executive Director Ms. Chris Mumma, whose organization is currently representing Carver in his claim of innocence. In early 2016, she was quoted by The Charlotte Observer, television station WBTV and radio station WFAE 90.7 saying she believes Yarmolenko's death was a murder. She answered the WBTV reporter's direct question as to whether she believed the death was a suicide by saying, "The suicide was brought up kind of in passing at the trial. That's not the avenue that we're looking at."

Suicide was mentioned twice at Carver's trial by the medical examiner on March 17, 2011, and defense attorney David Phillips proposed the suicide theory during closing arguments on March 18, 2011, but the closing arguments weren't transcribed, causing confusion for succeeding defense workers about what the jury actually heard. Carver's appellate attorney Gordon Widenhouse mentioned suicide during the 2013 North Carolina Supreme Court hearing. During trial, the medical examiner stated he based his decision to list the death as a murder because he didn't think Yarmolenko would have had time to tie all three ligatures around her neck, lie down and get grass and mud on her skirt and position her feet underneath brush before losing consciousness. Forensic science articles document other similar cases where multiple ligatures and multiple knots were used, findings which are called "not uncommon" in suicidal strangulation. The medical examiner was mistaken about the order of the ligatures which is important because scene photos show the first ligature, a ribbon, was loose when the body was found. He said the ribbon was tight at the autopsy which may have been due to swelling of the head, the progression of which is shown in a series photos from the scene. This author filmed a suicide theory reenactment which created extreme discomfort, made her unable to talk at one point until releasing the bungee cord and caused her neck to remain sore for two days, leading the author to believe that Yarmolenko could have thrashed around on the ground in pain before losing consciousness, accounting for her legs being under the brush. More questions about the medical examiner's assertions are explained on the research page.

The author of this website stands by the theory of suicide based on her own research even though other respected individuals disagree. The manner of death and scene findings are consistent with other documented suicidal strangulations, and this author has furthermore been unable based on her knowledge of the case to determine how the death could have been a murder given the lack of defensive wounds and other reasons listed on the suicide theory and touch DNA pages of this website.

The Charlotte Observer reported that Mumma is seeking further DNA testing for Carver. NCCAI is similar to other innocence organizations such as New York City's Innocence Project in that cases are screened based on whether new evidence may be available that has not previously been used in the judicial process, including the possibility of further DNA testing. Since its founding in 2000, NCCAI has contributed to a number of exonerations, many of which have been won through further DNA testing. It is also this author's understanding that because suicide was available to the jury during Carver's trial, it cannot be used in post-conviction proceedings. If Carver were to be granted a new trial, the suicide theory would become legally useful again.

NCCAI handles a large case load relative to its limited resources as a non-profit organization, sustaining its operations through foundation grants, individual contributions and volunteer labor. Mumma told WBTV reporter Jamie Boll in 2016:

@24:34

. . . Right now we get about 600 claims a year. . . .

@26:57

. . . Our active caseload without the microscopic hair comparison cases is about 130 cases, so we weed through them pretty well. That 130 is in different levels of investigation from initial review to actual boots on the ground investigation to litigation, and we have several very, very strong claims of innocence. . . . There's been never more than two cases a year where I would go to a prosecutor or a police chief or both and say we'd like your help. So we are very careful not to waste their resources. We hope that because we're careful not to waste their resources that when we go to talk to them they take us seriously.

The National Registry of Exonerations reported on February 3, 2016 that out of the 149 exonerations of which they were aware during the previous year in the United States, the District of Columbia, federal courts and Guam, only 6 of those were murder convictions in which no crime had actually occurred, which continues a historic trend of murder convictions vacated in cases where no crime occurred as being relatively few. The common‑law crime of suicide was abolished as an offense in North Carolina in 1973 (see N.C.G.S. 14-17.1.). Because the manner of Yarmolenko's death, strangulation, can be a rare form of suicide - and when it is suicide, is frequently mistaken for murder according to research - Carver's exoneration, if it were to be won on the basis of no crime having occurred, would be among a minority of such cases.