Tragically, Ira Yarmolenko was found dead on May 5, 2008. Somewhere around 9 months later, Christopher Lemont Cooper (sometimes seen incorrectly spelled as Lamont) wrote and mailed a letter to WSOC TV Eyewitness News anchor Erica Bryant to "confess a sin," that he and seven other people, whom he listed, had caused Yarmolenko's death. He wrote that he was the driver of a van containing his friends they had killed Yarmolenko after smoking crack cocaine all night and needed money for more drugs. He said he had not been able to sleep at night "because of what we did to that young woman," and he said that if Ms. Bryant would come to him in jail, he would talk more about the crime. WSOC TV turned the confession letter over to police without publicizing it.
After police saw the confession letter, an investigator from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation went to the Mecklenburg County Jail where the 37-year-old Cooper was being held after having been arrested on May 21, 2015. He faced two counts of second-degree rape, two counts of second-degree sex offense, assault by strangulation and not paying child support according to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's office website. He was later found not guilty of the rape, sex offense and assault charges according to The Charlotte Observer. The SBI investigator intended to question him about Yarmolenko's death, but Cooper refused to meet with him. Several news reports including WSOC TV reported that the Mount Holly Police Department claimed to have ruled out Cooper as a suspect after talking to him.
A large file on Cooper exists in case records, and it is interesting that so much effort was dedicated to investigating Cooper as a suspect after Neal Cassada and Mark Carver had already been arrested. In addition to Cooper, investigators tested DNA from an additional eight alternate suspects after Cassada and Carver were in custody (trial transcript pages 217-218), and a Crime Stoppers television advertisement about the case also continued to run.As to Cooper's claims, about half of the people named in his letter as accomplices were in jail on the day of Yarmolenko's death. Only one of the named accomplices could have possibly been implicated, and he was investigated thoroughly with Cooper and cleared as a suspect.
Cooper claimed he and his friends killed Ira for money, but nothing appeared to have been stolen, and the bank cards showed no activity. Neither was there any evidence of sexual assault. Police claimed that Cooper did not offer knowledge of the scene when questioned. The Charlotte Observer reported that Cooper's DNA was cleared as a match to all the unidentified DNA at the scene of Yarmolenko's death.
False confessions in high-profile cases are common such as with the more than 200 false confessions to the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby in 1932. Note that Cooper was a young, black male and sent his letter to Erica Bryant, a beautiful, black female reporter at WSOC. Cooper agreed to talk only if Bryant visited him in prison. It is likely that Cooper sought to bring attention to his own case or to score a meeting with Bryant by connecting himself to the widely publicized Yarmolenko investigation.
Search for Other Suspects
Yarmolenko's brother Pavel Yarmolenko told Fox News reporter Greta Van Susteren, "So the police have let us know that someone was with my sister when she came to Mount Holly, and that's just about the extent of the information that I know. I'm pretty sure that the police know much more than that." However, no mention was made of this at Mark Carver's trial, and no police record exists of any such report or evidence in case files passed on to Carver's defense by 2016, though the Yarmolenko family still claims they were told this.
Surveillance video of Yarmolenko's car passing through the YMCA near the scene of her death did not reveal a follower. The driver could not be positively identified due to poor video quality, despite being analyzed by NASA specialists. A reliable source told the author of this site in 2016, "The video is not clear enough to have any idea who/how many people are in the car." However, based on YMCA surveillance video, the prosecution theorized during Carver's trial that Yarmolenko met her killer somewhere between the YMCA and the riverbank. Mount Holly Police Investigator William Derek Terry, who testified for the prosecution during trial, told reporter Keith Morrison for Dateline NBC in 2011, "We could tell there was a very small person driving the car. Appeared to be a white female driving the car." It is puzzling that he would offer this statement given the apparent poor quality of the footage.
A sad side story in this case is the death of a man who was a close friend of Cassada's who committed suicide two weeks after Cassada died from heart failure. This man frequently visited Cassada during Cassada's house arrest while awaiting trial. Cassada's death deeply affected the man, and he told his family right before his suicide, "I want to go be with my buddy Neal." Cassada and this man grew up riding tricycles together and often fished together as adults, sometimes with Mark Carver and other friends and family members. Phone records obtained by investigators revealed that Cassada had exchanged a couple of calls with him after Cassada left the riverbank the day of Yarmolenko's death. Cassada said he and the man, who claimed to be at work at the time of the calls, were discussing the road conditions at the riverbank. Cassada said he warned him to be careful because construction crews were scraping the road that day, and his truck might get stuck if he went down there. Remember that Cassada and Carver both claimed to have heard a scraping noise while they were fishing. Despite the fact that Cassada passed a polygraph, may or may not have been a contributor to DNA on Yarmolenko's car and died without the opportunity to defend himself at trial, people like this friend who had no more evidence against them than a connection to Cassada, Carver, the day or the area, have been the subject of rumors. Carver himself was convicted of being an accomplice to Cassada though Cassada had never been tried.
Notes and References
- A thread on Chris' Crime Forum which has since been taken offline featured a contributor who wrote in 2012 that Christopher Lemont Cooper's confession had been dismissed because he failed a polygraph. No record of any such polygraph exists in case files that survived in possession of the defense by 2016, and no other source familiar with the case has offered any knowledge of this.
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