Dateline's Mystery on the Catawba River

Dateline's Mystery on the Catawba River from July 9, 2011

Dateline NBC first aired its report about the death of Irina Yarmolenko, Mystery on the Catawba River, on July 9, 2011, expanding interest in the case beyond North Carolina to viewers across the United States and internationally. The episode provided enough information for critical thinkers to question Carver's conviction and was the motivation for the author of this website to collect information in an attempt to help the public find out what had really happened to Yarmolenko.

On June 19, 2014, Discovery Communications, LLC, made the gracious decision to discontinue re-broadcasts from its family of channels. This was done in response to a request from the author of this website to either correct around a dozen factual and suggestive errors or cease airing the report. The episode has remained off the air except for a brief period between November 13, 2015, through March 2016, when it was shown in its original format several times on TLC, one of Discovery Communications' channels. The re-airings ceased again simultaneously with the release of The Charlotte Observer's report that revealed additional inaccuracies in the Dateline episode.

In a television special like Dateline's, gathering enough facts to present the story accurately can be difficult, and mistakes do exist. Informants contributed misinformation and also withheld evidence that may have skewed the focus of Dateline's reporting. Dateline representatives were in touch with the author of this website via email and phone in 2013 to gather more information but have stated that they do not plan to update the story unless a court changes its ruling in the case. Listed are several points Dateline should consider editing if choosing to update the episode.

Inconclusive DNA

The most serious error in the Dateline episode is the assumption, as reporter Keith Morrison narrated, "DNA clearly said the men had touched the car." Mark Carver's trial had already occurred by the time the Dateline episode aired, during which the questionable quality of the transferable, touch DNA mixtures had been brought out, but none of this is mentioned even in passing in the episode.

It is disappointing not only that Dateline presented the DNA as foolproof evidence but also that it neglected to consult with any experts who could have helped delve further into the possibilities that the touch DNA mixtures may have never even contained the fishermen's DNA at all or may have been transferred. Learn more about how The Charlotte Observer and The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence are challenging the touch DNA in this case on our Touch DNA page.

Memories of Ira Yarmolenko

The second most prominent error in the Dateline episode as far as minutes given to coverage is the presentation of Ira Yarmolenko as a supremely happy individual, without exception. The source for most of the memories of Yarmolenko, aside from her brother, is her fellow immigrant, friend and college roommate Masha. A former romantic interest Jeremy Currant speaks briefly, but a different young man who had been Yarmolenko's boyfriend for three years and had broken up with her just prior to her death was never mentioned, and he has stated he believed Yarmolenko may have been very depressed at the time of her death and that suicide may have been a possibility. Dateline staff communicated to the author of this website that at the time they produced their story they were unaware of the depression and other suicidal risk factors Yarmolenko faced. Of course the positive aspects of Yarmolenko's life should be highlighted out of respect to her memory, but considering the circumstances of this case, the leads listed on our Suicide Theory page should be explored for future updates.

Dateline filmed Mount Holly Police Investigator William Derek Terry saying about the ligatures around Yarmolenko's neck, "No one can do that to themselves." Read about the science behind why it was indeed possible in our summary of suicidal strangulation research.

Dateline staff also told the author of this website that the cases they cover are chosen in part based on victims with which viewers can identify. It is unfair but true that victims who are beautiful, young and white are more frequently chosen as focus of media attention than otherwise, and media is often reluctant to broadcast negative information about such victims. This would be appropriate had Yarmolenko's death been a random murder, but with a possible wrongful conviction in question and legitimate reasons to consider suicide as the cause of death, this author's opinion is that the full story should be told if it is to be told at all.

Fishermen's Distance from Scene

Dateline states that the distance between the scene and the fishing spot is 100 feet, repeatedly describing it as "near." The Charlotte Observer reporter Elizabeth Leland told the author of this website and wrote in her series of articles that she and photographer Todd Sumlin paced off the distance twice and that their strides were different lengths but that they were able to round it off to 100 yards.

Both of these descriptions call for more explanation. There is no path between the two locations, so the distance measured by Leland and Sumlin was a rough semi-circle up the embankment, across the top and back down. As the river flows, the distance is closer to 100 feet, but for Dateline to suggest that the fishermen were "near" enough to have been easily able to hear Yarmolenko, as also claimed by the prosecution during trial, is wrong. In 2016, both The Charlotte Observer and another source familiar with the investigation via email to this author stated that only if you are yelling can you barely hear someone from one spot to the other. This is due to the noise of nearby Interstate 85 and obstruction by trees and underbrush between the two spots.

Scraping Noise

In an interview, Mount Holly Police Investigator William Derek Terry said that the fishermen claimed to have not heard anything unusual that day. This is false. The fishermen both said they heard a "scraping" sound, but it was similar to other construction noise going on in the area all morning, so they are not sure what they heard. Carver said in a media interview and in an investigative statement that he and Cassada thought it might have been a tractor scraping the dirt road on the hill above. In a subsequent section, Dateline allows Cassada's daughter to correct this statement by Investigator Terry.

Film Removal Re-Sets Counter to Zero

Ira Yarmolenko's camera is a 35mm that resets the counter to zero when opened.

Two shots were found on the counter of Yarmolenko's 35mm camera that was in the trunk of her car, empty of film. Dateline presented the prosecutors' theory that Yarmolenko snapped those two photos of her killers and that the killers removed the film to hide what it recorded. This would have been impossible, since removal of film re-sets the counter to zero. Also, no DNA or fingerprints were found on the camera, not even Yarmolenko's own.

Handprint

A handprint from the car is repeatedly shown while the narrator discusses DNA. The truth is no matches to Cassada's or Carver's DNA or fingerprints were located among the 13 fingerprints lifted from the car. No fingerprints, footprints, tire tracks or other evidence from either Cassada or Carver were present to act as a confirmation for the partial profile touch DNA that the lab analyst said contained predominant profiles of Cassada and Carver. The lab report is being challenged by Carver's defense team in 2016.

Consistent Statements by Fishermen

Carver and Cassada consistently held to the same events in the same order throughout hours of multiple police interviews in which they voluntarily agreed to participate. In the Dateline story, variations are said to have existed in the transportation arrangements the fishermen gave for the day. Sometimes Carver and Cassada rode together to fish, but they had driven separate cars that day, and their testimony on that point was consistent. The only variations brought up in trial referred to the times at which the men said the events had happened, a result of their not wearing watches. Attorney Brent Ratchford is shown offering this correction.

No DNA on the Car Trunk or Bumper

Prosecutor Bill Stetzer told Dateline that DNA was found where two men would have positioned themselves to push Yarmolenko's car down the embankment, but how is this possible? The points to which Stetzer referred were all non-leverage places, one the size of a pencil lead dot between the windows on the driver's side and the other two on the inside of the car. No DNA was found on the trunk or back bumper. It is to Stetzer's credit that several years after the Dateline episode was filmed, District Attorney Locke Bell as a favor to Stetzer in 2015 released the only legible copy of the DNA lab report in existence to The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence which had requested it for two independent experts to examine.

"The hem of her skirt was imprinted on the skin underneath"

Mount Holly Police Investigator William Derek Terry followed this true statement by indicating it proved two killers had put their weight on top of Yarmolenko. However, Yarmolenko's skin was soft from being wet, and her body had lain unmoved from the time of her death until the imprints were photographed. Imprints such as these are possible with no more pressure than the weight of a person's own body after sitting or lying down for several minutes. The author of this website imprints easily after just a few minutes in one position.

Yarmolenko's Movements on May 5, 2008

This is not a major error since the specifics are debated even among inside sources, but Dateline failed to mention that a bag of food from Wendy's was found in the trunk of her car and that some sources have claimed evidence exists that Yarmolenko visited a Wendy's restaurant in Belmont, North Carolina, between being seen at the YMCA and the riverbank. Learn more on our Timeline page. This would have been a true feat of investigative reporting had Dateline followed up to see if the evidence of these visits could be confirmed. The locations were mentioned in the trial transcript which was available to Dateline but were presented by the prosecution as being of no value to the investigation.

YMCA Surveillance and Reenactment

While most of the reenactments in the Dateline report are obvious, a few are not, such as video at the YMCA that was filmed using a rental car and digitally altered to look like authentic surveillance footage. The reenactment was further altered after the original airing to appear more like Yarmolenko's real car. The quality of the reenactment is clearer than the original footage, which may be confusing to viewers as to why the driver and any passengers were unable to be identified as evidence during trial.

Dateline filmed Mount Holly Police Investigator William Derek Terry saying about the YMCA surveillance, "We could tell there was a very small person driving the car. Appeared to be a white female driving the car." The driver of the car could not be positively identified prior to trial despite the video being sent to NASA for evaluation. A source with access to the video informed the author of this website in 2016, "The video is not clear enough to have any idea who/how many people are in the car."

Yarmolenko's Height

Dateline shows alternating clips of lawyers for the prosecution and defense stating that Mark Carver had either inadvertently described Yarmolenko's height during interrogation or incorrectly guessed it. The Charlotte Observer revealed in 2016 that Carver had been fed this information by SBI Investigator David Frank Crow, as follows:

According to Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, who now represents Carver and has watched a video of the interrogation, it was Crow who first referred to Ira as “a little girl” and “a little ole bitty thing.” It was Crow who she “wasn’t real tall.”

 

Then Crow himself stood up and gestured with his hand in front of his eyes. Crow turned to Carver and asked:

“If y’all was standing up, looking at each other ... she’d be looking you right in the eyes?”

“Yeah, about there,” Carver said.

Carver is 5 foot 4. Ira was 5 foot 3.

Crow told Carver to get up and show him.

Carver stood and, as directed, held his hand to the top of his eyes and said, “Probably about right there ...I guess and I don’t know... I just.... I guess.”

In addition to misrepresenting Carver in both quoted words and tone regarding Yarmolenko's height, prosecuting attorney Bill Stetzer also stated for Dateline that he was unaware of any publicized photos that would have revealed Yarmolenko's height, but based on this author's own research, photos of Yarmolenko were widely publicized on television, newspapers and online, especially in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. Plenty of photos reveal a petite Yarmolenko next to cars, railings and other everyday items in the settings. Carver told The Charlotte Observer he had seen Yarmolenko on TV the evening of the day of her death and when asked if he could tell her size based on media photos said that she looked like a teenager.

Heart Attacks

In May 1993, Neal Cassada who was then in his mid-thirties entered a hospital in Gastonia, North Carolina, with heart complaints. He suffered a heart attack the next day and was transferred to a hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte medical personnel informed him that based on test results, he may have also had a mild heart attack the previous day in Gastonia. During interrogation, Cassada referenced two previous heart attacks, by which he meant these incidents over a two-day time span. He later passed away at age 55 the day before his trial was set to begin. Dateline included video of Attorney David Phillips saying Cassada passed away of a "third heart attack," but a gap of nearly two decades had occurred between what was essentially two cardiac episodes. Cassada's autopsy showed that his heart had created a natural bypass around blockage in the right chamber, and the medical examiner listed Cassada's cause of death as stress-related heart failure.

Neal Cassada's and Mark Carver's Character

Viewers of the Dateline story are left with the impression that Yarmolenko was good to a nearly impossible degree while wondering about Cassada's and Carver's character. Family and community testimony that the men were known to do anything they could to help others is minimized in the original story.

Prosecuting attorney Stephanie Hamlin stated for Dateline that Cassada's phone calls from prison to his family were inculpatory, and the quote she offered was from her own memory, "Are you mad at me or are you bad at me . . . ?" Hamlin paused between the first and last parts of her sentence. It is questionable that this was an exact quote, and the context of the sentence is missing. Cassada's daughter states later in the episode that her father was worried about not being there for them, but it's not clear if she had been read this quote and was responding to this or another question.

Another member of Cassada's family told the author of this website in 2013 that Hamlin had used that statement out of context to Dateline. This source said Cassada frequently told his family he was concerned someone would think he had really hurt Yarmolenko and go to their house and do something bad to them while he was incarcerated and that he wouldn't be there to protect them. According to the family, Cassada was constantly thinking about his family's well-being during his separation from them and concerned they would be upset with him for being absent.