Above, a Google map showing the Interstate 85 drive between the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus and the scene of Ira Yarmolenko's death on the Catawba River behind the Stowe Family YMCA and Water's Edge housing development near the Belmont/Mount Holly exit off of Interstate 85. An apartment complex stood along the route to the river, and a lot of construction and people were at the top of the hill above the riverbank. The second image is a satellite image as the area appeared in March 2007.
Because of construction since 2008, the landscape is different from what it was then, including the elimination of a dirt road that curved around behind the YMCA that Neal Cassada and Mark Carver used to access the river and was different than the road Yarmolenko drove according to one of the defense attorneys who visited the scene with the men during pre-trial preparations. According to a statement by Carver, he and Cassada exited off Beatty Drive (Highway 273) onto Pearl Beatty Road and used the dirt road that was at the end of the neighborhood to continue to the riverbank. Yarmolenko went to the YMCA first which means she probably exited off Beatty Drive (Highway 273) onto YMCA Drive. Pearl Beatty Road and YMCA Drive provide north and south entrance points to the Water's Edge subdivision. The paths Yarmolenko and the fishermen traveled crossed at some point, since Yarmolenko entered the subdivision to the south but ended up to the north of the men on the riverbank. The first photo below was taken of construction in the Water's Edge subdivision on the day of Yarmolenko's death. The second photo was taken after a memorial cross had been placed at the scene of Yarmolenko's death. The upper arrow points to construction dirt work that had spread near the scene by fall of 2008.
Timeline of Ira Yarmolenko's Death
This is a timeline of events of the hours of Irina Yarmolenko's life with reference from personal interviews and multiple Internet sources, including an appellate court brief, 2016 court filing by the defense, Fox News, Derkeiler and various Gaston Gazette articles. Most of the Gaston Gazette articles used for reference have since been removed from online access.
Two Weeks Prior to May 5, 2008
A couple who attended church with some of the Carver family members saw 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. Another source claimed Yarmolenko frequented the Mount Holly area based on interviews provided after her death by friends who knew her, but the author of this website has never seen any of this official documentation.
Friday, May 2, 2008
This news article recounts Yarmolenko's celebration of her 20th birthday on Friday, May 2, 2008, as follows:
Investigators say her friends had thrown a party for "Ira," but in keeping with her character, Ira had cooked for everyone at her own party. After her birthday meal, Ira and her friends visited an art studio in northern Davidson County. Her friends said they had a good time, and returned to campus, ending the night on good terms.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Sunday, the day prior to Yarmolenko's death, Russian language classmate Eli Kaiser saw her in the campus library. He wrote the following:
". . . I'll never forget the last day I saw and spoke to her, it was the day before she died. As many of you may know, it was exam week at UNC Charlotte. So I had taken that time to go the Campus library to study for my upcoming Anthropology test. As I entered that building, little did I know that G-ds hand was at play, and that He was going to give me a chance to in essence, say goodbye to one of my best friends I had met on while at UNCC. As I walked up to the second floor of the Library, and walked to the computer I usually sit at, I discovered that it was broken. I immediately began looking for the next available computer, and sure enough, without even realizing it, the one I happened to sit at was the one next to where she, Ira, was working. Of course I was pleasantly surprised to see her, and began conversing with her in Russian about her recent birthday and birthday party that her roommates and friends had thrown her. About her roommate Masha, her plans for the summer, etc. We would talk here and there before she finally got up to leave, with one final hug and "bye" in Russian, she smiled at me and said "talk to you again soon, have a good day." And like that, she was gone from me. . . ."
Monday, May 5, 2008
- 9:45 a.m. - An interview with police states that Yarmolenko was spotted at her Hunt Village apartment on the south side of campus up until this time. Most other news articles say that Yarmolenko was last seen on the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus at 9:45 a.m. when she completed a final exam. She had another exam scheduled for 5:00 p.m. later that day.
- 10:17 to 10:21 a.m. - Financial records and surveillance video show that Yarmolenko stopped inside the State Employees' Credit Union on University Boulevard near the UNCC campus where she deposited some checks. She also made a small cash transaction, but the credit union was not able to confirm for the trial whether she was putting money in or taking it out. Several news articles stated near the time of Yarmolenko's death that she had made a small deposit and a small withdrawal.
- 10:33 a.m. - Yarmolenko arrived at the Goodwill store on University Boulevard where she was filmed on surveillance video donating six armloads full of personal belongings, some of which she handed to a male worker and some of which she placed alongside the donation bin herself. Ira's donations included a backpack and a trash bag stuffed to the top with soft items, possibly clothing. Goodwill did not accept pillows, so her pillows were found in her car at the scene of her death.
- 10:30 range to 10:50 a.m. - Yarmolenko was seen at Jackson's Java near the UNCC campus, a coffee shop where she had worked since the previous August and often came to socialize. The shop had gone out of business by 2016, but the photo below was taken around the time that Yarmolenko worked there. There was no surveillance at the shop, so the time of sighting was estimated based on interviews with the workers. Yarmolenko had recently resigned her job to prepare for a move to Chapel Hill, and her former co-workers at Jackson's Java told police investigators and several news reporters that she stopped that morning to drop off either "gifts for them" or a book as a gift for her former boss.
- 11:09 a.m. - Yarmolenko's car was seen on surveillance video at the Stowe Family YMCA in Belmont west of the riverbank of where her body was later found, but the quality of the video was so poor that it could never be determined who was driving or how many people were in the car. Police later re-created and videotaped the drive from Jackson's Java to the YMCA and said that she would have arrived at the exact time showed by surveillance video, however it seems odd to the author of this website that Yarmolenko was able to make the drive in just nineteen minutes when multiple reporters and online forums from around that time claim the route should have taken thirty to forty minutes minimum. Three sources familiar with the early investigation say Yarmolenko had a black ex-boyfriend who worked at the YMCA and that she may have stopped to see if he was there that day. These sources claimed investigators verified his alibi through plane tickets showing he had been out of state on that day visiting a college with his father. This author has been unable to obtain documentation of this, and it wasn't mentioned during trial.
- 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. or around 11:30 a.m. - In a statement transcribed by an investigator and signed by Carver shortly after Yarmolenko's death, Carver said he and Cassada arrived at the Catawba River to fish "around 11:30 a.m." Seven months later on December 12, 2008, Carver told an investigator he remembered going down there approximately 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Defense attorneys pointed out that Carver had not been wearing a watch, so the times he estimated may have changed, but the order of events he stated throughout six separate interviews never changed.
- Around 12:00 p.m. - According to Carver's statement, "I heard what I thought was a tractor scraping dirt around 12 p.m. and I told Neal that. . . . I never heard anything other than the tractor scraping."
- Approximately 12:40 p.m. - Newspapers close to the time of Yarmolenko's death in 2008 cited the time as 12:30 p.m. based on interviews, while The Charlotte Observer published a handwritten statement from male jetskier Dennis Lovelace, "My girlfriend, Brenda Pierce, and I put our jetskis in the water at Dale's boat landing at approximately 12:40 p.m." They left Dale's Superette on Wilkinson Boulevard and began traveling north on the Catawba River. During trial, the jetskiers' testimonies conflicted as to what occurred thereafter. Lovelace said they traveled straight to the scene of Yarmolenko's death the first time they saw her car at the river's edge. Pierce said they saw the car but jetskied past it, stopped upriver to check their jetski plugs and came back to investigate the scene of the car, at which time they had been on the river about 10 to 15 minutes. Pierce said on their second pass, they realized the car had crashed into a stump and a body was lying a few feet away from the car. Both jetskiers testified they split up to go in opposite directions to call for help shortly after 1 p.m.
- Shortly after 1 p.m. - Dennis Lovelace wrote in his statement, "I told Brenda to go call 911. Brenda went back toward Dale's boat landing to call. I rode my jetski to a contruction site and told the workers to call 911 because there was a dead body. I then went back to where the body was. . . . I stayed on the scene until a police officer said I could leave." The construction worker's 911 call was placed at 1:07 p.m. Pierce rode her jet ski about ten minutes away to a construction site to call the police. She told the dispatcher at 1:09 p.m., "I'm a boater on the Catawba River. There's a car that's run off an embankment and there's a body laying—laying there. I don't know if they're alive or not." Note that if they had discovered the body immediately, as Lovelace claimed, there would have been around a 30-minute gap between discovering the body and placing the 911 call. Pierce's timeline seems more logical.
- Around 2:00 p.m. - Belmont Police Department officers were dispatched at 1:12 p.m. and Mount Holly Police Department officers at 1:20 p.m. A crime scene investigator from the Gaston County Police Department and rescue personnel from the fire department also arrived, though more time than usual was required for responders to locate the scene due to the difficulty of the terrain. Out of the four groups, Mount Holly Police eventually took responsibility for processing the scene.
- After 2:30 p.m. - Carver was interviewed by police at his fishing spot downriver from the scene and released around 2:30 p.m. to go pick up his daughters from school. Cassada had already left between noon and 1 p.m. At some point after leaving the riverbank, Carver stopped by a pharmacy to pick up a prescription. A pharmacy employee who later spoke to investigators said that when Carver arrived "the incident was on television" and that Carver told her he had been near there fishing and police had told him someone was shot. A post-conviction motion filed by the defense pointed out (see page 7 at this link) that Carver had no knowledge of the scene because he did not know the cause of death which was strangulation.
- Around 5:30 p.m. - Yarmolenko's death had already attracted local and national media attention by the time Carrboro Police notified the family. Yarmolenko's parents and brother lived in Carrboro despite their Chapel Hill mailing address, so Mount Holly Police requested Carroboro Police to make the notification. Yarmolenko's brother Pavel Yarmolenko told Dateline NBC that police arrived just as he and his parents were sitting down to eat dinner, "Somebody made an error. That's how we felt. We collapsed. I was shaking. I was on the floor."
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Yarmolenko's brother, mother and cousin Natalie Deyneka visited the scene of Yarmolenko's death for the first time. The same day, Yarmolenko's brother placed reward flyers around Mount Holly for information helpful to the investigation, but many of the flyers were soon removed by authorities for having been posted in violation of code, which distressed the family and made headlines in local media.
During Carver's April 2019 court hearing, his defense team exposed the fact that law enforcement failed to immediately collect and secure Yarmolenko's laptop computer from her campus apartment until several days after her death. Between the time of her death and the collection of the laptop, someone logged into the computer and made changes. It is possible that evidence could have been lost due to this investigative lapse.
Additional Possible Movements of Yarmolenko on May 5, 2008
An appellate court brief states that Yarmolenko visited a Food Lion, Wendy's and Exxon on the day of her death but references page 183 of the trial transcript which merely says investigators were unable to obtain surveillance videos of value from those locations. Although there are rumors of evidence that existed prior to Carver's trial in 2011, by 2016 there was nothing in files passed down to Carver's post-appellate defense team showing that Yarmolenko had visited any of those places aside from Wendy's food in the trunk of Yarmolenko's car at the scene and record of forensic testing that was conducted on it.
After leaving the Stowe Family YMCA parking lot, investigators believe Yarmolenko made an immediate right down a dirt road through that led through the Water's Edge subdivision to the river (reference (The Charlotte Observer, Chapter 2). Other sources claim there are hearsay reports that between the YMCA and riverbank Yarmolenko made stops at a Wendy's restaurant and CITGO station, both in Belmont immediately south of the YMCA. It is true that a bag of partially-eaten Wendy's food - a hamburger according to one source and a chicken and bacon wrap according to another source - was found in Yarmolenko's trunk at the scene, but there was no record of where it had been purchased. Since it had still been breakfast time when Yarmolenko was seen making other stops in Charlotte, it would seem logical she had purchased the food nearer to lunch time which is suggested by the following point.
By 2010, Cassada's defense attorney and private investigator had contact information for a painter who had stopped with his co-worker to get food at the Belmont Wendy's around lunchtime on May 5, 2008. He said he witnessed Yarmolenko leaning against her car in the parking lot while arguing with another girl. The painter said that the argument was so heated that he thought the two girls might break into a fight. The painter described Yarmolenko, her clothing down to the UNC logo on her hoodie and her car in detail, but this man was not called as a witness nor was he mentioned during Mark Carver's trial, which is also what happened to James Beatty who could have been a witness for the defense in Carver's trial according to The Charlotte Observer. Law enforcement records contain no mention of the painter. Investigators tested food from Wendy's that was left in the trunk of Yarmolenko's car at the scene of her death but found nothing unusual. It had not been widely reported until the 2011 trial that Yarmolenko's hoodie had a UNC logo on the back, though the fuzzy, light-colored logo is vaguely visible in portions of the Goodwill surveillance video that was released in May 2008. The public was also unaware until trial that food was found in Yarmolenko's car, and even then, it was unclear that the food had been from Wendy's. The early knowledge of these details by the painter is thus of special interest.
Sources conflict about whether on the same day of her death, Yarmolenko may have visited a CITGO station located south of the Stowe Family YMCA. An undocumented source said that police audiotaped an interview with a clerk who told them she remembered having seen Yarmolenko there that day, but this is not part of law enforcement records. Investigation at a nearby Exxon was mentioned during trial, but this station was different from the CITGO. There is also a rumor of a Food Lion receipt from Mount Holly having been found in Yarmolenko's car, which reportedly caused one of the defense attorneys to question whether touch DNA could have been deposited by the fishermen at Food Lion prior to the car's arrival at the riverbank. This was not presented during trial and was absent from existing defense case files by 2016.
Law enforcement reports make it appear that one year after Yarmolenko's death, they first went to the Wendy’s nearby after finding a Wendy’s bag in Yarmolenko's car. Wendy’s surveillance system did not work, so they went to the Exxon and Food Lion. Exxon and Food Lion no longer had footage from the prior year. In 2014, the author of this website visited the Stowe Family YMCA and area around it in Belmont and Mount Holly, North Carolina. This author finds it strange that these three places were mentioned in investigative reports and during the trial while other businesses surrounding these weren't mentioned. Did additional evidence of Yarmolenko's movements on the day of her death never exist, or has evidence been lost? Did police investigate all businesses in the area or only these three? If only these three, then why were others omitted?
In several interviews, the jetskiers Dennis Lovelace and Brenda Pierce told news sources that the death had "just happened" when they first reported it to police, even though the medical examiner was unable to determine a time of death. The jetskiers said they were scared because the killer had probably heard them and was hiding nearby. This article is an example of one such quote by Lovelace, "'It had just happened,' he said. 'She (Pierce) thinks he was still in the woods and I do too.'" Although the jetskiers were silent about any further knowledge of Yarmolenko's death while on the witness stand, three sources contacted the author of this website with hearsay reports that Lovelace may have spoken to other people in the community about seeing Yarmolenko "splashing around" or "playing around" in the water when he made an earlier jetski pass by the area. It is interesting that Lovelace and Pierce would have been so sure that Yarmolenko's death had "just happened" without another point of reference. If they had seen Yarmolenko alive in the water shortly before, then any insistence on the recency of her death would seem logical. Lovelace denied the hearsay reports when questioned in 2013 by a reporter; Pierce neither denied nor confirmed it at that same time. Both Lovelace and Pierce denied the rumor when questioned again in 2015 by a case worker. During Carver's trial, Lovelace and Pierce affirmed that they had not seen Carver or anyone else at the scene of Yarmolenko's death before they notified police, but their testimonies about the order of events of their finding the scene were completely different. This author would like to see them granted immunity to offer any further possible testimony. According to one article, Lovelace was a truck driver and Pierce was a textile worker.
A photography class assignment has been thought to be a possible reason for Yarmolenko's traveling to the location on the Catawba River where her body was found, though evidence also points to suicide. The location is difficult to find — so difficult, in fact, that police were delayed in reaching the scene while looking for it. It was a gas right-of-way behind the Stowe Family YMCA and the Water's Edge housing development. Yarmolenko's car would have traveled through the Water's Edge housing development to reach a dirt trail that led to an opening in the trees perpendicular to the river embankment.
The scene of Yarmolenko's death was about half a mile downstream and on the other side of the bank from the U.S. National Whitewater Center. A photo editor with the UNCC student newspaper testified during trial that Yarmolenko, who was a contributor to the newspaper, had said she wanted to photograph kayakers and rafters from the U.S. National Whitewater Center. However, at the time of Yarmolenko's death, boaters from the center stayed within a private water circle that was not visible from the scene of Yarmolenko's death. Had Yarmolenko intended to visit the U.S. National Whitewater Center, she should have followed clear signs posted to the center indicating a different, earlier exit off of Interstate 85 to access the east side of the Catawba River.
- Investigators stated that no sexual assault or robbery had taken place. Sgt. Fred Tindall stated in an interview, "We can't determine the motive either. She wasn't known to carry much money, and we've not detected any use of her bank cards or debit cards" (Derkeiler).
- The airbag of Yarmolenko's car did not deploy, which led to conflicting interpretations of crash-related data from her car's black box. See a full explanation below under "Airbag Deployment."
- Most reports agree that the black box indicated that Yarmolenko's car had been stopped and then started again at the scene. One report said that the black box did not indicate whether that happened at the top or bottom of the embankment. Based on the appearance of dirt spun under the tires at the scene, Mount Holly Police Chief David Belk thought the vehicle had been put in reverse, saying, "We can say that the vehicle was running at the edge of the water . . . ." (WCNC, now offline). Another article provides a different perspective, "Evidence suggests that the front wheels of the car remained in motion after it crashed, indicating that the car was on and the transmission was in gear." Photos that have been released to the public show dirt underneath the driver's side front tire spun toward the back of the car. The prosecutors constructed a theory in which it would have been to their advantage to say the engine was not running as the car descended toward the river, so evidence that the wheels had spun up dirt at the bottom of the embankment is noticeably absent from court documents prepared by prosecutors.
- Yarmolenko's keys were found on the ground near her body. A 2016 motion by the defense and several news articles also state that the car was in neutral when found. A source with access to investigative files claims the car was in neutral but has not responded to requests for a photo or other documentation of that claim, given that this was mechanically impossible on Yarmolenko's 1998 Saturn according to one contributor who sent the following email through this website on September 13, 2013:
. . . After viewing the Dateline episode and your website something struck me as odd. Your site states that "the car was in neutral when found and the keys were on the ground next to Yarmolenko's body." How is this possible? Are there any crime scene photos of the shifter in neutral with the ignition key removed? Because the ignition key cannot be removed in any other shifter position other than park, nor can the shifter be moved out of park without the key in the ignition, turned to run, and the brake applied. This is a safety feature on nearly all GM passenger vehicles. It is called BTSI - brake, transmission, shift, interlock system. That Saturn is equipped with a BTSI system. Try this on any General Motors vehicle built within the last couple decades and you will see what I mean.
- The body was lying on the ground a few feet from the driver's door.
- The back driver's side door appeared to be smeared with mud.
- Tall grass was knocked down in an area six to eight feet in diameter surrounding the body.
- Blood was present at the scene, confirmed to be Yarmolenko's own and assumed to have come from her nose as a result of the strangling. One news article said blood was smeared on a door of the car.
- Yarmolenko's clothes, hair and body were wet. Mud and dirt were on her back and the undersides of her arms.
- Three ligatures were wrapped around Yarmolenko's neck, in the following order: a nylon ribbon cut from a book bag in her car (with her own keys, possibly, judging by the shredded edges of the cut and fibers of ribbon found on the keys), a drawstring from the hood of her jacket and a bungee cord similar to another one in the trunk of her car. The ribbon was wrapped once around her neck and tied in a bow in front. The drawstring was wrapped "twice" around her neck (though it is probably more accurate to say 1 1/2 times based on photos) and knotted several times on the front right side of her neck. The bungee cord was wrapped around her neck starting in back, crossing over the front and hooked in back. The description of the ties is taken from a court document that states the order of application starting with the outermost ligature.
- The autopsy stated that Yarmolenko died from asphyxia secondary to ligature strangulation. Learn more about the coroner's report on our research page. A precise time of death was undetermined. No sexual assualt or robbery had taken place.
- Mount Holly Police Detective William Terry revealed a clue about Yarmolenko's death in his description of the body during Carver's trial, "Her head was back towards the embankment. Her feet were near the river underneath some brush. Upon closer inspection she was actually holding some of that brush in her hand. . . . This is a picture of her hand. You can see that she was grasping onto one of the vines there." (March 16, 2011, pages 118, 129). This is consistent with a cadaveric spasm that can crystallize the last activity one did prior to death. Another case worker returned a phone call to the author of this website and verified, consistent with the above reports, "There is no doubt she died right where she lay."
Because the air bags did not deploy, there is disagreement among sources as to whether Yarmolenko's car was running when it descended the bank toward the river. Though the prosecution theorized that killers put the car in neutral and pushed it down the embankment, no DNA from either Cassada or Carver was found on the trunk or back bumper. Photos showing dirt spun from underneath the tires in the car's final resting position indicates the wheels may have been in motion after the crash. The straight path of broken vegetation down the bumpy embankment suggests the car was steered, for which power steering with the engine running would have been helpful.
News articles quote Mount Holly Police Chief David Belk within weeks of Yarmolenko's death saying the black box data showed that the car had traveled down the embankment toward the Catawba River at 15 miles per hour with someone sitting in the driver's seat with the seat belt engaged. He also said the vehicle was stopped and re-started at the scene. It is also known that Mount Holly Police Detective William Terry started the engine and drove the car into a storage garage at Belmont Police Station on the evening of the day of Yarmolenko's death.
North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper Daniel Souther, a collision reconstruction expert, seemed to either ignore or be unaware of these least one and possibly two extra ignition cycles after the crash when testifying during trial that a "non-deployment event" occurred three ignition cycles prior to his analysis of black box data. Instead, he felt that three ignition cycles placed the non-deployment event prior to the crash (March 17, 2011, transcript pages 256-261). Had he taken into account the one and possibly two extra ignition cycles given that the car was driven into a storage garage after the crash and dirt appeared to be spun under the tires at the crash site, he could have possibly placed the non-deployment event concurrent with the crash.
Souther also testified during trial that he felt that the amount of damage to the car should have deployed the air bags had the car been running. He claimed his analysis of data from the black box of Yarmolenko's 1998 Saturn provided no data from the crash because the car engine was not running, and the black box records data only when the engine is on, thereby dismissing the non-deployment event from the realm of consideration related to the scene. The air bag is a small part of the total picture, but slanting the black box data to indicate the car was turned off supports the prosecution's theory that the car was pushed. Photos of the car appear to show the tires spun up mud after it crashed, as if it had either continued in motion or, as Mount Holly Police Chief Belk said within weeks of Yarmolenko's death, had been stopped and re-started at the scene. These possibilities are absent from the trial as is mention of how straight a path the car traveled over an embankment on which mounds of dirt had been dumped from nearby construction.
The air bag circuitry in Yarmolenko's 11-year-old car was never checked after the crash. Air bags frequently fail to deploy, so unless the circuitry had been verified to be in working order, the air bag non-deployment fails to serve as stand-alone proof of whether the car was running or not when it crashed. Souther said he checked with Rick Ruth, an expert on Ford vehicles, as to whether the black box data showed the air bags were functional. Rick said the data appeared to show the air bags were in working order, but a Saturn is a GM, and GM has had known difficulties with air bags failing to deploy on vehicles equivalent in age to Yarmolenko's. There was no mention as to whether Ruth ever saw the vehicle or pictures of the vehicle. Apparently, Yarmolenko's car was never physically examined to determine if all the parts related to the airbag were working properly. The ignition in particular has historically been connected to GM car air bag deployment failure. Another factor that could play into the evaluation is that air bags were routinely depowered beginning with 1998 year models to reduce deaths caused by air bag employment at slow speeds. Yarmolenko's car was a 1998 Saturn, and Souther himself estimated the car had been traveling at a speed of 10 to 15 miles per hour down the embankment given the extent of damage.
To further emphasize that Yarmolenko's car could have indeed been running as it traveled down the embankment, in April 2016, The Charlotte Observer published information from an interview with a reconstruction expert who stated that Yarmolenko's car's ignition could have been on and the airbag still have not deployed in that crash because the seat belt was engaged and the car was traveling slowly. Read more about the crash including evidence the driver's seat belt was engaged in this 2016 court filing by the defense on pages 3 and 5