CHAPEL HILL — “Have faith” has been their uniting principle through the past year.
In this age of abundant electronic trackers – cellphones, credit cards, security cameras, encoded building keys – friends of Faith Hedgepeth, the UNC student found dead in an off-campus apartment a year ago, wonder how her killer could have escaped without leaving some sort of recorded trace that provides investigators a path to arrest.
But on the anniversary of Hedgepeth’s death, no arrest has been made and Chapel Hill police investigators continue to hold key details close to the vest.
Nine months ago, police released information about DNA evidence pointing to a male suspect who probably knew Hedgepeth, but law enforcement officers have persuaded a Durham judge to repeatedly seal 911 calls, search warrants and medical examiner reports – public documents that often outline the shape of an investigation.
“I guess people are having faith that this will be reconciled and that justice will be brought,” said Chelsea Barnes, a UNC junior who helped organize a memorial walk on Saturday from the bell tower on the UNC campus to the Old Well. “It’s definitely frustrating; it’s like somebody has to know something.”
In Chapel Hill, a college town that draws 25,000 students to the centrally located campus each year, homicides are rare. Twelve murders were reported between 2000 and 2011, and though Hedgepeth’s death last year and the 2008 murder of student body President Eve Carson have been highly publicized, student homicides are a rarity.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue has declined to discuss details of the investigation, as has Leon Stanback, the acting district attorney in Durham County, where the court case would land.
The police issued a statement Thursday acknowledging the anniversary of Hedgepeth’s death and seeking the public’s assistance while withholding key information that could compromise the integrity of their investigation if released.
“Investigators are appealing to members of the public to think back to that day – September 7th, 2012, to try and remember anything out of the ordinary they might have witnessed,” the statement said. “The smallest remembered detail may be of great importance to the investigation.”
Time, criminologists say, can be the real enemy in any homicide investigation.
Elena Hunt, a UNC junior from Lumberton who is a member of the campus sorority to which Hedgepeth was inducted posthumously, said she and others in the clusters of friends that Hedgepeth wove together during her two years in Chapel Hill have gone over and over what they might know. On more than one occasion, they have shared details from Hedgepeth’s last night with law enforcement officers, hoping that they might harbor information that could provide a break in the case.
“We haven’t been told anything, which is a little unnerving,” Hunt said.
Early on, Chapel Hill police informed the public that they did not consider Hedgepeth’s death to be a random crime, and while that can be comforting to some, it can be unsettling to others, particularly those who were part of Hedgepeth’s social circles.
“The fact that they say it’s somebody she knew, that might mean it’s somebody we knew, too,” Hunt said. “That’s really scary.”
Hedgepeth, a 19-year-old biology major from Hollister who came to Chapel Hill as an academic standout from the tiny town in Halifax County, was a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe – the third-largest American Indian tribe in North Carolina, comprising about 4,300 people living within a 10-mile radius.
Hedgepeth, a scholarship student who struggled with her studies her sophomore year and took a semester off, was on the path to catching back up with her classmates, taking courses in the summer while working at the Red Robin restaurant off U.S. 15/501 in Durham, not far from the Orange County border.
Karena Rosario, a UNC student from New Jersey, had invited Hedgepeth to stay with her in her one-bedroom apartment at Hawthorne at the View, less than a mile from the burger joint and several miles from the UNC campus.
Hegepeth was waiting for financial aid from school so she could get an apartment of her own.
Rosario had been with Hedgepeth in the early hours of Sept. 7, 2012, at The Thrill nightclub on East Rosemary Street, about a half-mile away from the UNC libraries.
Police say Hedgepeth was last known alive at 3 a.m. – eight hours before Rosario alerted emergency dispatchers to the devastating news.
At 11a.m. Sept. 7, 2012, Rosario reported finding Hedgepeth cold and unresponsive inside the apartment that the two shared on the border of Durham and Orange counties. Police have never said how she died, but relatives told The Daily Tar Heel last year that Hedgepeth died from blunt force trauma after being beaten.
Because the scene of the crime is the sliver of Chapel Hill that extends into Durham County, the Police Department is leading the investigation and reporting to the Durham County district attorney’s office. Investigators have partnered with local, state and federal agencies, according to police, with the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory, under the state Department of Justice, analyzing DNA and other evidence collected from the scene.
The state has maintained a database of DNA profiles since 1994. But police agencies in North Carolina have been collecting DNA evidence from arrestees since February 2011, when a law requiring them to do so went into effect.
After consulting with the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit, Chapel Hill police issued a series of theories for the public to consider while pondering whether they have clues that could help. The criminal profilers say the suspect could have known Hedgepeth, possibly lived near her at some point, talked about her in the past or shown a keen interest in the case. The suspect might have been unaccounted for during the early hours of Sept. 7, 2012, and could have left the area suddenly without adequate explanation for the departure.
Hedgepeth’s violent death and the many unanswered questions surrounding it have left her peers grappling with a range of emotions on a college campus where students typically are focused on the life ahead, not sudden finalities.
But it is not Chapel Hill’s only homicide that remains open without an arrest.
Forty-eight years ago, on a hot July day, Suellen Evans, a rising junior from Mooresville who had just enrolled at UNC, was fatally stabbed while taking a shortcut through the Arboretum on campus. Evans, according to her family, had been on her way to her dorm room to pack for a trip home. Though the botanical refuge at the heart of the Chapel Hill campus offers well-tended paths and open spaces for visitors, it was more vine-choked with thickets of bushes five decades ago. Someone stepped out of the bushes and grabbed Evans. Though she fought back and screamed, a nun who rushed to her aid was too late to save her, but got there in time to hear the victim say that a man tried to rape her.
Though police had a long-held suspect in the case – a man who died in while prison for a different crime – no charges were ever brought in the homicide that stirred fear in the placid college town.
Another case that has gone cold is that of Bob Sheldon, the owner of the Internationalist Bookshop, found shot to death in his store on Feb. 21, 1991. The store, founded as a small reading room in 1981, had become a hub of activity and ideas for activists and political discussions.
At the time, some thought the killing was politically motivated because Sheldon was outspoken on a number of issues, never afraid to denounce the powers that be or governments. But investigators also have long theorized that the homicide might have happened during a robbery
Nearly a decade after that, Chapel Hill investigators were perplexed by what happened to a 20-year-old Raleigh man, whose body was found by construction workers outside an isolated Chapel Hill sewage plant on Jan. 1, 2000.
No one could identify the victim for several days. But friends of Michael Gregory Crosby, a 1997 graduate of Raleigh’s Enloe High School, came forward and offered a name.
No one had seen Crosby since a New Year’s Eve party. He had received a cellphone call at that gathering, then told some people that another man was going to take him to buy 100 tablets of Ecstasy, an illegal euphoric drug. Crosby left the party and never returned.
For years after the death, investigators interviewed and reinterviewed people who saw the victim that night.
Police arrested a man in the case, but Carl Fox, the Orange County district attorney at the time, dismissed the murder charge, citing weak circumstantial evidence. The suspect was released before a probable cause hearing, leaving open the possibility of recharging the same person if more evidence was revealed.
No matter how cold an unsolved murder case is in Chapel Hill, investigators routinely mine them for clues.
Though they have not described the Hedgepeth case as cold, law enforcement officers say they hope someone holds a key to the case. As they wait, though, they plan to withhold details they consider telling and key, arguing for the continued sealing of public documents.
“We don’t want the information in the files to compromise the investigation,” Stanback said. “We’ve just got to keep working on it.”