CHAPEL HILL — “Have faith” has been their uniting principle through the past year.
In this age of abundant electronic trackers – mobile phones, credit cards, security cameras, encoded building keys – friends of Faith Hedgepeth, the UNC-Chapel Hill student found dead in an off-campus apartment a year ago, wonder how her killer could have escaped without leaving some recorded trace providing investigators a path to an arrest.
But on the anniversary of Hedgepeth’s death, no arrest has been made and Chapel Hill police investigators continue to keep key details from the public, including how she was killed.
This week, police again released information about DNA evidence pointing to a male suspect who likely knew Hedgepeth, but law enforcement officers have persuaded a Durham judge to seal 911 calls, search warrants and medical examiner reports – typically public documents that 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-CH 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 nearly 30,000 students to the 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 even rarer. Cases in which no arrests have been made are even more exceptional — since 1965, Chapel Hill has only had three in addition to Hedgepeth.
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.
In the statement issued last week, police acknowledged the anniversary of Hedgepeth’s death, stated they understood the public’s thirst for information, expressed concern that release of details could compromise the investigation and asked for the public’s assistance.
“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.”
Biggest hurdle is time
Elena Hunt, a UNC-CH junior from Lumberton who is a member of the campus sorority to which Hedgepeth was inducted posthumously, Alpha Pi Omega,said last week that 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 reveal something that provides 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.”
Though college students often keep irregular hours, often traveling alone late at night or early in the morning, Hunt said she and her friends renewed their focus on safety as the anniversary approached. They go out of their way to offer rides to each other. Late at night, they try to remember to text one another so someone will know when they have arrived safely at intended destinations.
Hedgepeth, according to friends and police reports, spent much of her last night like an ordinary college student, studying at the library and then heading to a nightclub in downtown Chapel Hill, where she danced with friends until early in the morning.
The 19-year-old biology major from Hollister, who came to Chapel Hill as an academic standout from the tiny Halifax County community about 70 miles north of Raleigh, was a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe — the third-largest American Indian tribe in North Carolina.
Though she was a scholarship student, Hedgepeth struggled with her studies her sophomore year and took a semester off. But by the start of the 2012 fall semester, the determined student had taken summer courses while also working at the Red Robin restaurant off U.S. 15-501 in Durham, not far from the Orange County border, and was on her way to catching up with her classmates.
.During that summer, 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 away from the burger joint and several miles from the UNC campus. Hedgepeth was still there in early September, 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.
Investigators have partnered with local, state and federal agencies, according to police, with the N.C. State Crime Laboratory, under the state Department of Justice, analyzing DNA and other evidence collected from the scene.
After consulting with the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit, Chapel Hill police have issued a series of theories for the public to consider while pondering whether they might harbor clues. 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.
As investigators tend to their work, friends and admirers of Hedgepeth worked to celebrate a life that ended too violently and too early.
On Saturday evening, they met at the Bell Tower on the UNC-CH campus. The ceremony, which brought remarks from new UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and students who knew Hedgeperh, was a somber mix of words and music.
Hedgepeth’s father and other family were among those in attendance. Even though no arrest has been made, family members said they have faith in the investigation.
They then walked across the campus, where Hedgepeth had high ambitions for a long and prosperous life.
At the Old Well, a landmark on the Chapel Hill campus, they laid white carnations, remembering a friend, a student, a small-town girl whose life — and death — will be seminal in their college experience.