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Questions remain in Yarmolenko murder mystery

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Ira Yarmolenko's killing is a mystery that spans about two hours and 16 miles through Charlotte - a hidden place and time that investigators have tried to piece together through witness accounts and forensic evidence.

Following the arrests last week of two Gaston County residents - Mark Bradley Carver, 40, and Neal Leon Cassada Jr., 54 - police said very little about evidence in the case and many important questions about the Yarmolenko's death remain unanswered.

People familiar with the case have speculated about Yarmolenko's death throughout the seven-month investigation. While the arrests could ultimately answer one important question - Who? Those without access to evidence in the case are still wondering ‘why?' and ‘how?'

Investigators have released no details about potential connections between Yarmolenko and the men accused of killing her.
Depending on what investigators have uncovered, those details could be revealed in discovery or in a courtroom early next year. We may never understand the reasons for her murder.How was Ira killed?

The cause of Ira Yarmolenko's death was asphyxiation, which means her body was deprived of oxygen because she was prevented from breathing normally, according to Mount Holly Police.

But investigators have not said how Yarmolenko was prevented from breathing nor have they mentioned any possible weapons recovered at the crime scene.

Investigators and the jet skiers who discovered Yarmolenko's body said there were no obvious injuries to her body like bruising or rope burns on her neck.

Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell said Yarmolenko was killed in Gaston County, but no one has said if Yarmolenko died before or after her dark blue Saturn rolled down a steep embankment and crashed into a stump on the banks of the Catawba River.

Her body was found on the ground outside of the open driver-side door. The tall grass surrounding her body was knocked down as though there was a struggle, according to a jet skier that found her.

What connects Ira to those accused?
Early in the investigation, Mount Holly Police Chief David Belk said detectives found evidence that someone else was in Yarmolenko's car when it arrived in Gaston County.

Police have suggested that Yarmolenko was abducted somewhere between Mount Holly and the University area.
But at a press conference last week, Belk would not say if he believed Carver and Cassada abducted Yarmolenko. They have not been charged with kidnapping.

And Belk would not say if Yarmolenko was targeted or chosen at random for the crime. Police have not said if Yarmolenko had any relationship to the suspects. Yarmolenko's friends and family interviewed by the Gazette were not aware of anyone that she knew in Gaston County and could not think of any reason that she would visit the area.

What was the motive?
At the crime scene, Police found Yarmolenko's purse in the car. Her keys were found on the ground near her body and Belk said there was no evidence of a robbery. The state has conducted an autopsy, but police have not said if they found evidence of sexual assault.

Dennis Lovelace, one of the jet skiers that discovered the body, said Yarmolenko's clothing had not been disturbed. She didn't appear to have been raped, he said. But Lovelace said he and his girlfriend Brenda Pierce might have interrupted an attempted robbery or rape.

Carver said in a jailhouse interview on the day of his arrest that he and Cassada were fishing nearby on the banks of the Catawba River, when Yarmolenko was found. He said they heard a noise in the distance, but nothing that alarmed them. Carver said he and his cousin had nothing to do with Yarmolenko's death.

The defendants' families do not believe them capable or murder. They say Carver and Cassada like to fish on the Catawba River, but they rarely crossed it on a trip into Charlotte. Belk would not discuss any possible motives for the crime.

What evidence do police have?
Carver said he and Cassada voluntarily submitted saliva for DNA analysis, thinking it would clear their names, but he said investigators told him that they found a match in Yarmolenko's car.

Police have not confirmed the existence of DNA evidence. State labs did conduct a DNA analysis on evidence, according to Belk.
Two pillows were found in the back of Yarmolenko's car, but police said she probably tried to give her old pillows to Goodwill, but the store would not accept them. Police have not said whether a pillow might have been used to kill her.

Police also examined the black box in Yarmolenko's dark blue Saturn. Like the black box in an airplane, a car's computer records stores information before a crash.

The black box revealed that Yarmolenko's car traveled down an embankment toward the Catawba River at 15 mph, with someone sitting in the driver's seat and the seat belt was engaged. Also, the car was turned off and started again at the crime scene, according to the black box.

So far, none of the evidence released by police points to the suspects now in custody. As discovery takes place, prosecutors must allow defendants to see the evidence against them.

You can reach Business Editor Daniel Jackson at 704-869-1833.

The players:

Irina "Ira" Yarmolenko: A UNC Charlotte student, who was killed in Mount Holly on May 5, three days after her 20th birthday. She was born in Ukraine, but her family moved to the states in 1996.

Neal Cassada Jr.: A Mount Holly resident accused of killing Yarmolenko, with his cousin. Cassada could undergo a psychological evaluation after he appeared unable to communicate during a first appearance in court last week.

Mark Carver: A Gastonia resident and Cassada's cousin, he is also charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. In a jailhouse interview, Carver said he and Cassada we're fishing near the crime scene, but were not involved in her death.

Locke Bell: Gaston County District Attorney who reviewed the case against Carver and Cassada with the Mount Holly Police Department.

David Belk: Mount Holly Police Chief in charge of the seven-month investigation into Yarmolenko's death.

Pavel Yarmolenko: Ira's brother and a graduate student at Duke University, who has worked closely with law enforcement and the media throughout the investigation.

On the day of her death, Ira Yarmolenko was seen on campus taking a final exam at 9:45 a.m. At 10:18 a.m., she stopped at her credit union to make a deposit, and then she dropped off some items at a Goodwill store on University City Boulevard at 10:39 a.m.
She was last seen at Jackson's Java at 10:50 a.m., a café near campus where she worked as a barista. Police say Yarmolenko told staff she would be moving to Chapel Hill and gave them some farewell gifts.
About two hours later, two jet skiers found her body lying next to her car, which had crashed on the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly.


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