“I’m a boater on the Catawba River. There’s a car off an embankment. There’s a body laying there. I don’t know if they’re alive or not.”
It was the 5th of May 2008. A Monday. At 1.07pm, a call was made to 911, followed by a second call just two minutes later. Just after 1pm that day, Dennis Lovelace and his girlfriend Brenda Pierce found a woman's body on an embankment of the Catawba River, North Carolina, United States. They were jet skiing at the time. Brenda rode her jetski to a baitshop so that she could call 911 and Dennis saw a man working at a nearby construction site and he asked him to call 911.
Police arrived at the scene. They saw the body of a young woman. The young woman was twenty year old Irina Yarmolenko. Her body was found on the embankment next to her car. Her feet were pointing towards the river and her hand was gripping a vine. Both driver side doors of the car were open and the car had struck a stump just above the water line of the river. The front right tire was in a mud puddle. The engine was not running, the car was in neutral. The car keys were found on the ground near the rear of the driver side of the vehicle.
Irina's body, hair and clothing were wet.
Irina Yarmolenko's Car
The first responders who arrived at the scene initially thought Irina had killed herself. But then they discovered there were three ligatures around her neck and determined she could not have done that to herself.
Irina was strangled to death with three ligatures that came from her vehicle. The first was a black drawstring which was consistent with having come from her hooded sweatshirt. This was tied around her neck and knotted in several places. The second was a blue ribbon that matched ribbon found on a bag in her car and the third was a blue bungee cord that was similar to another bungee cord found in the trunk of her car.
Police spoke to people who were in the area. They spoke to Brenda and Dennis and construction workers working on a site close to where Irina was found. They spoke to other people who were walking past as Irina was found off the side of a busy road. They also spoke to a man called Mark Carver. Mark was fishing around 100 yards from where Irina was found.
Mark told police that he did not see or hear anything that was unusual.
Police had to try to establish why Irina was at the Catawba River that day. She lived in Charlotte, North Carolina and was a student at the University of North Carolina. The spot where her body was found at the Catawba River was some twenty miles away from where she lived.
Police retraced her steps that day. At 10.17 am that morning, Irina went to a bank in Charlotte to make a deposit. A few minutes later, at 10.33am, she dropped off donations at a Goodwill in Charlotte. She dropped off several bags of clothes. Irina then went to Jackson's Java, a coffee shop where she worked near the UNC-C campus. She was not scheduled to work that day.
At 11.09am, surveillance footage picked up Irina's car entering the parking lot of a YMCA in Belmont. It circled the parking lot and left at 11.10 am and headed towards the Catawba River. The footage was not clear enough to determine if Irina was driving or if somebody else was in the car with her.
The biggest problem police had from the outset of the case was trying to establish a motive for Irina's murder. She was originally from the Ukraine but moved to the United States with her parents and brother Pavel when she was just a child. She was a popular and smart student and loved to meet new people, travel and learn about different cultures. When her body was found, her death was a result of ligature strangulation and there were no signs of sexual assault and she had not been raped. So the motive was difficult to establish.
Police got a break in the case a few months later when they got a DNA match.
A partial DNA profile was obtained from one of two swabbing taken from the pillar above the driver side rear door of Irina's car. The partial profile was consistent with a mixture which meant that more than one profile was present but the predominant DNA profile matched Mark Carver, the man who was fishing 100 yards from where Irina's body was found.
The swabs from the front passenger door armrest and the interior side front passenger door glass of Irina's car revealed profiles consistent with a mixture and the predominant DNA profile matched a man called Neal Cassada. Neal and Mark were cousins.
The day Irina's body was found, the 5th of May, both Mark and Neal were at the Catawba River. That morning, Mark picked up a salt block. An employee put it in Mark's car as Mark had difficulty carrying heavy objects and then he went to the College Park Pharmacy to get a prescription. That prescription was filled at 10.52 am.After the pharmacy, Mark went to the Catawba River to fish. He had fished there before with his family.
Neal met him at the Catawba River. He wanted to collect the salt block from him. Neal left between noon and 1pm.
Police spoke to both of them and they both said they did not even see Irina or her car that day. Despite multiple interviews and interrogations, they both insisted they were innocent.
When police told Mark that his DNA was found in Irina's car, he said:
“I bet you %1 million my DNA ain’t in that car. I didn’t know that the car was even up there. I can’t help you. I didn’t do it.”
Neal and Mark were charged with first degree murder. A decision was taken to try the two men separately. Neal's Trial was to begin first. But just one day before the Trial was set to begin, Neal had a heart attack and died.
Before Mark's Trial, he was offered a deal to plead guilty to second-degree murder and spend just four to eight years in prison. He said that he could not plead guilty to something that he did not do.
Mark's Trial went ahead.
It was the Prosecution's case that Irina was there that day at the Catawba River as she wanted to take some photographs. While taking photographs, she took compromising photographs of Mark and Neal. The Prosecution believed that Neal and Mark killed Irina and stole the film from her camera so they could get rid of the photographs. Irina's camera was found in the trunk of her car and there was no film inside it.
The Prosecution argued that Mark was so close to where Irina's body was found that it would be impossible that he would not have heard anything. In fact, they had an officer testify that they carried out a test. One officer stood where Mark was fishing and the other stood in the spot where Irina's body was found and they could hear each other talk in a normal tone.
The medical examiner who performed Irina’s Autopsy testified that he didn’t think she could have tied all three bindings before passing out. He determined her cause of death was asphyxiation secondary to ligature strangulation.
The Prosecution presented evidence about the Touch DNA and the DNA match to Mark's DNA profile. They argued that that proved Mark was at the crime scene and touched Irina's car.
The Prosecution's most compelling evidence was the evidence they presented in relation to Mark's police interrogation. One of the Detectives who interviewed Mark recounted the questioning at Trial. The Detective said that Mark was able to describe Irina's height.
The Defense cross examined all the Prosecution witnesses but made a decision not to call any witnesses of their own. They did not enter anything into evidence. It was their case that the Prosecution had failed to prove their case and on foot of that, Mark should be acquitted.
The Jury disagreed. On the 21st of March 2011, they found Mark Carver guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Mark's conviction was upheld in 2012 despite a compelling dissenting opinion of one of the Judges which argued that the Defense motion to dismiss the first degree murder charge due to insufficiency of the evidence should have been granted. Mark's conviction was again upheld in 2013 by the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
In 2019, Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg ruled that questions about DNA evidence and ineffective legal representation during Mark's 2011 trial warranted a new Trial.
It was argued throughout the various Appeals that a number of mistakes were made in the case. The Jury were never shown the interrogation video that the Prosecution relied on when they presented evidence that Mark knew how tall Irina was. Mark's lawyers argued that the video shows that Mark was just repeating what he was being told.
One of their grounds for Appeal was in relation to the Touch DNA. The testing conducted in the case was on Touch DNA samples collected from Irina's car and items on her body. Touch DNA is comprised of skin cells that people naturally shed on surfaces with which they come into contact. These skin cells are generally not visible to the naked eye,but are collected by swabbing items that the perpetrator may have touched.
The Jury did not hear that the day that Irina's body was found, Officer Robert Ellison approached Mark when he was fishing. Before the Officer left, he shook Mark's hand. Officers testified that when they found Irina's body, the car doors were open but when the photographs were taken of the crime scene, they were open in some photographs and closed in others. The car was only swabbed for DNA two months after Irina's death.
Mark's DNA was matched to DNA found on Irina's car. It was not matched to any other DNA including DNA found on the ligatures.
Another ground for Appeal was based on Mark's legal representation. His new lawyers argued that the Jury did not hear that Mark had an IQ of 61 and a reading level of an average first-grader. Furthermore, according to Mark's medical records, he was diagnosed with radial tunnel syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome which left him physically disabled since 1998 so they argued he would not have had the strength to strangle Irina to death.
Mark's conviction was overturned but the charges still stand and a new Trial can be ordered. He posted bond and left the Gaston County jail. District Attorney Locke Bell said that he plans to appeal the ruling:
“I’ve never wavered. And looking at all this evidence I still believe he’s guilty.”
He believes Mark is guilty.
There are a number of different theories about Irina's case. She either killed herself or she was murdered. Was she alone in her car that day when she went to Catawba River? Irina was a strict vegetarian and hated fast food yet a half eaten hamburger from Wendy's was found in the trunk of her car.
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