A 20-year-old man from North Carolina has confessed to killing his coworker doing a hike. Derek Pendergraft was arrested July 26 and faces a second-degree murder charge. The body of the 29-year-old woman, who federal investigators identified as Sarah Ellis from Seminole, Florida, was found Tuesday night near a trail. She had bruising on her neck and was partially nude.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Pendergraft Reported His Coworker Missing Tuesday Evening After a Hike
Derek Pendergraft and Sarah Ellis worked at the Pisgah Inn in Canton, North Carolina, off the Blue Ridge Parkwa. In his first version of the story, Pendergraft told investigators that he and Ellis decided to go for a hike around 4PM Tuesday, July 24. They set off on a public trail near the Inn’s employee housing.
During their walk, it began raining. Pendergraft said Ellis turned back to the Inn, and he decided to keep hiking. About an hour later, he claims he found Ellis’ umbrella and hat on the ground, but no sign of Ellis. Pendergraft told investigators he tried looking for her, then returned to the Inn and told other coworkers that Ellis had disappeared.
The general manager of the Pisgah Inn called police around 7:30PM. First responders found Ellis’ body more than two hours later. She was laying down a hill near a narrow path about half a mile from the property. According to the criminal complaint, she was partially nude and had bruising on her neck and neck.
2. Just 24 Hours Later, Pendergraft’s Story Changed Dramatically
The general manager of the Pisgah Inn called investigators Wednesday the 25th. She told them that Pendergraft had come to her office and confessed to killing Ellis.
Park Service special agent Kirby Styles, who signed the criminal complaint, and FBI special agent W. Gang immediately went back out to the Inn to question Pendergraft. According to the criminal complaint, the agents told Pendergraft he was not under arrest and could not be forced to answer their questions.
But Pendergraft agreed to a recorded interview anyway. He told the investigators that after it started raining and Ellis wanted to turn around, he blacked out. He did not give specifics as to why he may have blacked out, and claims to not remember what happened next. Pendergraft says that after he came back to his senses, he was looking at Ellis’ face and that she appeared dead.
3. An Autopsy Was Planned for Friday to Determine How Sarah Ellis Died
The criminal complaint states that Sarah Ellis did not show any signs of trauma from a physical weapon. There were no gunshot wounds or she did not show any signs of being hit with anything sharp or edged. All investigators said was there were “signs of foul play.”
An autopsy was scheduled for Friday July 27 to determine cause of death. FBI investigators say Ellis’ family had been notified.
4. It’s Unclear What Sort of Relationship Pendergraft Had with Ellis
Asheville local news outlet The Citizen Times reports that the Pisgah Inn employs about 100 workers on a seasonal basis, from April through October. Nearly half of those workers live in dorm-style housing near the Inn. Ellis began working there in May and lived in the provided housing.
Ellis began working at the Inn in May as a pantry cook. Owner Bruce O’Connell told the Citizen Times that because the workers live in close proximity for several months, close bonds tend to develop fast. He said Ellis quickly fit in with the group, but that he did not know what kind of relationship she had with Pendergraft.
5. Pendergraft Was Arrested and Currently Being Held Without Bond
Derek Pendergraft is behind bars at the Buncombe County Detention Center. There is no bond listed, meaning he probably has not had an initial hearing yet. He has no prior criminal history in the county.
Pendergraft is listed as a federal inmate. A representative says that because he is listed as a federal inmate, information about court dates and bonds is not kept on record at the detention center. Heavy.com is working to find additional information about the next steps in the criminal case.