It was May 5, 2008, at that time. it’s Monday. A 911 call was placed at 1:17 PM, and two minutes later, another call was placed. Dennis Lovelace and Brenda Pierce discovered a woman’s body on a Catawba River embankment in North Carolina, United States, shortly after 1pm that day. At the time, they were jet skiing. Dennis saw a man working at a nearby construction site and asked him to call 911 as Brenda took her jetski to a bait shop to call 911.
The police showed up on the scene. They observed a young woman’s body. Irina Yarmolenko, a twenty-year-old woman, was the young person. On the embankment next to her car, her body was discovered. Her hand was holding onto a vine, and her feet were pointing in the direction of the river. The car’s driver-side doors were both open, and it had hit a stump that was just above the river’s water level. The right front tire was stuck in some mud. The car was in neutral and the engine was not running.
Near the rear of the driver’s side of the car, the car keys were discovered on the ground.
Irina’s body, hair and clothing were wet
When first responders arrived on the scene, they initially believed Irina had committed suicide. They concluded she could not have done that to herself after finding three ligatures around her neck. Irina was killed by being suffocated with three ligatures that were brought from her car. The first one was a black drawstring that appeared to have originated from her hooded sweatshirt. This was knotted several times and tied around her neck. The second item was a blue ribbon that matched a bag’s blue ribbon, and the third was a blue bungee cord that matched another bungee cord she discovered in the car’s trunk.
Police interacted with nearby residents. They spoke with Brenda, Dennis, and workers on a construction site nearby where Irina was discovered. Irina was discovered off the side of a busy road, and they started talking to other people who were passing by. They also had a conversation with Mark Carver. About 100 yards from where Irina was discovered, Mark was fishing.
According to Mark, there was nothing unusual that he heard or saw.
Irina was at the Catawba River that day, so police had to try to figure out why. She attended the University of North Carolina and resided in Charlotte, North Carolina. She lived about 20 miles from the spot where her body was discovered at the Catawba River.
Police followed her path again that day. Irina visited a bank in Charlotte at 10:17 a.m. to make a deposit. She left donations at a Goodwill in Charlotte a short time later, at 10.33 a.m. She left several bags of clothing behind. Irina left and went to her place of employment, Jackson’s Java, a coffee shop close to the UNC-C campus. That day, she wasn’t supposed to report to work.
Irina’s car was captured on camera entering the Belmont YMCA’s parking lot at 11:09 a.m. At 11:10 a.m., it departed from the parking lot and moved in the direction of the Catawba River. It was impossible to tell from the video whether Irina was behind the wheel or if there was another passenger.
Finding a reason for Irina’s murder was the biggest issue police faced right away in the investigation. She was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the United States when she was a young child along with her parents and brother Pavel. She was a popular and intelligent student who cherished meeting new people, travelling, and discovering various cultures.
She had not been sexually assaulted or raped when her body was discovered, and the cause of death was ligature strangulation. So it was challenging to determine the motivation.
A DNA match provided a breakthrough for the police a few months later in the investigation.
One of two swabs taken from the pillar above the driver-side rear door of Irina’s car yielded a partial DNA profile. Although more than one profile was present due to the partial profile’s consistency with a mixture, the predominate DNA profile matched Mark Carver, the man who was fishing 100 yards from where Irina’s body was discovered.
Irina’s car’s front passenger door armrest and interior side front passenger door glass swabs produced profiles consistent with a mixture, and the DNA profile that stood out most closely matched a man named Neal Cassada. Mark and Neal were related.
Both Mark and Neal were at the Catawba River on May 5, the day Irina’s body was discovered. Mark selected a salt block that day. Mark had trouble lifting heavy objects, so a coworker put it in his car before he went to the College Park Pharmacy to get a prescription. At 10.52 am, that prescription was filled. Mark went to the Catawba River to fish after the pharmacy. With his family, he had gone fishing there before.
Near the Catawba River, Neal ran into him. He requested the salt block from him to be collected. Neal departed between 12:00 and 1:00.
When both of them were questioned by police, they both admitted that they had not even seen Irina or her car that day. Both of them insisted they were innocent despite being subjected to numerous interviews and questions.
When Mark learned that his DNA had been discovered in Irina’s vehicle, he said:
“I’ll wager $1,000,000 that my DNA isn’t in that car. The fact that the car was even there was unknown to me. I am unable to assist you. It wasn’t me.”
First-degree murder charges were brought against Neal and Mark. It was decided to hold separate trials for the two men. First up was Neal’s Trial. But Neal suffered a heart attack and passed away the day before the Trial was scheduled to start.
Before his trial, Mark was given the option to admit guilt to second-degree murder in exchange for serving only four to eight years in jail. He asserted that he could not enter a guilty plea for an act that he did not commit.
Mark’s Trial went ahead
Irina was at the Catawba River that day to take some pictures, according to the prosecution’s case. She captured compromising images of Mark and Neal while taking pictures. The prosecution claimed that Neal and Mark murdered Irina and stole her camera’s film in order to destroy the pictures. No film was found in Irina’s camera when it was discovered in the car’s trunk.
The prosecution contended that given Mark’s proximity to the scene of Irina’s body discovery, it was impossible for him to remain silent. They even called an officer to the stand to confirm that they conducted a test. They could hear each other speaking in a normal tone while one officer stood where Mark was fishing and the other stood where Irina’s body was discovered.
Irina’s autopsy’s medical examiner testified in court that he didn’t believe she could have tied all three bindings before passing out. He discovered that she had died from asphyxiation as a result of ligature strangulation.
Evidence regarding the Touch DNA and the DNA match to Mark’s DNA profile was provided by the prosecution. They contended that demonstrated Mark’s presence at the crime scene and contact with Irina’s vehicle.
The prosecution’s testimony regarding Mark’s police interrogation was its strongest piece of supporting evidence.
A Detective who spoke with Mark recalled the interrogation during the trial. Mark was able to describe Irina’s height, according to the Detective.
Despite deciding not to call any of their own witnesses, the Defense cross-examined every witness for the prosecution.
They didn’t submit any evidence at all. Their argument was that the prosecution had not proven its case, and as a result, Mark should be exonerated.
The jury was in disagreement. Mark Carver was found guilty on March 21 and given a life sentence in prison.
Despite a strong dissenting opinion from one of the judges who 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 upheld in 2012. In 2013, North Carolina’s Supreme Court once more upheld Mark’s conviction.
Judge Christopher Bragg of the Superior Court ruled in 2019 that a new trial was necessary due to concerns with the DNA evidence and Mark’s 2011 trial’s ineffective legal counsel.
Throughout the various Appeals, it was argued that the case contained a number of errors. The interrogation video that the prosecution used as proof that Mark was aware of Irina’s height was never shown to the jury. According to Mark’s attorneys, the video demonstrates that he was merely repeating what was being said to him.
Their use of the Touch DNA was one of their grounds for appeal. Touch DNA samples taken from Irina’s car and objects on her person were tested in the case. Skin cells that people naturally shed on surfaces they come into contact with make up touch DNA. The majority of the time, these skin cells cannot be seen with the naked eye; instead, they are discovered by swabbing objects that the offender may have touched.
DNA discovered on Irina’s car was matched with DNA from Mark. None of the DNA, including DNA on the ligatures, could be matched to it. Mark’s legal counsel was a further basis for the appeal. His new attorneys contended that the jury was not informed that Mark had an IQ of 61 and reading comprehension comparable to that of a first-grader. In addition, according to
According to Mark’s medical records, he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and radial tunnel syndrome in 1998, which rendered him physically incapable and led to claims that he couldn’t have strangled Irina to death.
The charges remain valid despite Mark’s conviction being overturned, and a new trial may be requested. He exited the Gaston County jail after posting bond. District Attorney Locke Bell declared his intention to challenge the judgement:
I’ve never wavered. And looking at all this evidence I still believe he’s guilty
He believes Mark is guilty
There are numerous theories surrounding Irina’s case. She either committed suicide or was murdered. Was she driving alone to Catawba River on that particular day? Irina was a strict vegetarian who despised fast food, yet a half-eaten Wendy’s hamburger was discovered in the trunk of her car.
Irina, did you meet anyone at the Catawba River? In the days following Irina’s murder, one of her friends told police that she was a very trusting person who was known to pick up hitchhikers and walk through the woods alone.
Or did someone who was already at the River decide to murder Irina? If this is the case, the motivation is unknown. The Prosecution argued in Mark’s case that Irina took compromising photographs of Mark and Neal, but no evidence of this was presented. Irina’s case is still ongoing.