I recently purchased the book, Charlotte True Crime Stories, penned by Charlotte author Cathy Pickens. It’s a great read, full of a varied assortment of stories from Charlotte’s collective past, from cases of fraud, murder, serial killers and missing people. One story that stood out to me was the mysterious case of Irina Yarmolenko. I’m still not quite sure what to think of it.
I remember hearing the story on the news when it first happened back in May 2008. Irina had emigrated to the United States from Ukraine with her family when she was a child. At the time of her death, she was a young 20-year-old college student at UNC Charlotte who was planning to move a few hours away to Chapel Hill to transfer to school there. Her friends called her “Ira.” According to reports, she started her day visiting a bank, dropping off a bag of donations at a nearby Goodwill, and visiting a local coffee shop she had worked at to say goodbye to her coworkers. From there, it appears she drove about 12 miles away to the Catawba River in nearby Belmont. Video surveillance from the local YMCA showed Irina’s blue car passing by around 11:09 a.m., but due to grainy footage you couldn’t tell if she was the only one in the car at that point.
Speculation at the time was that Ira loved the outdoors and may have been heading out there to take some photographs. She accessed the riverfront on a small dirt road located next to a YMCA. Less than two hours later, her lifeless body would be found on the bank of the river.
That same morning, two men, cousins Mark Carver and Neal Cassada were fishing just around the bend from where Ira was found. The men were locals who had been fishing at Catawba their entire lives. Both Carver and Cassada had four children, were former millworkers and neither were working due to disabilities. Cassada had heart problems and couldn’t walk long distances due to shortness of breath, and Carver couldn’t grasp items very well due to numerous surgeries for carpal tunnel syndrome. They enjoyed fishing as a reprieve.
At around 1 p.m., two people on jet skis noticed what looked like a car almost submerged in the water, crunched against a tree stump. The driver’s side door was open and a young woman lay on her back nearby, cords knotted around her neck. It was Ira Yarmolenko. The couple on jet skis were stunned and called 911, while Carver and Cassada continued fishing about a football field length away, unaware of the commotion on the banks of the river. They had been there since around 11:30 that morning.
Ira had died of ligature strangulation, and two of the cords on her neck came from items found in her car—a cord found in her hoodie and a ribbon that came from a tote bag that was tied in a bow around her neck. There was also a bungee cord included in the knots. Investigators concluded she had not been robbed. They talked to everyone in the area of the riverbank that day, including Cassada and Carver. Both men said they hadn’t heard or seen anything unusual. They offered up their fishing licenses to the police during the conversation. The men eventually went to the police station for interviews, and continued denying involvement in the murder. However, seven months after Irina’s death, the two men were arrested. Authorities claimed their DNA had been found on the outside of Irina’s car. They continued to proclaim their innocence.
The men were eventually released to house arrest to await trial. Cassada never made it. He passed away from a heart attack the day before his trial was to start. Carver’s trial began in March 2011. He was convicted of Ira’s murder on March 21, 2011.
This case is baffling to me. Based on the evidence of “touch” DNA of the men being found on the car, I tend to think there could have been some type of transference involved. What motive would the two men have had to kill Irina, and were they even physically capable of doing so? There is also a suicide theory floating around. People think Ira tied the ligatures around her own neck and then put her car into neutral in an attempt to plunge it into the river. But for some reason she ended up on her back in the mud on the riverbank. There was also DNA found on one of the cords on her neck that has never been identified.
Based on some of the questionable evidence, an attorney with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence lobbied to get Carver a new trial. He was granted one and had his conviction overturned in June 2011.
This is a case that kept the media riveted. NBC’s Deadline produced an episode titled “Mystery on the Catawba,” and The Charlotte Observer also did a deep dive into the case in a six-part series titled “Death By the River.”
Do I think Carver and Cassada were guilty? I think it’s highly unlikely. But I also think there may be a murderer out there who has yet to be punished for this crime.
I only realized recently that North Carolina’s oldest death row inmate is an 87-year-old woman named Blanche Taylor Moore. I came upon this realization after watching the Oxygen network’s true-crime show, “Snapped,” a few nights ago, having been intrigued by a promo that it was featuring southern cases.
I remember there being a pretty creepy made-for-TV movie starring actress Elizabeth Montgomery back in the 1990s that told the story of a southern black widow, but I had no idea how much evil permeated from Blanche until I digged a little further into her backstory.
Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore was born in Concord, N.C. and married a young man named James Taylor in 1952. They had two children together, and she began a life-long career working as a cashier at the Kroger chain of grocery stores. Apparently she began an affair with a man named Raymond Reid, the manager of the store she worked at. In 1973, her husband James passed away at age 45 from what doctors thought was a heart attack. Blanche and Reid took their relationship public after her husband died, but it had numerous ups and downs. In 1985, Moore supposedly began a relationship with another Kroger manager, Kevin Denton, but eventually she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and Kroger. She settled out of court with Kroger for $275,000 a few years later.
Moore seemed to present two different sides of herself to the public. Her co-workers at Kroger later described her as crass and lewd, and it’s no secret the head cashier liked to pass the time with male co-workers at the store. But she also cultivated a sweet “church lady” persona, attending regular church services around town and always being willing to serve up pie, banana pudding and sweetened iced tea.
Especially banana pudding.
In April of 1985, while she was still casually dating Raymond Reid, Blanche met Rev. Dwight Moore at a local church. He was pretty quickly smitten with her and clearly had no idea of her troubled past. At the end of May, Reid was admitted to a hospital in Greensboro for severe nausea and vomiting. His condition worsened and he had to be transported across one town over to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. By September, he began recovering, and Blanche talked him into making her the executor of his estate. Not long after, nurses observed Moore bringing Reid treats like milkshakes and banana pudding and feeding them to him. He died in October of 1986, the origins of his illness remaining a mystery to the doctors. Within a month, Blanche had an engagement ring from the Rev. Moore (I have to wonder—did he even know she was visiting a sick lover in the hospital while they were dating?) Wedding plans were put on hold when Rev. Moore became hospitalized with nausea and vomiting. He overcame his bout of illness and the two were eventually married in April 1987. Rev. Moore was back in the hospital before the honeymoon was even over. Blanche continued to visit him in the hospital and bring him food. His organs began failing, and doctors had an idea to test his blood for heavy metals, because he had recently done some gardening and used insecticides.
The test came back positive for arsenic—Rev. Moore had 100 times the normal amount in his body.
Thus began the unraveling of a most curious web of a black widow. Rev. Moore mentioned to investigators that Blanche had a boyfriend who had died of an unknown illness. Five different bodies were exhumed—those of Raymond Reid, Blanche’s father, her mother-in-law, her first husband, and a co-worker. The male co-worker didn’t have any arsenic in his body, but everyone else did. Reid’s arsenic levels were 30 times higher than the normal limit.
On July 18, 1989, Blanche Taylor Moore was arrested and charged with the death of Raymond Reid and assault with a deadly weapon in the case of Rev. Moore.
During the trial, Blanche made sure to dress demurely and wear a pair of oversized glasses. Her defense was to “deny, deny, deny.” She denied about having ever brought Reid or Rev. Moore food in the hospital. She denied every knowing what the bug poison “Anti-Ant,” was, although witnesses had seen her buy it in hardware stores and she even asked Rev. Moore to buy it for her (he had no clue she’d turn around and poison him with it).
Blanche was convicted to death but had her sentence commuted to life in prison in 2010.
I had a hard time trying to figure out exactly why Blanche poisoned so many people. Was it her way of exacting revenge? I guess she could have received life insurance in the case of her first husband but couldn’t find any evidence of that. She did receive part of Reid’s estate, and oddly enough, his sons were fine with her receiving it at the time. They had no idea that she had murdered their father. And she began poisoning Rev. Moore before they were even married. What was the point of that? Part of me wonders if she had an illness where she enjoyed the attention she received when caring for ill loved ones (similar to Munchausen by Proxy). Or maybe she was just plain evil.
Author Jim Shultze wrote a book about Blanche Taylor Moore titled “Preacher’s Girl: The Life and Crimes of Blanche Taylor Moore.” I may have to check it out and see if I can dig deeper into the origins of this case that took place in my home state.
There was a time when I ate, slept and breathed movies on the Lifetime Channel. These days, I’m more apt to binge shows on Investigation Discovery Channel or the Oxygen Network (they are really stepping up their true crime game!) I think it was Lifetime where I first watched the made for television movie “Death of a Cheerleader,” (originally titled “A Friend to Die For), which starred Tori Spelling and Kellie Martin from one of my all-time favorite shows, “Life Goes On.”
When I was scrolling through the available titles on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago, I discovered this gem. Because I’m always happy to procrastinate with a streaming service, I heated up a cup of coffee and plopped down on the couch to stroll down memory lane with “Death of a Cheerleader.” As I watched the opening credits, another name stood out to me—Kathryn Morris. Any “Cold Case” fans out there? Yeah, she was cast in the role of a misunderstood “goth girl” and I wouldn’t have recognized her right away.
“Death of a Cheerleader” begins with Tori Spelling’s character, Stacy, knocking on the door of a stranger’s house, saying her friend “went all weird on her” and asking for a ride home. You can see a shadowy figure nearby through the trees pacing in front of a car. Once she is dropped at home, she is viciously attacked by the person who had followed her home. The movie then proceeds to flash back to a year earlier.
The movie tells the story of a young impressionable student named Angela who is desperate to finally become noticed by her classmates, and determined to do whatever it takes to fit in with “the cool crowd.” That cool crowd includes Stacy Lockwood, a peppy and vivacious cheerleader who also derives great joy in making those around her cower in fear, most of all, her female classmates, and this includes driving the once-meek Angela to violence.
Noticing that the movie was “based on true events,” I pulled out my phone and googled the details as I watched the first part of the movie. The plot for the movie was inspired by the murder of 15-year-old California native Kirsten Costas back in 1984. Her classmate Bernadette Protti was eventually convicted of stabbing Costas to death. The two girls had been classmates at Miramonte High School and according to some, rivals. Protti had endured disappointment after disappointment at school, not making the cheerleading team or the yearbook staff. She felt like people like Costas sailed through life getting everything they wanted based on looks and how much money their families had. She told police she feared Costas was going to start telling people “she was weird,” and that she would become an outcast.
Protti served seven years behind bars and was released from prison in in 1992 at the age of 23. She moved away and eventually changed her name.
In my opinion, “Death of a Cheerleader” did a great job of showcasing the pressure kids put on themselves to be perfect in how school and how bullying and the disintegration of friendships can drive people to unimaginable violence.
By the way, if you want to watch an updated version of the film, it looks like Lifetime is remaking the 1994 version of “Death of a Cheerleader.”
Even though I’m not always crazy about the interface for Amazon Prime Video, I’ll admit I’ve found plenty of TV shows and movies to keep me content during this quarantine. Since cults are a subject that never cease to amaze me, I binged a docuseries I found there called “Cults and Extreme Belief” a few months ago, but decided to share my thoughts on it in case anyone is looking for something new to watch.
Reporter/anchor Elizabeth Vargas hosts the series and conducts interviews with a number of people who spent time in cults and are still processing the emotional and physical scars from doing so. Each episode is about 45 minutes long and the series is rated TV-14. The first episode focuses on NXIVM, led by Keith Raniere and the subject of many news headlines over the past few years. The group was billed as self-help group, but it quickly spiraled into much more than that, even subjecting various female members with a brand bearing the leader’s initials. Other episodes focus on Jehovah’s Witnesses, Children of God, Twelve Tribes, World Peace Unification Sanctuary and FLDS.
I think the one that affected me the most was the episode on the U.N.O.I, or the United Nation of Islam. In this organization, parents are encouraged to send their young children off to work in various businesses owned by the leader, Royall Jenkins. And when I say send their children off to work, I mean their children are loaded into the back of a tractor trailer and carried across the country from their parents in many cases. Jenkins has made his money opening cafes and restaurants all over the United States, and these children and teens are forced to work in these businesses for free.
It doesn’t take you long in the episode to realize this is a human trafficking organization, and if the children try to tell their parents what is happening, the parents are forced to choose between their children and the church. They don’t usually make the choice you hope they would, either. The Twelve Tribes are organized in a similar fashion, using their members for free labor, and subjecting them to physical abuse if they complain.
The last two episodes focus on more of a roundtable discussion amongst the survivors. These episodes are a little unbalanced, because there are a few survivors who more talkative than others so you may not hear from as many people as you’d like. I think this is an interesting and important series, though, because you see how survivors are often pulled into these organizations based on the beliefs of their parents and family members (NXVIM is an exception to this, though), and when they leave, it’s heartbreaking when they endure the shunning that goes along with “betraying” a cult.
As a fan of many of Wondery’s podcasts, I instantly became hooked when “Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic” was first released last fall. I appreciate good investigative reporting, and host Robert Moor actually went out to Oklahoma to meet Joe Maldonaldo-Passage (the name he now goes by) and recorded what transpired during much of his time there. I had never heard of Joe Exotic before the podcast, but Moor’s production, voice and storytelling left me eagerly awaiting each new episode (the series was only five or six episodes originally).
Sure, there were parts that made me cringe, and I absolutely do not agree with breeding and selling large cats. I felt both empathy for Joe (after hearing of what he dealt with as a young adult) and anger towards the narcissism that eventually led to his downfall. It’s also clear Joe mistreated both the animals at his park and his employees, so I’m not one in the “Free Joe Exotic” camp. The podcast series slowly delved into Joe’s feud with Carole Baskin, and her voice is also heard on the podcast, and that is the narrative that the podcast stayed with until the finale.
So when I heard Netflix was planning to release a docuseries called “The Tiger King,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back and relive that world again. It was hard enough the first time around. I watched part of the first episode and turned it off after about 20 minutes. It came across as exploitive and salacious, and I wasn’t sure I liked the direction it was going in. But then as the internet exploded with discussions about the series, I gave in and binged it in a few days. At the time I’m writing this, 64 million households and counting have watched “The Tiger King.” I guess I felt like I needed to go back and give it another try, especially since I already knew the backstory from the podcast and wanted to compare the two. It’s interesting that there were all these journalists working on this story simultaneously over the course of several years, before Joe was even arrested and convicted of murder for hire.
I grew frustrated with the direction of the Netflix series. I understand it’s the work of the filmmakers (and bless them for spending so many hours upon hours interviewing the key players involved) but the second episode, “Cult of Personality,” left me scratching my head. I never knew there were so many people running exotic animal operations in the United States, and they all seem to be more than a little off their rockers. I had also heard about the mystery of Carole Baskin’s missing husband from the podcast, but the documentary seems to have unleashed a whole new level of interest in that case. (I will admit the disappearance is more than a little fishy, but there is no concrete proof of her involvement at this point). I grew frustrated that the documentary also made it look like Joe Exotic was a real country-music star, and I knew from the podcast that Joe can’t even sing, much less write music. I believe the real songwriters are credited at the end of the series but who was actually looking for that in the credits?
And as for the “bonus” episode of “The Tiger King,” where E’s Joel McHale interviews several people from the series, skip it if you haven’t already. He comes across as condescending and treats the whole episode as a big joke. It was completely pointless.
I may feel more connected to the podcast because I’m also a journalist and feel it depicted the story more honestly without trying to be sensational. I was really surprised at the end of the docuseries when statistics about the number of large cats that exist in the United States appeared. That information almost seemed to come out of nowhere. In my opinion (and apparently Carole Baskin’s), Netflix chose to focus more on the crazy antics of the characters rather than the opportunity to educate the public about the importance of preventing the breeding and selling of large cats.
If you want to check out the podcast, it’s available on all podcast platforms. Wondery has released bonus episodes that feature uncut interviews Robert Moor conducted, but after listening to two of them, I don’t feel like they add anything to the story. There are awkward pauses all throughout and it becomes clear why things are edited the way they are in the final product. Texas Monthly also produced a great piece on the story.
I’d also recommend checking out the podcast “Life is Short with Justin Long,” where Long interviews Moor about his experience researching and producing the “Joe Exotic” podcast.
I think I first heard about the Kristin Smart case back in the late 90s on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.” She was a 19-year-old student at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. The Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Kristin was ready to unwind and blow off some steam. She attended a party thrown by a local fraternity, and after walking back towards her dorm with a few other students, was never seen again.
24 years later, we still don’t know what happened to Kristin. But according to recent news reports, the mother of Kristin Smart has been told to prepare for new and breaking details about the case. When I learned that a new investigative podcast does a deep dive into Kristin’s life and the theories surrounding her disappearance, I knew I had to check it out. I was pretty surprised with what the podcast uncovered. And I’m only on Episode 3.
I’m not going to get into too many details, because I recommend you check out the podcast “Your Own Backyard; The Disappearance of Kristin Smart” yourself, especially if you liked Payne Lindsey’s coverage of Tara Grinstead’s disappearance in the “Up and Vanished” podcast.
But here are a few things I didn’t know going into the podcast:
Investigators have always had a suspect in the case, a young man who was supposedly the last person seen with her on that walk home. That young man had a black eye in the days following her disappearance, and he gave three different explanations as to how he got that bruise. When cadaver dogs were taken through the Cal Poly dorms days later (because it took campus police almost a week to report her missing), they hit on the corner of the mattress in the dorm room belonging to this young man who was the last person seen with her. Unfortunately, by that time, the rooms had already been thoroughly cleaned by college janitorial staff because students had gone home for the summer.
There is so much more circumstantial evidence that points to this suspect, and the host of “Your Own Backyard,” California native Chris Lambert, covers it all. He was in elementary school when Kristin first went missing and has grown up driving past the billboards featuring the young girl’s smiling face. He interviews her family, her closest friends, and scores of young women who knew the suspect in the case and are not surprised that he may have taken advantage of a young intoxicated college girl leaving a party. In fact, most of the women won’t use their own names in the podcast because they fear retribution by the suspect.
I have a feeling Lambert’s reporting may have put the final pieces of this puzzle together. I plan on finishing the rest of the episodes this week to find out more.
Round-ups are some of my favorite posts to read, and hopefully this one will be no exception. In this post, I’ve gathered up my top five posts all about true crime–whether it’s discussing theories behind the addiction to missing people or specific cases that have stuck with me over the years.
Situational awareness. A glimpse into the dark side of humanity. The adrenaline rush. In this post, I take a deep dive into Three Reasons Female Writers are Addicted to True Crime.
The Case of Mike Williams. This story out of Florida intrigued me from the moment I learned about it, from the shifty wife to the “best friend” who sold him a hefty life insurance policy before he went missing, to the theory that Williams fell into a lake during a fishing trip and was eaten by alligators. Nope and nope. The update post shed light on recent developments.
Why I find the Parcast podcast Unsolved Murders is so intriguing.
As a mother, this case haunts me. Hopefully the loved ones of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman can find closure soon.
It took 18 years, but justice seems to have finally been served in the Mike Williams case. I first wrote about the story in this post, “The Absurd Alligator Story: An Update on the Disappearance of Mike Williams.” As I stated in that post, it was pretty clear from the get-go who was responsible for the disappearance of Mike, a 31-year-old doting father and husband to wife Denise.
I never believed the theory that Mike disappeared while duck hunting on Lake Seminole in the early morning hours before he and Denise were to set out on an anniversary trip, nor did I believe that he had been eaten by alligators. All the evidence pointing to foul play was circumstantial, however, and when his wife decided to have him declared dead so she could “move on with her life,” that didn’t make a whole lot of sense either. She could have at least pretended that she missed her husband.
It was pretty obvious that Denise probably conspired to have her husband “disappear,” especially it was revealed that her husband’s best friend, Brian Winchester,” had sold Mike a hefty life insurance policy not long before his disappearance. It also didn’t help optics when Denise married Brian a few years later. It wasn’t until she most likely turned on him during their divorce proceedings that he decided to finally admit to murdering Mike and lead investigators to the body, which was nowhere near Lake Seminole.
In February of this year, Denise was sentenced to life in prison, plus thirty years for helping plot his murder. After years of manipulating Brian Winchester and engaging in an extramarital affair with him, he finally lured Mike out duck hunting and then shot him and buried his body a few miles from the home of Mike’s mother in December 2000. According to Brian, the whole thing was supposed to be staged as an accident, with Brian shoving Mike out of the boat and into the water, where he would likely drown due to wearing a pair of rubber waders. When Mike didn’t drown, and struggled to stay afloat, Brian panicked and shot him from the boat, later removing Mike’s body and burying it elsewhere.
That part I found most chilling about Winchester’s testimony is how Denise told him she would rather be a “rich widow than a poor divorcee.” How he could go on and marry someone who would actually say that out loud is beyond my comprehension. Brian told the jury that he and Denise never discussed what exactly had happened to Mike, and she pretended like the event had never happened. I imagine all that pretending caught up to them and took a toll on their marriage, especially since Brian had to live with the knowledge of what he had done to his unsuspecting best friend all those years earlier.
In exchange for testifying against Denise, Brian received immunity in Mike’s murder case but received 20 years for kidnapping Denise and holding her hostage one evening during the time when they were separated.
I’m glad both responsible parties are now behind bars where they belong, and Mike’s family was finally able to lay their son to rest.
A few months ago, I got the opportunity to attend the writing conference of a lifetime. I had heard about Writers Police Academy, which allows writers to learn about police procedure and investigations from law enforcement experts. But when I learned this year’s academy would focus all on the crime of murder, and that it was only three hours away from where I live, I hopped on registration the second it opened. The conference lasted four days and was crammed full of keynotes, networking events and classes that took place both at our hotel and at the Sirchie Training Facilities in Youngsville, N.C.
I took classes on things like “Murder Mayhem,” “Buried Bodies,” “Glorious Shoes: Footwear Evidence,” “Prints on the Page,” “The Art of Interrogation” and more. I also was fortunate enough to land an assignment detailing my experience in WOW! Women on Writing’s Fall e-zine, which explores the dark and twisty side of writing. Read my article here and then check out the other articles chock full of useful information on writing about mystery, thriller, crime and suspense. You won’t regret it.
These days, I listen to podcasts more than I listen to music while I’m working out, doing chores around the house or driving. I find my podcasts through word of mouth from friends, social media ads and from other podcasts. If you’re looking for new podcasts to binge, here are a few of my recommendations!
For the Person Looking to Pivot.
Second Life. Hosted by Hillary Kerr, this podcast features weekly interviews with women “who’ve made major career changes and fearlessly mastered the pivot.” The first episode I listened to featured musician/actress Mandy Moore, and after that, I was hooked. I love hearing all these stories of how women paved their own way and found the ultimate joy and happiness in their careers. From nutritionist and celebrity health coach Kelly LeVeque to journalist and former CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin, these interviews are full of inspiration and encouragement.
For the True Crime Junkie
Cold. If you’re obsessed with true crime, chances are you’ve heard of the Susan Cox Powell story. Unfortunately, you also know her body has never been found, and all of the key players in the case are no longer with us. This in-depth look at the case, from the beginning of Susan’s relationship with her eccentric husband Josh Powell to the day she disappeared, takes the listener all the way to present day. I binged all 18 episodes in about a week, if that tells you anything about how addictive it is. This podcast features never-before heard audio with both Josh and Susan Powell and Josh’s father, Steve, who had an unhealthy obsession with Susan. This podcast is stunning and riveting all at once.
For the Budding Entrepreneur
Goal Digger Podcast. I started listening to Jenna Kutcher’s podcast as a way to get tips on personal development in my marketing day job. What I got was so much more. From interviews with movers and shakers in the business world (again, mostly women), to tangible podcasts like “Launch Your Dream Biz in Just 90 Minutes Per Day,” I come back to this one again and again while I’m exercising because it’s so full of motivation and enthusiasm.
For the Person Obsessed with Eating Healthy
I love, love, love The Hungry Girl, and her podcast “Chew the Right Thing,” is just as practical and delightful as Lisa Lillian, the woman behind the brand. Each week she and her team members Jamie and Mike tackle topics like “The Top 8 Ways to Overcome a Weight-Loss Plateau” and “The Breakfast Awards Episode,” which are full of great product reviews and tips. Warning though, they have a taste-testing section in each episode that might make you ready to head to the grocery store and have a snack after you listen.
For the Seeker of Great Storytelling
Imagined Life. This is storytelling at its finest. Co-hosted by Robbie Daymond and Virginia Madsen, each episode walks you through an immersive journey of a world-famous person. The hook? You don’t get to find out who the person is until the very end—unless of course, you guess the person first! So many of these episodes surprised me and even had me shedding a tear or two! My personal favorite: “The Handler.”
I’m always on the hunt for a great podcast. What are some of your favorites?