True Crime

How Did Irina Yarmolenko Die?

Courtesy of The Charlotte Observer

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.

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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 physical 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.

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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 Dateline 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.

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