• True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: The Unsolved Murder of Virginia Olson in North Carolina

    Virginia Olson

    The University of North Carolina at Asheville will always have a special place in my heart, because it was at that small college that I came into my own as a journalist. The small class sizes afforded me the ability to work closely with other students and talented professors who wanted me to succeed. For three years I worked on the campus newspaper, The Blue Banner, honing my reporting skills, interviewing students and administrators, working late nights at the office with only my jumbled notes and a miniature coffee pot to keep me company. I eventually became the features editor and then the news editor, assigning stories to reporters and perfecting my copy editing and computer software skills.

    UNC-Asheville, courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

    But I have a confession to make. During that entire time I worked for the campus newspaper, and took courses in the mass communication and women’s studies departments, I had no idea that the specter of an unsolved murder of a female student from the 1970s loomed over the university. I only recently discovered this as I was researching missing persons cases for my podcast.

    From The Blue Banner archives

    Her name was Virginia “Ginger” Olson, and she was a 19-year-old dramatics major at the college. She was described as quiet, and friendly. On Sunday, April 15, 1973, she left her room at the Craig Dormitory to spend time studying just off campus. She walked through the Asheville-Biltmore Botanical Gardens (now known as The Botanical Gardens at Asheville) and up a hill to a spot where you could see both the gardens and a view of the campus.

    The Botanical Gardens at Asheville, Courtesy of Flickr

    The chancellor’s home, called the UNC-Asheville Pisgah House, now sits on that location.

    The Pisgah House

    None of Olson’s classmates were alarmed when she didn’t return to campus for lunch. Not everyone ate in the dining hall on the weekends. They only learned something terrible had happened to Olson when investigators arrived on campus later that evening. That afternoon, two local high school students discovered Olson’s body. Her t-shirt had been ripped to shreds and used to bind her hands and feet. The rest of her clothes lay scattered nearby. She had died by stab wounds to the heart and neck from a pocket knife that was still there. Olson was also sexually assaulted.

    Unfortunately, she died around the same time that the Watergate scandal broke so that story overshadowed any headlines Olson’s murder may have received. It sounds like a cold case squad in Asheville still has evidence in their archives (including Olson’s clothing) so there is still a chance the murder could be solved. The only real information I could get about this case came from articles published in the last few years from The Blue Banner staff (they did an excellent job of reporting the story!) I read in one of the articles that there were persistent rumors that a local patient from the nearby psychiatric facility Highland Hospital was responsible for the murder, but the alleged suspect was also the child of a prominent Asheville family and there may have been a cover-up. I couldn’t find any solid evidence to back that up, though.

    Either way, this is a sad story all around and I hope that one day, justice can be served for Virginia Olson. In 2013 a university groundskeeper and professor worked to erect a memorial garden in her honor, complete with three plaques and three benches. It’s a fitting tribute, and a way to soften the blow of what Olson’s last moments in a quiet and tranquil study spot must have been like.  

  • Lifestyle

    This Time Last Year

    From the August 2020 issue of Lake Norman CURRENTS.

    This time last year I was returning from a vacation in Florida, about a month into working this job, scheduling meetings, helping my daughter pack for a weeklong sleepaway camp and making a list of which school supplies I should pick up at what store. There were also a few afternoons I snuck away to our neighborhood pool for a little relaxation.

    It’s now the Summer of 2020 and I spent the week anxiously awaiting news of what the beginning of the school year will look for my kids. I was nervous for both myself and for them, as I have a rising freshman and junior. Seeing the sadness on their faces as they’ve missed the end-of-year celebrations, spring sports seasons and their friends since mid-March has been heartbreaking. I haven’t shopped for school supplies and camp was cancelled this year, and the pandemic has prevented so many teens from getting the summer jobs they’d had high hopes for.

    This time last year looked a lot different for them. My daughter was anxiously awaiting her road test to obtain her driver’s license and driving around town so she could finish her required hours. She and her brother met three times a week in the early morning with their cross country team to practice. They could walk to our pool whenever they wanted, or meet friends to shoot hoops at the nearby public basketball court.

    Thanks to COVID-19, this summer has looked a lot different for our kids. They are no longer groaning about shopping for back to school supplies, knowing they will start the school year off with remote schedule that keeps them home at least until Labor Day. They are hearing news of more and more people receiving positive COVID tests, and worrying if they forget to leave the house without a mask or hand sanitizer. They are sad because so many neighborhood pools have opted to remain closed for the summer, because they aren’t large enough to adhere to the social distancing guidelines. They long for the days when the basketball hoops were still up in the neighborhood park, and they wonder why they ever complained about not wanting to go outside in the heat. They’d give anything now to be outside in the heat with their friends without fear.

    This time last year I was living with the everyday normal stressors most adults deal with day by day. I had no idea of what was to come. But as we work through the very first pandemic most of us have ever lived through, I believe we will come out stronger. Our kids will be more resilient. They will appreciate the things they used to take for granted. For some, it could be a defining moment of their lives, if they choose to make it one.

    This time next year will look a lot different. I hope.

  • Lifestyle

    The Not-So-Secret Life of Pets

    Sonic and Ruby

    I don’t like to think about what my life would be like without my pets.

    I’ve had a dog for as long as I can remember, and most of them have been pretty small. I guess as a petite person myself I’m hesitant to get a pet that could potentially be taller than me while standing on hind legs. My husband and I started out with a small chihuahua I brought into the marriage, and while I’m sure Daniel was hesitant about Odie at first (we all know the bad rap chis can get) he eventually grew to love that boy. When Odie passed away after a long life in 2010, we swore up and down we would take a break from having a pet. We were too heartbroken and tried to convince ourselves that we would be able to take more last-minute trips, etc. without the responsibility of finding a dog sitter, etc.

    Two months later, I went to a local dog rescue for an article I was reporting on. I guess you can tell where this story is going . . . the first “person” to greet me was a wire-haired black terrier mix. There was something in his eyes that drew me to him immediately and I felt bad for him sitting in a crate out in the August heat. Within a few days, we filled out an application and had our home and yard inspected by the rescue. Sonic came home with us and our kids (who were 7 and 4 at the time) were thrilled to have another dog in the house.

    That dog has become my faithful companion. We joke that he’s like a sheepdog and herds me from room to room. He will sleep underneath my desk while I’m working, and when he feels like it’s time for me to get up, he will “herd” me to the couch, where he immediately curls up beside me. In the mornings, he herds us to the food bowls. He herds us to the side door when he’s ready to take a walk. We have no idea how old he is now, just that he was pretty young when we got him. It’s hard for me to see him start to walk a little slower and take longer naps, but we are grateful that he came to join our family.

    Six years ago, we started talking about getting a puppy to join the family, and because I had secretly always wanted a dachshund, I convinced my daughter to get one for her birthday. We found an adorable long-haired puppy we named Ruby and brought her home in 2014. As you can imagine, Sonic was a bit grumpy with that new arrival, but they eventually worked things out. Now I have two dogs that lie under my desk and have learned just how persistent dachshunds can be when they want food (which is 24/7 by the way). Their two personalities keep us pretty amused, because they both are completely different. She follows my husband around and will sass at him if she doesn’t get her way, something she never does with me. She howls when my daughter plays the piano. She also can be in a dead sleep and hear the refrigerator drawer that holds the cheese open and be in the kitchen in seconds. We keep saying we’re going to enter her in the Downtown Mooresville’s Weiner Dog Race (held each year in October), but I don’t know that we will ever follow through on that promise.

    Pets are such a fun and memorable part of our lives. I only wished they could be with us longer.

  • podcasts,  True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Intriguing Podcast Episodes to Check Out

    It’s no secret that I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts. A lot. I’ve shared recommendations for some of my favorites in here and here. Today as I was on my walk, listening to yet another podcast, I thought it might be fun to share some of the most intriguing episodes I’ve come across lately. Here are some you should check out if you haven’t already:

    Unsolved Murders

    Hazel & Nancy Frome Pt. 1 and 2

    Hazel and Nancy Frome

    Description of the episode:

    In April 1938, the nation was shocked by the news that Hazel Frome and her daughter, Nancy—two innocent, beautiful Bay Area socialites—turned up dead in a ditch outside of El Paso. Even more shocking, there were signs that the women had been tortured before their deaths.

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/unsolved-murders-true-crime-stories/id1122804248?i=1000474323554

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/unsolved-murders-true-crime-stories/id1122804248?i=1000475060520

    More information on this story:

    https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/unsolved-crimes/

    The Vanished

    Episode: Jason Dies

    Jason Dies

    Description of the episode:

    In June of 1991, 20-year-old Jason Dies returned from Operation Desert Storm when the USS Horne docked in San Diego, California.  He was now on leave and had a month to report to a new duty station in Pensacola, Florida.  Jason never showed up and was classified as an unauthorized absentee and later a deserter.  Before Jason disappeared, he mailed some packages to his family back in Louisiana.  He phoned them and asked them not to open the packages.  The mystery of what was in the packages and what happened to Jason loomed over his family for years.  What had he sent them?  Military secrets?  Was there some kind of conspiracy?  When Jason’s younger cousin grew up, she embarked on a journey to find him.  She opened the packages and started pressing for answers.  

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-vanished-podcast/id1081124929?i=1000477989934

    Radio Rental

    Prepare to be spooked with this podcast created by Payne Lindsey that shares real-life stories told by anonymous people with a twist—an employee at a video rental store (voiced by actor Rainn Wilson) sets the stage. The ones that have stuck with me so far are Episodes 2 and 4 of the first season. I couldn’t stop thinking about “The Doppelganger” and “Laura of the Woods.”

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-rental/id1483289230?i=1000455640579

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-rental/id1483289230?i=1000456600641

    The Minds of Madness

    Episode 78: The Whitaker Family

    The Whitaker Family

    This story has s stayed with me since I first heard about it several years ago. It makes you wonder if a person really can be born without a conscience and explores the power of forgiveness.

    Description of the episode:

    December 2003 was a special time for Kent and Tricia Whitaker. Their sons had returned home from University for the holidays, and they were happy to have the whole family back together again. Little did the Whitakers know it would be the last fond memory the family of four would share.

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-78-the-whitaker-family/id1191274361?i=1000477231458

    Dateline NBC: The Charleston Affair

    In this Dateline classic, a wealthy Charleston banker and his wife are locked in a bitter divorce. One week before their divorce hearing, authorities find an ex-con in town who confesses he had been hired to kill someone in their family. Who was the mastermind behind the hit? Keith Morrison reports. Originally aired on NBC on September 19, 2014.

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-charleston-affair/id1464919521?i=1000477540643

    Check them out and let me know what you think!

  • Lifestyle

    Tips for Making the Most Out of Your Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

    This article originally appeared in the June issue of LIMITLESS Magazine.

    We’ve all done it—racked up a glorious array of produce at our local farmers market and grocery store and then watched as our avocados rotted on a windowsill or our raspberries or strawberries developed a yucky mold before we could enjoy their fresh sweetness.

    With the month of June designated as “Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month,” what better time to get a refresher on the best way to store your colorful goodies, build a more enticing salad and learn how to add more fruits and veggies into your eating plan?

    Store your fresh food properly

    Know the best way to store your food.Root vegetables (such as potatoes, carrots and turnips) are best stored in a cool, dry place. They will last up to a month if stored properly. Store your foods in complete wholeness, otherwise you will break apart the cells and they won’t last as long. Avoid placing fruits or veggies in airtight bags as this will speed up decay. Keep fruits and vegetables with the right “partners.” Some forms of produce give off high levels of ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent. High-ethylene producers include apricots, apples, avocados, cantaloupe, peaches, plums, pears and tomatoes, among others. It’s best to not store these fruits and vegetables with anything that is “ethylene sensitive,” such as unripened bananas, spinach, cucumbers, carrots, green beans, kale, raspberries and watermelon. Greens in particular are very sensitive to ethylene gas.

    Make a heart-healthy salad

    Let’s be honest, sometimes salads can get a bit . . . boring. But they are a good way to add extra fruits and vegetables into our diet, and there are some pretty creative “salad in a jar” tutorials floating around out there. (Just remember to always put the dressing on the bottom of the jar to avoid making the rest of your salad a soggy mess when it’s time to eat). Help your salad pack a punch by starting with a healthy fiber, such as quinoa or brown rice. Next, top with leafy greens such as kale, spinach, romaine or arugula. Layer in other chopped vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers. Find a nice, lean protein (think chicken, goat cheese, chickpeas, hard-boiled eggs, etc.) and then top with a healthy fat. Healthy fats include salad dressings made from olive oil, nuts, or seeds (no more than ¼ cup of nuts or seeds because they are higher in calories and fat).

    Sneak in more fruits and veggies

    According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, only 1 out of 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables. With the USDA recommending five to nine servings of these items daily, it can seem a daunting task. Incorporating a few smart swaps can help you meet those daily guidelines. Instead of rice, try using any number of riced vegetables out on the market as a base for stir-fry or as a side dish. You can purchase packages of cauliflower and broccoli already riced, both in the fresh and frozen sections of the store. Similarly, use vegetables noodles in place of pasta, such as ribbons of fresh zucchini or carrots. Instead of mayonnaise for a sandwich, mash up an avocado, add in some salt and lemon juice, and use this spread as a healthy replacement. Fold fresh or frozen berries into oatmeal or yogurt and chop up veggies to add into an omelet or a frittata. You can also use fresh fruits and vegetables in smoothies with plain non-fat Greek yogurt for a protein-packed treat.

    Summertime is a great time of year to try new types of foods, visit local farms to pick berries and get creative with meal planning. Making sure you store your foods correctly will help you make the most out of your finds.

    Sidebar:

    What’s in season right now?

    Here are a just a few of the fruits and vegetables you’ll find available in the summer:

    • Apricots
    • Beets
    • Bell Peppers
    • Blueberries
    • Butter Lettuce
    • Corn
    • Cucumbers
    • Eggplant
    • Honeydew Melons
    • Lima Beans
    • Squash
    • Strawberries
    • Tomatoes
    • Watermelon
    • Zucchini

    Source: Produce for Better Health Foundation

  • Creative Writing,  Lifestyle

    Classic Memories

    My first car looked a lot like this one.

    You never forget your first car. I know I will always remember mine—and for several reasons. First, I look back at that time in my life and realize I had no clue how much cars and insurance cost and how blessed I was to even have one on the day I turned 16. I didn’t work and save up money so that I could purchase my own car, I expected my parents (who both worked hard but did not have the funds to purchase their only child a brand-new car) to provide me with one.

    Looking back, I realize that was pretty presumptuous of me. Instead, my stepfather purchased a used car for me in cash from one of his friends. It was a 1986 red Dodge Charger. At the time, it was seven years old, but age didn’t matter to me. It was sporty, flashy and gave me my own set of bragging rights. The handle on the driver’s side door was broken and I would have to jiggle it a certain way to open it. It was also a five-speed and I remember both the joy of learning how to change the gears and the fear of pulling up to a stop sign perched on a hill (I lived in the mountains of western North Carolina). Unbeknownst to my parents, my friends and I had plenty of adventures in that car, such as the time I got it stuck in a curvy, muddy ditch and a truck full of football players from our high school happened to drive by and lifted the car back onto the road on their own. Whoops.

    I didn’t take care of that car like I should have. I wish I would’ve, because I’m sure I would have had many more adventures. Instead, I drove with reckless abandon like the teenager I was, and almost a year after I got the Charger, I took another one of those mountain curves too fast and crashed the car into a rock wall in front of a church. Miraculously, I only had a scratch on my neck from my seat belt. The car, unfortunately, did not make it.

    I thought about that wreck when the time came for my own daughter to start driving. Even though she is about as cautious as they come, I know teenagers. Driving can be tricky business, and I know accidents happen. We discussed options with her and decided to let her take the car I had driven for years (a Honda Pilot) because, as we joke, that thing is a tank and about a solid as they come. She spent a year practicing driving this car, took her driving test in it, and I purchased a newer vehicle for myself. I’m grateful she understood that we wanted her to drive an older vehicle for at least a year, see how it held up and then see if we needed to find another car. The funny thing is, I dropped her off at school on her first day of Kindergarten in that car and she now drives it to high school. Talk about a dependable car.

  • Creative Writing,  podcasts,  True Crime

    How I Started a Podcast

    This article appears this month in the June 2020 issue of Lake Norman CURRENTS.

    It was while interviewing Davidson resident Stacey Simms about her Diabetes Connections podcast for CURRENTS several years ago that I first learned about podcasts. For anyone unfamiliar, a podcast is an episodic series of spoken word digital audio files that a user can download to a personal device for easy listening. There are now more than 800,000 active podcasts available worldwide, if that tells you anything about their popularity.

    When a friend started telling me about some true crime podcasts a few years ago, I started wading my way into the podcast waters. I loved studying the different formats, the choices of music and sound effects, and the way all the elements could come together to tell a compelling story.

    How hard would it be to create my own podcast?, I thought to myself more than once. In my spare time, I would jot ideas down in a notebook. What type of equipment would I need? What would the format be? How would I learn all the technical aspects of production? How would I find content? I even attended a specialized writing conference in Raleigh last summer, t “MurderCon,” so I could glean more ideas and network.

    Finding myself with extra time on my hands thanks to COVID-19’s shelter-at-home orders, I gave myself a deadline to finally get a podcast up and running. I honed in on a topic (missing people) and came up with a title, “Missing in the Carolinas.” I bartered services with a graphic artist friend of mine to create the cover art (she needed editing done for her online business).

    I began writing scripts. I bought a microphone and started playing around with GarageBand on my computer. I begged one of my teenagers for help. I bought stock music and created an introduction that could be used at the beginning of each episode. I tried recording the first episode, and quickly learned a read-through of each script is mandatory before hitting the record button. I also may have deleted the audio more than once when I was only trying to erase part of the recording. I researched the best media hosts for the podcast, because you have to buy a membership to one before you can get it to “feed” into places like Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, etc. This was uncharted territory for me.

    It was much harder than I anticipated. But after producing the first few episodes, I realized it would be silly not interview guests if I could find them. After recording one interview via Zoom, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the audio quality and am now looking for other options.

    Although it’s been a slow process, I’m proud of the new skills I’ve taught myself—audio production, recording, interviewing, media hosting, creating an e-mail list, script writing—just to scratch the surface. So far, I’ve invested a small amount of money into this project and am not receiving compensation. It’s a complete passion project, but one that I hope will grow over time and generate more interest. And if it can be used to help solve a missing persons case, well, that would be worth the time invested. Wish me luck.

  • Lifestyle

    The Stained Glass Window

    May is Mental Health Month. As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression since my teens, this topic is very near and dear to my heart. I know that I am fortunate to get the care I need in the times that I struggle. Unfortunately, there are many who aren’t always as lucky. Please understand that you are not alone in your journey. You can visit the website nami.org for resources and to learn how you can advocate for yourself and your loved ones with mental illness. I would like to share an essay about an experience I went through in March of this year below. It’s taken me more than two months to be able to reflect upon this, but I knew it was finally time.

    It was raining the day 18-year-old Isaac was laid to rest. We joined the mourners that afternoon, carefully walking around the murky mud puddles that pooled on the concrete of the church parking lot. I could see my reflection in those pools, and the tears threatening to spill over onto my cheeks, on that day as I struggled to keep my umbrella from blowing inside out and out of my hands.

    In a matter of a few days, the world had become a confusing, broken and upside-down place, one that I hadn’t lived in for a very long time. It started with an e-mail from our church pastor, letting us know one of the longtime members of our youth program and church had passed away. There were no other details, except the request for prayers for the family. I read the e-mail as I waited to pick up my 14-year-old son from school. When he got in the car, I told him what I had just read.

    “What do you mean?” he asked me, frowning. “Was he in an accident?”

    “I don’t know,” I told him, with a familiar, sinking feeling weighing on my heart.

    My son pressed on. “Suicide?” he asked, looking out the window. “That doesn’t make sense,” he continued, talking more to himself than me. He mentioned how this boy had just gotten into his dream college. We drove home in silence, contemplating.

    Our worst fears were confirmed. It was indeed the thief of suicide that took this young person from the family and friends that loved him. Worst of all? No one knew why. They had no idea. This young man had suffered for so long but didn’t want to burden those around him. It’s a story we hear time and time again, but it never gets any easier.

    As we learned of the funeral arrangements and read the beautifully-written obituary celebrating this young man’s life, my heart felt like it was broken in a million pieces. I was immediately transported back to the mental health facility I had walked into at the age of 20 years old, when I confessed to my roommate that I no longer wanted to live.

    I knew the pain he must have been feeling. I knew how hard it can be to tell someone what the pain feels like—a pain that seems to come out of nowhere and has no rhyme or reason. It leaves you with an ache, a pillow full of tears night after night, a loss of appetite and the inability to understand who the person is staring back at you from the mirror.

    We walked through the lobby of our church the night of his visitation, looking at the enlarged pictures of a smiling young man wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt, holding a selfie stick as his brilliant smile joined those of his friends, and even a shot of him decked out in scuba gear, giving a thumbs up to the photographer in an underwater shot.

    “My, how he lived,” I thought to myself, then stopped. He had lived, but he hadn’t lived long enough. I wondered if I were able to talk to him at that moment, would he have regrets? Would he be grateful the pain was over, or would he have wished he could have held on just a little longer?

    I think about the holding on part often. It’s what I did for most of my early 20s—white knuckling through the depression, anxiety, insomnia and sleepless nights. There were times it was excruciatingly hard, and I didn’t think I would make it through, but I pushed myself to hold on.

    Hold on, I would say to myself, in between therapy sessions, in between new trials of antidepressant medication. Things will get better. There are people who love you, even if they don’t always know the best way to show it. You have so much to live for, even though it doesn’t seem like it now.

    We drove home from the visitation in silence. I could hear my 16-year-old daughter’s ragged breaths from holding back tears. My son had only one question, “Was that his body in the coffin?” It was almost as if he couldn’t grasp that Isaac was truly gone until he saw that.

    The rain poured outside the following day as the hundreds of people gathered inside the red brick church to celebrate Isaac’s life. We heard stories of his most epic pranks, his love of politics and sports, the way he lit up every room he walked into, and his endless generosity. I thought to myself how the young men in their neatly-pressed suits did not deserve to have their friend taken away by mental illness. How unfair it was that they were carrying their friend to his final resting place, far too soon. I thought of the quote I had come across the day before.

    Love conquers all things except the fact that depression is not a thing, it’s a living force that consumes everything in its path, it takes no prisoners.

    Isaac was a prisoner to his pain, and it took him from the world. I wished he were sitting beside me so I could’ve taken his hand to tell him things can get better; they will get better.

    I wished I could have told him he wasn’t alone, because I’m sure that’s how he felt.

    As the service ended, I looked up at the beautiful stained-glass window at the front of the church sanctuary. I could see the sunlight begin to stream through it. As we walked out of the church, the sun shone down upon us, and we gripped the handles of our umbrellas we no longer needed tightly as we made the long walk to our car. I watched as the humidity formed steam off the stagnant puddles of rain. A bright blue sky unfolded above us. I couldn’t help but feel like Isaac was giving his loved ones a final message as they said their goodbyes.

    I’ll be okay now.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: 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.

    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.

  • writing advice

    Should Writers Be on LinkedIn?

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    I’ve been on LinkedIn for about 10 years, but I’ll admit I probably haven’t utilized it the way I should. After reading an article recently on how LinkedIn has changed its algorithms and how it can be beneficial for career advancement, I decided to take another look at the platform, which is essentially a social network that focuses on professional networking and career development.

    You may be thinking, “I don’t use LinkedIn, and I don’t see how it could help me in my writing/editing career.” However, you should realize that LinkedIn is an easy way to showcase your experience and skills and help you make connections in the industry that you may not be aware are out there.

    Here are a few examples of ways I’ve been using LinkedIn in the past few months.

    First, I made sure I had my most recent headshot uploaded and my details (what industry I’m in, the area in which I live, my website linked, etc.) Second, I updated my headline with my new job title and fixed the dates on when I left my last job because it looked like I still worked there. Then I began engaging more with my connections by liking or commenting on posts or articles they shared, and posting more content related to my writing and editing platform. When I write a blog post I think my network would like, either here or on my own blog, I share it. I also utilize the new hashtag feature available at LinkedIn to try and get more eyes on it. The new analytics LinkedIn is using shows me how many views each post I create gets.

    As a magazine editor, I’ve discovered even more ways to use LinkedIn to my advantage. When I created a list of contributor’s guidelines for the magazine I work for, I shared the page in my LinkedIn feed. That post had 272 views—far more than any other post I’ve shared. And within a week of sharing, I had legitimate inquiries from new local writers and a few solid pitches from businesses for profile stories.

    Here are a few tips as you navigate your way through the platform:

    Make sure you have the most-up-to-date information on your profile, including a professional-looking headshot against a solid background. My headline was easy to come up with, as I have a specific title at a magazine. But if you are in the freelance space, consider using titles like Podcaster, Freelance Writer, Content Creator, Marketing Strategist, Blogger or Storyteller at (places you blog), Author of (name of your book), etc. Your profile should be as complete as possible. Fill in your list of skills and accomplishments and interests. Think about what you would want a future employer, publisher or collaborator to know about you, and don’t be afraid to show off your copywriting skills.

    And last but not least, don’t just use LinkedIn when you’re looking for a job or writing opportunities. Take time to regularly look through your feed, like or comment posts from your network connections, and share your own blog posts and other work. You never know when you’ll make an impression on a future employer, potential business partner or editor.

    Want even more tips on how you can use LinkedIn to enhance your writing career? Carol Tice wrote a great post on this topic at The Write Life.