Federal authorities say a North Carolina man reported a fellow co-worker missing Tuesday after going hiking with her near a scenic inn they worked at, before confessing to her murder the next day.
An affidavit filed by the FBI reveals that Derek Shawn Pendergraft, 20, of Asheville, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of 29-year-old Sara Ellis (pictured right), according to Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
Ellis, of Seminole, Florida, was working as a cook at the Pisgah Inn for the summer, a national park lodge located in Canton known for its picturesque views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her partially-nude body was discovered Tuesday on a trail near the inn’s employee dorms only hours after being reported missing, with obvious bruising to her neck and head area, WFYY4 reports.
Breaking: FBI tells News13 there will be an update from US Attorney’s office soon, regarding this tragedy. https://t.co/EnTFn5wE2X
— Kimberly King (@KimKingReports) July 26, 2018
Pendergraft initially told investigators that he and the woman went for a hike after finishing work at about 4 p.m., but said Ellis decided to go back when it began raining. Federal agents say the suspected killer returned to the inn to tell his managers that the woman was unaccounted for, and proceeded to say he had found her umbrella lying on the ground.
However, detectives say Pendergraft’s story changed the very next day. On Wednesday evening, a manager from the lodge called investigators and told them the suspect had come to her office, confessing to the slaying.
When investigators arrived to corroborate the story, they say the suspect told them of blacking out during the hike and then next recalling staring at the woman’s face, who he described as appearing to be deceased, according to the Associated Press.
“…When I came to, I felt like it had not been a single blink of time,” Pendergraft, who worked as a housekeeper at the inn, told FBI agents in a recorded interview. “I blinked, and I was looking into the face of (the dead woman).”
He then gave a graphic and troubling description of the woman’s face, authorities say, adding that he recalled Ellis lying on her back and grabbing her arm before pulling her to her side—the same position in which Ellis’ body was discovered.
“People are walking around in shock and disbelief and really shook up,” Bruce O’Connell, owner of the inn, told the AP, speaking of his 100 employees.
O’Connell operates the inn under contract for the National Park Service, and said he believed both the suspect and the victim were first-time seasonal employees of the lodge, which is open from spring to fall. While he said they both lived at the inn’s on-site dorms, the extent of their relationship or how well they knew each other isn’t yet known.
He proceeded to express the sorrow being felt at the lodge.
“There are grief counselors here right now. A lot of tears being shed.”
The alleged killer is in custody without bond and made an initial appearance in court Thursday on a second-degree murder charge. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
A GoFundMe crowdfunding effort has been created to help Ellis’ family with funeral expenses.
[Feature photo: Sara Ellis/GoFundMe]