Student Dead at Crash Scene Was Murdered

Cops say the student found dead along a N.C. river embankment was asphyxiated.

May 9, 2008— -- A 20-year-old North Carolina college student found dead next to her car at the edge of a wooded river embankment was murdered, authorities announced Thursday.

Preliminary autopsy results found that Irina "Ira" Yarmolenko, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, died of asphyxiation, David Belk, police chief in Mount Holly, N.C., said at a press conference.

A jet skier on the Catawba River spotted Yarmolenko's body around 1:15 p.m. Monday. She was in the grass next to the open door of her 1998 Saturn, which had crashed into a tree stump at the water's edge.

"There's a car that's run off the embankment and a body laying there," a frightened caller told a 911 dispatcher. "I don't know if they're alive or not."

Belk, who this morning was responding to a possible tornado that touched down during severe weather overnight, said Thursday that he did not yet know whether Yarmolenko was sexually assaulted before her murder. He declined to provide details about the condition of her body.

"That's the part I'm not going to talk about," he said. "That's the part we're going to leave for investigators and the person responsible."

Yarmolenko was last seen on campus at 9:45 a.m. Monday, when she completed an exam. At 10:18 a.m. she went to a local credit union. At 10:50 a.m. she stopped by Jackson Java's, a coffee shop where she worked as a barista, though she wasn't scheduled to work that day. She was traveling alone in both instances. Belk said that authorities also confirmed that she made a drop-off to the "Goodwill" that morning.

The timeline between when Yarmolenko left the coffee shop and when she was found several hours later remains a mystery. Yarmolenko and her Saturn made the roughly 30 minutes ride from the Charlotte campus to Mount Holly, a small town northwest of the city just over the county line.

"We don't have any information from 10:50 a.m. Monday until shortly after 1 p.m. when we were called out to the riverbank," Belk said in an interview with ABC News.

Yarmolenko's car was found at water's edge on a steep embankment behind a local YMCA and housing development project. Whoever was behind the wheel — whether it was Yarmolenko or her attacker — had to drive down a dirt road to get to the spot where the Saturn was ultimately located.

A tree stump apparently kept the car from plunging into the water. It's unclear how fast the car was moving when it struck the stump, though images from the scene show minimal body damage to the Saturn.

The car was not running, Belk confirmed. The keys were recovered at the scene, but were not in the ignition.

The public safety department at UNC is assisting Mount Holly police in the investigation. A student advisory was issued Thursday by the school asking students to come forward with any relevant information that could help police.

Though Belk would not say whether or not authorities believed Yarmolenko knew her killer, he did say they are following up on several leads and cautioned students on the UNC campus not to panic.

"There's nothing to indicate that there is someone out there that's stalking or anything like that," Belk said at the news conference.

Belk said that Yarmolenko has had romantic relationships in the past, but that "at this point, they don't seem relevant." Some items were collected from the Saturn as possible evidence, but Belk added that so far investigators had found nothing specific suggesting robbery was the motive.

A candlelight vigil was held Thursday night for the slain student on campus. Yarmolenko's brother, 25-year-old Pavel Yarmolenko, described his sister as "incredible" in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. "There's nothing bad about her," he said. "Everything that she's ever done was to help people."

Yarmolenko reportedly was born in the Ukraine but grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., after her parents moved from the country in the 1990s as refugees. Her parents, both scientists, found work in North Carolina, and Yarmolenko graduated from Chapel Hill High School in 2006.

Yarmolenko had written for the Niner Online, the online campus newspaper at UNC-Charlotte, and taken pictures for the University Times. The publications described Yarmolenko as "a Daily Show addict and a fan of the Counting Crows" who injected her "love of life" and excitement into the newsroom.

A photo montage set to music and posted online in tribute to the student shows Yarmolenko traveling in the mountains with friends from high school and college, as well as her family members.

Yarmolenko's murder came exactly two months after Eva Carson, the student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was shot and killed near the university campus.

A pair of men were arrested a week later and charged in Carson's murder after authorities released surveillance stills of the two suspects. In that case, the alleged killers temporarily stole the student's vehicle and attempted to use her debit card.

It is unclear whether anything was stolen from Yarmolenko's vehicle, but Belk said that authorities recovered evidence from her car that could help the investigation.