‘Distressed, but not in despair’
Roland Hedgepeth lives to solve his daughter’s murder.
Alone in his tidy home in the humble town of Newton, N.C, he spends his days dwelling on the case. Faith’s little brother Caleb visits every few weekends, clad in his late sister’s old UNC sweatshirts.
Roland’s house, smaller than its adjacent three-car garage, is a homage to Faith Hedgepeth’s life. Now more than two years after her murder at UNC-Chapel Hill, he wakes up every day to a picture of Faith on his bedside table. Pictures and quotes about religious faith fill up most of the walls.
Six heavy, thick binders filled with hundreds of photos and articles about Faith’s life and death sit neatly on her old bed, beside the sock monkeys she was known to love so much. A battle with addiction kept Roland away for much of his daughter’s childhood. Now, after her death, he documents all those moments he missed — Faith dancing at her first powwow, dressed up for prom in a colorful dress, cheerleading at high school games.
Another thick binder sits on his living room coffee table. Different from the rest, it’s stuffed with Roland’s notes about the investigation: every important conversation, handfuls of articles, each new thought or question that pops into his mind.
Writing it all down helps Roland remember. He rereads the binder every so often to make sure he hasn’t missed anything. He drives up to Chapel Hill every few months, stopping by the apartment complex where it happened. The neighbor who lives below Faith’s old apartment lets him enter and stand in her bedroom, directly below where Faith was killed. He hired a private investigator that offered to help him for free.
“When it first happened, you were hoping that they were going to arrest somebody that day or the next day or within a few days for sure,” he said. “Then it started getting drawn out… So I started searching for myself.”
He said because the police didn’t give him any information, he felt like he didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“I wanna know the truth. No matter what it is, I wanna know the truth. Even if it sheds a bad light on Faith for some reason,” he said. “I’m open to whatever because no matter what may have happened that night, I know she still didn’t deserve to be murdered. I owe it to her. There’s no other way to say it.”
On September 7, 2012, Faith Danielle Hedgepeth, then a UNC junior, was found dead by her roommate Karena Rosario in their one-bedroom apartment. The Chapel Hill community was shaken as the investigation unfolded and police ruled her death a homicide.
The grief and mourning that followed were compounded by an utter lack of closure as days, weeks, and months went by — without any arrests. Her family asked investigators countless questions, but they received few to no answers in return.
This September, a few days shy of the second anniversary of Faith’s death, CHPD released all of the investigation documents that had been sealed. After two years, Faith’s family and friends, as well as the rest of the public, were hit with nearly 300 pages of new information detailing the facts of the case.
The night before she died, Faith and Karena had gone to The Thrill, a former club on Rosemary Street. According to police statements, she was seen walking out of the club with a man she had met the week prior. In interviews with the police, the man submitted his DNA and said he and his friends drove back to his apartment in Durham together that night.
According to her phone log, Faith sent out texts from her phone until shortly before 4 a.m., and she was last seen alive sleeping when Karena left the apartment at approximately 4:27 a.m., according to the warrants.
Around 11:30 the next morning, 911 operators received the call from Karena.
“There’s blood everywhere. I don’t know what happened,” she told the operator. “There’s stuff in my room that was not here before. It looks like someone had come in here. It really does.”
Faith was found hanging off the bed, with no clothes on below her waist and her shirt pulled over her head. On the bed sat a white paper bag with “I’M NOT STUPID,” “BITCH” and “JEALOUS” angrily scribbled across it. There were bruises and cuts on her knuckles, and blood underneath her fingernails, according to the autopsy. Her face was badly bludgeoned. The autopsy revealed blunt force trauma to the head as a cause of death.
Roland Hedgepeth insisted on having an open casket at her wake. The evidence of her death was apparent, despite the efforts of the mortician. He said he wanted people to see what someone had done to her, for them to see what she had been through.
According to the search warrants, a former roommate of Faith’s informed the police that Karena’s ex-boyfriend, against whom she had a restraining order, had threatened to kill Faith earlier that summer if Karena did not go back to him. The roommate said he resented Faith and saw her as an obstacle to Karena.The restraining order was still in effect on the day of Faith’s death, and when he walked up to the crime scene police had to tell him to leave, according to warrants.
Upon a consented search of the ex-boyfriend’s cell phone, police found a text to his friend asking to “forgive him for what he was about to do” on September 6, 2012. They found a similarly worded message sent by him to another friend on Twitter, according to warrants.
Further investigation led to the discovery of a post on the ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page from that same day, saying, “Dear Lord. Forgive me for all of my sins and the sins I may commit today. Protect me from the girls who don’t deserve me and the ones who wish me dead today.”
The police seized his Jeep and took several miscellaneous items. Still, no suspects have been named.
The release of the documents this September reopened the wounds for many who were close to Faith, during what was already a hard week of remembering.
“We only had our assumptions of what happened, but now that we know it was like it was happening all over again,” said Euna Chavis, a close friend of Faith’s. “And I guess it was like we never got to heal anyway because we didn’t know exactly what happened — so it was like we were getting better blindly.”
Cheyna Elliott, another friend, said that during the past two years, every time new information came out she would spend night after night awake, thinking about the warrants and who Faith’s killer could be. Whenever she got to the point that she could finally sleep again, more revelations would come to light.
“Every time we try to start the healing process, they release something that starts it all over again.”
The town of Newton lies beside the city of Hickory in eastern North Carolina. It is filled with picturesque countryside homes and churches around every turn. Roland Hedgepeth moved here 14 years ago in a last-ditch effort to turn his back on his addiction — one he had been struggling with since his days as a student at UNC.
“I got to the point where I don’t really know what I was interested in. I was so strung out for a long time,” he said.
Roland can’t recall the high school graduations of his other children, Faith’s siblings Rolanda and Chad — although he is sure he was physically present. “I don’t have those memories…I don’t know how many other things I missed out on.”
Then, at the height of Roland’s addiction — and 14 years after Chad was born — his wife Connie Hedgepeth found out she was pregnant again. At the time, she was trying to gather the will to leave.
“I talked to the older children and I told them, ‘We’re gonna have to leave him,’ but I kept telling them that,” Connie said. “But I wouldn’t leave. You know, ‘cause you’re hoping and praying that they’re gonna turn around.”
But nothing changed. Roland continued using, so two months after Faith was born, Connie secured an apartment and finally left.
They named her Faith because she was born when the family was at its lowest point. For Connie, her daughter was a source of comfort and strength. For Roland, she was a God-given reason for him to keep going.
“She was the one that I believe God put here to give me a reason to live when I really didn’t care if I lived,” he said.
Fourteen years ago, Roland got dropped off at a rehabilitation center for the last time. He says his faith in God and willingness to give up everything he knew — his family, his hometown and Faith — is what saved him.
“A peace came over me. I knew it was all over,” he said. “I don’t call it being clean. I call it being delivered, because that’s what happened to me.”
Thed Jacobs and his partner Hunter Glass have been working as private investigators for Roland in his search for answers. Although he never knew Faith personally, Thed befriended Chad Hedgepeth more than 20 years ago at a powwow.
After a year and a half of watching the investigation stall, Thed reached out to Roland and offered his services. He knew that Roland couldn’t afford to pay him, but he wanted to help the family get some closure.
“I know as the father of a 17-year-old… if that was my child I would want to know some answers,” he said.
Hunter Glass said he and Thed are working to track down and interview people to piece together the facts leading up to that night. Although the transience of Chapel Hill’s population makes locating witnesses difficult — especially two years after the crime — he said he is confident in Thed’s abilities.
“He can find some people, I’m telling you,” Hunter said.
Hunter added that they believe at least one person who was close to Faith knows exactly what happened to her. He warned of the risks involved with keeping such information private.
“What people are failing to realize is the longer they sit on information, the more involved they become, the more they become an accessory to a homicide by not coming forward with information,” he said.
“The longer you drag this out, the moment I go to court I’m gonna make sure the judge knows…that you were unwilling, and that you were a problem child during this investigation, and therefore it’s really not going to bode well on them.”
Euna Chavis is sick of talking about the murder investigation.
“I would rather talk about her and who she was and what she meant to me rather than talk about, ‘Did you see that warrant release? Did you read this transcription of the 911 call?’ or whatever,” she said.
Instead, Euna prefers to focus on the good memories. The nights Faith would come to Euna’s apartment when she was alone and stay with her until her roommate came home. How hard Faith worked despite the financial and academic challenges she faced in school. The way she would dance and wasn’t afraid to laugh at herself. Her endearing tendency to start a project and get distracted by something else halfway through.
One night at the end of their sophomore year, Euna was stressed and frustrated from studying for exams. Faith insisted on cooking her dinner, but gave up on that idea soon afterwards.
“Halfway through the meal she’s cooking and she’s just like, ‘This ain’t working. How about I just buy you food?’” Euna said. So they went to Bojangles.
“We leave the kitchen with everything the way it was — chicken still in the pot, noodles still in the pot, sauce still in the pot — and I’m just like, okay… That was the best escape from everything else that had happened, because it was a rare peaceful moment of not having anything to do but eat and enjoy her.”
Every day that Dean Marcus Collins walks into his office at the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, the first thing he sees is a sign hanging on his wall with the words: “Faith makes all things possible.”
As director of the Summer Bridge program, Dean Collins grew close with Faith during her time at UNC. He said Faith took her time deciding whether she wanted to participate in the program the summer before her first year; looking back, he can’t imagine her not being there.
“I think about what I would’ve missed if she hadn’t come to Summer Bridge — and what our students would have missed, because they all loved her…They loved her spirit, they loved her passion, they loved her sense of humor; they loved her outlook on life.” he said.
What started as an advisor-student relationship quickly became one of friendship and mutual support. Faith always had encouraging words. She loved to drop by and say a quick hello. He can’t recall a single time that she visited his office and didn’t at some point ask, “Well how are you, Dean Collins?”
“I think there was a sincerity in wanting to connect with you as much as you wanted to connect with her,” he said.
As a Pembroke native and member of the Lumbee tribe, Dean Collins said he understood Faith’s hometown and her connection to her tightly-knit Haliwa-Saponi tribe very well.
“I always say [Hollister] is sort of like mine as well — it may lack a lot of financial resources and socioeconomic diversity, but it’s rich in love and support and history and culture,” he said. “The one thing she never wavered on was going back and giving back to her community.”
The day Faith died, Dean Collins was leaving work for the day when he got the call. “I just remember screaming in my car,” he said.
He immediately turned his car around in the middle of traffic to head back to campus, because he knew Faith’s friends from Summer Bridge would come to his office. By the time he arrived, several were already there crying.
Over the next few days, word spread that it was a homicide. Dean Collins didn’t want to believe it; he rationalized in his head. He didn’t want to imagine Faith meeting a violent end. But when he saw her face at the wake, he knew he was wrong.
“At this point I was crying hysterically, hugging her family… and I just remember telling my wife, ‘Get me out. I think I’m going to pass out,’” he said.
“After that of course you’re thinking, why? Why did this happen? How did someone want to be so mean and so hurtful — and then when this information was released it just kind of confirmed everything. And that’s the hard part.”
On the second anniversary of Faith’s death, Dean Collins and his wife went to church with Connie and Rolanda Hedgepeth. At her tombstone, he imagined Faith’s voice telling him she was OK.
Ebony Hedgebeth likes to look down at the tattoo that says “Have Faith” on her wrist. It was Faith’s favorite thing to say to her friends, and now in sad moments it encourages Ebony to keep going.
Faith and Ebony spent freshman year living two floors apart in Hinton James, and they were inseparable — even sleeping on each other’s futons some nights. Faith, a widely known lover of hot sauce, would make Ebony carry around a bottle of Texas Pete just in case she forgot her own.
Ebony had transferred to North Carolina A&T State University their sophomore year, and was in the process of transferring back to UNC when she got the news.
She called Faith’s phone over and over that day, refusing to believe it was true. But no one answered. After that she stopped the transfer process. She couldn’t come back.
“It took a long time for me to even go back to Carolina to visit my other friends, because everything there reminded me of Faith,” she said.
Michael Irvin cherishes the memories he shared with Faith — the occasional lunches at the top of Lenoir, the Skype sessions when life got too busy for them to hang out face-to-face. Their friendly competition during BIOL 101 to see who could get the better grade.
“I don’t like to tell people, but she won.”
Like many of her close friends, Michael met Faith the summer before their freshman year as they were both participating in summer programs. As they grew closer, Irvin was struck by how much she cared about the people around her.
“I feel like she spent a lot of time caring for others and not as much for herself. Some of our conversations were about things she was going through or was trying to figure out how to handle,” he said. “She seemed to kind of put her stuff to the side.”
Michael and Faith had made plans for her to come over for dinner the Wednesday after she died. “It was gonna be spaghetti night,” he said.
“It was hard when Wednesday came around.”
Cheyna Elliott still catches herself using the present tense to describe Faith. Her death still doesn’t feel real — and Cheyna blames this partly on the case’s going unsolved.
“I don’t think any of us who are close to her will ever understand or ever completely heal, because we lost someone in such a tragic way,” she said. “I just don’t believe it was her time. I know people say things happen for a reason but no, not in this case. Not at the hands of another person do I feel like it was her time.”
Cheyna said she will never forget the one night her freshman year when Faith invited her on an impromptu road trip. Two and a half hours of driving later, they were lost.
“My phone dies, Faith’s phone dies, Ebony’s phone doesn’t have a signal, we no longer know how to get there…so we’re on this long country road in the middle of nowhere,” Cheyna said, laughing because all of that didn’t matter. “I never thought being lost would be so funny until that day.”
Cheyna said Faith loved talking about her background — her tribe, her mother, Rolanda as her “second mom” and her father, whom she called “pappy.”
“Faith was proud. She was proud of her family. She was proud of her tribe. She wanted to get back there. She would do anything for them.”
Faith grew up in Hollister, a sleepy, rural town in eastern North Carolina with a small population and a high poverty rate. Cars wander down the tree-lined roads in no rush to reach their destinations. People visit with each other on a sunny October day, sitting on front porches and leaning in each other’s car windows.
She is buried there in the graveyard behind Mt. Bethel Baptist Church, where she attended services throughout her childhood. It’s a minute’s drive from her sister Rolanda’s home.
On this day, Connie Hedgepeth looks down at her daughter’s tombstone — a custom-designed work that stands out, unweathered and shiny compared to the others. A picture of her laughing on the beach covers the back, with the verse Hebrews 11:1 beside it: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Connie mentions how most people are afraid of graveyards at night, but here she feels no fear. Her daughter and the soft light coming from the singular lamppost are all she needs. Often she stops by her grave on those late nights coming home from work at Lowes Home Improvement.
Some nights when praying in bed, Connie will turn her attention to Faith and tell her she loves and misses her. She and Roland speak often, relying on each other to get through their weeks. Many days she finds it hard to focus.
“You just see her. Every day she is in your head. Seeing her smile, laughing, thinking about her hugging you,” she said.
Connie thinks about the nights Faith would come home and crawl into her bed for pillow talk that lasted late into the night. How she told Connie that one day she would get a good job, and Connie could quit Lowes and stay with her instead. The way she listened and never argued with her mother’s decisions.
One thing that Connie has learned from Faith’s death is that she’s no longer afraid of dying. A few months after Faith died, she was in a car accident.
“I got out of the car and I looked around. I was okay,” she said. “And I got to thinking, ‘You know, it would have been alright if the Lord would have took me.’”
While Faith and Rolanda Hedgepeth are sisters, Rolanda also played a motherly role as Faith grew up. Newly divorced, Connie had to rely on 18-year-old Rolanda to help her raise Faith so she could work to make ends meet.
“There were times when I resented it,” Rolanda said.“Not really resented her, but I used to tell my mom I didn’t have a baby. But she needed my help…I wouldn’t have changed it.”
Faith spent much of her childhood in Rolanda’s home, growing up with her nieces Paige and Alexis. The three of them were best friends. A year apart, Alexis and Faith shared the same Sept. 26 birthday. Rolanda can’t recall ever seeing them argue.
She also struggles to remember a time when Faith made her mad — and the instances she does remember were because of little things, like the time she and Alexis ran around in the rain and got all wet.
Two or three years later they made fun of her about the spankings they got from that day, claiming, “It didn’t even hurt!”
After Faith left for college, she would often come home and spend the night at Rolanda’s house. She loved sleeping in the same beds as Rolanda and Connie. Rolanda would warn her that she was tired and wanted to go to bed at a reasonable hour, but then they would watch hours of YouTube videos, talking and laughing until late in the night.
Connie stares at the opposite wall of Rolanda’s living room and says quietly, “I just miss sometimes on Friday night getting that call: ‘Momma, I’m coming home.’”
Roland said he believes that one day, the mystery surrounding his daughter’s murder will be resolved.
“I reach points where I’m just distressed about the situation, but I’m not in despair. There’s a difference,” he said. “I have not given up hope. It will be solved.”
Until then, he will keep searching, taking notes and working with Thed and Hunter. He will keep adding to his binders in her memory.
He looks over one in particular that holds the handfuls of letters Faith sent him when she was younger. He points out the way she would write “Dear, daddy” in her greetings. His eyes smile at the unnecessary comma, but his mouth — nearly identical to Faith’s — doesn’t.
“I lost my smile when Faith died,” he said.