In the Shadow of the Sealings
Information about Faith Hedgepeth’s homicide is scattered everywhere — but the public can’t access it.
Every 45 to 60 days, search warrants, a 911 call, orders for DNA evidence and the autopsy report are sealed behind court orders that restrict all public access to information in the case. Until three weeks ago — when a media motion to unseal the records was heard in court — the public didn’t know how many search warrants existed, who was issuing them, or what they were for.
Behind this wall of silence, Faith’s family and friends are left to wonder if the case has gone quiet, cold, forgotten. They pray for a confession, that the guilt of the crime be too heavy for Faith’s killer to bear. They pray that Faith, 19 years old at the time of her death, has found peace. Mostly, though, they pray for information.
“I don’t know the details of what someone did to her,” said Faith’s mother, Connie Hedgepeth. “As a mother, you have to know what she went through. I guess it’s a little harder to move on when you don’t have that closure.”
A Synapse investigation, which drew on court documents and interviews with neighbors, friends and family, reveals a rough timeline of police activity in the 19 months since Faith was killed. The investigation found that Chapel Hill police — lacking in manpower and significant homicide experience — may have failed to gather potential evidence on several occasions. Police activity slowed in the first two months after Faith’s death and has since been broad in scope — leaving those close to the case questioning whether Chapel Hill police was equipped to lead this investigation.
The 911 call came in around 11 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2012. UNC junior Faith Hedgepeth had been found dead by her roommate Karena Rosario, who placed the call. Hedgepeth was found cold and unresponsive in the bedroom she shared with Rosario, also a UNC junior, at Hawthorne at the View apartment complex. There was blood at the scene, and it appeared someone had been in the apartment, according to 911 radio traffic, which was redacted under court order two weeks later.
At 3:45 p.m. on Sept. 7, the Chapel Hill Police Department announced Faith’s death. Police said they did not believe her murder to have been a random crime.
Since this initial release, the Chapel Hill Police Department has released just one new piece of information about the progress of the investigation. In January 2013, police announced that DNA evidence found at the scene points to a male suspect.
The first records in the case — which included the 911 call and search warrants — were sealed within days of Faith’s death.
From there, sealings came like clockwork. Every 45 to 60 days, a superior court judge resealed the documents at the request of the Town of Chapel Hill or the Durham County District Attorney’s office.
The sealings were done ex parte — without an opposing side — which means the public and media organizations weren’t present when the motions to seal were heard in court.
Mike Tadych, a media lawyer representing local media organizations including The Daily Tar Heel, The (Raleigh) News & Observer and ABC 11, describes this case as frustrating.
“In the other 22 murders in Durham County in 2012, none were sealed. Things like [search warrants] were easily accessible,” he said. “No one has articulated what is different about this case that would warrant such an overarching sealing.”
A few weeks after Faith’s death, Tadych and his media clients began asking Durham County court officials for a more public sealing process. He and his clients sent letters, met with the District Attorney’s office, and sent emails asking to be notified of when the motions would be heard in court. They never were.
On March 5, Tadych’s firm filed a motion in Durham County court to unseal all records in the investigation. Tadych’s firm is also requesting access to the sealing orders themselves and a numbered case file to hold the orders in the clerk of court’s office.
In a March 17 response to the media motion, Assistant District Attorney Charlene Coggins-Franks provided basic information on the records — including the date warrants were issued, what they were for and the reason for requesting the sealing — for the first time in the case.
Tadych has also criticized the use of pre-emptive sealings in the case — or sealing a record before it actually exists.
“Here it appears that they were saying, ‘Oh we’re going to get this and that’ before they do . . .no, that’s not the way it should be done,” he said. “To ask the court to look into a crystal ball and say ‘this is what you might find’ doesn’t fit with the case law.”
On March 19, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning heard the motion in court.
At the hearing, Coggins-Franks said the case is still hot and investigators have had recent breaks that unsealing the records would jeopardize.
Manning asked that all records in the case — spread amongst the multiple agencies and judges involved in the investigation — be collected and put into a folder for him to review before he makes a decision on unsealing the records.
In the meantime, Manning resealed all documents indefinitely.
Coggins-Franks’ response and interviews with neighbors shed some light on Chapel Hill police and State Bureau of Investigation activity in the past 19 months.
Christine Shia had lived in the apartment building across from Faith’s at Hawthorne at the View for four months when Faith was killed. Shia would often walk her cat by Faith’s apartment, and she remembers the building being quiet.
“It was very safe up until then,” said Shia, a former News & Observer reporter who worked recently as a research associate in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “That was what was really shocking. That building was always so quiet.”
Shia said neighbors had noticed signs of domestic violence in the apartment Faith lived in. On July 11, 2012, Karena Rosario filed a restraining order against her then-boyfriend, Takoy Jones, in Durham County court.
According to the order, Rosario and Jones previously lived in the apartment she later shared with Faith. On July 5, Jones broke into the bedroom, threatened Rosario and pushed her to the ground, according to the order. Less than a week later, he broke into her apartment again after Rosario changed the locks, the order states.
“I think most people, once the police came, thought it was a domestic case,” Shia said.
On the day of Faith’s murder, Shia returned home from work to a “strange” crime scene.
She saw that police had only locked down Faith’s apartment. Other apartments in the building were behind the crime scene tape, but they weren’t searched.
According to court records, search warrants have been issued for only two apartments, both in Hawthorne at the View: Faith’s on the day of her murder, and an apartment in a separate building on Sept. 10. A new tenant moved into the apartment last April and doesn’t know who occupied it at the time of Faith’s death.
Shia didn’t see police search the woods that bordered Faith’s apartment complex.
Another source, who asked to remain anonymous, was at the crime scene the entire day of Sept. 7 and also said the woods weren’t searched. She also noticed that Faith’s car remained in the parking lot with the gas tank open, not immediately searched or dusted for prints.
Connie Hedgepeth said she picked up Faith’s car about a week after her death after it had been processed by police.
The source noticed that officers didn’t search other apartments or go door-to-door to question neighbors. Police also didn’t bring police dogs to search the area, she said.
To most looking on that day, Faith’s murder appeared to be a closed case.
Days without an arrest turned to weeks and then to months.
About a month after Faith’s death, Shia said Chapel Hill police returned to the apartment complex. They began asking men who lived in Faith’s building and the ones around it for DNA swabs. Shia estimates the number of samples requested at around 20, from men of varying ethnicities and ages. Shia said several families had moved out of the complex by that time. These DNA samples were taken voluntarily, without a nontestimonial identification order. According to Coggins-Franks’ response, there have been three nontestimonial identification orders issued in the case, but it’s unclear when they were issued, what kind of evidence they sought and who they were for.
Police also went around to neighbors, asking single women, such as Shia, if they lived alone.
“They were stopping us as we went inside our apartment. They would ask, ‘Do you live alone?’” she said. “I think they were just searching for people who might have been close by.”
About a month and a half after the murder, the investigation began to slow, Coggins-Franks’ response shows. In September and October, search warrants were issued for Faith and Rosario’s Facebook pages, Faith’s bank accounts and a 1977 Honda Accord. On Oct. 24, 2012 — more than 17 months ago — a judge issued the last search warrant in the case, for Faith and Rosario’s laptops.
“The last search warrant was issued in October 2012,” Tadych said. “We have to ask, how hot is it?”
Shia said police have come back to the complex sporadically. She has been interviewed by police four times in total. Most of the time, investigators ask if there is any information she might have missed the last time they talked.
A few months ago, neighbors say an agent from the State Bureau of Investigation showed up at the complex. Shia said she talked with the agent about the case, and the agent’s interviewing skill enabled her to give more information than she had in previous interviews with Chapel Hill police investigators. It was clear to her the difference in training between the Chapel Hill police force and the SBI agent.
At about 5:45 p.m. on the evening before her death, Faith went to a rush event for UNC’s American Indian sorority, Alpha Pi Omega. She left a little after 7 p.m. to work on a paper at the library. She then went to The Thrill — a dance club on East Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill — with Rosario.
While they were at The Thrill, Rosario got sick and she and Hedgepeth went back to their apartment. Faith sent out texts until about 3:30 a.m. the morning of her death.
George King, owner of George’s Towing & Recovery, tows the parking lot of The Thrill. King has video cameras set up all around the perimeter of the building, and likely would have had footage of Faith at The Thrill that night. But King wasn’t contacted by police for copies of the footage, and it was likely taped over within a few weeks.
About two weeks ago — almost 19 months after her death — a Chapel Hill police investigator called King to ask about the footage.
“Whatever video we had is gone now,” King said. “It would have been phenomenal if we had known and we would have been able to run the video and found something that helped out. Nobody told me anything about it.”
The Chapel Hill Police Department’s investigations unit has seen about 10 murders in the past 10 years.
Of the 10 sworn officers in the unit — which is fully staffed — one is a crime scene evidence specialist, one a lieutenant and one a sergeant. Only seven are assigned to cases — usually felonies such as financial crimes, burglaries, robberies and serious assaults.
Lt. Josh Mecimore, spokesman for Chapel Hill police, said this shortage of manpower is one of the reasons the department requested help investigating the case from the SBI last fall.
“It’s hard when you have seven people to assign all those people to one investigation,” Mecimore said. “You still have cases coming in.”
Mecimore said Chapel Hill police investigators typically have had five years of general law enforcement experience in the Chapel Hill Police Department before applying to the investigations unit. At the time of Faith’s death, the average experience of an investigator was 16 years. Investigators are required to take a basic criminal investigations class and a class on search warrants. Mecimore said investigators have additional opportunities for training — such as classes on advanced investigations, interviews and interrogation and crime scenes.
Shia said her experiences with Chapel Hill police investigators have left her worried they weren’t equipped for a crime of this complexity.
“I just question if they have the experience or know how to handle the tougher cases,” Shia said. “I’m wondering if this kind of crime is just beyond their skill level.”
Tadych said broad sealings and police silence have been used in past cases — such as the 2008 murder of Cary woman Nancy Cooper — to cover up police missteps in the investigation.
“You apply the passage of time issue here, there’s a piece of evidence that may be gone if it’s not quickly applied. After 18 months, do you really think it’s as readily available?” he said. “There may be other reasons why they want it sealed. They were used to cover missteps by law enforcement in the Cooper case. Facing that, that’s part of the accounting process.”
Mecimore could not comment on what information has been collected or requested in the case so far. He said he is “absolutely” confident the case will be solved, and Chapel Hill police investigators have had ample opportunity for training. When the investigation began, Chapel Hill investigators had on average 1420 hours of training, Mecimore said. That number has since changed as some investigators have left.
“We have a lot of training opportunities. We have a lot of resources we tend to utilize. We utilize those resources when we need to,” he said. “While we don’t have a huge numbers of investigators . . .we do have experience in investigating homicides.”
Faith died three weeks shy of her 20th birthday.
After her death, Victoria Chavis — who became friends with Faith the summer before their freshman year at UNC — began planning a scholarship fundraiser for her birthday at Red Robin in Durham, where Faith had worked.
Once the fundraiser, which raised a little over $1,500, and Faith’s birthday had passed, Chavis’ mind began to wander. Sitting alone in her apartment, she became convinced that Faith’s killer was there with her.
“I lost it. I just went crazy, I guess,” she said. “I was scared. We don’t know who it was, and there’s a strong possibility I may have seen this person before or communicated with them before.”
She packed her car and withdrew from UNC the next day.
At Hawthorne at the View, Shia said people were also scared that Faith’s killer had not been caught.
“The first month there were several women who lived alone in the complex who were really worried about their safety. The second month, then you have people thinking they’re working on it,” she said. “We’ve sort of lost hope now. Now the community is trying to return to its normal practices.”
Police have publicly appealed for anyone with information about Faith’s death to come forward, but Shia said her interactions with Chapel Hill police have been frustrating. She said she has been met with hostility when she’s called police with information and asked for more regular updates on the case.
“It’s weird because you’ve got this message of wanting people to bring in information,” she said. “For me it was just really stressful. It was stressful to interact with the police in any way. There was a lot of protectivism around it. We weren’t trying to interfere with the investigation … but we wanted information.”
Victoria Chavis can feel people starting to forget.
In the first few months after Faith’s death, the investigation was in headlines every week. As time dragged on, news coverage began to slow to every other week, then every few months. There were fewer articles and fewer TV segments, and most were about events held in her honor.
In the articles, Faith was always identified the same way: a beautiful UNC junior, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of Hollister, N.C., brutally killed.
Chavis doesn’t want her friend to be remembered as a murder victim. And she knows those descriptions don’t do Faith’s memory justice.
Faith’s happiness was infectious. Chavis remembers the first time she met Faith at UNC’s Summer Bridge Program in 2010 before the start of their freshman year. Everyone was stressed about taking placement exams, but Faith was smiling. “I wanted to be carefree like her,” Chavis said.
Faith loved Texas Pete and always carried a bottle in her purse in case she went to a restaurant that didn’t have it. She had a thick country accent, the byproduct of her upbringing in rural eastern North Carolina. She loved to dance, and as a little girl, she would dance around on the floor of her house for hours and hours. She gave people nicknames: Chavis was “Euna Baloona,” and her father, Roland Hedgepeth, was “Antonio Banderas.” He laughs when he remembers this. He doesn’t remember where the nickname came from now.
Faith loved UNC, and she’d wanted to go here since she was a little girl.
“Today when I got up and went to class, I stood on the steps for a minute and thought, I wish she were here,” Chavis said on a Friday in late March. “She loved this place and how pretty it is in the morning when nobody’s out here and the sun was rising. I just wonder what it would be like if she was still here.”
Roland Hedgepeth went to UNC and dropped out after a year. Faith wanted to finish what he started all those years ago.
When asked how they remember Faith now, both Chavis and Roland Hedgepeth say they remember her as running toward them, arms open, squealing their names.
A few weeks before Faith was killed, Roland Hedgepeth dreamed about a girl he didn’t recognize lying in a casket.
As he looked in Faith’s casket on the day of her funeral service, he realized that Faith was the girl from the dream.
“I said, ‘That’s not Faith. That don’t look like Faith,’” he said. “There was a lot of evidence of what she had gone through.”
According to Faith’s death certificate, she died by blunt head force trauma. Her autopsy remains sealed, and an official cause of death has not been released by the Chapel Hill Police Department.
Roland didn’t dream about Faith for a long time after her death, but he does now from time to time. He never remembers what happens in the dreams, but he usually wakes feeling happy.
“I just know that we had been together in the dreams,” he said.
Connie Hedgepeth told herself it wasn’t true. It was someone else’s daughter, not Faith. Not the girl who she had when she was 37 years old in the height of her husband’s drug addiction, her “godsend baby” who kept her life anchored. Not the girl who slept in her bed until she was nearly 13 years old. Not the girl who would hold her hand — in malls, in restaurants, anywhere.
It wasn’t until Connie saw her tiny, tiny hands in the casket that she finally believed it was Faith who had died that night.
Since Faith’s death, she’s had trouble focusing. Sometimes she drifts off into a daze while she’s at work at Lowe’s Home Centers. She has to push herself to get up every morning. She knows the emptiness she feels will never go away, but she finds strength in her faith in God.
“My life will never be the same as long as I live, because I’m going to always miss her, and of course that selfish part of me wants her back,” she said. “I know that she looks down and she would never want to be back here again. People in the world are so cruel and mean. She don’t have no stress now. She’s free.”
Faith Hedgepeth was buried in a small cemetery behind the church she attended growing up, Mt. Bethel Baptist Church in Warrenton, N.C.
On a Sunday afternoon in April, the cemetery is quiet and empty. At the foot of Faith’s grave is a rectangular stone marker bearing the phrase she was known for, “Just Have Faith.”
A bouquet of artificial pink flowers sits in a vase on the gravestone, and at the base is a small, fading bottle of Texas Pete with a thin piece of paper wrapped around it. On the paper is a Bible verse:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped and the evidence of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1
A few minutes down the road is the house where Faith grew up, located in a small neighborhood of one-story houses operated by the Haliwa-Saponi tribe.
With a population of around 1,000, Hollister is one of many rural North Carolina towns with a tiny population and a huge unemployment rate. A 2012 American Community Survey estimated the unemployment in Hollister at 19 percent — about three times the state’s unemployment rate.
A Dollar General is the town’s main attraction.
After graduation, Faith wanted to return home to work in her community. She came to UNC wanting to go into pediatrics, but she struggled with biology classes her freshman year and took classes only part-time her sophomore year.
The week before she died, Faith told friends she was thinking about changing her major from biology to public health. She had seen large disparities in access to health care in her community and she wanted to do something about it.
“I think she was trying to figure out exactly what place she wanted to land in,” Chavis said.
After Faith was killed, the Hedgepeth family started the Faith Hedgepeth Memorial Scholarship Fund. They awarded two scholarships in September at a powwow that marked the one year anniversary of her death.
But contributions have since fallen, and many who said they would donate never did. Incorporating as a non-profit could bring in larger contributions, but the costs to incorporate would drain the fund entirely. The future of the scholarship is uncertain.
“We want to do it again, but it will just depend on what happens,” Roland Hedgepeth said. “After a while, the novelty wears off. I guess the desire to give goes away.”
These days, Roland Hedgepeth’s life is dominated by a single purpose. He needs to know what happened to his daughter the night she was killed.
“I won’t have peace with it until I find out who did it,” he said. “I just have this feeling that a part of her is still here.”
He spends his time talking to his “points of contact” and searching for people who might know something about her death. He calls the Chapel Hill Police Department nearly every week, but they can never tell him much, he says.
“Every spare moment I have, I’m doing something, trying to make some sense, trying to find something that points a finger at someone or someones,” he said.
He goes to her apartment complex in Chapel Hill and talks to neighbors, searching for new information or something he might have missed. He used to come to Chapel Hill once or twice a month, but he comes less frequently now that the case has slowed.
“Since Faith was murdered, I’ve never been that way without taking I-40, getting on 15-501, taking a left, going right in front of the apartment,” he said. “That’s where her blood was spilled. That’s where her spirit was set free — but I feel like it’s not free.”
Victoria Chavis returned reluctantly to UNC in spring 2013. She had thought about transferring to UNC-Pembroke, which would have put her closer to home, but decided to come back for Faith.
Because Faith couldn’t be here, she would be.
“She wanted to graduate from UNC so bad,” she said. “She went through so much stuff in her time here. So I took it upon myself to say, well, if she wanted it so bad, I’m going to do it for both of us.”
When Chavis walks across the stage in May, it will be for Faith. When she joins UNC’s American Indian sorority — which Faith made her promise to do the night she was killed — it will be for Faith. When she moves back to work in her community, when she gets married, when she has kids, it will be for Faith.
They were supposed to do these things together. Now, Chavis wants to achieve her goals for both of them. It’s her promise to Faith.