Prosecutors: Sex assault was motive for Blue Ridge Parkway killing

Published: Dec. 6, 2018 at 5:41 PM EST
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An aspiring chef slain over the summer at a North Carolina mountain inn died during a sexual assault by a co-worker, prosecutors said Thursday, offering new details on the motive for the killing at the height of tourism season along a famed scenic highway.

New charges filed this week in federal court could also allow authorities to seek the death penalty in the slaying that took place steps from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The new superseding indictment adds two counts of aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death against 21-year-old Derek Shawn Pendergraft, and it charges him with first-degree murder. He was previously charged with second-degree murder, which would have carried a maximum of life in prison.

Prosecutors said in a news release that they haven't yet decided whether to pursue a death sentence.

The indictment said that Pendergraft killed Sara Ellis on July 24 during the course of a sexual assault. Prosecutors write that Ellis was "particularly vulnerable due to her ... hearing impairment." A cause of death hasn't been released.

A defense attorney didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment Thursday.

Pendergraft had initially told authorities the two went for a hike near the Pisgah Inn where both worked, and that he lost track of Ellis after she turned back in the rain. After he informed inn managers she was missing, authorities found the victim's body off an embankment near the parkway.

Family and friends said that Ellis, 29, was an aspiring chef from Florida who loved to bake and watch cooking shows. She saw the seasonal job at the inn as a way to advance a career in restaurants, they said.

A close friend of Ellis, Nicole de Giovine, said Thursday that the death has been crushing for family and friends — especially Sara's twin sister, Rachel, who has coped by limiting her exposure to developments in the criminal probe.

"Sara's death has been devastating to her, and she is not ready to know the details of the case," de Giovine said in an email, adding that knowing her sister was sexually assaulted would "only devastate her further."

The death also rattled a group of young, seasonal employees who had come from around the country to work at the inn operated under contract with the National Park Service, its owner Bruce O'Connell said over the summer.

He said about half of the inn's 100 employees live on-site in dorm-style rooms at the property, which is about 30 minutes from surrounding towns. Pendergraft, who's from Asheville about 45 minutes northeast, had been working as a housekeeper at the inn.



A woman working a summer job at a North Carolina mountain lodge was out hiking when, authorities say, a co-worker attacked her and left her lifeless body steps from a famed scenic highway.

The death at the height of summer tourism along the Blue Ridge Parkway devastated a group of young, seasonal employees who come to work among breathtaking vistas at the remote Pisgah Inn. Located along the highway that draws visitors from around the world, the inn at a 5,000-foot (1.5 kilometers) elevation was named best national park lodge by USA Today readers in 2015.

"People are walking around in shock and disbelief and really shook up," Bruce O'Connell, who owns the inn, said of his 100 employees.

Sara Ellis, a 29-year-old cook from Florida who arrived at the Pisgah Inn in May, was found dead Tuesday, hours after she was reported missing along a path near the inn's employee dorms.

The man accused of killing her was another young employee: 20-year-old Derek Shawn Pendergraft, according to court documents. The Asheville resident had been working as a housekeeper at the inn, the owner said.

Pendergraft, who's in custody, made an initial appearance in federal court Thursday on a second-degree murder charge, which carries a maximum of life in prison.

Pendergraft was the one who reported Ellis missing, according to court documents. Rangers and other investigators found her partially nude body off an embankment close to a trail near the parkway.

Initially, Pendergraft told investigators that he and Ellis went for a hike after they both finished work around 4 p.m., but she decided to return when it began to rain. Agents write that he returned from his hike and told his managers that she was missing, saying then that he had found her umbrella lying on the ground.

But the next night, an inn manager called investigators and told them that Pendergraft had come to her office and confessed to the killing, according to court documents.

Investigators say Pendergraft told them that he blacked out during the hike and next remembers staring at the woman's lifeless face.

Court documents noted bruising on her neck and head, but didn't specify the cause of death. There were no signs of bullet or blade wounds.

A defense attorney for Pendergraft didn't return an email seeking comment.

O'Connell, who operates the inn under a contract with the National Park Service, said he believes that Pendergraft and Ellis, who's from Seminole, Florida, were both first-time employees at the inn that's open each year from spring to fall. Both were living in the on-site employee housing at the site that's about 30 minutes from surrounding towns, he said. He said he didn't know whether they had been friends.

About half of the inn's employees live in the housing described on the website as dorm rooms with twin beds and shared dressers and closets.

Like other National Park lodges, the inn attracts seasonal workers from around the country, O'Connell said. It's not uncommon for workers to travel between ski resorts and summer attractions to work outdoors year round. Many are young, but some are also retirees.

He said that a couple of guests have canceled, but otherwise the staff doing its best to keep the inn running.

"There are grief counselors here right now," he said. "A lot of tears being shed."