The Department of Justice said the FBI has charged a man with second degree murder in the death of a coworker whose body was found along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Investigators tentatively identified the victim as 29-year-old Sara Ellis, who was employed as a pantry cook at the Pisgah Inn. Family has been notified, and final identification is pending a complete autopsy scheduled for Friday.
On Tuesday, dispatchers received a call around 7:30 p.m. from a manager at the Pisgah Inn reporting a female employee missing.
National Park Rangers responded to the scene with the help of local rescue crews and around 10:30 p.m., the body of a woman was found near a path connecting the Pisgah Inn with employee housing.
On Thursday, a federal complaint listed Derek Shawn Pendergraft, 20, of Asheville as the suspect.
"I heard the news and started crying and screamed no, no no!" Sara's sister, Carrie Ellis said, "I did all of the things you see in movies, but you don't think it's ever going to be you."
The complaint stated Pendergraft reported on Tuesday evening that a co-worker, identified as "S.E.," was missing.
When he was initially interviewed by investigators, he reportedly told them he and his co-worker had gone hiking after a shift. She decided to turn back then it began raining, but Pendergraft continued. On his way back, he said he found S.E.'s umbrella and hat on the ground.
Rangers and first responders later found the woman's body lying off an embankment. According to the criminal complaint against Pendergraft, her body was found partially exposed.
She suffered bruising and discoloration to her neck and head, however investigators said they did not find any injuries that would have been caused by a gunshot or edged weapon.
Federal investigators said the Pendergraft confessed to the Pisgah Inn manager on Wednesday that he had killed Ellis. The manager turned that information over to authorities and Pendergraft was arrested.
"It's a horrible, terrible situation. You never think it's going to be your family," Carrie Ellis said, "You don't know how to prepare yourself. It just absolutely rocked our world."
In a recorded interview with investigators, the FBI says Pendergraft told them he began a hike with the victim when she decided to turn around. Pendergraft said he "blacked out" and came to what felt like a short time later, looking into the victim's face after she died, the FBI said.
If convicted, Pendergraft faces up to life in prison.
Since the incident occurred on federal property, the FBI is the lead investigative agency along with assistance from the National Park Service and the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation.
A GoFundMe has been set up for the Ellis family.
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