Monday, September 23, 2013


This column was published earlier this month in The Durham News (part of the News & Observer), where I also write.  tg


Faith Hedgepeth and a DA’s sleepless nights
He couldn’t sleep. It was about 4 a.m. a few days ago when the man woke up and stared at nothing, really.
Interim Durham County District Attorney Leon Stanback was thinking that night, as he has many nights, about Faith Hedgepeth. It’s been a year since the UNC student was murdered. A year, on Sept. 7. With no arrest.
“It’s a terrible crime,” Stanback said. “Just terrible. We need to get this resolved. I am ready to inject new ideas, new energy, new pressures into doing that. Faith and her family deserve my best, everyone’s best.”
Faith, 19 days from her 20th birthday, was found murdered in her Old Chapel Hill Road apartment in the town of Chapel Hill. The complex is just inside the Durham County line, though, so it is the Durham DA’s office that would prosecute a suspect, if a suspect is ever charged. The Chapel Hill Police Department is the investigating agency.
The night after his sleeplessness, Stanback invited me to meet with him and two top homicide prosecutors, Charlene Coggins-Franks and Jim Dornfried.
“We are in more or less constant contact with Chapel Hill on the Hedgepeth case,” Stanback said.
He signaled that a major shift in the investigation could be coming very soon, but would not publicly elaborate.
“As the district attorney, there are things I can do,” he said.
Stanback, a steady, calm and personable man, spent 20 years on the bench, in a place where serious crimes came before the former judge time and again. He has seen it all. And now he’s in a different job.
“No one,” Stanback said, “least of all the person who took Faith Hedgepeth from her family and friends – and from her promising young life – should mistake kindness for weakness.”
As for new pressure, Stanback says he has a message to the murderer.
“We will get you,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. You can’t hide from this forever.”
I called the Chapel Hill police, whose new spokesman, Sgt. Bryan Walker, said he knows the community wants answers.
“This is not a cold case,” Walker said. “We are actively investigating leads.”
Walker’s department has been tightlipped from the start. A man’s DNA was collected from the scene; an FBI profile suggests Faith was likely familiar with her attacker.
If there were ever a mysterious murder, this seems to be it. Search warrants with far more detail have been sealed since shortly after the crime.
Back in Durham, I asked who wanted the warrants sealed.
“I did,” said Coggins-Franks.
“Why for a year now?”
No answer.
I did learn some new details during the meeting. Because of certain conditions at the scene, the team believes the murderer was emotionally driven to do the things he did.
I also learned that during the investigation, DNA has been collected from a number of people, in some instances voluntarily.
“The DNA from the scene may be connected to the murder,” Stanback said. “Or, it may not be.”
Prosecutors don’t necessarily believe Faith’s death had to do with her visit to a Chapel Hill club into the wee hours of the night before. She and her roommate were observed meeting and talking with several people. They said video from the club shows the two women leaving. The prosecutors would not be more specific.
“Sometimes you need one thing to break a case,” Stanback said. “Sometimes you make your own breaks. Perhaps we’re just one thing away.”
Stanback had another message.
“I believe the murderer is aware that someone else holds significant information about what happened. It’s been a year now. I am urging that person or persons to call somebody, clear their conscience, let it out. I don’t care how you do it. Just do it.”
Justice will come, Stanback said. “I feel confident it will.”
As the footstone on Faith’s beautiful burial plot in Warren County says, in white cursive on gray slate. “Just Have Faith.”
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at or 919-219-0042.

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