ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A superseding criminal bill of indictment was returned on December 4, 2018, by a federal grand jury, charging Derek Shawn Pendergraft, 21, of Asheville, N.C., with one count of first degree murder and two counts of aggravated sexual abuse resulting in the death of his Pisgah Inn co-worker, Sara Ellis, announced Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. Pendergraft was previously charged with second degree murder.
U.S. Attorney Murray is joined in making today’s announcement by John A. Strong, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Charlotte Division; Neal D. Labrie, Chief Ranger of the Blue Ridge Parkway; and Robert Schurmeier, Director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI).
According to allegations contained in the superseding indictment and other court documents, on the evening of July 24, 2018, Pendergraft, who worked at the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, reported that his co-worker, Sara Ellis, was missing. Court documents allege that when initially interviewed by investigators, Pendergraft stated that he and Sara Ellis got off work shortly after 4:00 p.m., and decided to go for a hike on an unnamed trail near the employee housing area of the Pisgah Inn. Pendergraft stated that shortly after starting their hike it began to rain, and the victim decided to return to the housing area while Pendergraft continued to hike. Court documents allege that Pendergraft stated that on his way back, upon reaching the point where he last saw the victim, Pendergraft saw the victim’s umbrella and hat lying on the ground. Pendergraft informed the management staff at the Pisgah Inn that the victim was missing. Rangers and first responders searched the area and located the victim’s body lying off an embankment, near a trail, within the boundary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Transylvania County, in the Western District of North Carolina.
According to allegations contained in court documents, on the evening of July 25, 2018, the manager of the Pisgah Inn contacted law enforcement and advised that Pendergraft was in her office and had made statements regarding the death of Sara Ellis. Law enforcement arrived at the Pisgah Inn, interviewed Pendergraft, and arrested him shortly thereafter in connection with the victim’s murder.
Pendergraft is currently in federal custody. His court hearing on the new charges is set for Friday, December 7, 2018, at 10:00 a.m., at the federal courthouse in Asheville. The penalty for first degree murder is life in prison or death. The aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison or death.
The indictment includes a Notice of Special Sentencing Factors which could permit the United States to seek the death penalty. The Department of Justice has not yet announced whether it will seek the death penalty.
An indictment is merely an allegation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law.
In making today’s announcement, U.S. Attorney Murray thanked the National Park Service, the FBI, the SBI, the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, and the Cruso Fire Department for their respective work and assistance in this case.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Don Gast and John Pritchard, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville are in charge of the prosecution.