Man, girlfriend recall finding UNCC student's body
ROBERT LAHSER/ Staff Photographer
5/014/08 - Brenda Pierce and Dennis Lovelace visit the spot where they found Irina Yarmolenko's body.
A wrecked car in a lonely spot by the Catawba River; a young woman's lifeless body on the ground; signs of a possible struggle nearby.
Images of the mystery still float in the minds of Dennis Lovelace and his girlfriend Brenda Pierce.
The Belmont couple are constantly reviewing details from the grim discovery they made around 12:50 p.m. on May 5.
A body they found on the river banks in Mount Holly behind the Stowe Family YMCA was identified as 20-year-old UNCC student Irina "Ira" Yarmolenko.
Police said she died of asphyxiation and are treating the case as a homicide. But they haven't revealed whether she'd been strangled or smothered. They've named no suspects and have identified no motive.
Meanwhile, as Lovelace and Pierce learned more about Yarmolenko, they began to think of her almost like a family member. They've returned to the site where they found her body. What they saw there on May 5 continues to haunt them.
Yarmolenko was last seen leaving a university area coffee shop about 11 a.m. Less than two hours later her body was discovered in Gaston County, about 30 miles from her school.
"We wish we could have helped her," said Pierce, 38. "She's become totally our friend."
Pierce is a textile employee and Lovelace a truck driver. On May 5, they were both off and decided to try out their personal watercraft for the first time this season.
Around 12:30 p.m. the couple packed a picnic lunch and hit the river.
They headed north, zipping under the Interstate 85 bridge toward Mountain Island.
Describing themselves as "river rats," Pierce and Lovelace roam up and down the Catawba whenever they find time.
"I've been on that river since I was a child," said Lovelace, 53. "It brings me peace of mind."
They've seen an eagle dive into the Catawba and fly away with a fish; they've seen deer swimming bank to bank and a beaver that looked almost as big as a Labrador retriever.
Those sights inspired peaceful thoughts. But that sort of thing didn't happen on May 5.
Lovelace first spotted the blue 4-door Saturn. The sedan was lodged on the river bank at the bottom of a steep, weed-covered embankment. He motioned to Pierce to slow down and follow him over to the bank. At first, he thought it was a stolen vehicle that had been pushed over the edge of a hill.
When the couple got within two feet of the bank Lovelace stood up on his water craft and saw a woman's body on the ground beside the car.
Pierce noticed the woman's eyes were wide open. And she can't forget how beams of sunlight flashed on the woman's face.
The car had plunged down an embankment and hit a stump just short of the water. The driver's door and the one behind it were open.
Lovelace noted the steepness of the terrain, the tangles of kudzu and vines, and thick woods flanking the site.
Something else caught his eye: within a 6-to-8 feet diameter around the body, tall grass had been trampled and matted. It appeared to Lovelace as the sign of a "humongous struggle."
"That girl fought for her life down on the banks of that river," he said.
Police have said the trampled grass didn't necessarily mean a struggle had taken place.
Lovelace and Pierce were at the scene only a few minutes before they split up and went to find help. She headed south to Dale's Boat Landing in Belmont; he sped toward a construction site upriver. Neither had a cell phone.
Pierce made the 911 call, but had to stay put at the boat landing in Belmont because her key to the water craft fell in the water.
Lovelace estimated he was gone for about six to eight minutes. He returned to the site and stayed there in his watercraft until rescuers arrived.
As information emerged about Yarmolenko's whereabouts before her body was found, Lovelace and Pierce realized the killer might have been scared away by the sound of their watercraft. It occurred to them that person might even have been hiding nearby when they arrived.
"The time framework put us closer and closer and then a little too close," Lovelace said. "I have an eerie feeling he (the killer) was close to us. It gives me cold chills."
He's convinced whoever killed Yarmolenko knew the area.
"You do not go into the woods in a Saturn and run into this place," Lovelace said. "The person or persons who did this has family or friends over here and they'd been here many times."
This weekend, Lovelace and Pierce planned to go back to the spot where they found Yarmolenko and put up a wreath and eight-foot wooden cross as memorials.
"It's our rest in peace for her and us," Pierce said. "We'll never forget her."
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UNCC posts a $10,000 reward in Irina Yarmolenko case.
Another memorial for Yarmolenko will be held from 10:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday at the Chapel Hill High School Auditorium, just off Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.