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The Coworkers

In 2018, two seasonal workers at an inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia set out on a hike and only one returned alive. The reality of who was behind the demise of Sara Ellis is incomprehensible and to this day remains a horrific case for investigators and the victims’ family to relive.

The Episode

Hi park enthusiasts…

I’m your host Delia D’Ambra.

The story I’m going to tell you about today is the case of a chilling and senseless murder that happened in one of the most scenic and beautiful mountain landscapes in the United States…the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The crime changed how people living near a stretch of this iconic route in Western North Carolina saw seasonal service industry workers…and the people they interacted with at their jobs every day.

According to the National Park Service, the Blue Ridge Parkway meanders for almost 500 miles between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park . It’s the longest planned road in the US and if you drive all of it, you’ll pass through a handful of national forests.

More than 15 million people find themselves on the roadway every year…and I can personally say I’m one of those people because I used to live not far from Shenandoah National Park and my husband and I have visited several times since I moved away.

There are access point to the parkway off of major state highways and at those exits there’s always restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions.

One of those lodging locations is North Carolina’s Pisgah Inn which sits about 25 miles southwest of Asheville.

The inn is privately owned but operates under a National Park Service contract. The main reason people stay there is —one, because it’s convenient…and two, it has an observation deck that overlooks the Pisgah National Forest—a breathtaking lush woodland filled with waterfalls, trails and wildlife.

The inn has earned the moniker—“the peak of the parkway”—and over the years a quote has been marketed alongside the nickname that says…”Every guest and employee leaves with a positive memory or experience”

But in the summer of 2018—that was not the case.

A young woman working at the inn did NOT have a positive experience…and the memory she made while walking a trail with someone she thought was her friend…was the last memory she ever made.

This is Park Predators.

On Tuesday July 24th, 2018, 41-year-old Tiffany Coleman was texting with her younger step-sister and former roommate, Sara Ellis.

The women had been exchanging messages all day long just catching up, talking about life and how Sara’s new seasonal job at the Pisgah Inn in North Carolina was going.

Tiffany was at her home in Seminole, Florida, near St. Petersburg and Sara had taken a job as a pantry cook for the summer.

She’d started working at the inn in May and had about two months of work under her belt and roughly three more left to go before the lodge closed for the season and Sarah would return to Florida.

The 29-year-old aspiring cook had a pretty lengthy resume of working food service jobs while she’d been in college and according to her friends, really knew her way around the kitchen. She was best known for making great omelets and chocolate cake. The pantry cook job at the inn was a perfect for someone like Sara who adored cooking and experimenting in the kitchen.

Her main job was preparing salads, desserts and other cold dishes for the inn’s kitchen…and when she could catch break she’d slip Tiffany a text. So, their conversation that day was intermittent, but still pretty consistent.

The women were ironing out plans to visit together during a road trip Tiffany was planning to Maryland. The plan was for Tiffany to stop in and see Sara on her way back home to Florida sometime in late July or early August.

But around four o’clock, Tiffany stopped receiving messages from Sara. Every text she sent, went unanswered.

At the time, Tiffany wasn’t too alarmed. Again, she and Sara had been sort of hit and miss with their messages all day and Tiffany figured maybe Sara had just gotten busy during her shift or would pick their conversation back up when she got off work in a few hours.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, several hours had passed and around 7:00pm the general manager of the Pisgah Inn along with the inn’s owner, a guy named Bruce O’Connell were in their offices when a distraught 20-year-old man came in with some disturbing news.

The guy told his bosses that his co-worker, Sara Ellis was missing.

Bruce and the GM were  totally taken aback by this news and asked the guy to slow down and explain what he’s talking about. He looked familiar to them and they asked him to remind them who he was and just go through his information one more time.

The guy introduced himself as Derek Pendergraft and he told them that he worked as a housekeeper in the inn. He went on to explain that around four o’clock he’d gone out on a hike with Sara on a trail near the inn’s employee housing building.

A quick side note—about 40 to 45 seasonal employees who worked at the inn during the summer lived in a building about 200 yards from the lodge. There was a short trail through the woods connecting the temporary housing to the main grounds of the inn. Branching off that trail were other trails that weren’t really designated, they were just kind of beaten paths that employees and visitors had walked so much over the years that the ground in those places had just naturally become trails.

Derek said that shortly after he and Sara got off work and started on their hike, it had begun to rain. He said at that point Sara had turned back to head back towards the employee dorms and he’d continued on hiking for another hour or so.

Eventually he’d turned around too and when he’d passed by the spot he last saw Sara, he noticed her umbrella and hat were laying on the ground.

He said he felt like that was really unusual so he started calling out and searching the general area for her. When he didn’t find her, he picked up her stuff and came straight to the inn’s office to let someone know she was missing.

According to WMYA’s reporting, Bruce and the general manager wasted no time reporting what Derek had told them to the local authorities. Bruce later told the news outlet that in the moment, everyone immediately assumed Sara had taken a tumble or  fallen somewhere and was possibly injured. They did not think of a worst-case scenario…like she’d been abducted or anything like that.

Bruce’s call to police came in at 7:30pm that night and right away park rangers with NPS and a search and rescue team from a nearby local law enforcement agency responded to the inn and began searching the grounds

Three hours into their task, around 10:30 p.m., crews made a horrifying discovery.

About half a mile down a narrow, slope searchers found a young woman’s lifeless body several feet off an embankment near unnamed trail.

There is some discrepancy in the source material about the exact trail where the body was found. Like, some sources say the victim was found right near the footpath between the main inn and the employee dorms…while other sources say she was actually a half a mile down a separate, unnamed path that led away from the employee dorms. I’m not sure which one is accurate, but regardless of the precise location…the body was discovered very quickly after searches started…and it was apparent right away that the woman’s death was no accident.

It took a matter of minutes for authorities to get a positive ID and confirm that the deceased woman was Sara Ellis. They determined this based on the description they’d gathered from staff at the inn about what she looked like and what she’d last been seen wearing.

Because the woods where the crime scene was technically fell into federal jurisdiction, the FBI became the lead investigating agency on the case. The feds called in help from the North Carolina State Bureau of investigation to assist their agents in processing the body.

What techs determined was that Sara was found lying on her right side with her shirt pulled up exposing her breasts. Whoever had attacked her also pulled down her pants and underwear to her knees. Telltale signs of a potential sexual assault.

Reports state that at first glance there were no visible signs of trauma on her body, like a gunshot wound or stab wound that indicated her killer had used a weapon. The only noticeable trauma that indicated homicide were several deep bruises on her head and around her neck.

To preserve evidence and get Sara’s body out of the elements, the FBI and NC SBI transported her to the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy. That procedure was scheduled for Friday July 27th—three days later.

The first two tasks investigators needed to start on while they waited for results from that exam were contacting Sara’s family and beginning to interview witnesses who worked at the inn.

As you can imagine, the Ellis family was devastated when they learned the news. Sara was the middle child of her family with a twin sister named Rachel who’d been born just seconds after her. Sara also had an older sister named Carrie and her step-sister Tiffany, who even though she was more than a decade older than Sara, was still really close with her step siblings.

According to the Associated Press, The Ellis family had already suffered one heartbreak in the years leading up to Sara’s murder.. In 2011, Sara’s mother Jamie had died of melanoma, which left her father Gregg to provide for his daughters.

Gregg told The Tampa Bay Times, he was shocked and horrified to learn about what had happened and couldn’t believe his daughter had met her demise in such a picturesque place that she loved so much.

He went on to tell the paper, that the family had lived for several years in Western North Carolina for  before eventually moving to Minneapolis.

When Sara had left for college she ended up moving to Florida’s gulf coast but the mountains of North Carolina had always had a special place in her heart. Gregg said he wasn’t surprised when Sara told him that she was going to work as a cook during the summer of 2018 at the Pisgah Inn.

Gregg informed investigators that even though Sara was almost 30-years, old she was a particularly vulnerable young woman. You see, both Sara and her twin sister Rachel had been born with a birth defect that started affecting their sense of hearing when they turned 14. By the time they became adults, both women were almost completely deaf.

The Associated Press reported that Sara’s hearing impairment became such an issue during her college years that she’d abandoned her dreams of becoming a broadcast journalist and left school after just  a few semesters.

For while she worked odd jobs in Florida in the food service industry and eventually went back to school taking classes and studying restaurant management. That’s what she’d been pursuing right before taking the job at the Pisgah Inn for the summer.

Her family told the Citizen Times that Sara was a devout Christian who was very cautious around men and had no issue ending a relationship with someone if she felt the guy didn’t hold the same moral values as her. She was known to turn down men who made sexual advances because she was very adamant about saving herself for marriage.

Authorities gathered all of this background information about Sara with lightning speed and by the next day– Wednesday July 25th–they’d lined up a list of people they wanted to interview.

At top of that list was 20-year-old Derek Pendergraft.

When FBI agents spoke with him one-on-one, Derek offered the same story he’d told his bosses. He said he and Sara had gotten off work around 4pm the day before and decided to take a hike together. After a few minutes of rainfall she turned back and he kept going. He explained how he’d found her stuff on his return trip and that’s when he knew he needed to tell someone she was missing.

Right off the bat, authorities were unsure what to make of Derek’s story. It seemed pretty convenient and there were no eyewitnesses other than him to corroborate what he said happened. They probed him more but Derek didn’t change his story.

Authorities were left waiting for lab and autopsy results to come back in order to rule Derek in or out as a suspect.

By late afternoon on Wednesday, the FBI officially announced to the public that they were investigating Sara’s death as a homicide and they were actively investigating leads to find her killer.

The rest of the day on the 25th, news about the murder spread like wild fire through the area and some guests at the inn began to check out early.

Bruce O’Connell, the inn’s owner, tried to settle his customer and employee’s fears by hiring a nighttime security guard and assuring everyone the crime would be thoroughly investigated, but at that point it was no use.

Everyone in the region was spooked and having such a brutal murder occur during the peak of tourism season impacted every retailer in the area.

A crime of this nature was extremely rare for this stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. A special agent named Kirby Styles told the Asheville Citizen Times that he could only think of one violent sexual assault that had happened in the greater Asheville area during his 12 years on the job.

According to the Times, that incident had taken place in May of 2016 more than 40 miles away from the Pisgah Inn. The victim was a 64-year-old woman who’d been found tied to a tree with her service dog trotting around nearby.

Reporting on that case says that shortly after the crime, a suspect was arrest but it’s unclear from the source material if the charges ever stuck.

Authorities didn’t have to speculate for long though if Sara’s murder was somehow tied to another crime, because by nightfall on July 25th…less than 24 hours after her body was found…someone came into the Pisgah Inn and confessed.

The person who’d come forward to take full responsibility for Sara’s death was none other than Derek Pendergraft…

Yeah, the same guy who hours earlier had told the FBI that he didn’t know what happened to Sara.

According to Kimberly King’s reporting for ABC News 13, Derek had shown up at his general manager’s office after dark on Wednesday night and shared that he was the one who’d killed Sara.

Within minutes of him coming in, his manager called investigators and special agents with the FBI responded to the inn ready to re-interview Derek and get the full story.

According to a criminal complaint filed in the case, Derek declined to have a lawyer join him and willing opened up to investigators in a recorded interview about what had happened.

He said that it was true he and Sara had decided to take a hike after getting off their shifts on Tuesday but the portion of his initial story where he said Sara had decided to turn back after it started raining, wasn’t true.

He said that he and Sara had not parted ways…and he’d not continued hiking without her. He said that all he remembered was quote—“blacking out”—end quote…and when he came to he was looking into Sara’s face and saw it turning purple. He said before he knew what was happening, she was already dead and lying on her back on the ground.

Derek told agents quote – “When I came to I felt it had not been a single blink of my time.”—end quote.

After realizing he’d killed her, Derek said he’d moved Sara’s body off the trail to hide it and admitted he’d left her in a state of partial undress.

After that he said he returned to the inn with Sara’s hat and umbrella and told the manager and owner that she’d gone missing during their hike, even though he knew otherwise.

What’s super eerie to me is that according to WMYA news, Derek actually helped take part in the search for Sara on Tuesday night…knowing full well, she was already dead and he’d been the person who’d killed her.

Minutes after confessing, FBI agents arrested Derek and charged him with second degree murder. They took him to the Buncombe County jail in Asheville and set his first appearance court date for two weeks later on August 6th.

When word of his arrest made headlines on Thursday July 26th, Bruce O’Connell the inn’s owner told the Asheville Citizen Times that he couldn’t provide any details about whether or not Derek and Sara were close friends or romantic in any way. All he knew was that both of them were first-time seasonal employees and worked in different departments at the inn and lived in the shared dorm building.

Other news outlets reported that no one who knew Sara and Derek thought they were friends. To everyone who knew them, the couple was just co-workers…nothing more.

Sara’s siblings told the Associated Press that not once had Sara ever mentioned Derek when discussing people she was friends with at the inn.

Meanwhile, some of Derek’s friends told reporters that they were shocked that he was even capable of committing such a cruel act. According to ABC 13 News, Derek had grown up with a rough background and experienced homelessness and bullying most of his youth. He did not have healthy relationships with his parents and overall was described as sort of a lost, troubled teen.

His high school friends said despite that rough upbringing though, they remembered him as a funny kid who didn’t have a history of violence.

On August 8—15 days after Sara was killed—a federal grand jury officially indicted Derek for second-degree murder.

Four days later, on Sunday, August 12th, Sara’s friends and family gathered in Florida to celebrate her life and hold a memorial service.

Attendees were asked to wear bright colors and skip the traditional black garb of funerals. Her stepsister Tiffany told news outlets that the celebration had been full of vibrant colors, flowers, and some of Sara’s favorite music. Friends and family came from all over Florida, North Carolina, and Minnesota to commemorate Sara’s life. The family had decided to cremate her remains and spread her ashes along the beach.

Her obituary read, quote— “Sara loved cooking, gardening, home-improvement projects, and all animals. She taught herself to play guitar and loved to sing. Sara was hilariously witty and always appreciated a good pun. She was kind to everyone. If she knew you were sad, she could make you smile. Sara would always support and encourage you. If you knew her, you loved her. She truly shined God’s loving light to everyone she met,” —end quote.

From August to December of 2018, the Ellis family refrained from speaking publicly about Derek’s arrest and the upcoming trial. They didn’t want to compromise the case federal prosecutors were putting building against him.

Around the time of her funeral, some family members did speak to reporters with the Citizen Times and indicated they were convinced that Sara’s trusting nature and kind heart had perhaps made her an easy target for someone like Derek who’d taken advantage of her.

Rachel, her twin sister, described Sara as funny and kind and said she often tried to see the good in everyone she came across. Rachel said she believed Sara went hiking with Derek because she was trying to show kindness to him.

She told Fox Carolina News, quote “She always tried to be positive. It could be raining and she would be happy. It was raining when she went up the mountain that day, but I know she was trying to show this person something positive” end quote.

In early December 2018 the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of North Carolina made a big announcement that changed the high-profile nature of the case entirely…

Right before Christmas in 2018, federal prosecutors announced in a press release that they were upping the second-degree murder charge against Derek to first degree murder AND the government was going to file additional charges against him for aggravated sexual abuse resulting in Sara’s death.

The indictment said Derek’s actions were quote —“willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation; and in the perpetration of, and an attempt to perpetrate, aggravated sexual abuse.” –end quote.

WHSV News reported that prosecutors speculated that Sara’s hearing impairment made her a vulnerable target for Derek on the day they went hiking and more than likely he’d taken advantage of that while out in the woods together.

A big update that came along with the enhanced charges was the fact that prosecutors now had the ability to seek the death penalty against Derek.

Four months later, in April 2019, the medical examiner publicly released Sara’s cause of death…something that had previously been kept under wraps. The M-E ruled that Sara’s pathology showed she’d been strangled and suffered multiple blows of blunt force trauma to her arms and legs.. She’d also been the victim of sexual assault.

News reports on this case don’t go into specific detail of whether or not authorities found DNA or semen on Sara that matched to Derek but even though they don’t explicitly say it, I have to assume they had enough evidence pointing to that or else they would not have filed the additional charges against him regarding sexual assault.

By the time the one-year anniversary of the crime rolled around in July 2019, the stage was set for federal prosecutors to take Derek to trial for murder…but as it turned out…they wouldn’t have to.

On August 26th…he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and the additional sexual assault counts. As part of his deal, he waived his right to ever appeal his case and the death penalty was taken off the table.

According to ABC 13 News, Derek was very stoic in the courtroom during his plea hearing and he answered all of the judge’s questions with simple yes and no responses.

His mother attended and wept opening as he admitted to the brutal crime. All of Sara’s family attended the hearing too and many of them told reporters afterwards that despite all the pain Derek had caused them by taking Sara’s life…they believed he was genuinely remorseful for his actions.

In February 2020, a judge sentenced Derek—who was 22 years old by this point— to three life terms without the possibility of parole.

The U.S. Attorney at the time released a statement saying quote—“Today’s sentence will not bring back Sara to her family and friends who miss her and think about her every day, but it is my sincere hope that everyone impacted by this heinous crime can find solace in knowing that Sara’s killer will never walk free among us again.”—end quote.

According to Mackenzie Wicker’s reporting for the Asheville Citizen Times, several members of Sara’s family attended the sentencing, but only Tiffany Coleman, her stepsister, got up and spoke directly to Derek.

In her victim impact statement, Tiffany recalled for the court how she’d been texting with Sara the day of her murder and how the text messages had abruptly stopped that afternoon. She said the impact of receiving the worst phone call she’d ever gotten in her whole life the very next day was something she will never forget.

Despite Derek’s full confession and zero desire to fight the charges against him, his public defender spoke at the sentencing to provide some context as to why he’d made the terrible decisions he’d made.

His attorney said Derek was extremely regretful of his actions against Sara and perhaps one of the contributing factors as to why he did it could be found in his poor upbringing and environment as a child.

The federal judge presiding over the case agreed that there were issues in Derek’s past that likely contributed to his violent attack on Sara, but he did not make excuses for him. Instead the judge called the whole case quote—“among the saddest in his career”—end quote. He told Derek that he hoped the structure of prison would teach him valuable lessons and give him access to substance abuse counseling and treatment for sexual offenders.

There was no mention during any of the court proceedings about any past juvenile history Derek may have had. Court records for incidents prior to his 18th birthday were sealed from public record which left many people questioning if there were warning signs in the young man’s life throughout his childhood and teenage years that could have been red flags that he was capable of such a violent crime.

Today, Derek Pendergraft remains incarcerated at a federal prison in Oregon… some 2,700 miles away from the mountains where he ended Sara’s life.

An anecdote I learned about while researching this case came from Sara’s sister Carrie.

She told a few publications that just two days before Sara’s murder, they’d been texting back and forth.

Carrie said some of the last words her sister wrote her were about how she felt the Pisgah National Forest was so beautiful and how great a time she was having making friends at the inn.

In their final exchange, Sara told Carrie that she felt like the inn was a safe place.

Unfortunately, she could not have been more wrong.

Park Predators is an audiochuck original show.

So, what do you think chuck, do you approve? *howl*