An inn employee turned murder suspect from North Carolina could be put to death over the killing of a coworker after federal prosecutors announced new charges in the case.
Initially charged with second-degree murder, Derek Shawn Pendergraft, 21, now faces a first-degree murder charge, as well as two counts of aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death of his co-worker Sara Ellis, 29, according to a Thursday release by the U.S. Department of Justice.
While each of the charges he faces carry a maximum penalty of death, the DOJ has not yet said whether it would seek out the death penalty for Pendergraft.
Pendergraft allegedly killed Ellis "willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation," according to a new grand jury indictment cited by the Asheville Citizen Times.
Ellis' body was discovered on July 24 just off a path near a staff dormitory on the property of the Pisgah Inn in Canton, North Carolina after Ellis and Pendergraft had reportedly taken an after-work hike together.
Pendergraft, who worked as a housekeeper at the inn, initially told investigators he and Ellis opted to hit the trails after work at around 4 p.m. However, he said that Ellis decided to turn back after it started to rain while he continued onward, prosecutors said.
He claimed that he found Ellis' umbrella and hat lying on the ground on his way back, and he alerted the inn’s staff that she could be 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," the DOJ statement said.
Authorities arrived at the manager’s office to interview Pendergraft before placing him under arrest, according to prosecutors.
Ellis reportedly had severe issues with her hearing — just like her identical twin and her two other sisters, making her more vulnerable to a possible attack, the Citizen Times reports.
The grand jury considered this impairment as well as other special sentencing factors in its indictment.
Shortly after her death, friends and family members described Ellis, who had three sisters including an identical twin, to the Citizen Times as a “trusting soul” who had a "sweetness" and "innocence" about her.
"She would run up to a stranger and give them a high-five just to make their day better," Carrie Ellis, one of Sara’s older sisters, told the paper, adding that she was almost “kind to a fault.”
Uncle Phillip Ellis said he wondered if Sara’s “tragic” death could partly be attributed to her trustful innocence.
"That might have been her downfall, and that's what angers me," he told the paper. "I hope whoever did this gets the justice deserved.”
[Photo Credit: Associated Press]
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