A North Carolina hotel employee who reported his co-worker missing confessed to her murder while in a "blacked out" state of shock, authorities said.
Derek Shawn Pendergraft was arrested on July 25 and charged with the murder of Sara Ellis. Both worked at the Pisgah Inn, a popular tourist attraction.
On July 24, Ellis' partially nude body was found on a trail in Asheville, N.C., according to The Tampa Bay Times.
Sara's father, Gregg Ellis, described the area while grieving for his daughter.
“It’s beautiful,” Ellis told The Tampa Bay Times. “It’s one of the last places you would think you have to worry about this kind of thing.”
Pendergraft claims he went on a hike with Ellis, according to the criminal complaint. When it began raining, Pendergraft said Ellis returned to work.
Two hours later, he said he'd found her umbrella and hat on the ground, and informed his employers that she had gone missing.
But Pisgah Inn's management notified investigators that Pendergraft claimed he had "blacked out" and was staring at Ellis' corpse when he came to.
Bruce O'Connell, owner of the Pisgah Inn, said locals were surprised by the news.
"People are walking around in shock and disbelief and really shook up," said O'Connell to The Associated Press. "There are grief counselors here right now ... A lot of tears being shed."
Ellis' family set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for her funeral costs.
Pendergraft's attorneys have not yet commented on the case.
Pendergraft, charged with second-degree murder, faces life in prison convicted. He has not yet entered a plea.
Since the crime took place on federal property, FBI officials are leading the investigation, with assistance from the National Park Service and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, according to The Independent Tribune.
[Photo: Buncombe County Sheriff's Department]