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Sara Ellis was allegedly murdered by coworker Derek Pendergraft not far from the Pisgah Inn in North Carolina, by the Blue Ridge Parkway

By Harriet Sokmensuer and Adam Carlson
July 27, 2018 06:32 PM
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Credit: Go Fund Me

Sara Ellis had only been working a few months at the Pisgah Inn in North Carolina, along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, when prosecutors allege a coworker murdered her earlier this week and then reported her missing, leaving her partially nude body to be found near a trail not far away, PEOPLE confirms.

The investigation into Ellis’ death and the apprehension of her alleged killer occurred swiftly, according to a criminal complaint and a statement from federal prosecutors.

The suspect, 20-year-old Derek Shawn Pendergraft, was arrested on Wednesday night and remains in custody on a charge of second-degree murder. He has not entered a plea and is set to return to court on Aug. 6. His attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ellis, 29, was reported missing by Pendergraft on Tuesday night, the complaint against him states. Responding park rangers and other officials soon found her “lifeless, partially nude body” off an embankment by a trial in the approximately 470-mile parkway, which runs from North Carolina to Virginia and is an oft-traveled part of the U.S. National Park System.

“It’s beautiful,” her father, Gregg Ellis, told the Tampa Bay Times, “and it’s one of the last places you would think you have to worry about this kind of thing.”

In his initial interview, Pendergraft allegedly described how Ellis had seemed to vanish, strangely, while out hiking with him Tuesday afternoon, the complaint shows.

According to investigators, Pendergraft said that he and Ellis had gone hiking on a trail near the employee dorms at the inn after 4 p.m., when their shifts ended, but that “shortly after” Ellis had turned back when it started to rain. Pendergraft, however, kept hiking for another hour before turning around, he allegedly said, at which point he said he found Ellis’ umbrella and hat at “the point where he last saw [her].”

He said that after initially searching for her himself, he told the inn staff that she was missing, the complaint alleges.

derek-pendergraft
Derek Shawn Pendergraft
| Credit: Buncombe County Sheriff's Dept.

Under later questioning, after Ellis’ body was found on Tuesday and after allegedly admitting killing her to the inn manager on Wednesday, Pendergraft was much more candid, according to authorities.

The complaint states that the manager reported his alleged confession on Wednesday night and, in a subsequent recorded interview, Pendergraft explained that he and Ellis had in fact gone hiking and she had “decided to turn around” — but then he “blacked out” for what seemed like no time at all.

“When I came to, I felt like it had not been a single blink of my time,” he allegedly said. “I blinked and I was looking into the face of [Sara] with a purple face, her tongue was sticking a little bit [out] of her mouth, and gray eyes.”

At that time, Pendergraft said, Ellis was lying dead on her back but he “pulled her to her side,” the complaint alleges. He noted that her “body was exposed.”

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When Ellis was found, her neck and head were bruised, but she showed no apparent signs of a gunshot wound or injury from a blade. Her cause of death has not been released.

The inn’s owner, Bruce O’Connell, told the Associated Press that Ellis, of Seminole, Florida, worked as a cook and Pendergraft, from Asheville, North Carolina, worked as a housekeeper.

O’Connell did not know if they were friends but said that both were likely first-time employees at the inn.

“There are grief counselors here right now,” he said. “A lot of tears being shed.”

“People are walking around in shock and disbelief and really shook up,” he said.

Ellis had relocated from Florida in May to work at the inn, according to the Tampa Bay paper. Her stepsister had been planning to come visit her.

“Sara could light up a room since she was a little child,” her dad reportedly said. “… She could make friends in a minute. It’s unbelievable that this could happen.”