Faith Hedgepeth: Things hoped for, things unseen

Story by Cole Villena

WARRENTON, N.C. — Faith Hedgepeth’s face is always the first thing her father, Roland, sees when he walks through his front door. It’s on his phone background, and it’s on his checkbook. It’s on a dozen framed photographs and paintings throughout his home in Newton.

Her name is on the crosses on his walls, the towels in his bathroom and the license plate of his 2008 Honda Accord. It’s on the Carolina blue bracelet he wears, and it’s on each of the six worn-out bracelets he keeps on the dresser in her room.

Every day for the past five years, the Chapel Hill Police Department has searched for the identity of his daughter’s killer.

“It’s not like she died,” Hedgepeth says. “It’s like she was stolen.”

A thick three-ring binder at the far side of Faith’s bed holds pictures from her time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many of them are blurry, the result of Roland printing out small digital images from Facebook and Instagram on large sheets of paper. A second binder holds a picture from her first powwow at the Haliwa-Saponi tribal grounds in Warrenton. A third holds a letter that Faith sent to her father from her mother’s house in elementary school. Hedgepeth spent years studying the scraggly drawing at the bottom before realizing that Faith had drawn him a “no-smoking” sign.

Hedgepeth doesn’t need to look through any of the 10 binders on his daughter’s bed to picture her face smiling back at him. When the fight to reclaim her memory seems impossible, though, he revisits the last text message he ever received from her.

These words are etched forever onto her gravestone.

“Just have faith.”

***

At 2:06 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2012, Faith Danielle Hedgepeth left the Thrill nightclub in Chapel Hill with her roommate, Karena Rosario. The two arrived back home to their apartment near UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus around 3 a.m. Rosario left at 4:25 a.m.

At 11:01 a.m., police received a phone call from Rosario.

“Hi, um, I just walked into my apartment…and my friend she’s, like, she’s unconscious.”

Investigators arrived at the apartment eight minutes later. They found Hedgepeth’s body beaten and naked from the waist down. A Bacardi Peach Red bottle sat near Faith’s bed and was determined to have been the murder weapon. Police suspected that blood on the bottle, as well as semen found nearby, belonged to the killer.

Later that afternoon, the Chapel Hill Police Department released a statement saying that they were investigating the death as a homicide. A $2,000 reward was offered for information leading to an arrest.

***

Since being sworn in as Chapel Hill’s police chief in 2010, Chris Blue has spent every day fighting to earn his citizens’ trust. Many see him as someone with whom they can talk about Carolina basketball, the best restaurants on Franklin Street or last week’s robbery at the iconic Old Well.

Blue believes in British Prime Minister Robert Peel’s 1829 declaration that “the police are the public, and the public are the police.”

“The only reason that this works,” he tells community members, “is because you believe in me. And you trust me. And you trust this badge, and you trust this patch.”

The Chapel Hill Police Department submitted its first request to temporarily seal case records in the Faith Hedgepeth investigation on Sept. 14, 2012.

“If released,” the request read, “this information has the potential to compromise the ability of the Chapel Hill Police Department to conduct a thorough and complete investigation as details related to Ms. Hedgepeth’s death are known only to police, witnesses and potential perpetrator(s).”

For two years after Hedgepeth’s death, Blue asked the public to trust that statement. Chapel Hill Police released public appeals for information, stories commemorating Hedgepeth’s death every September and constant reassurance that her investigation “is not and has never been” a cold case.

***

Roland Hedgepeth says he doesn’t remember making the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Newton to Chapel Hill on Sept. 7. The binder on the near end of Faith’s bed helps Hedgepeth keep straight the rest of what happened over the next few days- vigils, interviews and Faith’s funeral on the 12th. He insisted on an open casket.

“I wanted people to see what she had been through,” he says. “What had been done to her. Otherwise, they would just think she was dead and she didn’t get hurt.”

At the end of September, Hedgepeth received a phone call from investigator Johnnie Britt. She wanted a sample of his DNA for testing.

The DNA sample was a painless swab of Hedgepeth’s inner cheek. The thought that he was a suspect in his daughter’s murder “cut right through his heart.”

Hedgepeth and the rest of Faith’s family were quickly cleared of any wrongdoing. The fact that he was asked to give a DNA sample, though, told Hedgepeth that the police investigation into Faith’s death was more active than their public silence would suggest. He began calling Faith’s friends and anyone who he thought saw her on the night of her death. He began taking his own notes in hopes of picking up on the trail that police refused to show him.

Chapel Hill Police released a second statement on the investigation in January, revealing that Faith had been at the Thrill nightclub in Chapel Hill in the hours preceding her murder. It also said that DNA evidence found at the scene of her death pointed to a male killer. All evidence remained sealed. Additional pledges from the Haliwa-Saponi tribe and then-Gov. Beverly Perdue raised the reward for information to $39,000.

The State Bureau of Investigation officially joined the Chapel Hill Police Department’s investigation into Faith’s death in October 2013. By this time, most of Hedgepeth’s original notes had been reviewed and marked up in two or three different colors. They formed the basis of a new three-ring binder- one filled with text message transcripts, printouts of news stories and Hedgepeth’s own list of persons of interest. Friends, family members and strangers reached out to him with their own findings on a regular basis.

“I’ll listen or read for anything,” Hedgepeth says. “I just look for patterns… something that is mentioned from more than one (source).”

Hedgepeth has written four binders of notes. He keeps them in a tote bag in a corner of Faith’s room, far from the binders that celebrate her life but easy to access at any moment.

“You never know what little detail might mean something.”

***

On Sept. 5, 2014, the state of North Carolina ordered the release of search warrants, 911 records and more than 300 pages of documents related to Faith’s case. For the first time, the public had access to Chapel Hill Police’s timeline of the night Faith was murdered. They also learned Faith’s official cause of death: blunt force trauma to the head.

“It’s not consistent with a free and open society for us to keep secrets forever,” Chief Blue says. “We felt very fortunate… the court system gave us every possible advantage in letting us hold as long as we did.”

Making the case documents publicly available, he reasoned, might compel someone with further information about Faith’s killer to come forward.

“This is a very strong case,” he said in a statement at the time. “What we need to do is connect that case to Faith’s killer.”

The documents also revealed that police had collected hundreds of DNA samples in connection with Faith’s case. They were unable to match any of it to the DNA collected at the scene.

Roland Hedgepeth spent six months searching stores for a Bacardi Peach Red bottle after the mass release of information. After examining it and concluding that it could be used as a murder weapon, he placed it on the dresser in Faith’s room.

***

The Chapel Hill Police Department doesn’t release statements when Celisa Lehew visits Faith’s grave.

Lehew has served as a patrol supervisor, lieutenant of investigations and assistant chief since joining the department in 2003. She was the lead investigator in the 2008 murder of Eve Carson, another UNC-Chapel Hill student found dead near campus. That investigation led to the killer’s arrest within a week of the murder and his conviction in court within three years.

Lehew was assigned as the lead investigator in Faith’s case in early 2016. When she first met the Hedgepeths, she told them that she needed time to review the case on her own.

“I didn’t want to hear any opinions,” she says. “I wanted the chance to look at the evidence and the facts and put together what I saw and where we needed to go.”

Lehew returned to the family in February and told them that she had new interviews to conduct, technologies to use and leads to revisit. It was an energizing new list of priorities- and the Hedgepeth family’s needs sat at the top.

“I consider them family now,” Lehew says. “If two weeks go by and (we) don’t talk, it’s odd.”

Eight months after Lehew’s first meeting with the family, ABC aired a “20/20” special titled “Love, Hope and Faith.” The hour-long special — which featured interviews with the Hedgepeths, progress updates from Chapel Hill Police and new images of previously released evidence — gave the public its clearest ever look at the investigation into Faith’s murder.

“That has been a common goal from the start,” Lehew says. “We want to accurately tell Faith’s story so that we get good information in return.”

Chapel Hill Police are still following up on the thousands of tips they received after the “20/20” special aired. Lehew’s original list of priorities has long since been exhausted, but she is still “100 percent sure” that Faith’s murderer will be brought to justice.

“A holding pattern — to me — would mean that we’re at a standstill,” Lehew says. “And we are absolutely not at a standstill.”

***

Roland Hedgepeth keeps a copy of his daughter’s death certificate in the binder at the far end of her bed. This last binder holds drafts from Faith’s tombstone, a program from her funeral and stories from local media covering her death. The reporters who wrote these stories have come and gone. The Chapel Hill Police Department hasn’t gone anywhere.

“They’re the only ones really on our side,” he says.

About 150 miles away, Celisa Lehew says she often wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about Faith. Like Hedgepeth, she makes time for her daughters every morning before heading off to work.

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