Local News

Authorities searched two apartments, car after UNC student's death

Posted March 19, 2014 8:42 a.m. EDT
Updated March 19, 2014 6:00 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge said Wednesday that he needs more information before deciding whether to unseal search warrants and other records in the investigation into the 2012 slaying of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student.

Faith Danielle Hedgepeth, 19, was found dead in her bedroom at an off-campus apartment complex in Chapel Hill on Sept. 7, 2012.

Police haven't disclosed how Hedgepeth was killed or information about possible suspects, although they have said they don't believe she was the victim of a random crime. No one has been charged in her death.

Lawyers for several Triangle news organizations, including WRAL News, have asked repeatedly that official documents in the case be opened to the public. Chapel Hill police investigators have said that releasing the information would compromise their investigation.

"It’s not that it might hinder this investigation. It will hinder this investigation," Durham County Assistant District Attorney Charlene Franks said Wednesday.

The 911 call, for example, includes a description of the crime scene and Hedgepeth's body, Franks said. Few people know such details, which might help police identify her killer, she said.

Hugh Stevens, a lawyer for WRAL News and other media outlets, said the court has put in place "a double seal," noting that authorities have provided little information to justify the continued secrecy around the case file.

"It's implausible, in our view, that everything still needs to be sealed now, even if it needed to be sealed in the past," Stevens argued.

A motion filed Monday to maintain the seal provided a few new details of the investigation, including the fact that police searched a second apartment in Hedgepeth's complex for evidence in addition to her unit. They also searched a 1997 Honda Accord, Hedgepeth's bank account, and the laptop computers and Facebook accounts of Hedgepeth and her roommate.

Police have said Hedgepeth and her roommate went to The Thrill, a Chapel Hill nightclub, the night before she was killed and that she was last known to be alive at 3 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2012.

In January 2013, FBI analysts found DNA left in the apartment by an unidentified man, but they didn't disclose where the DNA was found.

Stevens said some information contained in the investigative file could lead to a break in the case if it were publicized.

"I urge your honor that the assumption on the part of law enforcement that releasing these records will only do harm is not always true," he said.

Franks said the Hedgepeth investigation isn't a cold case, where police often reach out to the public for help, and solving it means that the public, including the girl's family, be kept in the dark about certain details.

"The most important thing to them and the state and the Chapel Hill Police Department is to find the killer of their baby girl, Faith Hedgepeth," Franks said. "The only way to do that is to keep those items sealed because the information contained in there, other than (investigators), only the killer knows."

Judge Howard Manning said he wants to review each document before deciding whether to unseal it.

"Don’t expect this to be done today because I don’t have everything," Manning said. "The bottom line is warrants or data will remain sealed pending the work I have to do.”

Franks asked Manning that, if the documents are unsealed, prosecutors be given the chance to update Hedgepeth's family before the information is turned over to the media.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Chapel Hill Police Department tip line at 919-614-6363 or Crime Stoppers at 919-942-7515 or email information to investigators at crimetips@townofchapelhill.org.

A reward of up to $39,000 is offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.