CHARLOTTE — Police said they had leads but had made no arrests Friday in the asphyxiation death of college student Irina "Ira" Yarmolenko, who will be buried today in Chapel Hill.
The body of the UNC-Charlotte student was found next to her car Monday on the banks of the Catawba River. Investigators are trying to figure out what happened between 10:50 a.m., when Yarmolenko was last seen at her job at a coffee shop near campus, and 1:18 p.m., when a woman riding a personal watercraft reported finding her body.
In a news conference Thursday, Mount Holly Police Chief David Belk wouldn't reveal whether Yarmolenko had been strangled or smothered, saying only that she died from a lack of oxygen. Belk also would not say whether police had found marks or wounds on her body.
It was the latest in a string of high-profile killings of North Carolina college students this year. They include the slayings of UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Eve Carson and Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato.
Yarmolenko was born in Ukraine but grew up in Chapel Hill. Her brother, Pavel Yarmolenko, 25, said their family moved to North Carolina in the 1990s as refugees.
Pavel, a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Duke University, described his sister as a dedicated student who loved to travel and learn about other cultures. She played piano and tennis.
"She was incredible," he said. "There's nothing bad about her."
Yarmolenko worked last spring as a server at the Paul J. Rizzo Conference Center at Meadowmont in Chapel Hill, and stayed with parent company Aramark that summer, working as a waitress in Denali National Park in Alaska.
She graduated from Chapel Hill High School in 2006 and began studying at UNC-Charlotte. There, she was a member of the Russian Club and, more recently, a photographer and occasional writer for the student newspaper.
Her brother said she had always talked about doing something to help people make their lives better.
"Everything that she's ever done was to help people," he said.
She had planned to transfer to UNC-Chapel Hill to major in public health after finishing this semester in Charlotte, he said.
Her friend Diana Carlton said Yarmolenko had just turned 20 last weekend and was excited about her summer plans.
"It's so completely random," Carlton said. "It's hard for anybody to wrap their mind around."
Carlton said Yarmolenko had talked about pursuing a career that would touch people.
"She was a beautiful person," Carlton said. "She was really passionate about what she did, you could tell in her writing. Everything she did she put 100 percent into."
Authorities said Yarmolenko didn't appear to have a reason to drive to Mount Holly, where her body and blue Saturn sedan were found. She liked to hike and bike but was dressed in street clothes. The car appeared to have traveled down a steep embankment, where it struck a tree stump.
Yarmolenko was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, black skirt and athletic shoes, Belk said. In the hours before her death, she had been at a credit union and then at the coffee shop.
Belk said police had "some strong leads," but he didn't go into detail. He said that his department would let the public know if there was a suspect description but stressed that "there's nothing to indicate there's someone out there that's stalking or chasing people."
Why someone would kill Yarmolenko continued to puzzle the more than 300 people gathered Thursday around UNC-Charlotte's Belk Tower. For two hours that night, an extended university family stood in a semicircle, telling stories about her.
* The Ira (pronounced EE-ra) who left sticky notes with funny messages on sinks and above toilets to brighten her roommates' day.
* The Ira who spent half an hour in a cardboard "gingerbread" house built for kids, making statues out of Play-Doh.
* The Ira who spent Sunday mornings sipping coffee and talking about how she would change the world.
"Ira you can't describe in words," her cousin, Natasha Deyneka of Raleigh, told the crowd. "She was selfless and pure and amazing, and you can only describe her with superlatives. Any of you, if you had a bad day, she would be there with a bouquet of flowers and a hug for you."
Pavel Yarmolenko had different messages for people who had been touched by his sister's murder.
"The person who killed my sister, he's in some ways a byproduct of the system that we live in, and we have to change it," he said. "You all have to make a difference now. I hope when you go home tonight, that you will tell everyone you love them. Because I didn't get a chance at all. I didn't get a chance to tell my sister that I loved her."
Mount Holly police ask anyone who might have information to call (704) 827-4343.
(News & Observer staff writer Jesse James DeConto contributed to this report.)