GASTONIA — Nearly three years after Irina Yarmolenko was found strangled along the banks of the Catawba River, a jury got its first look at the case that shocked Charlotte and the UNC-Charlotte campus.
In opening statements Tuesday, Gaston Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin described Yarmolenko, a college sophomore from Chapel Hill who went by "Ira," as a sweet, artistic young woman killed three days after her 20th birthday.
She was found dead on a remote, overgrown embankment across the river from the U.S National Whitewater Center, an area Yarmolenko may have been visiting to photograph kayakers and rafters.
Three items were found wrapped around her neck: a bungee cord, a ribbon and the drawstring from her sweatshirt.
The May 2008 killing has been shrouded in mystery: It took seven months to bring charges in the killing. No clear motive has been revealed.
Two men were charged after authorities say their DNA was found on Yarmolenko's car, but their DNA was not on her body. And then, one suspect died on the eve of his trial.
Mark Bradley Carver, 42, of Gastonia is on trial for first-degree murder in Yarmolenko's death. If convicted, he would go to prison for life.
Carver was arrested in December 2008, along with his cousin Neal Leon Cassada Jr. of Mount Holly. Cassada, 54, died in October 2010 of apparent natural causes one day before trial.
Authorities say Carver has told them that he had been fishing with Cassada that morning near where Yarmolenko was found. But both men denied on four occasions they had seen Yarmolenko or her vehicle.
The State Bureau of Investigation said Carver's DNA was found in the back seat and Cassada's in the front passenger side on the door, glass and armrest.
"Despite being within earshot of the victim who was strangled to death, he didn't hear anything," prosecutor Hamlin told the jury Tuesday.
"He didn't hear a struggle. He didn't hear splashing. He didn't hear an assault."
One of Carver's attorneys, David Phillips, countered that touching a car is not proof of murder.
Phillips told jurors they would likely hear from two DNA experts. Though they would likely testify that his client's DNA was on Yarmolenko's car, he said, they won't be able to show it's on other critical evidence.
"How can they explain that it's not on the body of Ms. Yarmolenko" the defense attorney asked. "How can they explain away it's not on the bungee cord, drawstring or ribbon? There is no connection to Mr. Carver."
According to discovery evidence released to defense lawyers representing the two suspects in the case, DNA from the items around Yarmolenko's neck and scrapings from beneath her fingernails did not match either suspect.
Yarmolenko's brother, Pavel, who was in the courtroom with his parents, declined to discuss the case Tuesday. A dozen family members and friends of Carver's were also in the courtroom.
Prosecutors did not tell jurors if Yarmolenko was a random target or might have known the suspects. Hamlin did not describe any motive for the killing.
"This was a crime of opportunity," Hamlin said.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Gary L. Wright contributed to this report.