Friends gather to mourn, try to make sense of UNC student's death

jsmialek@newsobserver.comSeptember 8, 2012 

UNC-Chapel Hill student Faith Danielle Hedgepeth

PHOTO COURTESY OF UNC NEWS SERVICES

  • Tip line set up Chapel Hill police on Saturday night established a tip line for anyone with information related to Faith Hedgepeth’s death. The number is 919-614-6363. Callers who want to remain anonymous can, police said. Callers can also reach Crime Stoppers at 919-942-7515. Those calls are confidential and callers may be eligible for a cash reward.

— Marcus Collins, Faith Hedgepeth’s academic counselor at UNC-Chapel Hill, on Saturday thought about his last visit from the junior biology major who was found dead in her Chapel Hill apartment Friday.

“As she got ready to leave my office, she said, ‘I always feel so much better after I come to visit you,’ and I said, ‘No, I always feel so much better after you come to visit me,’ ” said Collins, assistant dean for student success and academic counseling at UNC-CH. “Her smile was infectious.”

Friends found Hedgepeth in her Old Chapel Hill Road apartment at around 11 a.m. Friday and called police. Officers found her dead at the scene, although a cause of death has not yet been determined, according to Chapel Hill police.

Investigators say they are investigating it as a potential homicide. Police said they do not believe it was a random act.

As they wait for answers, those who knew Hedgepeth expressed shock and consoled themselves with memories. They recounted a young woman from Warren County who dreamed of one day becoming a doctor, and who served as a role model to many in her Haliwa-Saponi American Indian Tribe.

Hedgepeth was an American Indian Center volunteer, a member of cultural education and outreach group Carolina Indian Circle and a performer in a cappella group Unheard Voices.

She was a hard worker who held a part-time job at Red Robin in Durham on top of her schoolwork, said Brandi Brooks, program coordinator at the American Indian Center, and she was dedicated to eventually returning to her tribe and helping them to advance in any way she could.

“Faith is a beautiful name and it fit her to a T. In times like this, it’s fitting that her name is what’s going to help us move forward,” Brooks said. Hedgepeth was a genuinely happy and positive person, Brooks said, and she often told friends, “You just need a little Faith.”

A natural leader, Hedgepeth was a key person in starting a Haliwa-Saponi youth leadership team, said Consuela Richardson, Hedgepeth’s cousin and her mentor through an N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs program.

Always dedicated to academics, Hedgepeth came to UNC-CH as a Gates Millennium scholar after graduating from Warren County High School in 2010, according to the high school’s website. The Gates Millennium Foundation awards 1,000 scholars each year with scholarships to four-year colleges or universities. The program focuses on minority students with high academic and leadership promise, according to the program’s website.

She was also awarded an Alston-Pleasants Scholarship, according to J. Gilbert Stallings, trustee for the scholarship, which provides funds to UNC students from Franklin, Halifax and Warren Counties.

At home in Warren County, Hedgepeth danced at Pow-Wows and was involved at Mt. Bethel Baptist Church, said CheseQua Evans, a fellow tribe member who graduated from UNC’s School of Social Work in May who used to drive the undergraduate home some weekends.

"She was just a great role model for young girls at home," Evans said. "When something like this happens in a small community, everyone is affected."

Hedgepeth was extremely close to both her immediate family, which includes an older brother and sister, and her extended family, Richardson said. As she and her relatives try to grapple with Hedgepeth’s loss, they are hoping anyone with information that might help to answer their questions will go to police.

"Everybody’s just shocked," she said. "We’re confused. We don’t know what happened. We want to know what happened to her."

Though students and staff are anxious to understand what happened and why, Brooks said, as they wait for answers they are already working to make sure Hedgepeth’s legacy lives on at UNC and throughout Chapel Hill.

A group of Hedgepeth’s friends gathered in UNC-CH’s American Indian Center Saturday, and a candlelight vigil will be held at 8 p.m. Monday in the Pit on UNC-CH’s campus to honor her memory, according to an American Indian Center press release.

“In times of disasters and tragic losses, our community comes together to grieve,” Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said in a Saturday afternoon release. “On behalf of the greater Chapel Hill community, I ask that you join us in remembering Faith’s family and her many friends in your thoughts and prayers.”

Kleinschmidt’s statement also said Chapel Hill police are “committed to ensuring that her death is investigated thoroughly.”