Faith Hedgepeth was getting her life together; her death is a mystery

Faith Hedgepeth was getting her life together; her death is a mystery

mlocke@newsobserver.comOctober 6, 2012 

  • Reward offered A reward of nearly $30,000 is offered for information leading to an arrest in the case. Anyone with information that might help is asked to call Chapel Hill police at 919-614-6363 or Crime Stoppers at 919-942-7515.

— Faith Hedgepeth spent much of her last night like a typical college student, cramming at the library before blowing off steam with friends at a Chapel Hill dance club.

The path that led the 19-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student to the Triangle – and to her death – was anything but ordinary.

Hedgepeth’s roommate found her cold and unresponsive on Sept. 7 in the bedroom of the apartment they shared near Durham. In the month since, Chapel Hill police have been close-lipped about their investigation, saying only that they don’t believe her death was random.

As the days pass with no arrest and limited information, her family grows weary, looking for clues among the clusters of friends she had knitted together over the past two years in Chapel Hill and Durham. Her father, Roland Hedgepeth, ticks through every conversation and visit with his daughter from the past two years, looking for anything that could explain how his daughter met such a violent end.

Some emergency radio communication between responders referred to blood at the scene. Family members said the carpet and much of the walls had been stripped by police and sent to labs for testing.

“From day one, I’ve been worried about Faith there,” Roland Hedgepeth said. “I’m looking at and questioning every scenario.”

The possibilities are more numerous than Hedgepeth would like. Though Hedgepeth’s early years had been insulated from much of the world, her life in Chapel Hill was not.

Hedgepeth’s entire world before college was a small Native American tribe, Haliwa-Saponi, that had settled a crossroads community along the Warren and Halifax County line northeast of Raleigh. Her freshman year, she lived in a dorm at UNC filled with students from around the globe.

Back home, Hedgepeth knew practically every one of the 2,500 tribe members living locally by name, but in the Triangle, dozens of strangers crossed her path each day, including scores of travelers passing through Interstate 40 and stopping to eat at the Red Robin restaurant where she worked. Crime was minimal in Hollister, and her tribe stressed respect for women and children, yet Hedgepeth helped her friend and roommate navigate an abusive relationship earlier this year.

Now, Hedgepeth’s family works through possible explanations: Did her roommate’s violent relationship somehow make her a target? Did someone from the dance club follow her home? Did someone she met at work become fixated with her?

“She’s so beautiful and kind,” Roland Hedgepeth said. “People are drawn to her.”

Struggling at UNC

Hedgepeth shone bright in a community that often felt dim, especially to young people. Hollister is tiny, offering a mere blinking light for traffic bound for Rocky Mount or the Virginia border.

There’s no industry. A bustling Dollar General offers practically the only commerce. The area offers scant entertainment, save for monthly powwows at the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Center. The nearest Walmart is a 30-minute trek.

The limitations sometimes felt like choke-holds to the young, said Alfred Richardson, tribal administrator. For Hedgepeth, though, it became a call to action.

Her community desperately needed doctors. The nearest emergency department is about 25 miles away in Rocky Mount. In high school, Hedgepeth excelled in the sciences and loved children, so she headed to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010 bent on being a pediatrician for her community, her family said.

She was determined to complete a course her father had to abandon decades before; he’d enrolled at UNC-CH after high school but had to drop out when his wife became pregnant with their first child.

“She was determined to fulfill Dad’s mission,” said Rolanda, Faith’s older sister, who helped rear her.

Hedgepeth’s path to college was paved by the Gates Millennium scholarship. Designed for advanced minority students who couldn’t otherwise afford college, the scholarship covered the costs unmet by grants, the family’s ability to pay and other scholarships. Money was tight for Hedgepeth’s family; her mother worked at Lowe’s Home Improvement and her father worked in the furniture business.

Despite the scholarship, Hedgepeth took on part-time jobs to buy groceries, clothes and gas.

Roland Hedgepeth said his daughter never complained about having to pitch in, but he ached over his own memories from that freshman year at UNC.

“I didn’t have any money in college. My family was very poor, and all my friends had money,” he said. “I felt very out of place.”

Roland Hedgepeth watched his daughter battle another familiar struggle: Academically, he fell behind his peers.

Biology dealt a real challenge to Faith, and as she juggled a full load the first semester of her sophomore year, she felt overwhelmed. She tried to drop a few classes, but the change didn’t register, her father said. When the end of the semester arrived, she received failing grades for the classes she thought she had dropped. She lost her financial aid; she had to take the spring 2011 semester off and appeal her grades.

“Faith was so ashamed,” Roland Hedgepeth remembered. “She was afraid to tell anyone, feeling like she’d let them down.”

She decided to stay in Chapel Hill instead of returning to Hollister. She had secured a waitressing job at Red Robin, a burger restaurant along U.S. 15-501 in Durham. She lived off campus and worked as many shifts as she could.

There she befriended a web of other young people. Some were recent college graduates deflated by a tough job market. Others studied at N.C. Central University. Manager Brandon Clearwood said everyone instantly adored Hedgepeth.

“She had a way of making everyone comfortable, just had this contagious energy,” he said. “She never acted better than her job or better than anyone.”

A father’s regrets

Hedgepeth fought her way back into UNC-Chapel Hill this past summer. She took summer classes to try to catch up with her classmates. She talked of changing her major to education and becoming an elementary school teacher.

“We were so proud of her,” Rolanda Hedgepeth said. “She really pushed through that time.”

Over the summer, she hung out with fellow UNC student and prior roommate, Karena Rosario.

Rosario, a UNC student from New Jersey, had started dating a guy she met in her apartment complex, Hawthorne at the View. By July, their relationship soured.

According to court records, Rosario’s boyfriend, Takoy Jones, 21, kicked in Rosario’s bedroom door July 5, fought with her and took her phone to prevent her from calling police. In court records, Rosario describes Jones throwing her down and kicking down the doors to the bathroom and closet.

Rosario changed the locks on the apartment, but several days later, Jones had returned, breaking into the apartment, according to court records and a police report. Jones was not charged.

The next day, Hedgepeth drove Rosario to the Durham County Courthouse to get a restraining order against Jones. A judge ordered him to stay away from Rosario, the apartment and her school for a year.

A month after the episode, Hedgepeth moved in with Rosario, family members said, sharing the apartment’s single bedroom while she waited for her financial aid money to arrive so she could rent an apartment of her own.

Roland Hedgepeth wishes he’d known his daughter was stepping into a possibly dangerous situation when she moved in with Rosario. He kicks himself for not asking more questions about the neighborhood and her living arrangement.

When Hedgepeth visited the apartment after his daughter’s death to collect her things, he could still see evidence of Jones and Rosario’s tumultuous relationship. The bedroom door was loose from its frame and unable to lock. The bathroom and closet doors were entirely off their hinges.

After Hedgepeth’s death, as reporters and police flocked to the apartment complex, Jones appeared on at least one local newscast. He identified himself as a concerned friend and former roommate who lived at the apartment complex. He said whoever did this to Hedgepeth needed to burn.

When reached this week and asked whether police had questioned him in connection with the case, Jones hung up. An attorney representing him on an outstanding drug possession charge couldn’t be reached for comment.

Rosario returned to New Jersey after Hedgepeth’s death. She didn’t return messages left for her.

A single clue gives police reason to believe Hedgepeth’s death wasn’t a random act of violence: There was no sign of forced entry. Rosario had stayed at a friend’s house the night of the killing, Roland Hedgepeth said.

Without answers, Hedgepeth said he feels stuck.

“It feels like the rest of the world is moving past me,” he said. “Each day, it feels as if she’s just died all over again.” News researchers David Raynor and Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

Locke: 919-829-8927

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