In his years as a TV journalist and newspaper columnist, Tom Gasparoli has covered hundreds of murders for news organizations across the country.
But his interest in the 2012 unsolved murder of UNC-Chapel Hill college student Faith Hedgepeth has turned into something of a mission.
Hedgepeth, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribal community in Warren County, was brutally murdered in her apartment on the morning of Sept. 7, 2012, her beaten and bloodied body discovered by her roommate. The Chapel Hill Police Department gathered a considerable amount of forensic evidence from the scene, has performed hundreds of DNA tests and even generated a composite image of the killer based on DNA. Yet the case seems no closer to being solved than it did seven years ago.
Gasparoli, a former Durham Herald-Sun columnist (now a freelance journalist), has written about the case for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer many times over the years, and has provided commentary on several true crime TV shows about the case.
Now, Gasparoli — known by many in the area as “Gaspo” — has released a podcast on the case called “Pursuit.”
“I first wrote about it because it was a prominent, sad, puzzling case in this area,” Gasparoli told The News & Observer this week. “Then as the true crime documentaries and podcasts have grown and had some impacts on outcomes, I thought it was time to do whatever I could do in this case. It seems logical and, frankly, seems so close to being solved, but also so far.”
His ultimate hope is that the 10-episode podcast will bring new attention to the case and generate tips that will lead to solving it.
“Podcasts are the new independent investigation tool for journalists,” he said. “After six and a half or seven years, it’s almost as if, if the case isn’t dormant, maybe the interest is dormant. So I hope this stirs up some information and stirs up some people, and we’ll see what it can lead to.”
A brutal murder
Hedgepeth was 19 years old when she was killed, in her third year at UNC. According to reports, just after midnight on the night of her murder, she went to a Chapel Hill nightclub with her roommate, Karena Rosario, then returned home around 3 a.m. Rosario told police that she left the apartment around 4:25 a.m. and that Hedgepeth was asleep in her room. Rosario returned to the apartment with a friend around 11 a.m., discovered Hedgepeth dead and called 911.
Police believe Hedgepeth was beaten to death with a rum bottle, which was left at the scene. Police also found semen at the crime scene (which has been used to eliminate potential suspects), and a bizarre note, written on a fast food bag and left by Hedgepeth’s body. A friend also reported a voicemail message from Hedgepeth that appeared to be a pocket dial. The message was hard to understand, but has been analyzed by experts, some of whom believe it captures moments from the assault.
“What I try to do in the podcast is go at some things that I didn’t think had been analyzed in the public arena, which includes the 911 call and the note and the idea that more than one person is involved,” Gasparoli said. “I still get the strong sense that the person who was initially motivated to strike out at her was not the person who was wielding the bottle that killed her.”
‘A wonderful, promising life interrupted’
Gasparoli said he didn’t uncover any information that he didn’t previously know, but learned that he was not alone in some of the gut instincts he felt about he case.
One of the experts he consulted is retired Raleigh homicide detective Chris Morgan, known for his work on the Eric Miller murder case and other high-profile Raleigh crimes.
“I learned through some people I interviewed that my instincts about the 911 call are shared,” Gasparoli said. “Chris Morgan and two or three statement analysts — and the family — felt that the 911 call is a little different. They told me some things about the call that I didn’t know, because I haven’t researched 911 calls. That doesn’t mean the caller is involved in the crime. But as Chris Morgan says, people who aren’t involved in the crime, generally their stories make sense. When it doesn’t make sense, that’s when you have to look at it and say, ‘why doesn’t this make sense?’”
Morgan also believes the note on the fast food bag was staged, and that the main assailant may be left-handed, because of so many wounds on the right side of Hedgepeth’s body. That’s something Gasparoli said he had not considered.
“And the mysterious pocket-dial voicemail,” Gasparoli said. “After talking to (forensic audio analyst Arlo West), I thought he seemed very credible to me. His transcript I thought was pretty consistent, showing an anger and some sort of verbal assault.”
Gasparoli said on the podcast and repeated in our interview that he believes it’s going to take either “genealogical detective work or a burst of conscience” to solve the case.
“There are one or two or three people out there who know enough and could decide to tell someone,” Gasparoli said. “The police seem certain that someone beyond the killer knows something. How much does it take from that person to go in and say, ‘I’ve got to say something.’ ... The brutality of the case is shocking. I wonder who it is out there walking around who was able to do that.”
The most tragic part of all of this — the thing that’s never far from Gasparoli’s mind, particularly after the amount of time he has spent with Hedgepeth’s parents — is what a loss her death has meant for everyone who knew her and for everyone she might have touched.
“Faith Hedgepeth was an amazing young woman,” Gasparoli said. “Her case doesn’t necessarily deserve more attention than another case, but she was at the prime of her life and beloved. ... She and her friend Gabrielle Evans wanted to go back to the tribal community they were from and have a medical career there. So really, talk about a wonderful, promising life interrupted.“
‘If something isn’t working, try something else’
In making the podcast, Gasparoli did not have access to any additional information from the Chapel Hill Police Department, which has been extremely guarded in the details it has released. Gasparoli said he understands why they don’t share information, but on the other hand, perhaps at this point they should consider it.
“After seven years, maybe putting more information out there is the only way to solve it,” he said. “I’m not sure I uncovered anything the police didn’t already know, but we don’t know because they won’t talk about it. I’m not being critical, but if I’m any police department, after seven years I think I’m going to try some new approaches.
“The way to get attention is to find out and expose something new, something fascinating, something frightening. If we’re not going to get something new, then maybe nothing new is going to happen. If something isn’t working, try something else.”
Listen to ‘Pursuit’
You can find “Pursuit” at pursuitpodcast.com or wherever you listen to podcasts.