Alysa Landry
Rolanda Hedgepeth, left, and her mother, Connie.

Three Years Later: Still No Answers for Murdered Native Student’s Family

Alysa Landry

Connie Hedgepeth gripped a hard plastic telephone in the manager’s office at Lowe’s, her fingers tightening in horror.

On the other end of the phone, a crisis counselor from the Chapel Hill, North Carolina Police Department spoke calmly, matter-of-factly. She told Hedgepeth that her youngest daughter, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was dead.

“I said, ‘You must have the wrong girl,’” Hedgepeth said. “She told me it was her, and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Then Hedgepeth dropped the phone and collapsed. It was 2 p.m. on September 7, 2012, and Faith Hedgepeth, a 19-year-old sophomore and a member of the Haliwa Saponi Tribe, had been found dead in her off-campus apartment about three hours earlier, the victim of an apparent homicide.

Her mother, a human resources manager at Lowe’s in Roanoke Rapids, was on the clock when she learned of Faith’s death, but the shock was eerily familiar. Two decades earlier, in the bathroom at a different Lowe’s, Hedgepeth had fretted over a pregnancy test.

Back then, she had two teenagers at home. Her husband had a drug problem. Her marriage was on the rocks.

The pregnancy test was positive. Hedgepeth, desperate for stability, named her daughter Faith.

“I felt like it was my faith in God that helped me through that situation,” she said. “My faith helped me to continue to work and to do what I needed to do for my children.”

Hedgepeth and her husband divorced when Faith was young. A single mother, Hedgepeth relied on her oldest daughter, Rolanda, for help. Though separated by nearly 18 years, the two girls developed a relationship that was “part mother-daughter, part sister,” Rolanda said during an interview at her Hollister, North Carolina home.

“We were always close,” she said. “I was kind of like a second mom, but there was that sister bond too.”

On Faith’s first birthday, Rolanda gave birth to a daughter, Alexis. The two became inseparable, growing up on the same wooded road in rural North Carolina.

Rolanda describes her sister as bubbly, outgoing and enthusiastic about life.

“She always had this energy about her,” she said. “She was really happy-go-lucky.”

In high school, Faith was an honor student, a cheerleader and a member of “every club there was,” Rolanda said. “She volunteered for everything.”

Faith received a Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the school her father had attended before dropping out to take care of his family. Faith, who wanted to finish what her dad started, planned to be a pediatrician or a teacher. She was also poised to become the first college graduate in her family.

All of that came to a halt on September 7, 2012. According to police records, Faith was last seen alive at about 3 a.m. that morning, after she and her roommate returned home from a nightclub.

Her roommate, Karena Rosario, called 911 at 11:01 a.m., and told the dispatcher that Faith was unconscious and cold, and that there was “blood everywhere.” Within minutes, police officers were at the apartment complex, securing the crime scene and gathering evidence.

Three hours later, the crisis counselor placed a phone call to Connie Hedgepeth. Like other mothers pricked by sudden tragedy, Hedgepeth learned of her daughter’s death but none of its details.

“They couldn’t tell us very much because they didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation,” she said. “Not knowing anything at all, your imagination starts to run wild.”

The next hours are still a blur, Hedgepeth said. She called her son, her ex-husband and finally her daughter, Rolanda, a superior court clerk.

“It was my job to call the family,” Hedgepeth said. “I had to keep saying it. ‘Faith is dead.’”

Police detectives drove the family from Hollister to Chapel Hill, a distance of about 80 miles. Flanked by law enforcement, family and her pastor, Hedgepeth walked into the police department with dread.

But officers couldn’t answer her questions, and she wasn’t allowed to visit the crime scene.

“I just wanted to hold her hand, to let her know I was there,” Hedgepeth said. “I still cry for my baby, and I wonder if she called out for help. Did she cry for me? These are the things you think.”

The family learned later that Faith had been beaten so severely that medical examiners concluded the cause of death was blunt-force trauma. The autopsy report, unsealed 22 months after the murder, also detailed cuts and bruises on her arms and legs and blood under her fingernails.

A hand-written note was found nearby, penned on a fast-food bag. A rape kit was performed, which revealed the presence of semen. DNA generated from the semen matched other DNA recovered from the crime scene.

RELATED: Horrific Details of Native Student’s Murder Released After Two Years

Investigators have executed numerous search warrants and court orders for computers, cell phones and social media accounts, said Chapel Hill Police Lt. Josh Mecimore. In the three years since Faith’s death, however, no suspects have been named or arrests made.

But police remain confident that they will identify the killer and bring that person to justice, Mecimore said.

“Someone knows something, and we’re continually appealing to the public to come forward,” he said. “This is not a cold case. We are still following up on things, still pounding the pavement, still waiting for that one piece of evidence that will help us solve this case.”

The family also remains hopeful that justice will come for Faith.

On the third anniversary of her sister’s death, Rolanda stood silently at the gravesite, tucked in a grassy knoll behind the family’s church. Printed on the headstone is a verse from Hebrews: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Faith Hedgepeth is buried in a small church cemetery near her mother’s home in Hollister, North Carolina. (Alysa Landry)

“At some point, God will let us know what happened,” Rolanda said. “Even when I’m down, I still believe that we will find that person.”

A total of $39,000 is being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information about the crime can call the Chapel Hill Police Department at 919-614-6363 or Crimestoppers at 919-942-7515.

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