Dateline's Mystery on the Catawba River
Dateline NBC first aired its report about the death of Irina Yarmolenko, Mystery on the Catawba River, on July 9, 2011. This report expanded interest in the case beyond North Carolina to viewers across the United States. As had already existed in Charlotte, public opinion that Neal Cassada and Mark Carver had been falsely accused spread nationwide when the Dateline report was aired. This website was created as a result of the original broadcast, and as the report has re-aired every few months on various channels since then, viewers have contacted the author of this site to express support and add information about the investigation.
In a television special like Dateline's, gathering enough facts to present the story accurately can be difficult, and mistakes do exist. Informants contributed misinformation and also withheld crucial evidence that incorrectly skewed the focus of Dateline's reporting. Dateline representatives have been in touch with the author of this website via email and phone to gather more information but have stated that they do not plan to update the story unless a court changes its ruling in the case. The Investigation Discovery channel, which most frequently re-airs the story, has not responded to requests to either discontinue the story or correct the errors. Despite the flaws, the story has helped bring the evidence for suicide to public attention and thereby assisted in the work toward Carver's eventual release. Listed are several of the needed corrections.
- Distance from the scene to the fishermen's location — Amid conflicting media reports about many details of the case, it is ironic that one fact that should be easily measurable is also debated. Dateline states the distance between the scene and the fishing spot as 100 feet, repeatedly describing it as "near," while the distance used during trial was "a football field's length," about 360 feet south by the Interstate 85 bridge. Other distances have circulated in various media reports. It is possible that differing distances are offered because of trees and heavy underbrush that obscured the locations from each other and prevented direct travel between them.
- Scraping noise — In an interview, Mount Holly Police Investigator William Terry said that the fishermen claimed to have not heard anything unusual that day. This is false. The fishermen both said they heard a "scraping" sound, but it was similar to other construction noise going on in the area all morning, so they are not sure what they heard. Carver said in a media interview that he and Cassada thought it might have been equipment scraping the dirt road on the hill above. In a subsequent section, Dateline allows Cassada's daughter to correct this false statement by Investigator Terry.
- Film removal re-sets the shot counter to zero — Two shots were found on the counter of Yarmolenko's 35mm camera that was in the trunk of her car, empty of film. Dateline presented the prosecutors' theory that Yarmolenko snapped those two photos of her killers and that the killers removed the film to hide what it recorded. This would have been impossible, since removal of film re-sets the counter to zero (read more on the Suicide page). Also, no DNA or fingerprints were found on the camera, not even Yarmolenko's own.
- Handprint — A handprint from the car is repeatedly shown while the narrator discusses DNA. The truth is that both Cassada's and Carver's DNA were excluded as a match to all the handprints and fingerprints left on the car. No fingerprints from either Cassada or Carver were present to act as a backup for the incomplete touch DNA which found in transferable mixtures originating from multiple other people and collected two months after the car had been towed from the scene and stored in unsecured areas. A total of 22 other spots of DNA remain unidentified, including one spot of unidentified male DNA on the bungee cord around Yarmolenko's neck.
- Consistent statements by fishermen — Mark Carver had been fishing at the same spot on the Catawba River nearly every day in the spring and summer for two years at the time of Yarmolenko's death. His cousin Neal Cassada often joined him. Carver and Cassada consistently held to the same events in the same order throughout hours of multiple police interviews in which they voluntarily agreed to participate. In the Dateline story, variations are said to have existed in the transportation arrangements the fishermen gave for the day. Sometimes Carver and Cassada rode together to fish, but they had driven separate cars that day, and their testimony on that point was consistent. The only variations brought up in trial referred to the times at which the men said the events had happened, a result of their not wearing watches. For instance, Carver had made a small purchase that morning, and the time he gave was one hour off of what the receipt showed.
- No DNA on the car trunk or bumper — Prosecutors claimed that DNA was found where two men would have positioned themselves to push Yarmolenko's car down the embankment, but this is a distortion of fact. The points to which prosecutors referred were all non-leverage places, one the size of a pencil lead dot between the windows on the driver's side and the other three on the inside of the car. No DNA was found on the trunk or back bumper. The DNA mixtures originated from contributors in addition to the fishermen, indicating placement by transfer as discussed on the DNA Evidence page.
- "The hem of her skirt was imprinted on the skin underneath" — Mount Holly Police Investigator William Terry followed this true statement by indicating it proved two killers had put their weight on top of Yarmolenko. However, Yarmolenko's skin was soft from being wet, and her body had lain unmoved from the time of her death until the imprints were photographed. Imprints such as these are possible with no more pressure than the weight of a person's own body after sitting or lying down for several minutes.
- Yarmolenko's movements on May 5, 2008 —The Dateline story mirrors the prosecution's efforts to suppress the fact that Yarmolenko visited a Wendy's restaurant, Exxon gas station, and Food Lion grocery store in the Belmont/Mount Holly area in between the time her car was filmed on YMCA surveillance video and the time she arrived at the riverbank. Evidence of this movement means that it cannot be proven solely based on the YMCA tape that Yarmolenko arrived alone at the riverbank, since she was witnessed in a heated argument with another girl at Wendy's after that time.
- Reenactments — While most of the reenactments in the Dateline report are obvious, a few are not, such as video at the YMCA that was altered to look like authentic surveillance footage. The YMCA video has been corrected since the original airing to appear more like Yarmolenko's real car, but it is still not clear whether this or other portions of the report contain reenactments that are not labeled as such.
- Neal Cassada's and Mark Carver's character — Viewers of the Dateline story are left wondering about Cassada's and Carver's character. Family and community testimony that the men were known to do anything they could to help others is minimized in the original story. Regrettably, suicide-related evidence was not released to Dateline for the original story. Dateline executives expressed interest in 2013 in obtaining official documents to confirm the suicide theory in Yarmolenko's death for use in a possible update to the story. Legal authorities have still not released these confidential documents which were disallowed during trial but are now being used in ongoing work toward Mark Carver's exoneration.
- Ira Yarmolenko's character — Although the common‑law crime of suicide was abolished as an offense in North Carolina in 1973 (see N.C.G.S. 14-17.1.), Yarmolenko's actions have created years of trauma for those involved. Many positive things may be reported about Yarmolenko's life, but these memories are unbalanced when presented apart from evidence that it was her own decision to end her life. Since this website has been active, several people who knew Yarmolenko personally have communicated with us, and three of them have named reasons that they felt suicide was the probable cause of her death. Multiple major risk factors for suicide are known to be documented in records that were withheld from the original trial. Because these suicidal risk factors about Yarmolenko are not widely publicized, providing detail about her history would not be respectful of her memory or considerate of her family at this time. It is possible that other media sources may cite the information during future coverage of legal action related to Carver's expected exoneration.