NEW: Charges increased to 1st-degree murder, sex abuse in death of Pisgah Inn employee


Derek Shawn Pendergraft (Photo credit: Buncombe County Detention Center)

An Asheville man accused of killing his Pisgah Inn co-worker now faces a first-degree murder charge and two counts of aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death.

According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice, a federal grand jury returned a superseding criminal bill of indictment for Derek Shawn Pendergraft on Dec. 4, 2018 in the July 2018 killing of Sara Ellis.

Pendergraft, 21, was initially indicted with second-degree murder in the case.

On the evening of July 24, 2018, Pendergraft, who worked at the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, reported that his co-worker, Sara Ellis, was missing.

When initially interviewed, investigators say Pendergraft stated that he and Ellis got off work shortly after 4:00 p.m., and decided to go for a hike on an unnamed trail near the employee housing area of the Pisgah Inn.

Pendergraft stated that shortly after starting their hike it began to rain, and the victim decided to return to the housing area while Pendergraft continued to hike.

According to documents, Pendergraft told investigators, while on his way back to the Inn, upon reaching the point where he last saw the victim, Pendergraft saw the victim’s umbrella and hat lying on the ground.

Pendergraft told investigators he then informed the management staff at the Pisgah Inn that the victim was missing.

Rangers and first responders searched the area and located the victim’s body lying off an embankment, near a trail, within the boundary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Transylvania County.

The following evening, on July 25, the manager at the Pisgah Inn contacted law enforcement to report that Pendergraft had come to the Inn office and made statements about the death of Ellis.

Law enforcement arrived at the Pisgah Inn, interviewed Pendergraft and arrested him shortly thereafter in connection with the victim’s murder.

Pendergraft is currently in federal custody. His court hearing on the new charges is set for Friday, December 7, 2018, at 10:00 a.m., at the federal courthouse in Asheville. The penalty for first degree murder is life in prison or death. The aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison or death.

The indictment includes a Notice of Special Sentencing Factors which could permit the United States to seek the death penalty. The Department of Justice has not yet announced whether it will seek the death penalty.