Gina Hall, 18, was described as a “very beautiful, well-dressed, pleasant, soft-spoken” young woman who was popular with her peers, respectful of her parents and close to her older sister, Dlana, with whom she was living in Radford, Virginia during the summer of 1980. It was late June and the sisters were taking summer classes at Radford University, where Gina was a freshman and her sister was in graduate school.
Gina loved to dance and was quite athletic, friends and family recalled. She may have liked an occasional glass of wine, but she did not smoke or use drugs. In short, Gina was “a very happy person.” She certainly was not the sort to simply disappear.
When Gina was very little girl, she was seriously burned and had scars on her right side from her upper arm to her thigh. She was self-conscious about these scars and while she was friendly and outgoing, her self-consciousness kept her from becoming physically intimate. Gina’s sister would later testify that she was extremely concerned about how the scars would affect a man’s feelings for her and as a result, “she could not have handled the emotional stress of a physical relationship with somebody and never put herself in that situation.” In addition, she had expressed concern about becoming pregnant because of her skin grafts’ lack of elasticity.
The reason for revealing intimate facts about an innocent victim will become evident shortly.
Gina had just finished summer midterms and was in a “great mood,” her sister recalled. She wanted to go dancing but Dlana said she was too tired. Instead, Dlana lent her sister her brown Chevrolet, and watched as her 5-foot-tall sister adjusted the seat as far forward as it would go before she headed out to the Marriott in Blacksburg, Virginia for a night of music and dancing.
It was about 10 p.m. Saturday, June 28, 1980 and it was the last time she ever saw Gina.
Stephen Epperly and his friend, Bill King had known each other since they were children. They were part of a group of people, including Gina Hall, who met up at the Marriott that Saturday night, although neither Epperly nor King had ever met Gina before. King’s mother and stepfather had a home on Claytor Lake nearby, and the two men had stopped there earlier to check on things at the request of King’s parents.
Epperly and Gina hit it off pretty well at the Marriott, dancing four or five songs. As the evening wore on, Epperly asked King if he could borrow King’s car and the keys to the lake house, but King needed the car and wouldn’t let Epperly take it. He was welcome to use the house, but Epperly would have to find his own way there.
Because a group of people were dancing that night, Gina mistakenly assumed that when Epperly asked if she wanted to go for a midnight swim, he meant that more than just the two of them would be going, King later told police.
“She seemed confused as to what car was going and exactly who was going,” he testified. “I think that when she came out she thought maybe” there would be more people going.
Instead it was just Epperly and her.
Several hours later, King and another woman decided to head to the house for a swim. When the couple arrived, they saw Gina’s Chevy in the driveway, but no lights on in the house.
They didn’t want to surprise anyone, so when they entered the house they slammed the doors and turned on the kitchen light, hopefully giving Epperly and Gina — if they needed it — time to compose themselves.
Epperly called out, “Bill, is that you?”
King replied that it was and that he and his date were going swimming. Epperly said, “She’s got to be getting back,” and indicated that “they” were leaving.
The woman with Bill King saw Epperly standing without his shirt, drying himself with a towel.
Neither King nor the woman saw or heard Gina that night.
Around 7 a.m. Sunday morning, a patrol car spotted the brown Chevy parked near a railroad trestle that crosses a river outside Radford. The trunk was open. Because this was a popular fishing site, the iofficer didn’t suspect foul play, but when almost 18 hours later, when the deputy sheriff cruised by again and the vehicle was still in the same position, he ran the plates. The car was registered to Dlana Hall and had not been reported stolen.
Shortly after the deputy came across the abandoned Chevy, Epperly returned to the lakefront house and while King was outside playing with his son, asked if he could go inside for a drink. King later told authorities that he thought his friend remained inside for an unusually long time and remarked about it. Epperly shrugged it off.
That night, Dlana, concerned for her sister, called a couple of friends who went out looking for Gina. They found the car where the deputy had seen it and called police. The friends who found the car thought it was especially curious that the seat was pushed back all the way, since “Gina was a little girl.”
The media took hold of the story of the missing co-ed by mid-week, reaching King and Epperly on Tuesday, July 1. King went to where Epperly was working and advised him to go to the police to report his encounter with Gina, “so they wouldn’t think he had anything to hide.”
Of course, Epperly did have something to hide, so he asked King who he had talked to about the missing girl. He was non-committal about his intention to go to the police.
Later that day, Epperly talked to another friend whose brother was an attorney. Out of the blue, Epperly asked his buddy if his brother might “represent him.” He then asked his friend to inquire “if there was anything that they could do to him if they didn’t find a body.”
King went to the police the next day with his information and brought them back to his parents’ home. There they found a broken ankle bracelet Gina wore.
Epperly told police when he was interviewed for the first time that he had driven Gina from the nightclub to the lake house. He said he heard her call her sister to tell her that she would be home in the morning. He said they went to the dock and that he went swimming but that Gina did not. He admitted that “they had kissed some,” but said that Gina told him she would have to know him very well before she would sleep with him.
According to him, they left the house and Gina dropped him off in Radford. He went to bed and never saw her again.
As the days went by, Epperly and King talked more about Gina. At one point, King asked point-blank if Epperly killed her.
“Bill, I don’t know anything about it,” Epperly replied. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
By this time, the Radford police had a warrant to examine the lake house. They discovered bloodstains on the driveway, on a walkway leading to the lake, and inside the house.
The interior of the home had been meticulously cleaned, but not sufficiently to escape the criminalists who scoured the scene. They found blood and hair on a golf shoe, blood on a dustpan, and blood and hair in the gasket on a refrigerator door. A large bloodstain, more than a foot across was found inside the living room and had been bleached out to a faint pink. Testimony later showed that there had never been bloodstains in those locations before.
Searchers looking for Gina discovered a blue blood-stained towel near where the Chevy had been found. It contained fibers consistent with those found in the carpet at the lake house.
King’s mother later identified it as one that was missing from the home.
Nearby, a policeman found one of Gina’s shoes at the opposite end of the trestle from where the car and the towel were found.
Two weeks later, other searchers found all of the clothes Gina had worn the night she vanished. The clothes were tied in a bundle and were bloodstained.
Forensic testing showed that all of the blood on the recovered evidence was human type O, the same as Gina’s. The hair found in the golf cleat was identified as a human pubic hair; it did not match Epperly, who had now officially become a suspect.
In the trunk of the Chevrolet, criminalists found type O blood and head hairs similar to the ones found on a hairbrush used by Gina. The blue towel also contained Type O blood and held six hairs similar to Gina’s.
On the bundle of bloody clothes, forensic scientists found a head hair similar to Epperly’s.
The most amazing circumstantial evidence that pointed to Epperly’s involvement in Gina’s disapperance came with the arrival of a tracking dog owned by John Preston, a retired Pennsylvania State Trooper who was qualified as a dog tracking expert in courts in 17 states. Along with his German Shepherd, he had worked more than 150 criminal cases across the United States.
Preston and his dog arrived a week after Epperly had first been accused by police of having killed Gina, but the ex-trooper was not told by Virginia authorities that they had a suspect. Neither Preston nor the dog had ever been to the Radford area before.
Police secured a warrant for an article of Epperly’s clothing. Then Preston and the Virginia authorities returned to where Gina’s car had been left and let the shepherd acquire the scent from the clothing. The dog then began what is known as a “casting search,” passing back-and-forth in an ever-widening arc in an attempt to pick up the scent.
The dog picked up the suspect’s smell about 100 yards from where the Chevy had been found.
He left the road and headed up a grade toward the railroad trestle and started walking along the tracks.
The dog led his handlers on a roundabout tour of Radford, touching each location where searchers had found the items related to the missing girl. Preston would later testify that the dog indicated the scent had “paused” at three locations as if the person had spent some time at each point. The pauses occurred at each place searchers had recovered evidence.
From the railroad tracks the dog followed the trail through a box factory, a railroad switching yard and across the parking lot of the New River Valley Shopping Plaza, and by a self-serve car wash.
Finally, the dog entered a subdivision, walked up to the front door of a house and sat down.
The dog stopped on the front porch of Stephen Epperly’s home.
The next day, the dog was again given Epperly’s scent and introduced to six blue towels including the one that had been found near Gina’s car. The dog immediately sat down in front of the blue towel found by searchers in the wood. That towel not only contained blood of the same type as the missing girl and carpet fibers consistent with those found at the beach house, it also apparently contained a scent consistent with Epperly’s clothing.
Stephen Epperly was being interviewed by Radford police at the station the next day when Preston and the dog showed up. While the suspect was inside, the dog was “scented” on the blue towel. The dog poked around the parking lot, which contained several other cars, and stopped at the driver’s side door of Epperly’s car.
The dog then picked up the trail from the car to the police station and came directly to the door of the interrogation room where the suspect was sitting.
After the Radford police told Epperly what the dog had done, he put his head down in his arms and said over and over “That’s a damn good dog.”
Epperly was indicted and tried for first degree murder. Gina’s body was never recovered, which required the state to prove both that she was dead and that her death had resulted from a criminal act on the part of Epperly.
Furthermore, to sustain a conviction of first degree murder, the state had to demonstrate that Epperly had the specific intent to kill.
The State of Virginia presented its case to the jury, pointing out Gina’s sudden disappearance, the evidence at the lake house of a violent struggle, the pains the killer made to hide the evidence by disposing of her clothes and the bloodstained towels, Epperly’s discussions with his friends, and the unimpeachable evidence of the tracking dog. These circumstances, taken together, indicated, in the state’s view, that Gina Hall had been murdered and that Stephen Epperly had killed her.
The jury agreed and convicted him of first degree murder. On appeal, the verdict and the life sentence were affirmed.http://markgribben.com/?p=121