Gasparoli: Why the secrecy in Hedgepeth investigation?

October 1, 2013 

Tom Gasparoli

TOM GASPAROLI

The last person I thought would talk to me about the search warrants in the Faith Hedgepeth murder case was the judge who signed most of them. But Durham Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson answered what he could.

This came after my call to Durham County District Attorney Leon Stanback, who skillfully found several ways to say nothing on the subject.

Why did I have to ask? Because the search warrants, 911 call, autopsy report, and other documents or orders – along with accompanying affidavits meant to support law enforcement actions – have been sealed from public view for a year now.

Sealed since last year, when Hedgepeth was found beaten to death in the bedroom of an apartment on the border of Durham County, in the town of Chapel Hill.

Warrants can outline the critical steps of an investigation and allow the public that employs law enforcement officers to know and assess what’s been done and what hasn’t. However, since the morning of Sept. 8, 2012 – when the UNC student was discovered – this investigation has occurred mostly in secret. The crime is high-profile, the probe, barely visible.

“How often does this happen,” I asked Judge Hudson, “when warrants in an unsolved murder case remain sealed a year later?”

“It’s very rare,” he said.

So what is so unusual or crucial about the ongoing Hedgepeth investigation? Whatever it is, the State Bureau of Investigation now knows. That agency has just been invited to increase its involvement in the case.

“Sealing material is a fine line,” Hudson said. “The public wants to know facts. Investigators don’t want to have their work hindered by the release of information. Each position has merit.”

The judge says he always looks to see if the request to seal seems “reasonable.”

I asked how many times Hudson had said no to this type of request to seal.

“Never,” Hudson said.

Sounded like more of a rubber stamp to me. But Hudson, in my experience, isn’t a rubber stamp kind of guy.

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall went to the scene of the crime after Hedgepeth was found. At that time, it was believed the 19-year-old was murdered in Orange County. Woodall hasn’t forgotten what he saw.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Most murders like this are committed by someone relatively close to you. And most murderers get convicted, in the end, because the person responsible opens his mouth, or someone who truly knows something opened theirs – happens time and again.”

Case in point: Woodall prosecuted the men convicted in the Eve Carson murder case. Carson was the UNC student body president murdered in March of 2008 on a residential neighborhood near campus.

“I’m glad we were able to get her autopsy sealed,” he said. “Because someone we talked to months after the murder knew things about Eve’s injuries, that gave that person credibility. She proved very helpful to us in the prosecution.

“I think the Hedgepeth case is going to get solved,” Woodall said. “That’s my feeling.”

I understand why investigators and prosecutors fear having an investigation undermined, but without question the government needs to be scrutinized, too. In this case, close scrutiny has been next to impossible. And the SBI involvement probably won’t change that.

In the Hedgepeth murder, Judge Hudson renewed requests to keep information sealed as recently as three weeks ago.

“And when I get these requests, I always look for up to date information,” Hudson said.

So we can only guess what’s happening right now. Surveillance? Some of that, such as email, is supposed to have a warrant. Wiretaps, too. Are there informants close to the murderer who have his trust and cannot be identified, or even hinted at?

I wonder why some affidavits in this case cannot be redacted, with certain names and specifics blacked out, and then released. It takes some work, but it’s doable.

We should all pay special attention to murder investigations that remain so hidden for so long.

I asked DA Leon Stanback what was so sensitive right now. “I’m not talking about search warrants,” he said.

“But don’t all the likely suspects know they are suspects?”

“Not talking about this,” Stanback said.

And so this mostly confidential investigation on a most disturbing homicide continues.

Tom Gasparoli can be reached at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.

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