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Friends remember a vibrant Yarmolenko

UPDATE: A Gaston County jury convicted Mark Bradley Carver of first-degree murder Monday morning in the May 2008 slaying of UNC Charlotte student Irina Yarmolenko.

Irina Yarmolenko's friends remember her as a young woman with a camera, rushing to make the most of every day.

She wrote for the university's student newspaper, worked at a campus computer center and a local coffee shop, and was a roving amateur photographer. She loved poetry, music and the outdoors.

Yet she always made time for friends when they had problems and wanted to talk.

Trial testimony has stirred graphic images of Yarmolenko's death, but her friends are holding fast to their memories of her.

"I still have dreams about her," says former UNCC student Afi Tehrani, 22, of Concord. "We're on campus and it's a sunny day. We're not talking but I know it's sunny. Ira was always bright and happy. Her smile never went away."

Born in the Ukraine, Yarmolenko grew up in Chapel Hill. She played junior varsity tennis in high school and was a member of the Different Drummers literary staff. She wrote poetry and went to New York City for a Brave New Voices youth poetry event. A friend who got to know her on that trip was poet C.J. Suitt, who was recently profiled in The Chapel Hill News.

Suitt told Editor Mark Schultz that Yarmolenko "...had a real appreciation for family and where she came from. She would write these poems about being in her grandmother's kitchen. You could just see the images."

Yarmolenko enrolled at UNCC in 2006. She also took a photography class at The Light Factory, a Charlotte photo and film museum. Her photo instructor, Mike Howard, described her as "a very talented and promising young lady."

Jennifer Gilewski, who roomed with Yarmolenko, remembered her friend had a sympathetic ear for people in need. "I recall when I was having an awful day and feeling down, Ira came in and was willing to be there for me," said Gilewski, 21, of Charlotte. "She took us all (friends) to Trader Joe's and told me to pick out an ice cream and she'd buy it for me."

Brian Carlton, one of Yarmolenko's former editors, recalled: "She was easy to work with. She was vibrant and alive. And she had a good eye."

In March 2008, Yarmolenko showed up to interview Bruce Feiler, author of "Walking the Bible" and other best-sellers, about 30 minutes before he spoke at UNCC.

Sherry Bruce, administrative assistant at the university's religious and spiritual life office, noticed Yarmolenko was nervous at first. But Feiler put her at ease.

"She was really vivacious and engaging," said Bruce, 53. "Beautiful, but natural. Not made-up beautiful. She was really so into life and made an impression on me."

On the morning of May 5, 2008, during the last week of exams at UNCC, Yarmolenko was preparing to transfer to UNC Chapel Hill.

According to testimony from witnesses and surveillance video presented in court last week, she stopped by a credit union and dropped off donations at a Goodwill store. At approximately 11:09 a.m. she pulled into the Stowe Family YMCA parking lot in Mount Holly near the Catawba River.

Less than two hours later, she was found dead on the riverbank, strangled with a bungee cord, a ribbon and the drawstring from her sweatshirt. Her camera was in the car trunk.

It took seven months for authorities to bring charges in the case. Carver and his cousin Neal Cassada were charged with first-degree murder, but Cassada died last year. Authorities say the two men claimed they were fishing in the area where Yarmolenko was found but never saw her or her car.

Carver didn't testify and his attorneys didn't explain during trial why Carver's DNA was found on Yarmolenko's car. But the lawyers have drawn attention to evidence that DNA found on the items around Yarmolenko's neck did not match either Carver or Cassada. A former photo editor with the UNCC student newspaper testified last week that Yarmolenko wanted to photograph kayakers and rafters near the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

Three years after Yarmolenko's burial in Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery, friends still think about her passion for life.

"She was one of the most exceptional kids I ever taught," said Ormand Moore, who taught Yarmolenko in 11th-grade English at Chapel Hill High, and kept in touch after her graduation. "Anyone who ever met her... wishes they could live up to Ira's kindness, energy and spirit."

Staff Writer Franco Ordonez contributed to this story.

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