The author of Under The Trestle -- Ron Peterson Jr. -- recently sat down for an interview to discuss his upcoming book, currently in final stages of publishing and available at bookstores and online retailers by January 2019.
Question: What made you decide to write a book about a 1980 murder case, of all things?
Answer: It may be the most compelling murder case in Virginia history. It's a case that I have been very interested in since I first heard about it in the 1980’s. The missing girl, Gina Renee Hall, attended the same college I did, Radford University, several years before me. I was an editor for the university newspaper my senior year; and first wrote about the case in an editorial back in 1987. Like so many people, it troubled me that her body had never been discovered and also amazed me that someone could be convicted of murder without the victim's body. I mean, how could the prosecution even prove she was dead without her body, right? And one of the biggest urban myths in Virginia is that Gina Hall’s body was secretly buried by the killer, Steve Epperly, under the cement of the Dedmon Center sports arena at RU, when it was under construction back in 1980. Epperly was employed as a grounds maintenance worker on campus and had access to the construction site. As the years went by, I would often hear the case referenced as Virginia’s first “No Body” murder conviction. I have friends who are attorneys and have told me they studied the landmark case and court trial in law school. When the internet era rolled around, I found myself googling "Gina Renee Hall" every few weeks, hoping an article would pop up stating that her remains had been discovered. As I read past articles about Gina Hall, I really became sympathetic to what her family has gone through. “Closure” is an over-used term these days, but the fact that Gina's body was never found and she was never given a proper burial is still painful to her family, even four decades later. They have never had closure. My motivation for the book is that maybe, bringing attention to the ongoing search for her body might somehow inspire someone to come forward to the police with some age-old lead that could somehow lead to the discovery of her remains.
Q: So, you actually think the book could help lead to the discovery of Gina Hall’s remains?
A: Yes, I think there is a chance. And the current Radford Police Lieutenant, Andy Wilburn, who has re-opened the search for Gina's body -- as well as the old police investigators from 1980 -- have all told me they hope the book's publicity results in someone coming forward with some key piece of information. For her remains to be found would finally bring that sense of closure to her family and all the law enforcement personnel who have spent so much time searching for her. Amazingly, it was a book about the Golden State Killer, "I'll be Gone In The Dark," by Michelle McNamara that kept that case in the public eye and spurned television documentaries and public interest that kept the pressure on law enforcement to keep working that case. And that led to the recent arrest of the killer, Joseph DeAngelo.
Q: What is it that makes this a “Landmark Case” … even 40 years later?
A: It was the first case in Virginia history in which someone was convicted of murder without a body,
an eyewitness or a confession. And only the fourth time in United States history -- one of the previous three "no body" convictions being a Charles Manson murder in 1969. Think how difficult it is for a prosecutor to first prove that the missing person is dead and then prove that the suspect killed them. If you're a defense attorney, all you have to do is raise reasonable doubt with the jury that the victim is dead. And (Commonwealth Attorney) Everett Shockley got this conviction in the pre-DNA era, 1980. Just an amazing prosecutorial job. The Epperly case set an important legal precedent that has given Virginia prosecutors the confidence to pursue these type of no-body murder convictions in the years since. Since the Epperly conviction, Virginia prosecutors and judges and even appeals judges have cited this case many times. This case was also referenced in the Charlottesville-area murders of Hannah Graham, and Morgan Harrington, before their bodies were found. Law schools have used Epperly v Commonwealth as a case study, as has the Virginia State Police training academy. The case was also the first time in Virginia courtroom history that tracking dog testimony was allowed into evidence. An interesting side note is that the tracking dog handler who testified against Epperly -- John Preston -- was discredited a few years later and believed to be a fraud in subsequent cases. This gave Epperly grounds for an appeal -- he appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- but the conviction was upheld.
And also, the search for Gina Hall's remains has been the longest, most comprehensive “body search” in Virginia history. The search continues to this day. I have spoken to many police officers and rescue squad workers who spend their evenings, weekends and spare time following-up on leads and searching for Gina Hall's body. So, all these factors make this perhaps the most unique murder case in Virginia legal history.
Q: What kind of research did you do in writing “Under The Trestle”?
A: I read hundreds of news articles, written throughout the country by reporters who covered the case back in 1980, including national AP and UPI reporters. I also interviewed a few of the news reporters who covered the case, each of them said it was one of the most compelling court cases they ever covered. The court transcript of the seven-day trial was available at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I made copies of the transcript and also listened to audio recordings that were available. Then I interviewed over a hundred people that were involved in the case, many of them in person. I had extensive interviews and conversations with the prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys and police investigators. Then, I talked to dozens of friends and family members of both the killer, Epperly, and the victim, Gina. And like any good writer, I tried to educate myself on some of the key subjects of the book, for example I talked to search dog handlers and search divers, as well as psychologists and forensic experts.
Q: So, tell us about the interviews for the book?
A: The first person I talked to was Austin Hall, the Virginia State Police officer who was the lead investigator in the case. He’s in his late 60’s now, retired, still lives in Pulaski County. I called him at his house, introduced myself and the purpose of my phone call. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he proceeded to share a lot of personal insight on the case. He is a man who has devoted his entire life to keeping people safe and helping put bad guys away. It was also obvious that he had seen so many things over his career, good and bad -- and that Gina Hall’s disappearance was the most significant thing he had been involved in, professionally. He told me how, for years after Epperly was convicted, he had spent his Saturday mornings “going out looking” for Gina Hall’s body. To this day, people still contact him and ask him if he ever thought to search a certain piece of property or talk to a certain old friend of Epperly. He’s even woken up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep and left his house to go out and walk out across the railroad trestle at the same time of night that Epperly did, hoping that some overlooked detail would miraculously appear to him. Austin Hall took time to drive me around to several of the key sites in the investigation, including the railroad trestle. I've stayed in contact with him, getting his recollections and insight on so many of the details of the investigation. He’s probably answered about a hundred different nit-picky questions I’ve had. I am amazed at how he can remember details from almost forty years ago and I can’t even remember things that happened ten years ago! He also introduced me to several retired Radford police officers who have given me a lot of information on Stephen Epperly’s violent background, and their role in this investigation and search.
Q: How about Everett Shockley, the attorney who prosecuted the case?
A: Yes, I’ve spent a few hours interviewing him on several different occasions, and he was even kind enough to invite me to his house to discuss the case. Very generous in his time. He takes pride in the fact that his peers strongly advised him not to move forward and indict Epperly in the murder. Their fear was that Epperly would be acquitted because there was reasonable doubt that Gina Hall was dead; and then Gina Hall's body would be found. At that point, there would be no recourse -- Epperly could not be prosecuted again because of the "Double Jeopardy" clause in our Constitution. But Shockley knew that he had a very strong circumstantial case and like all the investigators, was 100% confident Epperly killed her. He risked his career taking this case to court ... had Epperly been found not guilty, it would have been career suicide for Shockley. Now, Shockley’s legacy is that this case has served as such an important precedent in the years since for other prosecutors in Virginia to pursue murder convictions in the absence of the actual corpse. That’s obviously an enormous challege, because you first have to prove that the victim is, in fact, dead; and then that they were murdered. And Shockley did it in the pre-DNA era, with none of the technology that detectives and prosecutors have nowadays..
Q: What about the two attorneys who defended Epperly? Woody Lookabill and David Warburton?
A: I have interviewed both. Like so many people in the case, they were young at the time, in their late 20's, and most of their memories from the case are still pretty fresh. Woody Lookabill wrote a book of his own, an account of his experience in defending Stephen Epperly … it’s a great read. Anyways, Lookabill and Warburton were law partners, both court-appointed, and spent almost four months preparing for the trial and defending Epperly in court. Do you know what the state paid them? $400 each! Amazing, isn’t it? They were both young attorneys, families and young kids depending on them, trying to get their fledgling law firm up and running when they were appointed to the case. But they spent day and night making sure that Epperly had a fair trial and an energetic defense. You come to realize that one of the things that makes our country great is that everyone gets a fair trial. Over the years, Epperly has taken his conviction through five different appeals -- including being heard twice by the Virginia Supreme Court, heard by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and then declined to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The fact that Epperly’s conviction has held up under intense scrutiny is proof that Lookabill and Warburton did a great job in his defense. Lookabill later became a judge … one heck of a judge, I’m told. He has even been kind enough to visit Epperly in prison, attempting to provide spiritual guidance to him.
Q: Does Gina Hall’s family support this book project?
A: Before I committed myself to moving forward with the book, I reached out to Gina Hall’s older sister. I wanted to make sure that, one, she and her family were okay with the project. And two, if they were, I wanted to follow any parameters or guidelines that they provided. We met in Richmond and talked for two hours. Dlana wanted to make sure that I told the story accurately and tastefully and I promised her that I would. Dlana was actually Gina’s roommate at Radford University at the time of her disappearance and murder. Dlana shared with me how, for many years, emotionally, she really could not talk openly about her sister’s death. It’s only in recent years that she has been comfortable speaking openly about it. Dlana harbored a lot of guilt, which is totally understandable. She was the person who had talked Gina into transferring to RU from Emory & Henry College; and then, the night of Gina’s disappearance, Dlana had chosen not to go out with her, because she was exhausted from studying for exams. Turns out, that was the only time Gina had ever gone out alone. Another tragic aspect of the case. But the most moving thing that Dlana shared with me was the fact that previously, all her life, Dlana had been a “girly” girl. You know … hair bows, manicured nails, frilly dresses, prissy (her words, not mine) scared to death of insects, et cetera. But when Gina went missing, Dlana spent every day that entire summer basically crawling on her hands and knees through heavily-wooded forests, searching for her sister’s body or grave. Day after day, all summer. Dlana said she encountered some of the scariest spiders, insects and snakes you could imagine, but it didn’t faze her a bit. She was that focused on finding her sister's body. That’s one of the most painful images I could ever imagine. Yet another aspect of this case that just drew me in, emotionally.
Q: Here's the big question ... Where do you think Gina Renee Hall's body is?
A: I have asked that question of at least a hundred people familiar with this case and gotten about a hundred different answers. The more you learn about this case, the more you realize the infinite possibilities. I have too much respect for the personnel who worked the case -- their experience and training -- to think I can figure something out that they couldn't. A lot of law enforcement officers who have been involved believe she may have been buried somewhere along the New River, in the corridor between Claytor Lake and the town of Radford. Either on the Pulaski County (Hazel Hollow Road) side or on the Radford side of the river. Possibly a well-covered and well-disguised grave that shoulder-to-shoulder searchers could not find and deep enough that cadaver-sniffing dogs did not alert on the spot. As for the Dedmon Center rumor, an investigator assured me that there was no concrete poured in the days around Gina's disappearance and that the site was searched thoroughly.
My theory is this ... on the night of the murder, Epperly hid Gina's body somewhere nearby, perhaps a shallow grave or wooded area along Hazel Hollow Road between Claytor Lake and the town of Radford. Then, at some point over the next 48 hours, before he came to the police's attention, he went back and picked up her body and then drove it to a remote area in one of the surrounding counties -- and I think she is buried there. Gina's clothing, the lake house towels; and the shovel and mattock that were found near the traintracks by the river? I think Epperly put 'em there as a "red herring". He was no dummy. Now, Epperly was an outdoorsman who hunted often on privately-owned land, that he had access to. I learned that some of his favorite hunting spots were on several distant parcels of land in Pulaski County owned by Virginia's former Governor, John Dalton, who was a Radford native and permitted Epperly to hunt there. A key thing I learned is that Epperly's car at the time of the murder -- a 1978 Ford Mustang II -- had a hole in the radiator and was prone to over-heating. So, I think Epperly was cautious enough to borrow a friend's car and went back and picked up Gina's body. There is a good chance that friend even came along. Here's where the name Tom Hardie comes up as a possible accomplice. Several sources told me that Hardie spent a great deal of time with Epperly in the six months between the murder and the actual trial. Look up that name in the Radford/Blacksburg/Roanoke news archives and you will find he had a rap sheet a mile long and was linked as a suspect to at least four other murders. And even if Hardie was not an actual accomplice in disposing of Gina's body, I think he knew what Epperly did with the body. Hardie died in 2009 at age 65. He was a well-documented alcoholic and drug abuser and I think there is a good chance that at some point in the 29 years between 1980 and 2009, he told someone what Epperly did with Gina's body. I mean, it was just too good of a secret to keep, right? Especially when he was drunk and/or high much of the time. So I think Hardie told someone out there who knows. And I think if that person comes forward to police, they will be able to provide that one piece of information that will lead police to Gina's body.
Author Ron Peterson, Jr. attended Radford University several years after Gina Hall. A Communications major at RU, he first wrote about the case his senior year, as an editor for the university newspaper in 1987. He has been published in newspapers throughout the state and in internal publications for two Fortune 500 companies. His career includes work at the Virginian Pilot and Cox Media, where he earned the company's annual "Outstanding Performance" award. Peterson's background also includes managing corporate television advertising campaigns on CNN, Fox News and ESPN. He is currently a board member of the Hampton Roads Sports Media Hall of Fame. In research for the book, Peterson interviewed over 100 sources, receiving extensive interview access with the prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, police investigators, as well as friends and family of both the killer and the victim.