Excerpt from the book: Under The Trestle
The true story of the 1980 disappearance of
Radford University student Gina Renee Hall,
Virginia's first "No Body" murder trial and
the four-decade search for Gina's body
by Ron Peterson, Jr.
The scuba diver moved slowly along the bottom of the lake, eighty feet below the surface, searching for a dead human body. It was a sunny day at the surface, but eighty feet down, he could not see his hand in front of his face. This was a "black water dive", the type that gives professional divers the creeps. He relied on the sense of touch from his fingers, which felt the silty lake bottom as he inched along. He was performing what search-and-rescue types call a "fingertip search" body recover operation, hoping to literally run into the body.
The diver had been underwater for twenty minutes, covering about 50 feet of the lake bottom, moving along a straight line. Eleven other search divers, arranged on both sides of him at even intervals, moved along a parallel grid in the same direction. So far, their collective hands and fingertips had encountered nothing but the silt and sediment along the bottom, along with the occasional remnants of an old tree stump.
He was startled when his right hand suddenly came in contact with what felt like a large object. “Could this be the body?” he thought to himself. His first tactile impression was that the object had the same general degree of “firmness” as a human body. In the blind darkness, he gently explored the object, inch by inch, using all ten of his fingertips. Yes, although he could not feel the texture through his gloves, the degree of firmness was consistent with that of a human body. And the object seemed to be resting on the bottom, not sunken into the lake bed like a tree stump. It rose up about eight-to-ten inches above the bottom. Consistent with the profile of a body. His pulse rate quickened as he felt its curvature, again consistent with a body. As he took another minute to examine the object with his fingers, in the pitch blackness, he became positive. It was not a human body. It was a discarded automobile tire that someone had evidently tossed into the lake years ago.
Claytor Lake, a freshwater paradise in the majestic
mountains of Southwest Virginia, is an outdoorsman’s dream.
The huge, 4,000 acre lake features miles of wooded shoreline,
dotted with hundreds of lake cottages. While anglers fish the
coves for bass, sailboats enjoy the steady winds, powerboats
pull water-skiers and young swimmers do cannonballs off
docks into the cool mountain water.
Located 50 miles from Roanoke and three miles from
nearby Radford, the lake was formed in 1939, when the
Appalachian Power Company constructed a massive dam,
impounding the New River. The result was the 21-mile long
lake, half a mile across at its widest point, following the
winding contour of what was previously a river valley. The
project provided hydroelectric power for the region’s residents while also forming the abundant recreational mecca that folks in this corner of Virginia have enjoyed for generations.
But tragically, on this particular Saturday -- July 12th, 1980 -- Claytor Lake was the scene of one of the largest body searches in Virginia history. Law enforcement authorities had called in every resource imaginable to hunt for the remains of 18-year old Gina Renee Hall.
Two weeks previously, the petite Radford University freshman visited a night club near Virginia Tech to go dancing on a Saturday night. She left the club with a man around midnight. She had not been seen again.
Starting at daybreak, over a hundred law enforcement officers from
10 jurisdictions in three states combed the surrounding water and banks of the
lake in their search for Gina, who had now been missing for 14 days. The
twelve scuba divers meticulously searched the underwater lake bed. Because
the deepest section was 125 feet, a mobile decompression chamber was on
site, in the event a diver suffered “the bends”, decompression sickness.
In other sections of the huge lake, where the bottom was free of
underwater obstructions like tree stumps, rescue squad volunteers from
Blacksburg rode slowly in a small john boat. To use rescue squad parlance,
in a process known morbidly as “dragging the lake” they were trying to
“hook a body”. While one of the volunteers navigated, another was at the
back of a boat, holding onto a thick 50-foot long rope as if it were a fishing
line. On the other end of the rope, about 30-feet down at the lake bottom,
was a 20-pound iron grappling hook with two large, sharp prongs, looking
like a gargantuan fishing hook. The trick for the man “working the drag”
was to keep the rope taut and the grappling hook sliding just at or inches
above the lake bottom. Easy to say, but hard to do. It was a grueling task,
one that made your arms ache after just 15 minutes. And this man had been at it now for four hours.
Four search-and-rescue dogs, trained in cadaver scent detection, had been brought in from Northern Virginia. Each of them had undergone years of training, much of which involved search-and-find exercises with rotten pig flesh. They had the amazing ability to pick up the faint scent of a decomposing corpse’s gases, rising up to the water’s surface. These dogs had found bodies before, collectively, dozens of them.
One of the dogs, a bloodhound named Bambi, rode leaning precariously over the bow of the boat, hanging her nose so close to the water that her handler worried she might fall overboard. As she sniffed the water’s surface, her handler closely observed her behavior, looking for the telltale sign of an “alert”, a change in demeanor of his dog – like barking at the water -- which indicates that she has caught the scent of a dead body.
A somewhat mysterious RV was parked at the lake’s edge, with signage reading “Nationwide Tracking, Search and Rescue; Preston Kennels, Galletson, PA”. Police were closed-mouthed about who the vehicle belonged to and who was in it. No one realized it, but in six months, the German Shepherd and his handler residing in the camper would become star witnesses in a murder trial unlike any other in Virginia history.
A $2,000 reward for information leading to Gina Hall’s remains had been publicized, so in nearby areas, adjacent to the lake, volunteers of a more mercenary nature conducted impromptu searches of surrounding forests and farmland. Many were high school kids who had gathered a group of their pals to tag along. As they searched, the teenagers talked enthusiastically of what they would do with the reward money if they found the body.
Pulaski County, which surrounds Claytor Lake, is known for having many caves in the hollows and valleys of the rugged mountain terrain. Since there were several caves within walking distance of the lake, a group of amateur cavers, from nearby Giles County had been invited to join the search. The spelunkers, as they liked to call themselves, were currently on the far side of the lake, negotiating through a substantial cave whose beach-ball sized mouth was obscured by brush on one of the steep lake banks. You had to know the cave was there to find the entrance. They were close enough to the lake that they could hear the boats from within the cavern’s darkness. The spelunkers shined their large bulky carbide lights, predecessors to the LED lights now used, throughout the nooks and crannies inside. The search organizers had instructed them to depend most on their sense of smell, as they would most definitely smell a two-week old corpse way before they would see it.
As the search continued, several interested parties watched the
day’s events unfold from a distance.
One of them was the man in charge of the Gina Hall case. He was
the determined young Commonwealth Attorney, 28-year old Everett
Shockley, the chief law enforcement officer of Pulaski County. Just seven
months earlier, fresh out of the College of William & Mary’s law school,
he had been elected to his position, defeating a popular 16-year incumbent
by only 89 votes. Shockley ran a “tough on crime” campaign, pulling out
all the stops to promise voters a lower crime rate, higher conviction rate
and stiffer sentences for offenders. He sincerely wanted to keep that
promise to the good citizens of his county. The pressure to find Gina’s
body was resting squarely on his shoulders. It was a heavy load. Like the
rest of the local and state law enforcement investigators, Shockley had
been consumed by the case over the past two weeks.
The lead investigator, Virginia State Police officer Clarence
“Austin” Hall (no relation to Gina Hall) stood beside Shockley. He had
a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. Not the fancy Starbucks
concoctions of nowadays, this was high-octane strong black coffee. Austin Hall needed the caffeine because he had slept very little over the past two weeks, devoting both day and night to the case. Trooper Hall was a very well-liked officer, his friendly demeanor endearing him to everyone, especially his wife and two young kids, who had not seen him for two days. When he last stopped by his house briefly, he grabbed a quick shower, put on a fresh change of clothes, gave his family a quick round of hugs and kisses and was gone again.
A former Virginia Tech football player, 27-year old Stephen Matteson Epperly, was Shockley and Hall’s prime suspect. He had never been convicted of a crime, but had an increasingly violent past, along with two rape acquittals on his resume. Epperly had been interrogated repeatedly in this case, but vigorously denied the accusation of murder. A ton of circumstantial evidence pointed directly at him and no one else. Every law enforcement officer involved with the case was confident Epperly was the killer. Yet still, he had not been arrested.
How could they charge and convict him of murder with no corpse? There
was no precedent for a “No Body” murder conviction in Virginia legal
history. It had simply not been done. When Commonwealth Attorney
Shockley mentioned to his peers the possibility of pressing charges against
Epperly, with no body, they strongly advised him not to do so. To seek a
murder conviction, without a body, and have the suspect be found not
guilty? That would be career suicide.
The best view of the lake for an interested onlooker would have
been from the luxurious, three-level, A-frame cabin at 4955 Weaver Road,
perched on a hill, lakeside, with a million-dollar view of Claytor Lake.
Inside, the house’s owners, Ronnie and Betty Davis, were both emotional
wrecks, with feelings running the gamut from sorrow, to regret, to anger.
They felt deep sorrow for the family of Gina Hall, the missing
young student who, by every account, was a daughter who would make
any parent proud. The beautiful, soft-spoken girl was described by friends
as one of the most thoughtful and sincere people they had ever met. She
once had a promising future, but had perplexingly gone missing and was
now believed dead.
The regret that haunted the Davis’ had to do with the fact that two
weeks earlier, they had driven to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a
week of vacation at an oceanfront resort. They left the lake house, their
primary residence, in the care of Betty’s 27-year old son (Ronnie Davis’ stepson), Bill “Skipper” King, also a Virginia Tech grad and a former Hokie football player. On his first night of house-sitting, King and his long-time buddy, Epperly, had gone out for an evening on the town, to the lounge of the Blacksburg Marriott. Around midnight, Epperly borrowed the key to the lake house from King, left the nightclub with Gina Hall and brought her back to the secluded cabin. She had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth and Epperly was the last known person to see her alive.
The anger the Davis’ felt was focused squarely on Epperly, who police believed had turned their beloved lake house into a bloody homicide scene. Ronnie and Betty had always been weary of Steve Epperly, one of their son’s best friends since the pair were eight-years-old. A ruggedly-handsome guy from a working-class family, he grew up “on the other side of the tracks”. Epperly’s aggressive nature had led to many incidents of violence in the past, which the townsfolk discussed in hushed tones. He had always seemed likeable enough, but trouble seemed to find him, more often than it should.
The Davis’ returned from their Myrtle Beach vacation and were
dumbfounded to learn that their beloved lake house was a homicide scene.
Police investigators had discovered blood splattered throughout four rooms
of the home, even on Dr. Davis’ golf shoes and their refrigerator door. On
the den floor carpeting was the remnant of a large bloodstain the size of a
Meanwhile, Gina’s father, John Hall, was living a parent’s worst
nightmare, back at his daughter’s apartment in Radford. He had been out
with the searchers since daybreak, but now stared at the telephone on the
wall, desperately awaiting any kind of update. For two weeks now, he had
been going through the worst hell imaginable, with a terrible feeling in his
stomach that refused to go away. The police had developed a close
relationship with Mr. Hall, rare in a line of work where maintaining
“professional detachment” with victim’s families is essential. Investigators
candidly shared their information with him, which seemed to show that his
daughter, the light of his life, was dead. He could not sleep, his mind
painstakingly alternating between two things. A faint glimmer of hope that
Gina was somehow still alive; and a desperate realization that she was
deceased and that her body needed to be found, so the family could give her
the good Christian burial that she deserved.
For the past two weeks, Mr. Hall had taken up temporary residence in the apartment near the Radford University campus where Gina lived with her older sister Dlana. It enabled him to be in closer proximity to local law enforcement, as well as the many dozens of friends and hundreds of volunteers who were canvassing the area day-after-day.
A deeply religious man, Mr. Hall was haunting himself every hour of every day, with several questions. “How could this happen? Dear God, how is this happening? And how could this happen to my family?”
Desperate for help, Mr. Hall had even enlisted the help of a nationally-known psychic who had arrived in Radford a week earlier and provided his insight. Police are always skeptical of psychics, but this one had found bodies before in several well-documented cases. The psychic’s information in this case was credible enough that police followed-up on it, and continued to take it into account as they theorized where Gina Hall may be.
By early afternoon, the search of the area in and immediately around Claytor Lake had concluded, with no results. It would now move on to the next quadrant of the hunt, a meandering three-mile stretch of the New River downstream from the lake, between the dam and the town of Radford.
Despite its name, geologists tell us the New River is
actually the second oldest river in the world, having carved a
deep valley through mountains for millions of years. It is a
spectacular river, with many sharp turns and oxbows through
tall mountain peaks. Beginning with headwaters high in the
Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it winds into
Virginia, with frequent tight curves through the tall
mountains. The river widens, becoming a reservoir along
the 21-mile segment where it is impounded to form Claytor
Lake. Then, for the next three miles, it becomes more
tranquil, as it flows gently past the town of Radford, where
college students enjoy kayaking and inner-tubing on serene
stretches. As it enters West Virginia, The New River
becomes increasingly wild with breathtaking rapids that
make for some of the best white-water rafting in the East.
It then combines with the Gauley River to form the Kanawha, eventually flowing into the Ohio River, which in turn is a tributary of the mighty Mississippi. Thus, the New River is holds the distinction of being the only Virginia river to flow into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Atlantic Ocean.
Native American Indians, centuries earlier, dubbed the New River “the river of death” because of the many drownings that occur when a person standing in shallow water is knocked off their feet by the deceptively fast current. As they struggle to stay afloat in the increasingly swift water, oftentimes the person’s arm, leg or entire body gets wedged between or under boulders. The ruthless force of the rapids then holds the victim underwater and they drown.
Many of the investigators searching for Gina’s remains envisioned this sort of possible “entrapment scenario” where her dead body had potentially been dumped in the river by the perpetrator and eventually became trapped underwater, either between boulders or below an undercut rock or beneath a rocky shoal; and then held submerged in place by the steady current.
So at 2:00 pm, with cooperation from the Appalachian Power Company, the gates were raised on the gigantic dam at Claytor Lake, a 1,100-foot long and 125-foot high concrete monstrosity. This halted the flow of water down-river. The water level of the New River downstream then began to drop considerably, to better accommodate search efforts. The four boats carrying the cadaver-sniffing canines were promptly launched below the dam. They began their role in the search, traveling down the three-mile stretch of river, with military precision, each boat 25 yards apart. Additional search dogs worked each bank of the river, while other search personnel walked behind them searching the heavy brush along the banks.
“The search dog is one of the most valuable search tools,” William Dickerson, head of the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Team, said that day. “One dog can take the place of 100 searchers.”
After the river had been searched for three hours at the low-tide level, the gates were dropped on the dam, releasing a high volume of water to rush downstream toward the town of Radford. The swift water and waves splashed the many rocks and boulders with a vigorous current. If the body was entrapped under boulders or between rocks, this would hopefully wash it out, resulting in what experienced search-and-rescue types called a “blowout”.
As the once tranquil river became filled with rapids, a state police helicopter flew slowly and deliberately above, so close to the river that it made casual observers worry it would crash. Behind the pilot, two officers sat sidesaddle, one on each side of the craft, looking intently out the open doors of the copter, scanning the river for the body that had hopefully become dislodged from an underwater entrapment.
But as darkness set in at the end of the day, the members of the giant search party, who were optimistic at dawn, were now exhausted. Many were dejected, painfully so. After a sixteen-hour day of meticulous searching, they came, abruptly, to a bitter realization. This would not be the day they found Gina Renee Hall. Wearily, they faced the fact, with each passing day, the odds of finding Gina’s remains was growing smaller.