Where is Gina Hall's body?
For the past four decades, police investigators have searched in vain for Gina Renee Hall's
remains. Residents of Southwest Virginia have asked themselves the same question for almost
40 years ... "Where is Gina's body?"
The more one learns about this case, the more one realizes the infinite possibilities as to where Gina’s body may have been taken by her killer. For many people, the location of Gina’s remains has become an “Alice in Wonderland” type of rabbit hole. The more you learn, the more options you see. In 2004, current Radford Police Lieutenant Andy Wilburn officially re-opened the search for Gina's body. Wilburn has utilized technology and resources that were not available to police back in 1980. Understandably, Lieutenant Wilburn has not disclosed specifics about the areas police have searched, but sources indicate his hunt for Gina's remains has included the following:
The New River
The simplest theory is that Epperly simply threw
Gina’s body off the train trestle into the New River. Her
body washed downstream, perhaps into rapids down-river
and became lodged underneath a large boulder in the
rapids, pinned below the surface by the swift currents.
There, the combined effect of decomposition and
consumption by crayfish and catfish left only the bones
at the river bottom. This scenario is exactly what
happened in another 1980 murder case in Washington
D.C. when two men shot and killed Patsy Gaisior and
threw her body off a bridge into the Anacostia River.
The murderers confessed to the crime, but perplexingly,
Gaisior’s body was never found, even though the area of
the Anacostia River downstream was heavily-trafficked.
But the person who may be the leading authority
on finding bodies in the New River, search-and-rescue diver Louisa Sterling, who searched the New River for Gina back in 1980, believes this is not a plausible theory.
“I’ve participated in hundreds of searches for drowning victims, in the New River and surrounding rivers, in the many years since Gina’s disappearance,” Sterling said. “And I have never known of a body in the river that has not later surfaced and been discovered. There is a lot of traffic on that river downstream from the trestle. And the fact that the water level of the river frequently fluctuates up and down – due to floods and droughts – means that even if her body was entrapped, it would have eventually washed out and floated to the surface.”
There were two witness accounts of a motorboat
on the lake in the vicinity of the Davis’ lake house in the
early-morning hours of Gina’s murder. At the time,
both leads were viewed as credible enough to bring in
the many divers who searched Claytor Lake. While the
Davis’ did not have a boat at their dock available to
Epperly at the time, couldn’t he have “borrowed” a boat
from one of the nearby neighbors? Well, yes. There
were, in fact, other small boats accessible at the docks
of nearby houses, with no key required, just a pull-start
of the outboard motor. Claytor Lake is a very
large, 21-mile long, 4,400 acre lake with a tree-lined
bottom in many areas. It was impossible for divers to
thoroughly search the entire lake. Supporters of this
theory say that Epperly weighted down Gina’s body and dropped it in the lake, several miles from the Davis’ lake house. Over the years, Claytor Lake has become a popular spot for recreational scuba divers, many of whom keep their eyes open for any sign of a skeletal remains on the lake bottom.
RU’s Dedmon Center
One of the most persistent “urban legends” in
Virginia college circles is that Gina was buried beneath
the concrete of RU’s Dedmon Center, which was under
construction at the time of her disappearance. RU’s
sports arena, the Dedmon Center is one of the New
River Valley’s largest structures, measuring about 100
yards by 100 yards, roughly the size and shape of two
football fields arranged in a “T.” The building sits beside
the New River, about one mile downstream from the
railroad trestle where Gina's car was discovered.
This rumor is fueled by the fact that Epperly was
an employee of RU, working in grounds maintenance.
Although an outside contractor managed the
construction of the Dedmon Center, Epperly had access
and was familiar with the jobsite.
Research shows that the massive foundation for
the Dedmon Center was, in fact, constructed during the
spring and summer of 1980. Over 70,000 tons of gravel
were used as the base, enough gravel to cover a football
field 26 feet high. 7,000 cubic yards of concrete were
poured, enough to pave 13 acres four inches thick. Back
in 1980, Trooper Austin Hall and investigators visited the site in the days after Gina's disappearance and consulted with the General Contractor, Sunny Miller of North Carolina-based D.R. Allen and Sons. The jobsite was searched thoroughly and there was no sign of recent digging or a hidden grave. And there had been no concrete poured in recent days
But 33 years later, in 2013, Radford Police Lieutenant Wilburn did some digging, literally, at an area by the Dedmon Center adjacent to the RU soccer stadium. He was assisted by two RU professors, Dr. Rhett Herman, Professor of Physics, whose expertise includes the use of Ground Penetrating Radar; and Dr. Cliff Boyd, a Forensic Archaeologist who is Director of RU's Forensic Science Institute.
"I researched the area and it just made sense to me," Wilburn said. "There were several things that made me feel that it could be the place. Dr. Boyd ran the Ground Penetrating Radar and sure enough, found an anomaly below the ground. Cadaver dogs were brought in and they showed considerable interest. Dr. Boyd then carefully excavated the spot, but needless to say, we came away empty-handed."
Under a Coffin In Another Person’s Grave
For ten years after Epperly’s conviction, Special Agent Walt Wilmore served as the Virginia State Police’s point of contact for leads on the possible location of Gina’s remains.
“I must have gotten a dozen calls from people, saying they heard a rumor that on the night of the murder, Epperly buried Gina at the bottom of a freshly dug grave for some other person’s funeral the next day,” Wilmore recalls. “As the story went, since the grave was already six-foot deep, he just dug it a few feet deeper, put her there and covered her up. Then the next day, a casket was placed on top of her and the other person was buried at their funeral.”
Adding fuel to the rumor were tales of a psychic, rumored to say that the person’s gravesite began with the letter “M”, or even the last name “Moore.”
“We took a good look at that possibility, did our due diligence. But we learned that there were no freshly dug, open graves anywhere in the area in that three-day time period,” said Wilmore.
Pulaski County Banks of New River
This is the closest area to where Gina’s
abandoned car was found and would have
also been very desolate on the evening/
morning in question. Supporters of this
theory believe that after burying Gina
somewhere along the river’s banks on the
Pulaski side, Epperly walked over the
trestle and discarded her clothing, shoes,
the two towels, the mattock and shovel on
the Radford side of the river, “just to
throw investigators off.” In the year
immediately following Epperly’s
conviction, Austin Hall and Shockley
would often meet on Saturday mornings
and spend the day searching on the
Pulaski County side of the river as well as
other locations in the region.
“Everett and I have walked every inch of those banks of the New River,” Austin Hall says. “We never found anything.”
Radford Banks of the New River
The evidence from the trial – Gina’s clothing, shoe, and the two towels from the lake house – points to the area they were discovered, along the railroad tracks in Radford, beside the New River. This is the area that was searched the most back in 1980. And a 1981 search discovered an item that was apparently missed in 1980, the second of Gina’s two shoes, partially buried near the trestle. In March of 1982, Radford officers conducted an extensive search of the Radford banks of the river. Being late-winter, the dense foliage was gone from the area, making search conditions and sightlines better. And being almost two years after Gina’s disappearance, hopes were that if she had been buried in this area, the ground would have settled and sunk-in, outlining the spot of her grave. But after several days of shoulder-to-shoulder searching, no trace of a possible grave was found, nor did cadaver-sniffing dogs alert on any areas of interest.
Chris Flanagan, currently a nationally-recognized homicide detective in Fairfax County Virginia, points out how difficult it is to bury a body and have the grave remain undetected.
“First of all, most people don’t realize how difficult it is to actually dig a grave big enough to put a body in. Once you get a few feet down, you encounter tree roots, hard clay, rocks and boulders,” Flanagan explains. “Very often, when investigators are looking for a grave, they will find an area or two where the killer attempted to dig, had a hard time and gave up, and moved on to another spot. Also, with all the dirt that is dug for the grave, there is usually a mound remaining that a trained eye can spot. And then, after a period of time, as the body decomposes and soil compacts, the ground sinks and there is a depression that makes it obvious the ground was disturbed in that spot.”
Still, many authorities familiar with the case feel that Gina could very well be buried in this area. One of the cruel ironies of this case is that this area is only a few hundred yards from the Radford police station, so the possibility that Gina’s remains are there continues to taunt police officers each day.
Several former Radford police officers think Epperly could have disposed of Gina’s body somewhere in Wildwood Park, a 50-acre wooded valley in the middle of Radford with a varied terrain – dense woods, rugged rocky cliffs, marshland and a stream known as Connely’s Run. Also in the park is the area’s most well-known cave – the labyrinth Adams Cave – and the remnants of and old quarry and saltpeter mine. In recent years, a network of walking trails were installed at Wildwood Park. More than a few Radford residents who use the trails these days keep their eyes open for any sign of a clandestine grave that could be Gina’s.
Adding intrigue to the Wildwood Park theory is
something that reknowned psychic Dorothy Allison’s told
the authorities in the summer of 1980. Austin Hall
recalls that Allison stated that she was seeing a vision of
a historic building that dated back to the civil war. The
building she saw in the vision was not far from a river.
She said that north of this building was a structure with
the numbers “1” and “9” on it. She said there were more
numbers but they were obscured in her vision. Allison
stated that her impressions were vague about what this
meant, but it had something to do with either Gina, the
person who killed her, or both.
“Well, it just so happens that an old building by
Radford High School, near Wildwood Park, dated back
to the Civil War,” Austin Hall says. “Back in 1980, we
happened to be searching the woods just north of there
one day. We came across a large concrete culvert, which
tunneled under Main Street, connecting Wildwood Park
to an area just a few hundred feet from the train tracks.
On the concrete culvert was the number ‘1933’ (the year
it was built). You could see the numbers “1” and “9”
and the other numbers were covered with ivy.”
The culvert, which is big enough to walk through,
is still there, near the current site of National Bank of
Radford. Incidentally, the culvert is only 500 yards from
Memorial Bridge, where the tracking dog indicated Epperly lingered on the night of Gina’s disappearance. Could Epperly have walked from the railroad tracks, through the culvert and into Wildwood Park to bury Gina’s body?
A Distant County
The theory that bothers law enforcement authorities the most and has caused many sleepless nights is the possibility that on the night of the murder, Epperly hid Gina’s body somewhere accessible. Then, at some point over the next 72 hours (before he became a suspect), he returned to the body, picked it up, and transported it to some distant location, far away. Although the trunk of Epperly’s car was searched twice for evidence, to no avail, perhaps he used the car of an accomplice to transport the body. A side note is that Epperly’s car, at the specific time of Gina’s murder, was not a dependable vehicle -- it had a bad radiator and was prone to frequent over-heating (Bill King stated this fact in his court testimony at the trial). So perhaps the cautious Epperly, not wanting to break-down with Gina’s corpse in his trunk, used someone else’s car to transport the body. This is when people mention Tom Hardie’s name as a possible accomplice after-the-fact. As previously mentioned, Hardie was a close friend of Epperly’s who spent a lot of time with him in the weeks after Gina’s murder. Epperly’s other friends avoided him like the plague when he became a murder suspect, but curiously, Hardie remained by his side, even giving Epperly a ride to court several days. Hardie also visited Epperly in prison after his conviction. It is conceivable that Hardie, a violent man who had numerous scrapes with the law and later served time in prison himself, helped transport Gina’s body to a distant county. Here’s where the investigators second-guess themselves the most, asking, “What if we’d been ‘on’ Epperly as a suspect sooner. We could have been watching his movements closely in those 72 hours after Gina’s disappearance.”
A Construction Site
Continuing the ‘Tom Hardie as an accomplice’ theory,
many people close to the case have speculated that
Hardie may have helped Epperly bury Gina at a
construction site in the New River Valley region.
Hardie oversaw several large commercial construction
projects for HCMF, the company headed-up by Bill
Cranwell. Specifically, at this point in time, Hardie
was involved, mid-project, in the construction of
apartment complexes for HCMF in both Radford and
Blacksburg, as well the construction of Heritage Hall,
a 194-bed nursing home on South Main Street in
Blacksburg. All were prime locations to bury a body
in the cloak of darkness.
As previously noted, Hardie’s troubles with the law
included several violent episodes. His name also came up as a suspect or accomplice in several other murder investigations, including the murder of Jerry DeHart. And Hardie was linked to the suspicious death of two North Carolina men, police drug informants, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Montgomery County auto body shop a few months before Gina Hall’s disappearance.
Many people who knew Hardie have speculated that if he did help Epperly dispose of Gina Hall’s body, he potentially could have told someone about it at some point over the years, perhaps in a drunken state or high on drugs. Could there be someone, who has not come forward to police, who has a piece of information that could lead to Gina’s remains?
Speaking of “close to home,” what if Epperly
actually hid the body at his own house? In the summer
of 2018, a local real estate agent toured the Epperly
family home, which had remained in the family and was
on the market for sale. She became suspicious that Gina
Hall was buried somewhere on the property.
"The basement has some irregularities in the
concrete floor and a peculiar brick wall that comes up to
an odd height," the agent said. "The wall was
constructed around 1980. There was also an old cistern
on the property which had been sealed-up and a detached
garage building with an uneven dirt floor. And several
things I learned from Epperly's family gave me reason
to believe that Gina's remains were on the property."
The Epperly house sold in mid-2018 and with the new owner's permission, the agent contacted police, eventually convincing them it was worth giving the house and grounds the once-over. In late September, 2018, an auger was used to drill hundreds of 1/2-inch holes, two-feet deep. Cadaver-sniffing dogs were brought in to smell the holes and determine if the scent of a decomposed body was present. The dogs showed an interest in the detached garage area. The garage's dirt floor was carefully excavated and multiple strands of hair were discovered. The hair was sent to a laboratory to determine if they were human. To the disappointment of everyone, tests revealed them to be animal hair, probably the remnant of an old dusting tool or paint brush.
A cave or abandoned mine
Spelunkers point to the fact that Pulaski County may have more caves per square mile than any other county in Virginia. Many of those caves are located along the valley carved by the New River, including a network of caves in a cliff directly across the New River from RU’s Dedmon Center. Along with those caves are dozens of abandoned iron ore, zinc and lead mining operations from the late-1800’s/early-1900’s, the most well-known of which is the Belle-Hampton mine near the New River in Pulaski County.
During his original investigation in the summer of 1980, lead investigator Austin Hall received assistance from a group of amateur caving enthusiasts called the Giles County Spelunkers, who explored many of the region’s caves, searching for Gina’s remains. The spelunkers’ noses were their most effective search tool, as they would have smelled a decomposing body long before they would see it.
One member of Gina Hall’s family believes that Epperly may have placed Gina’s body on top of one of the coal trains that regularly rumble through Radford on the tracks crossing over the trestle. If so, the body would have been transported to the coal terminals in Hampton Roads, which are the largest in the Western Hemisphere. From there coal is off-loaded from the trains into ocean-going liners and taken overseas, primarily to Asia. Could Gina’s body have ended up in China or India?
Turns out, Austin Hall explored this theory in the days immediately after Gina’s disappearance. As previously discussed, his case notes show phone calls to Norfolk Southern railroad which ascertained that there were no trains that passed over the trestle and through Radford on the morning in question. He made additional calls to the coal terminals in Norfolk and was told in detail about how their personnel inspect the load of each individual coal car as it was off-loaded at the terminal.
I-81, Exit 105 Area
Many long-time Radford residents
continue to point to a specific area along
side I-81, on the outskirts of the west-side
of town, as a possible burial site. This
was the area searched during the trial.
Back in 1980, it was undergoing highway-
related construction, with a lot of earth
being moved. The area is now the site of
I-81 Interstate Exit 105, where Main
Street meets 81, right at the city line
separating Radford from Montgomery
County and Pulaski County. As the crow
flies, it is only about a mile from the
Claytor Lake Dam. At least two phone
tips pointed the authorities to this area.
There was a caller during the trial in ’80,
who told police that these were one of
Epperly’s favorite hunting spots over the years and that he had even hunted there while out on bail the week before the trial. And finally, on the day after Epperly’s conviction, December 17th, Radford police received an anonymous call stating flatly that Epperly had buried the body at the interstate exit construction site.
“The timing and nature of that particular tip made it seem as if the caller had waited to be sure that Epperly was convicted before they called it in,” a Radford police officer recalls. “The caller gave the impression that they were only comfortable providing the information to police once they knew that he was going to prison for life.”
When asked about the possibility, several state and local police officers shake their heads and give their assurance that this area was exhaustively searched back in 1980. Still, they reluctantly admit the possibility that Gina’s remains could be there, in a well-hidden grave.
Saint Albans Mental Hospital
The former St. Albans Mental Hospital property
sits on a bluff that actually overlooks the trestle,
only a few hundred yards away. Although not
verified, Epperly was rumored to have worked at
St. Albans for a period of time in the mid-70’s.
What is verified is that Epperly was familiar with
the property and there were a few buildings under
construction on the grounds in the June 1980 time
period. With tons of earth being moved and
concrete being poured, it would have been easy
to bury a body beneath a building foundation.
Interestingly, the psychiatric hospital was founded
by Bill King’s great-great-grandfather, Dr. John
Cephas King in 1916. Adding mystique to the St.
Albans theory is the fact that the Saint Albans
property, now owned by RU, has become a
favorite spot for paranormal investigators, whose YouTube videos call it “one of the most haunted locations on the east coast.”
One of the most discouraging possibilities is that Gina’s body found its way into a trash landfill, either taken there directly or first put into a garbage dumpster and subsequently transported to the dump. In 1980, there were two landfills that trash in Radford was transported to, one in Pulaski County and the other in Montgomery County. The week of Gina’s disappearance, officers and volunteers canvassed the town, searching through dumpsters before the trash was picked up at the end of the week. In addition, the garbage landfills were searched as well.
There was also a small makeshift landfill located in the town of Radford at the foot of Harvey Street, behind the historic Radford Trust Building. In 1980, police received a phone call from someone who had remembered seeing a person lingering in the area in the early morning hours sometime around the day of Gina’s disappearance. It was searched thoroughly then, with a bulldozer and several men with shovels. This site, now a parking lot, is only about a fifty yards from the trail followed by Preston’s tracking dog, near the river and train tracks.