Faith Hedgepeth would have been the first person in her family to graduate from college. An honor student in high school, she excelled in her studies and earned a Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She had a passion for helping children and hoped to one day become a pediatrician.
But that dream came to a tragic end when the UNC-Chapel Hill junior was bludgeoned to death in the early morning hours of September 7, 2012, just weeks before her 20th birthday.
A member of the Haliwa-Saponi Native American tribe, Faith was born to Roland and Connie Hedgepeth on September 26, 1992, in Warren County, North Carolina, which is part of the tribe’s traditional territory. She grew up in Hollister, a small town on the Warren-Halifax County border.
“Faith… well, Faith was a joy-- a true joy,” Roland Hedgepeth told Dateline. “She was a gift, you know, because she came to us at a low point in my life. She kept me going. She was my Faith.”
Only a couple of months after Faith was born, her parents divorced and her father moved to Hickory, North Carolina, about a four-hour drive away. Faith kept in close contact with her father, but lived with her mother, Connie, and her older sister, Rolanda Hedgepeth, who helped raise her.
“It was a rough time for our family, but Faith came at a time that gave us all hope,” Connie said. “She came at a time when I needed her the most. To keep focused. To keep working and to keep my family together.”
Rolanda, who was 18 when her sisterwas born, was like a second mother to Faith.
“I helped take care of her from the beginning,” Rolanda. “Everywhere we went, people thought she was my child. And she was. I felt like she was my child.”
Faith excelled in high school, where she was an honor student, a cheerleader and a member of many extracurricular clubs and organizations.
“Honestly, I didn’t even realize how much she was involved in until after she had died,” Connie said. “She did so much in her short time here on earth. But she also had so much more to do.”
A Carolina girl to the core, when it came time to apply for college, Faith knew she wanted to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She even earned the highly selective Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend the prestigious university. Her father had also attended UNC-Chapel Hill, but never finished after starting a family with Connie.
“She knew exactly where she wanted to go,” Roland said. “She was a Carolina girl and she was determined to go to school at Chapel Hill.”
As Faith began her third year at UNC, she was planning to further her studies and become a pediatrician.
“All she wanted to do was help people. Especially children. It was her passion,” Faith’s mother, Connie said. “But school was hard. And when she started to struggle, she told me she thought about being a teacher instead. I told her the world is wide open for her and if she put her mind to it, she could achieve anything.”
Connie saw her daughter for the last time on Sunday, September 2, 2012. The family was celebrating Connie’s birthday early, and after Faith’s waitressing shift at Red Robin in Durham, Faith and her roommate, Karena Rosario, drove to Warren County to join them.
“We were just hanging out, enjoying time with the family,” Connie said. “I had no idea my world was about to turn upside down. On Tuesday, my birthday, Faith called me. Wished me happy birthday. And that was it. That was the last time I spoke to my baby girl.”
On Wednesday that same week, Faith also touched base with her father. She texted him to tell him about her plans to join UNC’s chapter of the Native American Alpha Pi Omega.
“It’s like she always knew the right time to text me. She sensed it,” Roland said. “She asked, ‘Dad, what’s wrong?’ And I told her what was going on. And she told me to just have faith. She was always thinking of other people. That was the thing about her. She was beautiful on the outside, of course, but she also had this beauty on the inside. She always made me feel like I was the most special person in the world.”
It was the last conversation Roland would have with his daughter. A little more than 24 hours later, Faith was dead.
According to Assistant Chapel Hill Police Chief Celisa Lehew, Faith attended a rush event for Alpha Pi Omega around 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 6. She later went to Davis Library on the UNC campus to study with her roommate, Karena.
After a few hours of studying, Faith and Karena went home to the off-campus apartment they shared on Old Chapel Hill Road in Durham. They left the apartment again that night just after midnight. Security footage shows the women arriving at the now-closed nightclub “The Thrill” in downtown Chapel Hill. It was a popular club among college students because it admitted patrons under the legal drinking age of 21 to dance.
Karena later told police she felt sick to her stomach and they decided to go home. Security cameras show Faith and Karena leaving the club around 2:30 a.m. They were home at the apartment in Durham by 3 a.m., according to a neighbor who told police she heard the girls moving around. Around the same time, records show Faith’s Facebook page was accessed.
About an hour later, Karena left the apartment with a friend who came to pick her up, Lehew confirmed. When she left, she knew Faith to be in her bed. Police said the door was left unlocked.
The next morning, Karena tried to call Faith for a ride home, but when she didn’t answer, Karena called another friend. According to Lehew, they arrived at the apartment to find Faith dead, partially nude, wrapped in a comforter that had been on the bed. There was a significant amount of blood in the room and Faith had suffered what appeared to be severe head trauma, Lehew added.
According to the 911 call that was later released, Karena told the operator that she found Faith unconscious in the bedroom. When asked if Faith was breathing, Karena responded, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. There’s blood everywhere.”
Faith’s mother Connie got the call while she was at work in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.
“They told me, ‘Faith is dead,’” Connie told Dateline. “I didn’t believe her. How can Faith be dead? I asked if it was a car accident or something, but no, it wasn’t that. This didn’t make sense. When I got off the phone, it just hit me. I burst into tears.”
Connie said she was in shock, but knew she had to deliver the heartbreaking news to Faith’s father and to her sister and brother. The following days, weeks and even months were a blur for Faith’s family.
The police investigation stretched on for two years. In 2014, just days before the second anniversary of Faith’s murder, Durham County court officials unsealed documents in the search for her killer.
The autopsy report, which was also unsealed at that time, revealed what her family already knew. Faith had died from blunt force trauma to the head. The report also detailed cuts and bruises on her arms and legs, along with blood under her fingernails.
Lehew told Dateline that investigators believe the murder weapon to be an empty Bacardi rum bottle. The bottle was found in the bedroom with tissue fragments and DNA on it. Also found in the bedroom near Faith’s body was a fast-food bag with a hand-written note that read, “IM NOT STUPID. BITCH.”
“Each bit of evidence we receive is another piece of the puzzle we use to put the complete story together,” Lehew told Dateline. “We don’t count out any evidence, and we are constantly reviewing.”
A DNA profile was created from DNA collected from the scene and semen collected in a sexual assault kit. Investigators believe the DNA belongs to the killer, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said in a 2014 press conference.
“Investigators have excellent evidence in this case, and we are making a public appeal for any information that will help us tie that evidence to Faith’s killer,” Blue said. “This is not a cold case. It has been and remains an active investigation.”
In 2016, police released an image generated by Parabon NanoLabs, a genetic testing lab in Reston, Virginia, of what the suspect who left the semen behind might look like based on the phenotype in his DNA profile. According to Parabon, the suspect was Native American and European mixed ancestry or Latino with olive skin, brown or hazel eyes and black hair.
Police and family members believe Faith likely knew the person or persons involved in her murder. But because of Faith’s social, bubbly personality, they discovered she was connected to a large circle of friends that extended across the college campus and beyond.
“She never met a stranger,” Faith’s father Roland said. “She was just a joy to be around. And goofy. Goofy like me, and just loved to laugh. She was friends with everyone.”
According to earlier reports, more than one person of interest was questioned, but were cleared when their DNA did not match the DNA found at the scene.
Lehew told Dateline, “we have not publicly discussed the suspects in the case except to say we continue to look at all the evidence.”
Approximately 2,000 people have been questioned and the DNA of more than 100 people has been tested. But nearly eight years later, there’s still not a match.
“We continue to use all tools that are available to us,” Lehew said. “We can’t point to any one thing that will lead to an arrest. We will not give up until we can give Faith’s family the closure they deserve.”
Lehew said the department has strong evidence in the case and it’s not a question of if the case will be solved, but when.
“We are constantly looking at the case file and following up on leads and using new technology and evidence procedures,” Lehew said. “It will be solved.”
Faith’s sister Rolanda told Dateline she believes the department is working hard to solve the case, but didn’t think it would take eight years.
“Nothing ever prepares you for this,” Rolanda told Dateline. “I miss hearing her call me ‘Ro’ in her little Faith voice. So many years have passed. But I’m hopeful we’ll get closure. I’m always hopeful.”
Faith’s father fears that as the years slip by, the truth of what happened to his daughter will never be known.
“With each year, instead of getting closer, I feel like we’re getting further away from knowing why someone would do this to her,” he said.
Faith not only made an impact when she was alive, but her legacy lives on now with the Faith Hedgepeth Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship is offered to help a Native American woman from a North Carolina tribe earn a higher education.
“She wanted to help people. That was her dream,” Connie said. “Now she’s helping women like herself every year.”
Connie said they have given out 22 $1,000 scholarships in the years since Faith’s murder.
“I have peace now, because she’s with the Lord,” Connie said. “But I always say, ‘Lord, whoever played a part in her death, may Faith dance on their heart every night and every day and that every time they close their eyes, they think of her, and think of the life they stole from her.’ We can only hope and pray that one day someone comes forward.”
The family is offering a $40,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the person(s) responsible for Faith’s murder.
Anyone with information about Faith’s case should contact the Chapel Hill Police Department at (919) 614-6363 or Chapel Hill Crime Stoppers at (919) 942-7515 or http://www.crimestoppers-chcunc.org.