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Murder at the Pisgah Inn

Derek Shawn Pendergraft murder north carolina sara ellis

Murder at the Pisgah Inn

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Perched atop the Pisgah Mountain 5000 feet above sea level, the Pisgah Inn has been providing lodgers with stunning views and exceptional food since it first opened its doors in 1919. Located at Milepost 408.6 on Blue Ridge Parkway in Waynesville North Carolina, the isolated inn provides breathtaking panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounding Appalachian highlands which can be seen from the large windows throughout the structure. The Pisgah inn takes on seasonal workers from April to October each year and advertises for employees to fill various positions from hosts, servers and cooks to cashiers, bussers and dishwashers.

Murder at the Pisgah Inn

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The beauty of the destination attracts people, both young and old, from around the US. In the spring of 2018, 29 year old Brevard County resident, Sara Ellis, was lured to the inn by her love of Western North Carolina. She applied for a position as a cook and was successful in her efforts. She loved cooking and was always trying out new recipes at home. She dreamed of one day running her own restaurant and considered the seasonal work as a chef a step in the right direction. Originally Sara had aimed to work in media but her dreams of a career in broadcast journalism had been dashed due to hearing difficulties that began in her teens and had left her almost deaf as an adult. Despite her difficulties she remained positive in true Sara style, things hadn’t gone to plan, but her spiritual journey of spreading the good news would continue no matter what.    

Ellis made the 600 mile journey to Waynesville, North Carolina, a place she affectionately referred to as “God’s country”. Sara was religious; she believed there was too much negativity in the world and vowed to dedicate herself to staying positive and having a positive effect on the lives of others. She held her faith above all else. 

The 29 year old was described by her family as fun, silly and adventurous and had spent the majority of her childhood living in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. Sara lost her mother to cancer in 2011 and it is perhaps for this reason that she applied for the seasonal chef job at the Pisgah Inn, just 20 miles from where she had grown up. Perhaps the location reminded her of better times and she felt as though a return to her favorite place could help her recharge and heal her soul.

By May Sara Ellis was already onsite at the Pisgah Inn and found herself immersed in the beautiful surroundings of the Appalachia. Seasonal staff stayed in assigned dorms on site and often enjoyed hiking and walking in their free time. The nearest town was 30 minutes away. She sent regular emails to her twin sister back home, describing how safe the lodge was, how much she liked it and how much she enjoyed the company of the people there.

Things seemed to be going well, until one day in July, Sara suddenly went missing.

Murder at the Pisgah Inn

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On the 24th of July, 2018, a fellow employee of the Pisgah Inn, a 20 year old man named Derek Shawn Pendergraft, reported Ellis missing to his superiors. Several hours’ later investigators and local rangers who were dispatched to search for her discovered her body on a mound of earth along the parkway trail not too far from the staff bungalows. She was discovered at around 10:30pm.

She was positioned on her side, partially undressed and her head and neck was bruised. There did not seem to be any wounds on the body that indicated the use of a weapon such as a knife or gun and the cause of death has not yet been publically confirmed at the time of writing this. 

Pendergraft told police that he and Ellis finished their shifts at 4pm on the day she went missing, and decided to go for a hike in the surrounding forest. When it began to rain, he claimed that Ellis informed him that she was going to return to the staff dorms, but he decided that he was going to continue on. He then said he found her umbrella and hat on the trail, and after an unsuccessful attempt to locate her, he decided to return to the Inn to report her missing to the manager of the Pisgah. The following day he returned to the manager’s office to confess to the murder of 29 year old Sara Ellis.

Pendergraft, who was employed as a seasonal housekeeper, told police that while they were walking he suddenly blacked out for what he claimed felt like just a second, and when he came around he was staring into the face of Sara Ellis, who appeared to be dead. The 20 year old described her open mouth and extended tongue, how her skin was a bluish purple and her eyes were lifeless. She was “Exposed”, he said. The officer interviewing the 20 year old commented that he was disturbed by the graphic detail involved in Pendergrafts description of Ellis’ body.  

There are no reports confirming if the two were friends and if they had agreed to go on a hike together that night.

Derek Shawn Pendergraft is currently in custody and is being held at the Buncombe County Detention Center. He is likely looking at life in prison if convicted on a second degree murder charge.

EDIT: Thank you to Sara's sister, Tiffany, for contacting us with corrections. 

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