Review 1 of Under the Trestle
by Jack E. Call, Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail: email@example.com
UNDER THE TRESTLE is a very interesting account of the first murder case in Virginia to result in a conviction without discovery of the murder victim’s body. The prosecution presented evidence sufficient to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Stephen Epperly killed Gina Hall, a Radford University student, at a house on Claytor Lake in Pulaski County in the early morning hours of June 29, 1980.
Epperly, a lifelong resident of Radford, was twenty-eight years old at the time. He had already established a local reputation for being prone to fighting and being violent with women, trying to force himself on dates at the end of the evening. When he lost his temper, which appeared to be a fairly common occurrence, he would go into such a rage that it would often take more than one person to stop him.
In April 1976, a woman reported to the police that Epperly, whom the woman had dated briefly a few months earlier, knocked on the window of the bedroom in her Blacksburg apartment in the middle of the night and asked her to let him in because he was in trouble. When she let him in, she alleged that he raped her. Epperly’s family hired two high-powered local lawyers to defend the case. The judge dismissed the charges for insufficient evidence (as a “he said/she said” case).
Four months later, another young Blacksburg woman reported that Epperly raped her in his apartment after meeting her at a local swimming pool and enticing her to see his apartment so she would know where to come for a party later that night. The victim was choked so hard that she briefly passed out. After completing the sexual assault, the victim said Epperly became so distraught and guilty about what he had done that he offered to turn himself in. The victim apparently thought she would be safer if she was just able to get out of the apartment without Epperly. She succeeded and reported the crime to the police. This time there was a trial, but the jury found Epperly not guilty.
There were other reports of violent behavior by Epperly. A Radford resident who sometimes commuted to Virginia Tech with Epperly, reported that on more than one occasion, when he and Epperly were stuck in traffic and Epperly thought he would be late for class, Epperly got out of the car, grabbed the driver of a car in front of them, and repeatedly struck the driver with his fists. (Why these incidents were not reported to the police is unexplained).
On the evening of June 28, 1980, Bill “Skipper” King and a few of his old high school friends made plans to go to the Blacksburg Marriott for an evening of dancing. Those plans had not included Stephen Epperly. (The book suggests that because of Epperly’s reputation for aggressive behavior, his old acquaintances seldom sought his company at social events). Epperly had called King earlier in the day, discovered King’s plans, and invited himself along.
Because there were now five people in the group, they decided to drive two cars to Blacksburg. King picked up Epperly and drove to the lake house at Claytor Lake, where King’s mother, Betty Davis, and stepfather lived. They were out of town and had asked King to check on the house occasionally. While they were at the house, King switched his own Ford LTD for his stepfather’s Thunderbird.
They arrived at the dance around 11:00, and Gina Hall arrived a few minutes later, alone. Gina had just finished her spring quarter final exams and was celebrating by engaging in her favorite pastime – dancing. She had invited her sister, with whom she shared an apartment, to go along, but her sister decided to stay home.
Gina caught Epperly’s eye, and he invited her to dance. After a few dances, they each returned to separate tables, but they connected again not long afterwards. Around 12:30, Epperly approached King about the possibility of going to the lake house. King agreed that he could. When Epperly asked if he could drive the Thunderbird to the lake house, King said no (apparently not wanting to entrust his stepfather’s car to Epperly). According to Epperly, Gina agreed that they would take her car, and he drove it since he knew the way to the house.
King and his friends remained in Blacksburg until quite some time later. King invited a friend, Robyn Robinson, to go to the lake for a swim. When they arrived at the lake house around 3:30, they saw Gina’s car in the driveway. King and Robinson entered the 3-story house from the middle floor (which was the ground floor from the driveway side of the house). Epperly called up from the floor below, asking if it was King. During a brief conversation between Epperly and King, Epperly said Gina had to get home, and he left shortly thereafter. King and Robinson never saw or heard anything from Gina.
Gina did not come home that morning, and she has never been seen since. In the days that followed, events revolved around two related, but somewhat distinct issues. The first, of course, was where was Gina? The second issue was, if some harm had come to her, who was responsible for it?
Where was Gina? Her car was found the day after her disappearance along Hazel Hollow Road, a road that runs along the New River on the Pulaski County side. Its trunk was open, and the driver’s seat was further from the steering wheel than it would have been if Gina had driven the car there. But there was no sign of Gina. (The spot where the car was found was near a railroad trestle that crosses the river from Radford to Pulaski County and includes a walkway. One strong possibility was that Gina’s body was either dumped in the river near her car or buried close by - hence the book’s title).
While law enforcement engaged in an intensive effort to find Gina, they were not the only ones. Literally dozens of civilian volunteers, including many who did not even know Gina, showed up to assist in the search efforts. Appalachian Power controls a dam on the New River a few miles upriver from Radford. They reduced the flow of water into the river from Claytor Lake to make it easier to search the river. When those search efforts were fruitless, the flow of water was increased quickly in an effort create a rapid river current that might dislodge a body that was trapped underwater.
These search efforts did not discover Gina’s body, but a few other interesting items were discovered. Along the banks of the river, not far from Gina’s car, a searcher found a blue Springmaid brand towel – the same brand and color as a towel that Skipper King’s mother had told the police was missing from the lake house. More than a week after Gina’s disappearance, one of the shoes she was wearing when she disappeared was also found in a gully along the Radford side of the river, near the railroad trestle. About three weeks after Gina’s disappearance, some high school students decided to search along the Radford side of the river near the trestle. In some deep foliage, they found a blue and white towel with blood stains on it (fitting the description of another towel that Mrs. Davis said was missing from the lake house) and a bundle of bloody clothes that matched the description of the clothes Gina was wearing the night she disappeared. A shovel and mattock (a garden tool used for digging) that Stephen Epperly’s mother identified as belonging to her family were also found along the Radford side of the river.
Who might have harmed Gina? There were two logical “suspects.” The first was Greg Bass, an Air Force airman with whom Gina had a romantic relationship and who happened to be in Southwest Virginia on leave. Initial police work quickly established that he had a strong alibi, and he was excluded as a suspect.
The other logical suspect was Stephen Epperly, the last person known to have seen Gina alive. When Epperly’s friends learned about Gina’s disappearance (two days later), they urged him to contact the police and tell him what he knew. He did and was very soon thereafter interviewed by Austin Hall, a state trooper who had assumed leadership of the investigation. The initial interview went very well for Epperly. Hall was favorably impressed with Epperly’s calm manner.
After receiving a detailed description from Epperly about his interactions with Gina on Friday evening and early Saturday morning, Hall suggested that the two of them go to the lake house. This provided Hall an opportunity to walk Epperly through his “story” again, listening for possible inconsistencies in the two descriptions. While the two descriptions on the whole were quite consistent, there was one significant difference in the two. It was not until this drive to the lake house that Epperly mentioned that he had talked with Skipper King and Robyn at the house. What’s more, he said that King and Robyn had seen Gina then, a fact that was not consistent with what they told the police.
Another interesting thing had happened also. After talking with the police, Epperly had visited Bill Cranwell, a Blacksburg businessman. Cranwell’s brother, Richard, was a prominent Roanoke attorney. Epperly was apparently hoping that Bill might intercede with his brother to provide Epperly some free legal assistance. Although Bill said that was not likely to happen, Epperly nevertheless asked Bill to inquire of his brother if the police could obtain a murder conviction without a body. Bill Cranwell was so shaken by this statement that he called the police after Epperly left his office to tell them what Epperly had said.
On the Wednesday after Gina’s disappearance, Trooper Hall searched the lake house with Skipper King’s permission. Several traces of blood were found. The ankle bracelet that Gina had been wearing when she disappeared was found on the spiral staircase connecting the first and second floors. The same day, Epperly agreed to take a lie detector test. The polygraph examiner concluded that Epperly’s answers to questions about whether he harmed Gina, killed Gina, and knew of her current whereabouts were deceptive. Epperly was now the leading suspect in what the police believed was a murder case.
However, it was beginning to look as though Gina’s body might not be found any time soon, if at all. Everett Shockley, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Pulaski County, was new on the job and was a relatively inexperienced attorney. He had been the county prosecutor for only six months and had graduated from law school only four years earlier. He was facing a very difficult decision. Some legal research done by his assistant revealed that there had never been a successful murder prosecution in Virginia where the victim’s body had not been found. Although there was no legal restriction on prosecuting a murder case without the victim’s body, the prosecution always has to prove that a crime occurred. In a murder case, it is very difficult to prove that a murder even occurred without the murder victim’s body, much less than the defendant was responsible for it.
What’s more, prosecuting the case without a body is a very risky proposition. The double jeopardy protection in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits trying a person again after they have been acquitted of an offense. If Shockley prosecuted Epperly unsuccessfully and Gina’s body turned up, Epperly could not be prosecuted again for her murder.
In spite of the risks, Shockley decided to prosecute. The presiding judge, William Arthur, appointed two young, inexperienced Pulaski attorneys to represent Epperly, who had been declared indigent – Woody Lookabill (now a Circuit Court judge) and David Warburton. Shockley played his case close to the vest, providing the defense no more information about the case than the law required. Judge Arthur ruled that Shockley had to share his evidence with the defense, but that ruling was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court. Eventually, Lookabill and Warburton had to subpoena witnesses for depositions in order to obtain information about their likely testimony.
Because of extensive pretrial publicity, the defense moved for a change of venue, which Judge Arthur denied. Epperly’s two rape charges, one of which was dropped and the other of which resulted in an acquittal, would not be admissible at trial, but local newspapers had mentioned them frequently. Prospective jurors in the county were likely to be aware of those charges. This was the primary basis for the defense argument that the case should be tried somewhere else. Although the defense lost on this issue, it did succeed in getting Judge Arthur to agree that any prospective juror who indicated that he or she had already decided that Gina Hall was dead should be excluded from service on the jury.
After a day and a half of examining prospective jurors, a jury was empaneled and heard opening statements from the prosecution and defense. Judge Arthur took the jury on “a view” of three sites that had been referred to in the opening statements – the lake house, the railroad trestle, and the house of Epperly’s parents (where Epperly lived). Views by the jury of locations relevant to a crime are somewhat unusual. The book does not indicate whether the views were requested by the prosecution or the defense or whether Judge Arthur authorized them on his own. Nor is there any indication as to whether either side objected to his decision. (According to the trial documents, the Commonwealth’s Attorney requested the view, and the defense did not object).[i]
Shockley began his case by calling witnesses who knew Gina well and attested to her good character, happiness, and close relationship with her family. The testimony of these witnesses established that the only logical explanation for her lack of contact with any of the people close to her was that she was dead. There was no logical reason to think that she would have disappeared without telling anyone what she was doing.
Shockley then focused on who was likely responsible for Gina’s death. Skipper King established that Epperly had gone to the lake house with Gina and was still there when Skipper and Robyn arrived later. King and Robyn indicated that they never heard or saw Gina at the house. When King later asked Epperly if he had killed Gina, his response was “I don’t know Bill. We’ll have to see.” Other witnesses established where Gina’s car was found and that the driver’s seat was much further back than it would have been if Gina had been the last person to drive it. Evidence was presented about the discovery of the blue towel, the blue and white towel, one of Gina’s shoes, and her clothing along the river, as well as a bloody golf shoe found at the lake house. Bill Cranwell also testified about Epperly’s request that Bill ask his lawyer brother if a person could be convicted of murder without the body of the murder victim. Perhaps the most important prosecution witness was Trooper Hall, who testified late in the prosecution case and effectively tied together the various pieces of evidence that other witnesses had testified about.
Probably the most controversial issue at trial was Judge Arthur’s decision to permit testimony from John Preston. Preston was the handler of a German Shepherd dog named Harass II who the police brought in to assist in finding Gina’s body. After being given a scent from a piece of Epperly’s clothing, Harass II went to the location where Gina’s car had been found, went across the railroad trestle, and eventually ended up at the Epperly residence. Later, at the police station parking lot, Harass II was given the scent of the blue towel found in the woods, and the dog went to where Epperly was waiting inside the police station. When told about the dog’s movements, Epperly responded “that’s a damn good dog.”
After the prosecution rested its case, the defense asked Judge Arthur to take the case away from the jury and direct a verdict of not guilty. Although this motion for a directed verdict (referred to as “a motion to strike the evidence” in the book) is nearly always made by the defense at this stage of a trial, it is seldom granted. In this case, however, the defense attorneys believed they had a good chance of a favorable ruling. To their disappointment, Judge Arthur concluded that there was enough evidence to let the case go to the jury.
The defense then had to make the difficult decision that all defense attorneys face in a criminal trial – whether to have their client testify. In this case, the defense attorneys felt that the prosecution case was so weak that they would not only decline to have Epperly testify but would not present any evidence at all. Their argument was that the prosecution had simply failed to prove Epperly’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Epperly himself then made a critical decision. Warburton and Lookabill had decided that Warburton would present the closing argument. Warburton had already drafted his closing argument when Epperly insisted during the lunch break prior to the afternoon session when closing arguments would be heard that Lookabill make the closing argument. The lawyers tried without success to persuade Epperly that this was not a good idea, so Lookabill had to hurriedly put together a closing argument.
After hearing closing arguments and deliberating slightly less than two hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder and recommended a punishment of life imprisonment. Three days later, Judge Arthur imposed the jury’s recommended sentence and granted Warburton and Lookabill’s request to be relieved of their duties to represent Epperly. Judge Arthur appointed two local attorneys – Max Jenkins of Radford and Randy Eley of Pulaski – to handle Epperly’s appeal. Eley was replaced later by Keith Neely, a young Christiansburg attorney who was building a reputation as an effective criminal defense attorney. Warburton and Lookabill had spent three months zealously representing Stephen Epperly. The state of Virginia rewarded them for their efforts with checks for $400.
Epperly’s time in prison has been difficult apparently. Epperly has been the subject of numerous assaults by other inmates. At the time of his sentencing, Virginia had not yet abolished parole. Epperly has been considered for parole every three years since 1991 and has been denied parole every time.
This is a very readable book that tells a fascinating story. It has a few faults, however. There are some factual errors that make the reader wonder about how careful the author has been with other facts. Some of the errors are quite minor. For example, the author says that the Radford High School auditorium was “directly across the street” from the police station on Main Street (p. 122). The police station was located on Main Street before it moved to its present location in 2011, but the high school was several blocks away on Main Street. In another place (p. 136), the author says July 21 was a Saturday. On the very next page, July 19 is a Saturday.
A few other errors are more substantive and more significant. In the author’s discussion of Shockley’s decision to seek a grand jury indictment of Epperly before arresting him, he suggests that Shockley pursued this strategy as a way of avoiding a preliminary hearing. This was important, Peterson asserts, because at a preliminary hearing “the prosecution is required to show all their cards” (p. 156). This overstates the significance of a preliminary hearing. At that hearing, the prosecution must establish probable cause to think that a crime occurred and that the defendant committed it. This is a much lower standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that the prosecution must satisfy at trial. Consequently, prosecutors do not have to “show all their cards” at a preliminary hearing – only enough to establish probable cause.
In his discussion of Judge Arthur’s instructions to the jury, the author indicates that “the main differentiating factors” between first degree and second-degree murder are premeditation and malice (p. 248). The implication seems to be that proof of malice is unnecessary to prove second-degree murder. In fact, malice aforethought is an element of both first-degree and second-degree murder. First-degree and second-degree murder are distinguished on the basis of whether the killing was done willfully, deliberately, and premeditatedly.
After Epperly’s conviction, his new attorneys, Max Jenkins and Keith Neely, appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. The author refers to that court as having twelve justices (p. 267). In fact, the court has seven justices, something Peterson himself seems to recognize later (p. 282).
A more problematic issue concerns Peterson’s sources. In a 4-page acknowledgements section at the end of the book, Peterson makes it clear that he interviewed Austin Hall, Everett Schockley, Dlana Hall (although he is not quite as clear about her), and Woody Lookabill. However, there are numerous instances throughout the book where references are made to comments by or information from “a childhood friend,” “a teammate,” “an acquaintance,” or “a local attorney,” to mention only a few. It is not unusual to include quotes from these sources. Although there are endnotes in the book, it is rare that any of the references just alluded to are supported by a citation. There are only 76 endnotes, and nearly all of them are references to police reports, trial or hearing transcripts, and newspaper articles. The book would have benefited greatly from a detailed listing of persons interviewed for the book. The failure to do so leaves the reader much conflicted about the reliability of the information in the book.
One example may help to illustrate the significance of these omissions. There is an interesting short chapter (pp. 74-77) about the interview of Epperly by Captain Gerald Williams of the Radford Police on the Wednesday after Gina’s disappearance. The point of this chapter seems to be that this interview left Williams with the feeling that Epperly was lying, and this added to the police suspicions about Epperly. There are numerous quotes in the chapter, from both Williams and Epperly. However, there is not a single footnote in the chapter. Peterson indicates that Williams had died by the time the book was written, without disclosing when Williams died or who was the source of these quotes.
In spite of these criticisms, UNDER THE TRESTLE is well worth reading. Peterson is a good writer who tells this fascinating story well. People who have long heard about the case and/or live in the area will find it especially interesting. Perhaps with this group of readers in mind, Peterson devotes considerable space at the end of the book to a discussion of all the places that have been mentioned seriously as the possible location of Gina Hall’s remains, including an assessment of the likelihood that each location is “the place.” He also includes a brief, interesting discussion of the continuing efforts to locate those remains, primarily by Andy Wilburn, a Radford City Police detective.
It’s a compelling story. It would be nice if some closure could be brought to the story by finding the final resting place of Gina Hall. I have heard Andy Wilburn speak about his search. He is optimistic that he will find her someday, and he does not seem like the kind of person to give up the effort until he succeeds. One thing seems fairly certain – Stephen Epperly is not likely to be the source of this information.
[i] See https://www.radford.edu/content/dam/colleges/chbs/Criminaljustice/criminal-justice-bulletin/Epperly_case_documents.pdf?logActivity=true, page 141.