Review 3 of Under the Trestle
by Stephen Owen, Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1980, legal history was made from tragedy in the New River Valley of Virginia. In the first case of its kind in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a homicide conviction was secured against Stephen Epperly for the murder of Gina Renee Hall, who disappeared on June 28, 1980 but whose body has to this day not been recovered. So-called “no body” homicide cases pose a variety of challenges for investigation and prosecution; even in an era before modern forensic science, lead investigator Austin Hall of the Virginia State Police and Commonwealth’s Attorney Everett Shockley in Pulaski County were able to assemble a circumstantial but compelling case that resulted in conviction. Ron Peterson, Jr., chronicles the case, the people and places involved, and the aftermath, in his 2018 book, Under the Trestle.
Elsewhere in this Bulletin, Dr. Jack Call provides a thorough review of Peterson’s presentation of the facts in the case, and how they ultimately led to conviction. Also in this Bulletin, Eric Snow discusses how some of the key forensic evidence in the case would likely be handled today, with current protocols and technologies. The remainder of this review will explore the value of Peterson’s work as an exemplar of true crime writing and some considerations that readers may take from it.
True crime is a popular genre, as the public seems ever fascinated with evil deeds and their subsequent investigations. Peterson himself acknowledges that it was a publisher who encouraged him toward writing about true crime, and that his memory of stories about the case while he was a student at Radford University – as Gina Hall had also been – led him to research and write Under the Trestle. Peterson’s accounts are well informed by the convergence of three sources: Trial transcripts and documents, contemporary accounts of the incident, and interviews with many of the principals of the case. Taken together, this allowed Peterson to develop a well-rounded and thorough account, assembled into a powerful read.
Peterson has made numerous presentations on the case, often to capacity crowds who offer insightful questions and comments, for which Peterson often has an answer or perspective to share. It is also quite telling that those who worked on the case – including Trooper Hall, Commonwealth Attorney Shockley, defense attorneys Woody Lookabill (who later served as a General District Court judge, and who has also written a book on the case titled, “That’s a Damn Good Dog!”) and David Warburton, and Radford Police Sergeant Jonny Butler (who retired as Deputy Chief) and Lieutenant Andy Wilburn – sometimes join Peterson in his presentations, a testament to their confidence in the accuracy that he has brought to its retelling.
Quite simply, Under the Trestle is an excellent example of true crime writing. Written objectively, but with compassion for the victim and her family, while resisting what must have been inevitable temptations to stray into speculative territory, Peterson’s account provides solid reporting and engages readers directly with the case.
Under the Trestle also challenges readers to think about the crime – and perhaps criminal justice, generally – from several viewpoints.
The victim. In presentations, Peterson acknowledges how important it was to have received the support of Gina Hall’s sister, Dlana Hall (who has written a book sharing her perspectives, titled The Miraculous Journey: A Day Made in Heaven), as he worked on this project. Through the book, Peterson respects the memory of Gina Hall and helps readers see her as the dynamic person she was, remembering that homicide is never an abstraction, but always the untimely loss of a human being. The impact of the case on Hall’s family is also addressed, again an important consideration when thinking about the impacts of violence.
By all accounts, Gina was a warm and personable student, studying to be a nurse, who came to Radford University as an accomplished athlete (though not part of school teams) already respected for a strong work ethic. Gina also loved dancing and was last enjoying the pastime at the Blacksburg Marriott Lounge. An unspoken but resonant question is who Gina Hall would be today, had tragedy not intervened? Thirty-nine years later, as of this writing, Gina would be 57-years old, and one can only imagine the health care practitioner and respected community member she would have become, based on Peterson’s ability to capture her personality.
The investigation. Assembling circumstantial evidence in a “no body” homicide case requires a different approach to investigation, as the initial premise of the case – that a death occurred through an act of violence – is not initially established. Rather than working backwards from a scene with remains present, investigators must work forward to establish that a crime has, in fact, occurred. Much of the book walks the reader through the various pieces of investigative fieldwork that were utilized.
These include the traditional, such as interviews of potential witnesses and suspects; interior and exterior crime scene searches; processing physical and biological evidence (to the extent possible through 1980s technology); use of forensic divers; receiving and tracking multiple (sometimes well-intentioned but empty) leads; development of investigative hypotheses; and the application of inferences to connect the circumstantial elements of the case. These also include the unusual, with the use of a tracking dog whose veracity was later questioned; offers of assistance from psychics; regulation of river levels (to facilitate searching) by the local power company that controlled a nearby dam; and the happenstance connections between the accused, the victim’s father, and a mutual acquaintance who offered testimony to the state.
Peterson proceeds step-by-step through the investigative process, providing a cohesive, chronological narrative. This includes the mixed emotions of dead ends, investigative frustrations, and breaks in the case, which the reader will also feel. This truly puts the reader “in the moment” of what investigators were doing, with the feel of a police procedural. For those who have a pen and paper handy, one engaging exercise is to list the evidence and witnesses along the way, and consider to oneself how the evidence connects, how it is inter-related, and at what point probable cause (for charging) or proof beyond reasonable doubt (for a judgment of guilt) may be met – and also to consider whether alternative lines of inquiry and investigation might have been proposed. Without implying criticism of investigative efforts, doing so may be instructive for readers who wish to think through the relative value and weights of various types of circumstantial evidence and how they can build a case, especially when direct evidence (as in a “no body” prosecution) is not available.
Publicity. It is clear from Peterson’s account that the case attracted considerable attention. Media coverage at the time was limited to daily newspapers and nightly newscasts, but clearly attention was present. In fact, news coverage played in role in the jury voir dire process, as potential jurors were struck if they had established an opinion about whether Gina Hall was, in fact, deceased – that being an element that the prosecution was required to establish. A defense request for change of venue was rejected, and lines formed outside the courthouse and spectators were turned away as the courtroom filled each day.
One wonders how the case would have been presented in the contemporary 24-hour news cycle. It certainly would have made national news, with satellite trucks at the Claytor Lake house where the murder is believed to have occurred, lining the streets of Radford as investigations proceeded, and outside the courthouse in Pulaski during trial. The amount of information that would probably be reported – and repeated at regular intervals – could be a double-edged sword, as is often the case today. Information could trigger memories or cause witnesses to come forward; at the same time, information generated through the inevitable leaks, speculative reporting, and sheer saturation of coverage could impinge upon investigative efforts and jury selection.
The attention that the book has garnered even so long after the case – especially in the New River Valley, but also throughout Virginia – is a testament to the public interest that remains even now.
The Offender. Peterson provides a detailed background about the convicted offender in the case. While the victim must be the primary focus, and while motive is usually not an element that must be proven in criminal prosecutions, high-profile cases often generate the question, “Why?” Of course, absent a full confession (and sometimes even with a full confession) the motive is often unknown. Under the Trestle integrates biographical material, descriptions of prior criminal allegations, and interviews with those who knew the suspect who was ultimately convicted in the case. The book also brings updates through the time of its writing, related to appeals and parole decisions (thus far all denied), to help the reader understand how the case has developed since the 1980 trial.
The Reality of Investigations. One disadvantage of the multiple television shows and movies that feature plot lines related to criminal investigation is that they suggest to the public that all crimes are solved, in their entirety, in the allotted time frame. The reality is usually far more complex. The formal investigation of the murder of Gina Renee Hall was closed when a jury trial issued a guilty verdict. However, since then, some degree of lore has surrounded the case, particularly regarding the location of Hall’s remains. Even years later, as recounted by Peterson at the conclusion of the book, multiple locations have been suggested and investigated, but with no conclusion. Peterson himself indicates as one motivation for writing the book, “I hoped maybe, just maybe, if the book was successful, it could jog the memory of some person out there who has some age-old clue that could lead to the discovery of Gina’s remains” (p. 131).
Under the Trestle has been successful, an indication of Peterson’s ability to draw together multiple complex storylines to provide a comprehensive treatment of the case. Whether his goal – a goal shared by many – of bringing full closure to the case will ultimately be met, remains to be seen.
There are few critiques to offer of Under the Trestle. The primary theme I would identify is the inclusion of finding aids to assist the reader. A table of contents and index would be helpful for quickly locating information. A map would assist readers unfamiliar with the Pulaski County and Radford City locations and would also help to provide a broader geographic overview of locations of interest in the case. An evidentiary log and timeline, while an ambitious undertaking, would aid in tracking the evolution of the case and associated evidence, and would help in crafting the “big picture” view of a precedent-setting prosecution.
The above suggestions notwithstanding, Under the Trestle has much to offer readers, in and beyond the New River Valley, with credit due to Ron Peterson, Jr., for the daunting task of compiling such extensive information into a thoughtful and eminently readable account.