By Marty Gordon
A new book is shining more light on a 38-year-old murder case that still haunts people here in the New River Valley.
Gina Hall was a freshman at Radford University in June of 1980 and decided to spend the night out on the town at a Blacksburg nightclub. She never returned home.
Friends told investigators she had phoned and said she was with a man she had met at the Blacksburg Marriot. He was later identified as Stephen Epperly who had a home at Claytor Lake, where the two had gone. Epperley said Hall had left the lake house and returned home.
At trial, the prosecution pointed out he was the last person Hall was seen with. Blood matching hers was found in the trunk of her own car abandoned on Hazel Hollow Road.
For months, the investigation searched for the RU student’s body. A tracking dog led police along railroad tracks from a site in Pulaski County and across the New River to Epperly’s mother’s home in Radford. Police said all the evidence pointed to Epperly, despite the fact they had no body.
Epperly excelled on the football field and even received a scholarship to play at Virginia Tech. During his trial, he never took the stand and to this day has remained silent on details of the case and the possible whereabouts of Hall’s body.
He was given life in prison, and his parole has been denied several times over the years. He maintains his innocence, but remains behinds bars.
Hall’s remains have not been found.
Now, Ron Peterson has released a new book called “Under the Trestle,” a direct link to where Hall’s car was found on Hazel Hollow Road.
Peterson was a Radford University student and a member of the school’s newspaper in the mid-80s when he first became interested in the case—initially because it was Virginia’s first “no body” murder conviction.
“Then, as I learned more about Gina and her family and what great people they were, it really drew me in emotionally. The fact that Gina’s body was never found and that her family has been denied a Christian burial. It just made me feel that Gina’s story needed to be told,” he said.
As a former RU student, Peterson had also heard about rumored locations of her body, intriguing him further and lighting a fire to write this book.
After doing a great deal of research and obtaining a copy of the transcript from the murder trial, he started writing the book about a year ago finishing in October.
Peterson interviewed over 100 people involved in the investigation, trial and ongoing search for Gina. The first person he contacted was Gina’s sister, Dlana, to make sure the family was comfortable with the book project.
“I met with Dlana and she gave her blessing for the project and requested that I tell the story accurately and with the proper respect for Gina and the family,” he said. “From there, I got in contact with the prosecutor in Stephen Epperly’s murder trial, former Pulaski County Commonwealth Attorney Everett Shockley.”
Shockley invited the author to his house for an interview and over the course of the past year, he shared many of his recollections and insight. Similarly, he spent many hours meeting with and interviewing the lead investigator in the 1980 case, former Virginia State Trooper Austin Hall. He also interviewed Epperly’s defense attorneys, Woody Lookabill and David Warburton, who, he said, were very cooperative.
“Similarly, I spoke with several attorneys who worked with Epperly on his appeals. I interviewed witnesses from the 1980 murder trial and even a few members of the jury, who shared what happened during the jury deliberations for the verdict. There were also detailed conversations with a search-dog handler and scuba diver who searched for Gina’s body in 1980 and they gave me a nice education, both on the general nature of what goes on in these searches and specifically how they searched for Gina,” he said.
Peterson reached out to Stephen Epperly and members of his family and spoke with two siblings and included some of what they shared in the book. Stephen Epperly, still in prison, declined to be interviewed for the book.
“One of the things I try to bring to light in the book is that this terrible murder was also a tragedy for the Epperly family. Stephen Epperly’s mother, who died several years ago, was very well liked and respected around town. She was active in the church and by all accounts a good mother, and she had to testify for the prosecution in her son’s murder trial,” Peterson pointed out.
The case, itself, remains a topic of discussion with at least one investigator. Lt. Andy Wilburn of the Radford Police Department has made it his mission to find Gina’s remains. He is the subject of the last chapter of the new book.
He has been actively looking for her for over 20 years. He told Peterson he used modern technology to check the ground in and around the former Epperly home in Radford.
Peterson and Wilburn are optimistic that the book’s publicity might generate a new lead in the case.
“I’ve stayed involved because I believe in my heart is a tragedy that she hasn’t been found. I’ve said it before and it still rings true, there is a grave in Coeburn with no body in it. I just want to take her home,” Wilburn said recently.
“I’m really impressed with the resources he (Wilburn) is utilizing–a lot of new technology, including ground penetrating radar, which is used to find clandestine burial sites. Lieutenant Wilburn shared with me info about two recent searches, one was a comprehensive search of the Epperly family’s home property this past fall. Another was a dig on the RU campus, where there was reason to believe Gina may be buried,” Peterson said.
Neither of those digs produced any new findings.
While the book sheds new light on the subject, the final chapter still remains open.
Peterson hopes that will change.
“In my research, I learned that many people believe that in the 48 hours after Gina’s murder, Epperly may have had an accomplice in disposing of Gina’s body. If that is true, then obviously that person knows where Gina’s remains are. Or maybe they told someone who knows. Or perhaps some other person heard about it third-hand and has some small piece of information that is the key. So, maybe after all these years that person (or people) finally come forward. And Gina is found.”
He hopes finally the Hall can receive some closure.
“You know, “closure,” is an overused word these days. But psychologists and grief counselors tell us that a family who loses a loved one never receives true closure until they actually lay that persons remains to rest, safely and securely,” said Peterson.
“As Gil Harrington explained to me, as humans, this is one of our basic primitive instincts. And even after 38 years, it is clear that the Hall family still has an empty space because Gina was never given a proper burial. So not only is that my motivation for writing this book, that is obviously my hope for the end result.”
“Under The Trestle” just made the Amazon Top 100 Best Seller list in the True Crime category. It has received four positive reviews from book critics. Amazon and Barnes & Noble both give it a five-star review.
Peterson was touched to learn that Gil Harrington is supporting the book. Gil is founder of the Help Save The Next Girl foundation, in memory of her daughter, Morgan Harrington who was killed in Charlottesville several years ago, and a portion of the book’s proceeds will go to Help Save The Next Girl.
“As several different literary agents and publishers have told me, the story itself is like a John Grisham novel. I’m no John Grisham, but the actual story itself — the investigation and trial — is sensational, like a Grisham book or a Hollywood movie,” Peterson concluded.
For now, “Under the Trestle” is only available through Amazon, but Peterson hopes it makes its way to bookstore shelve here in the New River Valley sometime in the near future.
(In part two of this story, we will examine what has been done over the past few years in trying to find the body of Gina Hall.)