GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (CBS/WBTV) Neal Cassada, Jr., one of two men accused in the strangling death of Ira Yarmolenko, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte student, died just hours prior to the start of his murder trial in Gaston County, say reports.
Cassada, 55, was scheduled to appear in court Monday for the 2008 murder of 20-year-old Yarmolenko, whose body was found next to her car on the shores of the Catawba River in Mount Holly, about three hours from the state's capital.
Defense attorney David Phillips says Cassada had a history of breathing and heart problems and collapsed in his home shortly after 10:00 a.m. Sunday. Phillips seemed convinced that his client's death was caused by natural causes, citing that Cassada was under stress, reports CBS affiliate WBTV.
"He was looking forward to having his day in court to clear his name because he's absolutely not guilty," said Phillips.
Cassada and his cousin, Mark Carver, were both charged with Yarmolenko's murder, but questions were raised about the guilt of the two men after detectives found that neither suspect's DNA matched the DNA found under the victim's fingernails and on three different items that were wrapped around her neck when her body was discovered, according to WBTV.
However, detectives did find DNA from Cassada and Carver on Yarmolenko's car at the murder scene. Both men say they were fishing along the river when her body was found.
Phillips claimed he last saw Cassada Friday and claimed his client was in "good spirits" and "good health."
District Attorney Locke Bell says investigators are trying to determine whether there is evidence of suicide or foul play in Cassada's death.
Phillips said he still plans on going to court Monday to see if there are any special instructions from the judge. The case cannot continue without a defendant.
Carver is awaiting trial.