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FBI: Co-worker who reported inn cook missing killed her on hike

CANTON N.C. -- A cook who went missing at a scenic North Carolina inn was killed by a co-worker during a hike, and her body was left along a path near the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, federal authorities said Thursday. Sara Ellis, a 29-year-old working the summer season at the Pisgah Inn, was reported missing Tuesday night and found dead several hours later along a path near the inn's employee housing, according to an FBI news release.

The death comes at the height of summer tourism season along the parkway that draws visitors from around the country. The inn along the parkway at a 5,000-foot elevation, about 25 miles southwest of Asheville, was named best national park lodge by USA Today readers in 2015.

A fellow inn employee, 20-year-old Derek Shawn Pendergraft, was charged with second-degree murder in Ellis's death, according to a federal complaint filed Thursday. The charge carries a maximum of life in prison.

Pendergraft was the one who reported Ellis missing on Tuesday night, according to court documents. Rangers and other investigators found her partially nude body off an embankment close to a trail near the parkway.

Initially, Pendergraft told investigators that he and Ellis went for a hike after they both finished work around 4 p.m., but she decided to return when it began to rain. Agents write that he returned from his hike and told his managers that she was missing, saying then that he had found her umbrella lying on the ground.

But the next night, an inn manager called investigators and told them that Pendergraft had come to her office and confessed to the killing, according to the federal complaint.

The court documents state that Pendergraft told investigators that he blacked out during the hike and next remembers staring at the woman's lifeless face.

Investigators noted bruising on her neck and head, but didn't specify the cause of death. There were no signs of bullet or blade wounds.

Pendergraft, who's in custody, made an initial appearance in federal court Thursday, according to an electronic docket. The federal public defender representing him didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Ellis, a Seminole, Florida, resident, had worked as a cook since May at the inn that's run privately under a contract with the National Park Service. The website says it offers seasonal employment April to October.

National Park lodges and inns often attract young seasonal workers from around the country who live together at the sites, which are sometimes remote. The Pisgah Inn describes its employee housing as dorm rooms with twin beds and shared dressers and closets. A housing description for employees on the website notes that it's 30 minutes from surrounding towns.

It wasn't clear if Ellis and Pendergraft were both staying in the dorms; an inn manager didn't respond to a phone message seeking comment.

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