RADFORD — A Radford University alumnus has turned a cautionary tale from his youth into a true-crime nonfiction book about the killing of Gina Renee Hall.
“Let me tell you what happened to a girl” — that was the warning often given to young women headed to parties or bars in 1988, when Ron Peterson Jr. was an editor at the college newspaper, The Tartan.
Hall went dancing at a Blacksburg nightclub in 1980, met a Radford man, drove with him to a house at Claytor Lake and was never seen again.
“It was just something that students talked about a lot,” Peterson said. “‘Hey, you better be careful.’ So there was always that cautionary tale, especially if girls were going to bars in Blacksburg.”
A journalism major, Peterson said he once mentioned the case in an article for The Tartan.
“I guess my original interest was just that her body could be somewhere in Radford,” he said. “Then, as I got older, I started thinking about ... how terrible it must have been for her family.”
The story never left his mind, Peterson said. It kept coming up over the years in conversations with friends and acquaintances, from police officers who remembered hearing about the investigation during their training, to attorneys who studied the precedent-setting criminal conviction in law school.
For the father of a 16-year-old daughter beginning to date, “it’s close to home for me,” he said. And, with age, it’s “easier to put yourself in the shoes of Mr. [John] Hall and Gina’s sister.”
So a year ago, the 53-year-old corporate advertising professional from Smithfield committed to writing a book about the case. Since then, he has worked nights and weekends, going through archives and interviewing investigators, attorneys, jurors and family and friends of the victim and the man convicted of killing her.
Last month, Peterson self-published “Under the Trestle: The 1980 Disappearance of Gina Renee Hall & Virginia’s First ‘No Body’ Murder Trial.”
The case is not closed
Stephen Matteson Epperly, then 28, of Radford was convicted of Hall’s murder — the first person found guilty in Virginia without a body, confession or eyewitness testimony. Now retirement age, he is serving a life sentence.
Peterson said he offered Epperly the chance to tell his side of the story for the book. Epperly declined.
When he has talked, Epperly has maintained his innocence. He told The Roanoke Times in 1982 that he took Hall to the lake house to “do what any normal red-blooded American boy would do.” But Hall refused to have sex with him, Epperly said. She drove him home to Radford, and that was the last he saw of her. After volunteer searchers found Hall’s blood-stained clothes near the New River, under a railroad trestle in sight of St. Albans, police mounted a massive search and investigation.
In September 1980, Epperly was charged with first-degree murder. A jury convicted him that December. Nearly 40 years later, many people involved in the tragedy and its aftermath did tell their stories, Peterson said. One of them is Radford Police Lt. Andy Wilburn.
Since 2007, Wilburn has been chasing down new and old tips, combing old case files, doing interviews and searching sites where Hall’s remains might lie. He’s enlisted experts in forensic archaeology and ground penetrating radar. He’s brought in forensic investigators, cadaver dogs and even psychics. He’s probed and dug likely spots near the Radford University campus and the old St. Albans hospital, where the car Hall was driving was found. He’s interviewed Epperly, given presentations, even appeared on paranormal television shows, all to bring attention to the story.
In addition to retelling the story of the case, Peterson’s book outlines Wilburn’s search and the hunt for her remains.
Last year, Wilburn brought all his resources to bear in a search of the former Epperly home, which was sold to new owners who allowed investigators to dig inside and outside the house. Hall wasn’t there. Although disappointing in one sense, Wilburn said, “I feel better knowing we had access to the place.”
For many years, only Wilburn’s supervisors knew he was working on finding Hall. But six years ago, he went public, and he said he welcomes Peterson’s book.
“I think it is just going to make people that much more interested in the case and make the phone ring,” Wilburn said. “It’s going to make people remember things and talk about things. And eventually, the right person is going to do the right thing, and we’re going to find out where she’s at.”
For his part, Peterson said, “I would just hope it could lead to the discovery of Gina’s remains.”
Hall, a Radford University freshman from Wise County, was living with her older sister, Dlana, then 21, when she went missing on Saturday, June 28, 1980. Dlana Hall Bodmer had loaned Gina her brown Chevrolet to go dancing at the Blacksburg Marriott. Between 1 and 1:30 a.m., Gina called, waking her sister.
“She was telling me where she was. She’s letting me know, ‘I see a lake,’” Bodmer has said. “But she did not know where she was.”
She told Bodmer she was with Steve. Before hanging up, Gina told her sister: “I’ll be home soon.”
When Bodmer woke later that morning, Gina wasn’t home. Neither was the car.
“I couldn’t get the police to listen to me,” Bodmer recalled. “Finally, my friends go out and find the car. Once they find it, then the police get involved.”
Blood stains matching Gina’s type were found in several places in the lake house, in the trunk of her car and on the recovered clothes. A hair matching Epperly’s was found on clothing. A mattock, or digging tool, was found with the same type blood on it. Eventually, an estimated 60 Virginia State Police troopers helped in the $500,000 investigation. Epperly remains in prison.
Hall’s story still resonates. Wilburn said he works often with Help Save the Next Girl, a national nonprofit organization formed in honor of Morgan Dana Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who was abducted and murdered in 2009.
“Gina,” Wilburn said, “was my ‘first girl.’”
“I am absolutely convinced she will be found,” he added. “It may not be by me. It may be some random person at the landfill, or whatever. I am convinced she will be found. I have no doubt.”
If you have information in the case of Gina Hall, send email to Andy.Wilburn@radfordva.gov.
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