Family of a woman found dead near Pisgah Inn reacts to indictment

    Sara Ellis' aunt, Terri Conner, spoke with News 13 just hours after a federal grand jury indicted Derek Pendergraft for second-degree murder. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

    Sara Ellis' family spoke with News 13 just hours after a federal grand jury indicted Derek Pendergraft for second-degree murder.

    According to federal investigators, 20-year-old Pendergraft confessed to killing 29-year-old Ellis last month.

    Ellis and Pendergraft worked at Pisgah Inn. She worked as a cook and he worked as a housekeeper.

    Park rangers found her near a path connecting Pisgah Inn and the inn's employee housing about three hours after Pendergraft reported her missing on July 24.

    "We were very close, and we were very happy that she moved up here," Ellis' aunt, Terri Conner, said.

    Conner described her niece as friendly and loving.

    "She just had such a big heart,” Conner said.

    Ellis started working at Pisgah Inn in May.

    "It was going to be permanent, and she was going to seek employment after the seasonal shutdown of the Pisgah Inn," Conner said.

    The season ended early for Ellis after rangers found her body. Investigators said Pendergraft told them the two went on a hike.

    "I don't even think she knew him,” Conner said. “She never said a word about him."

    According to investigators, Pendergraft told them she bolted when it started to rain.

    "I don't know if she knew about the hike, if it was planned. I have a feeling it wasn't,” Conner said. “Sara was very cautious about a lot of things, especially where men were concerned."

    Conner said Ellis was more concerned with spending time with her family.

    "We went to the flea market, and we went to the shops," Conner said.

    Conner became worried after hearing rangers found a woman's body near the inn.

    "I felt like it's got to be Sara, because, you know, of her sweetness and innocence,” Conner said. “The fact that she didn't get back to me on something that important, I know she wouldn't have worried me."

    Worry turned to grief for Conner after facing her niece's accused killer in court.

    "We went to the detention hearing," Conner said.

    But, she felt closer to justice with an indictment.

    "I wish he had been taught how to act and how to behave, and I wish it hadn't been my Sara," Conner said.

    Pendergraft is set to be arraigned next week.

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