This Sunday, June 28 marks 40 years since 18-year-old Gina Renee Hall was last seen leaving the Marriott Hotel in Blacksburg in the company of Stephen Matteson Epperly. The two drove to a house on Claytor Lake where, sometime after midnight, Hall was killed by Epperly.
Six months later, in early December of 1980 Epperly was found guilty of first-degree murder, becoming the first person in Virginia to be convicted of first-degree murder in a case in which there was no body, confession or eye-witness.
Epperly, 28 was sentenced to life in prison in the precedent-setting case.
As for Hall, her body to this day has not been found.
Now 40 years later, the prosecutor in the case – former Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Everett Shockley – doesn’t want the case to be forgotten. And he doesn’t want to see Epperly granted parole.
“As the population gets younger, I’m sure there are those who haven’t heard of the case or vaguely heard of it,” Shockley told The Patriot last week. “But it’s such a tragic event. Not only was she killed, but we’ve never found her body. It happened right here in Pulaski County, it was prosecuted here. It’s a ‘one case in a million’ type of case.”
Shockley also believes Hall needs to be remembered.
“She went out that night. She was 18 years old, maybe pushing 19. She was on top of the world. She had just finished some exams at Radford University. She wasn’t known to be promiscuous at all, she was church going, just the quintessential good girl. Very kind to people. Respected her family, was close to her family. She was just a sweet girl. Innocent. Still to this day I cannot figure what must have happened to get her to leave there (Marriott). Her sister, Dlana, has been writing some stuff lately in a book and some YouTube posts and she says Gina would never have left with somebody that she didn’t know. And yet that is what the evidence was.
“She wasn’t from this area – she was from Coeburn, Va. – and unfortunately, her father passed away about four years ago. He never got the satisfaction of knowing what happened to her. It just was not the typical case – the typical homicide case. I just think it’s something that needs to be remembered.”
The Hall case came just six months into Shockley’s 20-year tenure as Commonwealth’s Attorney in the county.
He had just been elected the November before, defeating longtime prosecutor A. Dow Owens in a close race, with Shockley winning by a 4,105 to 4,016 margin.
The young prosecutor got plenty of advice prior to advancing the case against Epperly. Much of the advice to him was to not pursue charges.
“I was encouraged not to pursue the charge. Dow advised against it. He was offering kind advice and not bad advice at all. John Buck (Commonwealth’s Attorney in Radford at the time) said sort of the same thing. They were saying I probably won’t get a conviction if I didn’t have a body. I guess I was young and determined. I knew he (Epperly) did it. We never had anybody else on the radar as a possible suspect, and we had a lot of circumstantial evidence and really, all we were missing was the body.
The question of what Epperly did with Hall’s body is one of the most talked about mysteries ever in these parts.
“She disappeared early Sunday morning, about 4:30-5 a.m. when Epperly left the house,” Shockley said. “I feel confident he left there with her in the trunk of the car because there was blood stains and hair in there. What he did with her from there is anybody’s guess.”
Does Shockley have a theory on what Epperly did with the body?
“I really don’t. There are so many possibilities. I’ve heard the rumors. Rumors she had been dismembered … you just hear everything,” he said.
One of the most common theories is that Hall is buried somewhere around the Dedmon Center in Radford where construction was underway at the time of the murder.
“That’s the least likely place in my opinion,” Shockley said, “because he’d have to have been riding across that bridge into Radford, then take a left and go all the way through town to get over there to it with Radford police at that time of night looking to stop a car. Had anything been wrong with that car they would have stopped him and then what would he do? Especially with him being in her car. I just can’t believe he would have taken that risk.”
Forty years ago, Shockley put his efforts into gaining a conviction in the case. Today, he maintains a connection to it by periodically writing letters to the Virginia Parole Board – urging it to keep Epperly locked up in prison whenever it considers a new parole request by the now 68-year-old killer.
Epperly is now at Buckingham Correctional Center, and seeks parole whenever he is allowed to do so – to this day maintaining his innocence.
His last attempt at parole was rejected by the parole board on Nov. 11, 2019. Along with rejecting parole, the board deferred his next consideration for parole by the maximum amount of time allowed by law – three years.
Shockley fears the parole board’s recent push to release violent prisoners will result in Epperly being freed.
“Now with the new parole board in there they seem to be wanting to cut a lot of people loose who committed violent crimes,” Shockley said. “Some person they released recently, who had been in there for 33 years, murdered three people. I was like, ‘you got to be kidding me.’”
Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that during a push to accelerate the review of parole-eligible inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia released dozens of violent offenders, including killers, rapists and kidnappers. Even prior to the review by the AP, the parole board already seemed inclined to grant parole before the pandemic occurred.
In a May 2020 news report, the AP said that 95 inmates had been paroled in March alone, which is just over half the number approved in all of 2019.
Many of those released had served decades in prison.
“I’ve written them (parole board) letters about every time I’ve heard he was up for parole,” Shockley said. “One of my approaches is that he’s very dangerous and even now if he got out – he’s 68 now – I still think he’d be a danger to women and possibly to others who may have been involved in the case as a witnesses or otherwise.
“The main thing I tell them is that you release people from prison on parole because in your opinion they’re rehabilitated. Here, the evidence is overwhelming. He denies any involvement in the murder still to this day, but the evidence is overwhelming. It’s been upheld on appeal, in federal courts too. And even (attorney) Max Jenkins in the appeal process acknowledged on the record that the evidence was sufficient to convict Epperly of homicide. I think he was arguing maybe for second degree murder, but not first,” Shockley recalled.
“But in never taking any action whatsoever to accept responsibility, or to not help in finding the body or tell what he did with it – well he’s not rehabilitated. So, the parole board shouldn’t consider letting him go,” Shockley continued.
“He’s someone who should stay in there until the day he dies.”
At least two books have been written on the Hall case. Does Shockley plan to write one as well?
“I started one a couple years after it happened, and I just never finished it. I’m no author. I just sort of gave up. I’d written several chapters, but I don’t know that it would be worth it now,” Shockley said, acknowledging he had read both books written in recent years on the case by “Woody” Lookabill and Ron Peterson Jr. Lookabill, along with law partner at the time, David Warburton were Epperly’s defense attorneys in the original murder case.
While Shockley wonders about parole for Epperly, there is one thing he is certain of.
“There’s no doubt about Epperly’s guilt. I had none whatsoever. I’ve never questioned it.”
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot