When Ron Peterson arrived at Radford University in southeast Virginia in 1984, he quickly realized the campus carried a somber story.
“There was this urban myth or rumor that there was a girl buried on campus,” said the 53-year-old Peterson.
Four years before Peterson arrived on campus, on June 28, 1980, Radford student Gina Renee Hall, 18, went missing after a night of dancing in Blacksburg. Almost 39 years later, the possibility of her body being buried somewhere on campus — or in the surrounding area — remains.
But Hall’s disappearance also stands as a landmark in Virginia history: The prosecutor in the case, a William & Mary graduate, secured the first-ever “no-body” murder conviction in Virginia.
Former Virginia Tech football player Stephen Epperly was convicted of Hall’s murder about six months after her death. He remains in prison despite numerous appeals in state and federal courts
Now, there is a book to tell the tale.
Peterson, who received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Radford and now lives in Smithfield, remained fascinated with the case through the decades.
After two years of research and about one hundred interviews, Peterson published a book about the case in December, titled “Under the Trestle.”
After leaving the nightclub on June 28, 1980, Hall and Epperly headed together to a lake house on Claytor Lake.
The following day, Hall was nowhere to be found. Hall’s vehicle was found under a train trestle near Epperly’s house days later.
The lake house had blood splatter matching Hall’s blood type, and her blue ankle bracelet was found on a set of stairs in the house.
Police reports, obtained by Peterson, also showed Epperly, now 66, had a history of violent sexual behavior against women.
Epperly never gave an outright confession, and there were no witnesses, but one prosecutor elected to take the case to trial anyway.
“He was positive he had enough evidence to indict him for murder,” Peterson said.
William & Mary’s critical role
Three William & Mary alumni played critical roles in the case, Peterson said.
Prosecutor Everett Shockley graduated from the William & Mary Law School in 1976, university spokeswoman Erin Zagursky confirmed.
The judge who convicted Epperly, R. William Arthur, also graduated from William & Mary in 1940 with a bachelor of civil law degree.
Epperly’s lead defense attorney, Royce Glenwood “Woody” Lookabill, graduated in 1969. He has since moved on to be a judge.
While researching the story, Peterson spoke with both Lookabill and Shockley. Arthur died in 2002, long before Peterson began work on the book.
Peterson said Shockley was a strong proponent for the publication of the story, which is still cited in various legal case studies today.
Since the 1980 conviction, there have been a handful of other no-body convictions in Virginia, according to news reports.
The latest no-body case is currently underway in Virginia Beach. Bellamy Gamboa, 39, disappeared July 1. Prosecutors have charged her ex-boyfriend with murder in connection with her disappearance, despite not having a body as evidence.
RELATED STORY: Custody battles and pushed hearing dates further delay the case of Bellamy Gamboa
Peterson said research for his book took about two years.
The marketing and advertising professional worked on the book on nights and weekends, interviewing Hall’s family, jurors, prosecutors, witnesses who saw Epperly and Hall together before the murder, friends of both Epperly and Hall, and more.
Peterson also read old Associated Press and United Press International news articles documenting the murder trial, retrieved transcripts and recordings for the Library of Virginia in Richmond and scanned Google for leads.
Epperly declined to speak to Peterson for the book.
“His sister said — her words were ‘He don’t wanna talk to you,’” Peterson said.
Despite Epperly’s numerous appeals in court and instistence he did not kill Hall, Peterson believes the right man was convicted.
“I searched and searched for something that would point to him being innocent, but I couldn’t find anything,” Peterson said.
And the jurors also wholeheartedly believed Epperly was guilty, Peterson said.
“They told me how they had no doubt,” Peterson said.
Since it published in late December, Peterson said his book has remained in the top 40 hits on Amazon in the “True Crime” book category, alongside authors like Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham.
A portion of book sale proceeds — at least 10 percent, although an exact amount has not been decided — will go to the Help Save The Next Girl Foundation. The foundation was created in memory of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who was murdered and dumped in a rural area near Charlottesville in 2009.
Peterson has remained in touch with Lt. Andy Wilburn, a Radford City police officer who has taken a special interest in finding Hall’s remains.
Peterson said Wilburn told him the police department has received numerous fresh tips about Hall’s possible burial locations since the book published.
“Her family, even though it happened 39 years ago, they’re still looking for closure,” Peterson said.
But still, no body.