It was June 1980, and 18-year-old Gina Renee Hall was in the mood for celebrating. She had just finished her mid-terms and was keen to let her hair down in her home town to mark the start of what should have been a great summer.
However, a Saturday evening of fun turned into what must have been a desperate fight for her life — and it led to an ongoing quest by her devoted sister to find out what really happened to Gina that night.
From club to lake house
Gina Hall and her sister Dlana were living together in the Virginia town of Radford in 1980, with Gina a freshman at nearby Radford University. The two siblings were particularly close, and they had made arrangements to go out dancing on the evening of June 28th.
However, as Dlana told producers of Discovery Investigation’s Evil Lives Here, she and her boyfriend had had a falling-out that day and she couldn’t face the frivolity of the crowded bar and club. Instead, she encouraged Gina to go meet up with their friends and mark the end of the summer exam season without her.
Dlana lent Gina her brown Chevrolet and watched as she adjusted the seat all the way forward to accommodate her petite 5ft frame. She was in a great mood, Dlana recalled as she watched her sister pull out of the driveway and, although she didn’t realise it at the time, out of her life forever.
It was as busy as expected at the Marriott, Gina’s local nightspot, and a bunch of her friends met up to chat and dance. That night, though, there was someone new to the group: 28-year-old Stephen Epperly, who was there with his childhood pal Bill King.
Bill’s mother and stepfather had a property at nearby Claytor Lake but were on vacation, and the two friends had been up there to check all was well while they were away before venturing out for a few drinks.
Gina seemed to hit it off with Epperly and witnesses reported that they danced to several songs together as the evening wore on. Later, Epperly asked Bill if he could head up to the lake house, to which Bill replied he could as long as he could get himself there.
There is some discrepancy as to what happened next. The official police version of events is that Epperly invited Gina up to the lake house and she agreed, but Dlana maintains that her sister wouldn’t have acted this way with someone she had just met and that she must have been taken there under duress.
Perhaps Gina had misunderstood and assumed Epperly had invited the whole group to the property, only to find later that it was just the two of them. Indeed, Bill would later recall that Gina appeared “confused as to what car was going and exactly who was going”. Whichever way, Gina wound up alone at the lake house with Steven Epperly.
No sign of Gina
Sometime between 1:00 and 1:30 AM, Dlana received a telephone call at home that woke her up. She answered it to find Gina on the other end of the line, sounding “very uneasy or out of character … very nervous”.
Gina told Dlana she was “at the lake with a man named Steve” before ending the call in a somewhat clipped fashion. Dlana told Evil Lives Here she was a little troubled by the call and wondered what her sister was doing at somewhere other than the Marriott, but reasoned that Gina was probably just checking in and keen to get back to her friends, so she went back to sleep.
A few hours later, Bill King decided to take his own date Robin to the lake house for a cooling swim and drove up there to find Epperly shirtless in the utility room, drying himself with a blue towel. Bill and Robin didn’t see Gina, but Epperly told them he would have to be taking her back home soon. Shortly thereafter, Robin and Bill heard what they assumed was both Epperly and Gina leaving.
When Bill used the back entrance of the lake house a little later on, he remembered treading in a wet patch just inside the sliding glass doors but said he didn’t stop to investigate it, perhaps presuming it was water that had dripped onto the carpet after Epperly and Gina went swimming.
When dawn broke the next day, Dlana awoke to discover Gina hadn’t made it home and, by now even more worried about their mysterious phone conversation, began to call around asking if any of their friends knew where she might be. They didn’t, but a couple said they would meet Dlana and go out looking for her.
At the Pulaski County end of the railroad trestle over the New River, they found Dlana’s Chevrolet abandoned and noticed the driver’s seat was pushed all the way back. Knowing Gina couldn’t have driven it like that and becoming increasingly concerned for her wellbeing, Dlana called the police.
A broadcast was quickly put out over the local radio station to report Gina missing, which was heard by Bill King. Also concerned about what had happened to Gina given that his friend had been with her the night she disappeared, Bill urged Epperly to go to the police so they “wouldn’t think he had anything to hide”.
This he did, but not before asking Bill who he had told and imploring him to “play it down” should he talk to them about his evening with Gina again. Epperly also reportedly made a casual enquiry to a friend — whose brother was an attorney — whether there was anything police could do “if they didn’t find a body”.
A chilling scene
When police went to the lake house to investigate where Gina might have gone, they found a number of grim indicators that she might have fallen victim to foul play. Her broken ankle bracelet was lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs and, although someone had tried to clean it up, there were bloodstains in various locations throughout the property.
A bloodstain more than a foot across was present just inside the living room — right where Bill King said he thought he had stepped in water that night — bleached to pink where it had apparently been scrubbed.
Bill’s parents returned and noticed two towels and a bath mat were missing, along with some bathroom cleaner and a roll of paper towels. The can to the cleaner was discovered in a trash can in the utility room with a hair on it consistent with Gina’s. Furthermore, Dlana’s car had bloodstains in the trunk.
By now, police were interested in hearing more about what Epperly might have been doing on the night Gina Hall disappeared. He said he had taken her to the cabin where he saw her call her sister, then he had gone swimming while she stayed on the lake bank. He admitted that they “kissed some”, but said she wanted to know him better before having sex with him.
After this, Epperly claimed Gina had dropped him off at his house in Dlana’s car and then left. Importantly, he said he had given her directions back to her house from there, something Dlana said would not have been necessary since Gina knew the area well.
Although DNA testing was not widely available in 1980, the type of blood found in the car trunk was found to be consistent with Gina’s. It wasn’t long before search teams found her bloodstained clothes by the lake, either, which contained a head hair similar to Epperley’s and a carpet fibre that matched the one in the lake house.
Epperly officially became a suspect and, when a gobsmacked Bill King asked him outright if he had k*illed the young woman he had left the Marriott with, he responded: “we’ll just have to wait and see”.
Although there was still no body, investigators had enough circumstantial evidence to charge Epperly with mu*rder. They theorised that he had become incensed after Gina had rebuffed his sexual advances and pursued her through the house, stabbing her multiple times. Since there was blood on the driveway, it is also suspected that he either chased her outside or dragged her to the water.
However, in order to secure a conviction, prosecutors had to first prove that she was de*ad and that her d*eath had occurred as a result of a cri*minal act perpetrated by Epperly. At the trial, jurors were urged to pay attention to the various signs of a lengthy violent struggle, as well as the efforts made by someone that could only have been Epperly to cover them up.
Sent to prison — to stay
Although he continued to maintain his innocence, Stephen Epperly was convicted of mu*rder and sentenced to life in prison. This was only the fourth case in US legal history where a mur*der conviction was secured without a body, a confession or an eyewitness — and the first ever in Virginia.
Speaking to The Patriot in 2020, former Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Everett Shockley said: “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 had a lot of circumstantial evidence and really, all we were missing was the body. There’s no doubt about Epperly’s guilt. I had none whatsoever. I’ve never questioned it.”
Epperly tried to appeal against his conviction, but a damning verdict by the United States Courts of Appeals in 1993 ruled the original evidence was sufficient to infer that he k*illed Hall during a violent struggle and then attempted to cover up the evidence of his cr*ime.
“Epperly’s motive for ki*lling Hall was to avoid the risk of prosecution by permanently silencing the only witness to the attack,” the court document stated.
Despite this, Epperly has made repeated attempts to secure parole over the years, something law enforcement has sought to block at every available opportunity.
In a letter sent to the parole board ahead of one of his most recent hearings, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Pulaski County Justin Griffith called Epperly “an unrepentant predator” and added in an interview with WSLS.com: “He is exactly where he needs to be and he needs to remain there for the rest of his natural life. Freedom should not now be nor should it ever be an option for him. I have said it before and I will say it again, the only way he should ever leave prison is in a pine box.”
Epperly was turned down for parole again in November 2019 after Everett Shockley and other petitioners successfully argued that he was not rehabilitated because he would neither accept responsibility for the mu*rder nor reveal the location of Gina Hall’s body.
“We’ve been fighting parole for decades, every three years and since 2016 we had three back to back,” Dlana told 10 News in 2020.
However, that same year a bill was introduced in Virginia that would see convicted m*urderers such as Epperly unable to gain parole eligibility unless they gave information regarding the victim’s remains. Known as Senate Bill 5103, it is being considered for law by senators — and it is also referred to as Gina’s Bill.
Still searching for Gina
Throughout all of this, Dlana has never given up hope of being able to bring her sister’s remains home and once even secured the help of a psychic from Iowa to help with the search. Police have also dredged the lake and the river and searched acres of woodland to no avail.
However, there was an interesting development in the case just last year when Dlana told the press she had found some of Gina’s DNA and remains with the help of a forensic anthropologist from Tennessee.
Dr Arpad Vass reportedly used an instrument he has patented called the Inquisitor to find eight samples of Gina’s genetic material at various locations across the New River Valley, including at the lake house.
“When people come to understand what this instrument can do — it’s a world changer. Just imagine we’re not just working cold cases, but we’re trying to find children that have gone missing — this is huge,” Dlana Said.
Unfortunately, there seems to be some disagreement in the forensic science community as to the reliability of this machine. In a paper on the subject, Dr Monte Miller, Director of Forensic DNA Experts, went so far as to call it a hoax.
“I wish to stop far short of calling Dr Vass a fraud … however these claims seem so scientifically absurd,” he added.
It remains to be seen whether the use of the Inquisitor can be scientifically proven, and investigators will already no doubt be looking into the veracity of the claims made by Dlana and Dr Vass in the Gina Hall case. However, even if this does prove to be yet another false alarm, one thing seems certain: Gina’s devoted sister won’t stop searching until she gets the answers she so desperately craves.
“Sometimes truth just sets your heart free. You just need the truth no matter how bad it is,” she concluded.