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Prosecutors Sex assault was motive for scenic inn killing

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A new indictment alleges sexual assault was the motive for the killing of a cook at a scenic North Carolina mountain inn last summer.

Federal prosecutors announced Thursday they filed a superseding indictment adding two counts of aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death against Derek Shawn Pendergraft. The new indictment also upgrades a murder charge against him to first degree.

Prosecutors say the charges carry a maximum sentence of death.

The indictment says Sara Ellis was killed July 24 in the course of sexual assault by Pendergraft. A defense lawyer didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Pendergraft had initially told authorities the two went for a hike near the Pisgah Inn where both worked, and that he lost track of Ellis after she turned back during rain.