CHRISTIANSBURG — It was supposed to be a nice dinner of home cooked food and a few glasses of wine.
Samanata Shrestha had invited friend Jessica Ewing over to her apartment on the evening of Feb. 7, 2014. But at some point during the night, something was said that sent Ewing, 24, into a fit of “intense hatred” and she strangled Shrestha.
After three days of searching, Shrestha was found naked and wrapped in a sleeping bag in the backseat of her 2004 Mercedes on Feb. 10, 2014. Ewing was arrested and charged with her murder the same day.
The case, which has been closely followed since, took a turn Thursday when Ewing pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Her jury trial was scheduled to begin next week, but Ewing entered an Alford guilty plea to the first-degree murder of Shrestha. An Alford plea allows a defendant to maintain innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence to make a case. Ewing also pleaded guilty to a felony charge of altering, transporting or concealing a body.
She could face life in prison for murder, as well as five additional years for the concealment charge. She did not enter into a plea agreement with prosecutors on a sentence length.
Not many details had been released since the investigation began last February, but the prosecution’s summary of evidence, presented by Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt on Thursday, provided a more complete picture of why Ewing killed Shrestha, a 21-year-old biology student.
Prior to having dinner at Shrestha’s apartment on that February evening, Ewing sent a text to a friend Mary Meinhart around 3 a.m. the night before and said “tomorrow night is worrisome,” referring to her upcoming evening with Shrestha.
“I can’t stop this idea, it slowly creeped its way to consume my black heart,” Ewing texted. “I want to … let someone else decide, but ive [sic] already etched it in history.”
When asked by her friend what exactly the idea was, Ewing said it was “just nonsense.”
The relationship between Shrestha and Ewing has been a matter of question as well, with Shrestha’s boyfriend Scot Masselli previously testifying that the two had kissed on at least one occasion and that Shrestha might have been experimenting with her sexuality.
Masselli became suspicious after Shrestha stopped responding to his text messages after midnight on Feb. 8. The next day, she was reported missing.
A trail of evidence presented on Thursday included several diary entries which showed Ewing was going to burn Shrestha’s body after killing her and worried what consequences she would face for the killing.
“Gasoline — must be done tonight!” one diary entry wrote.
Another said, “What the hell is my future going to be? an eternity in prison? Death penalty — off on insanity, mental what the f- — have you done for that god d--- — girl”
Her diary and cell phone were found at her parents’ home in Easton, Maryland.
A medical examiner’s autopsy determined that Shrestha’s cause of death was ligature strangulation, but Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Patrick Jensen made a point to differentiate it from strangulation, which is a blockage of the airway.
“Ligature strangulation involves the use of a foreign object and can result in an extended period of struggling,” he said. Claw marks and abrasions on Shrestha’s face and neck are consistent with that finding, he said.
Additional injuries showed that Shrestha had blunt force trauma to her head, upper and lower extremities.
“Ligature strangulation is a very deliberate and personal method of murder,” Pettitt said. “After eating the dinner that the victim prepared for her, Ewing pulled the ligature as Shrestha fought for her life, clawing at the ligature around her neck.”
Ewing was previously in the Corps of Cadets at Virginia Tech, and was the top female in physical training, according to the summary of evidence in the case. She frequently worked out and sparred with former friend and classmate, Keifer Kyle Brown.
After Ewing had killed Shrestha, she reached out to Brown several times. She asked him for help moving the body — since he was stronger — and asked if he would help “clean up the mess.” But Brown repeatedly refused.
“Damn Keifer some friend he f--- — won’t even help me move a g — -- — body in the middle of the (undecipherable), friendship test failed,” one of Ewing’s diary entries wrote.
Eventually, Brown gave in and on Saturday, Feb. 8, went to Ewing’s apartment to retrieve some “dark” books that were about tarot cards, the occult and a compilation of Shakespeare books, according to testimony. Ewing said that they could look “suspicious.”
He also delivered the keys to Shrestha’s Mercedes to someone else for Ewing. Ewing had told Brown that the body was in the car, Pettitt said.
Michael Christian Heller, then 23 and a Virginia Tech alumnus, received Shrestha’s keys and identification card, according to warrants. He was charged with accessory after the fact. Those charges were later dropped.
Ewing also spent that Saturday after the killing with another friend — Erika Holub, who led a Bible study that Ewing regularly attended.
Ewing had admitted to Holub that she had “killed someone,” according to previous testimony from the preliminary hearing.
“They were an EMT. They were a good person,” she allegedly told Holub. Shrestha was employed as an EMT.
Ewing then stayed with Holub for several hours that day, praying and discussing whether she should get a lawyer.
Holub said that eventually, Ewing called her parents but was too emotional to speak. Ewing handed Holub the phone and Holub relayed that their daughter had just killed someone.
Ewing’s parents, Donna and Mike Ewing, drove six hours from Easton, Maryland, to meet their daughter at the Blacksburg Comfort Inn on Feb. 10 — the same day police found Shrestha’s body in her abandoned car.
In the sleeping bag were a teddy bear, a pillow case, a blanket and an orange and maroon knitted scarf that was stretched with broken strands.
On Monday, Feb. 10, Brown was being interviewed by Blacksburg police when Ewing called him.
He answered, and in front of police, Ewing began to boast to Brown that she moved the body without his help. She referred to Shrestha as a “b----” and a “w----” who has “everything.”
Ewing told Brown that Shrestha’s “Dad pays for her apartment and bought her a Mercedes, and that she has a loving boyfriend,” the summary states.
Brown currently faces one felony count of transporting, secreted, concealed or altered a dead body. His trial date is scheduled will be set on Feb. 23.
Ewing was later arrested in front of her parents at the Comfort Inn. Upon searching her car in the hotel parking lot, investigators discovered items of Shrestha’s that had been missing, as well as her clothes and EMT bag.
In court on Thursday, members of both Ewing’s and Shrestha’s family were present and some cried as the details of that night were read aloud.
Ewing was originally charged with second-degree murder, but that charge was later dropped and upgraded to first-degree murder.
“Do you understand that I could place you for up to life in prison?” Judge Bobby Turk asked, addressing Ewing Thursday.
“Yes, your honor. I’m aware of that,” she replied.
Ewing has been in jail since her arrest on Feb. 10, 2014, and will remain in jail until her sentencing hearing. Her sentencing hearing has been scheduled for April 21.