RALEIGH, N.C. – Sara Ellis, a cook who was killed this week at a North Carolina mountain lodge, loved to make omelets and chocolate cake for friends and often went out of her way to brighten a stranger's day, family and friends say.
"She was the kind of person who would give a high-five to a stranger just to make them laugh," Carrie Ellis said of her younger sister.
Shortly before Sara Ellis, 29, was found dead Tuesday near a trail not far from the Pisgah Inn, she sent her sister a message saying that she was enjoying the seasonal job as a cook at the lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
"Two days before it happened was the last message I had. I was checking on her. She said she did like it there. She was making some friends; it was beautiful," Carrie Ellis, who's 31, said in a phone interview. "It's kind of eerie now. She said, 'This is a safe place.'"
The co-worker accused of killing her, 20-year-old Derek Shawn Pendergraft, is being held on a second-degree murder charge. His attorney didn't return a message seeking comment.
Neither Carrie Ellis nor two friends who spoke to The Associated Press said she had mentioned Pendergraft to them. They all said she was making friends in the employee dorm and enjoying her seasonal job that started in May.
A friend who knew Sara Ellis from growing up in Brevard County, Florida, said Ellis had a tight-knit family and group of friends who enjoyed hanging around the Ellis family home for pool parties and cookouts.
"She used to bake this awesome chocolate cake," Carlos Vargas said by phone. "And she was always trying new recipes and always just experimenting in the kitchen."
Her twin sister, Rachel Ellis, said she was too emotional for a phone interview but wrote in an email that she'll miss marathon Food Network viewings after which her sister would "always be inspired to cook."
"She will always be known as 'quite a hugger'. She was always just so excited to have any opportunity to share love even to a complete stranger," Rachel wrote. "She also had her quirky moments and some quick wits, for sure. She wasn't afraid to share her humor."
Sara Ellis had spent much of her youth in the Melbourne, Florida, area before the family moved elsewhere, including several years in North Carolina. Happy memories from that time made her feel like the job at Pisgah Inn was an especially good fit, said friend Nicole de Giovine, who knew Ellis since they were in elementary school. Ellis had been living in Florida again for the past decade.
Ellis had previously worked in food-industry jobs at a university and a pub-style restaurant, so she saw the job at the Pisgah Inn as an important step in her career aspiration to run her own restaurant one day.
"She was talking about her job and how she was learning a lot of new stuff and how she could apply all the new stuff to managing her own place one day," de Giovine said. She said Ellis had an associate's degree in art and wanted to go back to school to learn restaurant management.
The death has devastated the family.
"We're all just doing the best that we can," Carrie Ellis said. "You don't ever expect this."
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