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GASTON COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - The family of a man accused in the 2008 murder of a UNC-Charlotte student appeared in court Monday despite his death.
The case against Neal Cassada Jr was dismissed Monday morning.
Cassada died of natural causes Sunday morning. He was set to appear in court on Monday for the death of UNC-Charlotte student Ira Yarmolenko. Yarmolenko's body was found on the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly next to her car back in May of 2008.
"After 37 years of loving that man and being married to that man, [I know] he is not capable of hurting anybody. He would have died to help somebody," said Kaye Cassada, Cassada's wife.
"We want everybody to hear that he was an innocent man," said Shannon Neal Cassada, his son.
Defense Attorney David Phillips told WBTV that Cassada was having breathing problems and collapsed in his home on Sunday around 11:15 a.m. Phillips said Cassada died of natural causes at the hospital.
"He was looking forward to having his day in court to clear his name because he's absolutely not guilty," said Phillips.
Phillips said he last saw Cassada Friday.
"He was in good spirits, good health," Phillips said. "We talked about how the trial would proceed."
Phillips said the stress of the trial was weighing on his client, and he believes that could have played a factor in his collapse.
Cassada and his cousin, Mark Carver, were both charged with Yarmolenko's murder. Carver's trial was set for a later date. Both men say they were fishing along the river when Yarmolenko's body found.
Questions were raised about the guilt of the two men after DNA in the case was tested.
Detectives say DNA was found on three different items that were wrapped around Yarmolenko's neck when her body was found. Those items include a bungee cord, the strap of her backpack, and strings from her hoodie, but none of the DNA on any of those items matched Cassada and Carver.
Neither did DNA that was found underneath Yarmolenko's fingernails. Detectives told WBTV that DNA from Cassada and Carver was found on Yarmolenko's car at the murder scene.
Phillips said he still plans on going to court Monday to see if there are any special instructions from the judge. The case cannot continue without a defendant.
Phillips said he also has a theory about who killed Yarmolenko, which he was saving for closing arguments. He says he wait to share his thought until after the Carver trial.