Fireworks crackled and streamed across the night sky as David Hedrick steered his boat through the dark waters of Charleston Harbor on New Year's Eve.
The young executive had spent the evening dining on foie gras-stuffed quail, bisque and sweetbreads with his girlfriend, Dara Watson, and another couple. Flush with fine food and wine, they decided to take an after-dinner cruise on Hedrick's cabin cruiser, Into the Mystic, and enjoy the waning hours of a fruitful year.
At age 34, Hedrick was hauling in a six-figure salary as head of a Daniel Island surety company. He had found a soulmate in Watson, and they shared a stylish home in an affluent Mount Pleasant neighborhood. They traveled the world in search of fun and adventure.
To those around them, they seemed to have it all.
"Everything seemed to be looking up for them," said friend Charles Gilbert, who spent New Year's Eve with the couple. "As we went around the harbor and watched the fireworks, we talked about the upcoming year and how great it was going to be. They were really looking forward to it."
Within days, Hedrick surprised Watson with a diamond ring and a proposal. A month later, they were both dead in a gruesome murder-suicide that has stunned the community and baffled those who knew them well.
After they arrived home on Feb. 6 from a trip to Watson's hometown of Boone, N.C., Hedrick shot his 30-year-old fiancee in the head and buried her in a shallow grave in the Francis Marion National Forest.
Hedrick kept up a ruse for days to mask her disappearance before he turned the gun on himself. He left no suicide note, no explanation as to what triggered this sudden explosion of violence.
Hedrick reportedly had been under stress at work that caused him to seek legal advice. And the pair, like any couple, had individual habits that got under each other's skin at times.
But friends don't recall them arguing or having any serious disputes before this. They seemed intent on planning their wedding and were even shopping for new homes closer to downtown Charleston, said friend Kimberly Lease, Gilbert's wife.
"I can't even fathom what happened in that house," Lease said. "Never in a million years would I have thought that David would do something like this."
What could have caused things to go so terribly wrong, and so quickly?
A perfect match?
Hedrick seemed to have the world by the tail for much of his adult life.
He was a Moncks Corner kid whose skills on the basketball court earned him a college scholarship. He graduated from the College of Charleston with a business degree in 2002. But it was his personal style and charm that seemed to be his chief assets.
"David was always very well-dressed, professional, just great with people," said Patrick O'Neil, a close friend and former roommate. "He just handled himself very well."
Hedrick was working as a bartender at the Carolina Yacht Club in 2005 when an official from Palmetto Surety Corp. saw something in him and offered Hedrick a marketing job with the company, which insures bail bondsmen. He quickly rose through the ranks and, by 2008, he had become Palmetto Surety president and CEO.
That same year, Hedrick moved in with O'Neil, whom he had worked with at the yacht club. Another friend from their club days offered to introduce Hedrick to a woman he knew from Boone, certain they would make a good match. They did.
Dara Watson was a savvy young accountant whose family owned a popular Western shop in the small college town of Boone. She was smart, pretty, kind and independent, with a fun-loving spirit and a passion for life and travel.
Ellen Watson, Dara's mother, considered her daughter to be a "modern explorer."
"She was full of confidence, and she was certainly full of life," she said.
Hedrick and Watson met at the Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head Island in April 2008 and immediately clicked. Soon, he was driving to Boone to visit her every chance he got, O'Neil said. And it wasn't long before Watson moved to Charleston to be with her new beau, he said.
"They just hit it off right away, and from that day forward, they were pretty much inseparable," O'Neil said. "They were like birds of a feather."
Passion for travel
In May 2010, Watson and Hedrick moved into a three-bedroom, $410,000 home in Mount Pleasant's RiverTowne community, a suburban oasis replete with manicured lawns, marsh views and a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer.
The same month, Watson landed a job as financial controller of Verge Solutions, a medical software firm in Mount Pleasant. She fit right in at the tight-knit company and made no secret that she was more than just a number-cruncher.
On the company's website, she described herself as a "thrill seeking, adventure loving, mountain climbing, traveling, trekking, tree hugging Yogi."
It wasn't just talk. She so fiercely loved nature that her parties were designed to produce zero waste. She once scolded a friend for bringing Jell-O shots to a gathering in plastic, non-biodegradable cups, one friend said.
The globetrotter visited the Galapagos Islands, Australia, Germany, Italy, Costa Rica and Peru, among other places, and Hedrick shared her love of travel. The pair journeyed to Egypt and talked about getting married in Fiji. Facebook photos show them mugging for the camera, hugging and smiling against backdrops of riotous foliage, mountains and other vistas.
Watson would always plan the trips. She was a master of details.
Jon Piebenga, a partner at Verge, marveled at Watson's ability to seamlessly meld company finances when Verge merged its operations with Peminic Inc. last year. And when she traveled to the Himalayas last fall to hike Mount Everest, Verge's payroll and finances ran like clockwork in her absence.
"She was very good," he said. "She had the entire month of November planned so that we ran on cruise control."
New life, new strains
Watson's personal life appeared to be moving in similar fashion as she and Hedrick began the New Year.
In early January, Watson excitedly called friends with news that Hedrick had proposed to her during a romantic getaway to Asheville, N.C. They were on a balcony at the Biltmore Inn, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, when he presented her with a diamond ring from Tiffany's, her friend Lease said.
The couple planned to hold a small ceremony on a beach near Charleston and then travel to Fiji, where they would sail the crystal waters on a catamaran, said Marei Draper, a co-worker and close friend of Watson's.
"They seemed very happy," Draper said. "It seemed like everything she had wanted."
Watson soon set about planning an engagement party, which was to be held at Gilbert and Lease's James Island home. Watson wanted an around-the-world theme, highlighting the places she and Hedrick had visited and the international cuisine they had sampled.
"She was so excited," Lease said.
Lease, a real estate agent, was also showing the couple homes closer to downtown Charleston, where they enjoyed dining out, going to shows and meeting up with friends. Their eyes were set firmly on the future and their upcoming nuptials.
But there were also signs of stress.
Piebenga said Watson approached him in late January with concerns about the strain Hedrick was under at work. She told her boss that the stresses were financial in nature and that Hedrick was worried he might be held personally liable for some decisions made at Palmetto Surety.
The strain was keeping him up at night, and "she was worried," Piebenga said.
Piebenga said he gave Watson some names of attorneys Hedrick could talk with to gauge his exposure. Hedrick did so, and they apparently reassured him he was in the clear. Watson told Piebenga her fiance seemed somewhat relieved as a result.
Just in case, though, the couple prepared a resignation letter Hedrick could submit if other company officials tried to make things difficult for him, Draper said.
Other friends were unaware of any problems at Hedrick's work, but that wasn't unusual.
"You'd ask him what was going on, and he'd just say, 'A bunch of stuff,' " O'Neil said. "He kept those kinds of things to himself."
Missing after trip
Friends didn't suspect anything was wrong as the couple headed to Boone the weekend of Feb. 4 to attend a baby shower for Watson's sister. Watson had helped organize the shower and was bringing cake and other food. They visited with her family until Monday, when they bid goodbye to her mother at the family store around noon.
Watson got home in time to retrieve her beloved Jack Russell terrier, Lilly, from a Mount Pleasant boarding center around 6:15 p.m. and used her iPad a few hours later to dash off a couple of brief, work-related emails to Draper. Then … nothing.
Lease tried to reach Watson by email to see how the shower went and let her know about a couple of houses on the market. Watson didn't reply.
Lease didn't think much of it at the time. Her friend was a busy person and would often take a few hours to get back to her. But this time, the silence dragged on and on.
Piebenga also became concerned when Watson didn't show up for work or return messages left on her phone.
"Hey there," he texted her on Feb. 7. "Everything all right? No one's heard from you which seems odd. Hope it is nothing worrisome."
Piebenga also contacted Hedrick, who expressed surprise that his fiancee hadn't gone to work. A half-hour later, though, Hedrick texted back that he had heard from Watson.
About the same time, Piebenga received a text from Watson's phone stating that she just needed some time to think and would return to work on Wednesday.
"Driving and clearing my head," the text stated. "Sorry to flake."
Watson's sister, Brooke, received similar texts. Same story: She was OK; nothing seemed amiss.
The next morning, Piebenga received a text from Watson's phone indicating she would be in no later than noon, after a session with her personal trainer and a doctor's appointment. She never showed, and her texts stopped altogether.
Hedrick explained that he and Watson were "trying to work through a lot right now" and that she had likely gone off to stay with a friend. But he agreed it was odd that she stood up her job responsibilities.
"Not sure what is going on," he later texted to Piebenga.
Her friends' fears intensified. It wasn't like Watson to blow off work, particularly during a week when payroll came due.
"She never missed payroll -- ever," said Draper, Verge's assistant controller.
On that Friday, Feb. 10, Piebenga's worries got the best of him, and he went to police to report Watson missing. Less than three hours later, Hedrick was dead.
O'Neil had grown increasingly worried about his friend that week. Hedrick seemed depressed and distraught. He told O'Neil that Watson had called off the wedding and was breaking up with him.
O'Neil tried to persuade Hedrick to come over and talk about his problems, but Hedrick blew off his entreaties.
O'Neil knew his friend had come close to marriage once before, in the years before he met Watson, and that Hedrick had taken the breakup hard. O'Neil worried his friend was sinking into major depression.
"He didn't sound like himself at all. I could tell he was really broken up," O'Neil said. "It was like he knew she wasn't coming back."
As the week wore on, Hedrick became increasingly evasive, and the details he was telling people weren't adding up. Why did he tell people he had called Watson's sister when he had not? Why was her boss filing a missing person's report and not him?
When Hedrick refused to meet for a planned lunch that Friday, alarm bells went off in O'Neil's head. O'Neil called Gilbert and told him they needed to get over to their friend's house in a hurry. Something was seriously wrong.
Hedrick, who had just spoken to police by phone about his girlfriend's disappearance, didn't answer the door when his friends arrived. They also found a downstairs entrance to the home padlocked. Gilbert peered into the garage and saw Hedrick's white Mercedes parked with the doors wide open. The car was packed with clothes.
"I said, 'We're going in,' " O'Neil said. "We went up to break a window, and that's when we heard the shot."
Tragedy times two
The two friends found Hedrick lying in the master bedroom, his hands clutched to his chest with a gunshot wound to his head. A 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun lay nearby, and blood pooled around his head.
Lease said Hedrick had owned the pistol for four years or so, but he usually kept it under the spare tire in his car because Watson didn't like it in the house.
Police soon realized that a GMC Envoy that had been found burned and abandoned in the national forest that week belonged to Watson. Then, witnesses told police they had seen Hedrick walking out of the forest with a shovel.
More clues emerged as the days passed. Divers recovered Watson's cellphone from a pond near her home, and investigators said Hedrick sent the texts to her friends and family, masquerading as his missing fiancee.
Then, on Feb. 17, searchers finally found the petite brunette's body, buried in a shallow grave about 60 yards from where her vehicle had been torched.
Police said evidence showed Hedrick had shot her once in the head in their home, on Feb. 6 or 7. He then stuffed her body into her sport utility vehicle and headed for the woods.
But none of that explained why.
O'Neil said something life-shattering must have happened for his friend to become so desperately unhinged. Gilbert agrees.
"This was so totally out of the blue, with no red flags at all," he said. "I don't know what happened to him to make him do what he did. But it was something, because there wasn't a mean bone in that kid's body."
Did problems at work drive him over the edge? Not according to Palmetto Surety. The company said it remains profitable, and Hedrick never shared any concerns about financial issues with Palmetto officials.
Some friends suspect Hedrick just snapped when confronted with the dissolution of his relationship, but others aren't so sure. Watson had been shopping for a wedding dress in the days before she disappeared. And Hedrick seemed to be the only one pushing the tale of the breakup.
Was his story true, or was it just one more lie in a campaign of disinformation he waged to cover his tracks?
The only ones who truly know are gone.
"Anyone can speculate as to why this happened, but it is guaranteed to be no more than a guess," Piebanga said. "And a guess is all it will ever be."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.
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