A Pulaski County jury convicted Stephen M. Epperly of first-degree murder tonight in the slaying of a Radford University freshman whose body has never been found. The jury recommended that Epperly be sentenced to life in prison.

Defense attorneys, who did not call a single witness or present any evidence during the seven-day trial, said they will appeal the jury's conclusion that Epperly, 28, of Radford killed Gina Renee Hall, 18, who has been missing for more than five months.

Epperly, who had been free on bond, was ordered to jail to await sentencing sometime in January.

The Southwest Virginia case drew wide interest because the prosecution not only had to try to prove that Epperly killed the woman, but that a murder had in fact occurred, because there was no body.

In closing arguments, Commonwealth's Attorney Everett Shockley wrapped up four days of prosecution testimony by saying he believed Epperly persuaded Hall to go to a house on Claytor Lake June 29, and then beat her to death because she wouldn't have sex with him.

But defense attorney Glenwood Lookabill told the jury none of the prosecution's 97 pieces of evidence -- including bloodstains and bits of hair -- and 31 witnesses proved Epperly killed Hall.

"I submit to you a normal, red-blooded American boy does not kill somebody because they didn't get sex," Lockabill said.

Shockley told the jury his evidence in the cirumstantial case sufficiently linked Epperly, a Virginia Tech graduate, to Hall and that she was not the type of woman to be missing for any reason other than that she was dead.

Epperly was the last person seen with Hall, the prosecutor added.

A state police attorney, John Russell of Richmond, said the Epperly case was only the seventh he knew of in which a defendant was convicted of murder without a body being recovered or a confession made.

Russell said the cases included one each in England and New Zealand and four in the United States, including one involving Charles Manson in California.

Stains that matched Hall's O-type blood were found on the trunk mat of her abandoned car and on the den carpet of a Claytor Lake house, according to former state forensic scientist Patricia Hamby, who testified yesterday. Hamby said blood stains as well as hair that could have been Hall's were found in the car trunk.

Epperly admitted going to the lake house with the young woman in the postmidnight hours of June 29, the day before her father reported her missing. He contended he left the house later and that Hall drove him to his house in Radford.

As the jury started its two hours of deliberations today, police in Radford briefly resumed their search for the body. A backhoe moved about a ton of dirt in a landfill near the spot where Hall's car was found. The search was scheduled to resume Wednesday.