Pain and frustration: Two years later, 'We know her agonies'
They'll never have their daughter back, but for the parents of murdered Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, the unsolved status of the case two years after her body was discovered in a remote pasture on a southern Albemarle County farm is added anguish.
"It doesn't get easier," says Morgan's mother, Gil Harrington, a week before the grim January 26 anniversary. If the mystery has begun to fade from the national spotlight, it still has legions of followers thanks in part to coverage on national programs including Nancy Grace and the Investigation Discovery channel's Disappeared.
The latest, Harrington says, is that, although an air date hasn't yet been set, America's Most Wanted is planning an episode. Locally, the Charlottesville band Howard/Johnson & Friends has written a song that's one-third inspired by the Harrington case.
Titled "Ode," the folksy ballad offers tribute to three seemingly unconnected tragedies: the 1933 death of starlet Peg Entwistle, who infamously committed suicide by diving off the 'H' in the famed "Hollywood" sign; the 1985 double homicide of Derek and Nancy Haysom by their UVA student daughter Elizabeth and her fellow Echols scholar boyfriend Jens Soering; and Morgan Harrington, who inspired singer Cheryl Knight to voice the following:
Something vile crept through that night
Tore away that young girl's life
Her parents search for the killer still
My heart cries out what can we do
Morgan Dana Harrington disappeared on October 17, 2009 after leaving a Metallica concert at the John Paul Jones Arena. Last seen hitchhiking on the Copeley Road bridge, the 20-year-old vanished without a trace until a farmer's grim discovery some three months later. When the remains were discovered, investigators expressed hope that the location of the body would be the key to solving the case.
"We believe those people in the community could tell us who frequents the area," said Virginia State Police Lt. Joe Rader, expressing hope that the discovery would prompt tips leading to a killer. Rader, however, retired in early January this year, passing oversight of the increasingly cold case to a successor who may or may not have better luck.
"There's no new information to release," says Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller, adding that the tip line still rings– if less frequently.
Last January, on the first anniversary of the discovery, Harrington's parents vocally pushed for the state of Virginia to launch a procedure called familial DNA searching, a way to enable investigators to match the unidentified DNA recovered in the Harrington case and in an unsolved 2005 Fairfax rape to DNA from close relatives of the alleged assailant.
In the summer of 2010, familial DNA helped California investigators nab the serial killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper.The tool is no guarantee, since only individuals who have been arrested for a violent felony contribute their genetic material to the state databank.
In March, Governor Bob McDonnell gave the go-ahead for investigators to use the process in Virginia, and the Harrington case was believed to be among the first in line. Nearly a year later, with no fresh leads announced in the case, has a familial DNA search turned up any matches?
"We can't comment on active investigations," says Pete Marone, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. Of cases in general, Marone says, even if there is no hit initially, familial searches are run periodically to check against new samples in the DNA databank. If the Harringtons feel frustration over the lack of an arrest, they aren't letting it stop them from using the legal system. In October, the mom sued RMC Events, the firm providing security at John Paul Jones Arena, to get answers about her daughter's last hours.
"This," Gil Harrington said at the time of her filing, "is about retaining our ability to ask those questions."
In addition, the Harringtons have launched Help Save the Next Girl, a nonprofit ad campaign and website aimed at raising awareness of missing people and providing support to victims' families. Harrington notes that among such families, the Harringtons have something to be thankful for.
"The visceral part of finding the body is big," says Gil Harrington, who says being able to bury Morgan's remains, to memorialize her life, is something many families never get.
"It's a sharp day, but boy we are glad to have had it," she says. "Not to be forever in limbo and mentally filling in the gaps. We know her agonies."Read more on: Morgan Harrington