Investigators are asking for public assistance in tracking Randy Taylor's whereabouts around the time of Alexis' disappearance, and in particular, for information about anyone who may have seen his late model GMC truck, pictured here.
Last fall, a seemingly outraged citizen walked into the Hook office portraying himself as the victim of an allegedly overzealous missing person investigation. The man talked of getting pushed out of his job and his home by dubious investigative methods that convinced even a judge he'd been unfairly tracked. Ten months after that interview, the disappearance of another young Central Virginia woman has renewed the specter of horror and brought fresh scrutiny to his claims.
The man is Randy Allen Taylor, a 48-year-old Lovingston resident, and on August 11 he was arrested and charged with the abduction of 17-year-old Alexis Tiara Murphy, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
For the family of Murphy, an attractive rising senior at Nelson County High School, the arrest provides a glimmer of hope, but little in the way of real relief from the unrelenting pain of the girl's unexplained disappearance at the outset of the school year, which began in Nelson on Monday, August 12.
"I drove my son to school, but I didn't have my daughter," said a sobbing Laura Murphy at the press conference at which authorities announced Taylor's arrest. She pleaded for the public to provide any tips on her daughter's whereabouts.
Investigators, however, contend that the man most likely to have that information is Taylor.
A thin man with a Daffy Duck tattoo on his neck, Taylor remains an enigma. Is he a kidnapper, as authorities allege? Or is he someone who simply has the bad luck of turning up when young women disappear?
"This case needs to be solved, but the way they're going about it is ridiculous," Taylor said last October when a Hook reporter asked him about the case of 19-year-old Orange County High School graduate Samantha Ann Clarke. Giving a lengthy interview at the newspaper office while accompanied by an attorney, Taylor described Town of Orange police detectives as overzealous and unconstitutional in their surveillance of him. A judge agreed.
In June of last year, Taylor emerged victorious from a Greene County courtroom after the attorney successfully argued that a GPS unit police had planted on Taylor's car to track him had been placed illegally and that the subsequent criminal charges for DUI, driving without a license, carrying a concealed weapon, and felon in possession of a gun— crimes that may have put him behind bars for no less than two years— should be tossed.
With the charges dropped, Taylor, who had been living in the Eheart's Corner trailer park on Ridge Road in Orange County, was a free man, but one in need of a new home and job. He told the newspaper he'd been evicted from his trailer after losing his job at Drive Away Motors in Ruckersville and being unable to make rent payments.The day after that interview, the Hook attempted to reach Taylor at the number he'd provided. It was disconnected. The attorney says he, too, lost touch with his former client, who, it is now known, subsequently moved to Lovingston and lived in a small house on the 10000 block of Thomas Nelson Highway, the local name for U.S. 29.
"He told us he worked in Greene," says a woman answering the phone at Jim's Used Cars, a business directly across the street from the house where Taylor lived. He moved in months ago, says the woman, and had been a good neighbor, coming over to introduce himself and once alerting the business that someone had hit several cars in their lot.
"He seemed like a nice guy," says the woman, who declined to give her name citing the high profile nature of the case.
How or why Taylor allegedly encountered Alexis Murphy remains a mystery as investigators have released few details about any implicating evidence.
Hook legal analyst David Heilberg says the evidence collected thus far convinced a magistrate that there was enough evidence for an arrest, but he notes that investigators must meet a higher burden of proof if they hope to secure a conviction.
"Clearly, they have probable cause," says Heilberg, noting that without finding Murphy or a crime scene, any evidence is most likely circumstantial. "Proof beyond a reasonable doubt," he says, "is the question down the road."
Beyond the hopes and dreams of finding Murphy alive, even the unfathomable horror of finding a body would be key to any criminal case; and both FBI agent-in-charge Jeffrey Mazanec and Nelson County Commonwealth's Attorney Anthony Martin spoke out at the August 12 press conference to ask the public for any information regarding Taylor's movements and interactions in the days before and after Murphy's Saturday evening disappearance.
According to Murphy's family, nothing that happened earlier on that day, August 3, was out of the ordinary for the popular high school volleyball player.
Murphy's aunt Angela Taylor (who is unrelated to suspect Randy Taylor), says her niece had spent the day working a shift at a new Charlottesville business, a used clothing store called Kid to Kid on 29 North. According to Angela Taylor, Alexis had worked during the day, then returned home to the small Nelson community of Shipman where she told her brother she was going to drive 45 minutes south to Lynchburg to purchase hair extensions in advance of an upcoming salon appointment. An avid Twitter user with more than 11,000 followers, Murphy sent more than 40 tweets that day including one that says "burg bound!"
Surveillance video from the Liberty gas station in Lovingston near her home and released by the FBI shows Alexis early that evening when there was still daylight. That, say authorities, was the last sign of her.
When she didn't return home by her midnight curfew and couldn't be reached by phone, the worried family contacted police to report her missing.
"She would always call to let us know she was on her way home," says her aunt. "If she was going to be late for her curfew, she'd call."
With a missing minor, law enforcement can act quickly, and the Nelson County Sheriff's Department promptly requested investigative assistance from both the FBI and the Virginia State Police, who joined the search on August 5. Multiple searches were conducted both in Nelson County and in Charlottesville, where the car Murphy had been driving, a white Nissan Maxima owned by her father, was discovered on August 6 in the Carmike movie theater parking lot on 29 North. While the location is close to both her workplace and to a relative's house, it is not on the way to Lynchburg and authorities have remained tight-lipped about whether the location suggests she or an aggressor left the car there.
Given the difficulty of investigating a missing person case and the length of time that often passes without resolution, the swiftness of Randy Taylor's arrest, which came August 11, may have been surprising to some. However, to those familiar with the disappearance of Samantha Ann Clarke, it is also deeply disturbing.
It was no secret that police had long been interested in Taylor as a suspect in the Clarke case, and it's not hard to understand why. During his Hook interview, he freely admitted to contacting Clarke by phone and text the night she vanished— September 13, 2010— but insisted he'd done so only to warn her that several other individuals they knew planned to harm her.
Taylor asserted that he'd been home with his young son on the night Clarke disappeared, and he claimed he heard a man's voice in the background when he spoke with Clarke. He admitted there was no one else who could back his story, and Clarke's family didn't believe it.
"Why was a 40-something-year-old man calling my daughter so late at night?" asked Clarke's mother, Barbara Tinder, who has changed her phone number since last year and did not respond to the Hook's recent emailed request for comment.
Police, too, seemed skeptical of Taylor's tale, and they repeatedly conducted searches in and around the Greene County lake where Taylor kept another trailer. Taylor said he was hounded by police, who, he alleged, even went so far as to warn women he was dating and his employer that he was a suspect in a murder investigation.
In April 2011, seven months after Clarke's disappearance, Taylor was pulled over as he left the Sheetz convenience store in Ruckersville and charged with being a felon in possession of a gun— a gun he claims he'd never seen. Taylor, who was convicted of felony burglary in Virginia Beach in 1992 and felony arson in Albemarle County in 2005, according to court records, told the Hook he believed officers had tampered with his license plate tag light to provide an excuse for the stop, then planted the gun in his car. When Taylor was released from jail the following day and went to retrieve his car, he noticed several problems with the vehicle, including signs, he said, that the license tag light that had allegedly prompted the police stop wasn't just out; the bulb was gone and the wire had been cut. Further checking his car, he said, he discovered the GPS unit, which he removed, photographed and disabled by taking the batteries out. Within 24 hours, investigators arrived at his Greene County workplace to retrieve the unit, which, according to Greene County courthouse records, had been placed on his vehicle without a warrant, resulting in the charges against him being dropped.
In his ruling, Judge Daniel Bouton cited conflicting testimony from three officers and "too many contradictions, too many strange coincidences, too many things that don't add up."
With Murphy's disappearance coming during the period when a successfully-prosecuted Taylor would have been behind bars, that ruling may someday take on chilling significance.
"The police misconduct in the Greene case really teaches a hard lesson," says Taylor's former attorney Adam Rhea, "how an innocent person can be easily framed, or how a guilty person's prosecution can be botched by a police officer trying to make it look better than it is."
As the search for Alexis Murphy enters its second week, investigators and prosecutors in Orange also haven't given up on solving the now three-year-old mystery of Samantha Clarke. While Orange County Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler won't comment on the specifics of that investigation, she describes it as "active" and says she's hopeful that Taylor's arrest in the Murphy case could provide a break in the Clarke case.
According to another source close to the Clarke investigation, an investigative grand jury interrogated possible witnesses in the Clarke case in late June. A highly secret panel that places a gag order on all who testify, a so-called investigative grand jury was what indicted eventually-convicted wife killer Eric Abshire, who, in late 2011, was found guilty in Orange County Circuit Court of the 2006 murder of his wife Justine.
But while investigators toil, the families of the two young women wait in an agony known only to few.
"The missing part is the worst," says Gil Harrington, whose daughter Morgan vanished in October 2009 after leaving a concert at the John Paul Jones Arena. Her remains were discovered three months later on a southern Albemarle County farm. There was pain in the discovery, Harrington says, but also some comfort.
"You can memorialize," says Harrington. "It doesn't give closure, but it's some answer."
According to Harrington, investigators do not believe there is a connection between her daughter's murder, which was linked by DNA to a 2005 unsolved Fairfax sexual assault, and the disappearances of Murphy and Clarke.
Whether Randy Taylor continues to maintain that he's been harassed and set up by aggressive law enforcement agents remains to be seen. He appeared in Nelson County Juvenile & Domestic Relations District on Tuesday, August 13, as this paper was going to press. Judge Kenneth W. Farrar appointed Lynchburg attorney P. Scott DeBruin to represent him and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for January 9.
Anyone with information relevant to the Alexis Murphy case should contact the Nelson County Sheriff's Department at 434-263-7050
Anyone with information relevant to Samantha Clarke case should contact Town of Orange Police Department at (540) 672-1491 or Orange County CrimeSolvers at (540) 672-7200.