Is this Morgan's killer? Fairfax case connection offers hope, fresh fear
Crape myrtles bloom in the small front yards of Oxford Row Condominiums. It's a tidy assemblage of about 50 brick duplexes in the city of Fairfax, and now it has a grisly connection to Charlottesville.
Off busy Jermantown Road, the complex plays home to a diverse collection of retirees, immigrants, and young professionals. It's a place where neighbors greet each other by name and, they say, feel safe. But it's also the scene of a brutal assault that took place nearly five years ago, a crime that was beginning to fade from their memory until July 1 when police revealed that the Oxford Row rapist may have killed 20-year-old Morgan Dana Harrington.
The Virginia Tech student disappeared near the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville in October, and her skeletal remains were discovered three months later on a remote Albemarle County farm.
"I can't believe it," says Gladys Pena, a grandmother who has lived in Oxford Row for over a decade.
Pena recalls all too well the attack that took place on the night of September 24, 2005. After returning on foot to the complex from the Giant grocery store just a quarter of a mile up Jermantown Road, a 26-year-old woman was brutally raped.
According to the report from Fairfax police, the young woman reached the neighborhood carrying her groceries at approximately 10pm that night, when she was grabbed from behind and dragged to a small grassy area near the complex pool and playground.
Startled by a passerby, the assailant fled on foot. His traumatized victim then made her way to one of the closest units where the residents called 911 and comforted the young, dark-haired woman as she waited for medical care.
When resident Stephen Hannan arrived home that night at around 10:30pm from his job cooking at a nearby restaurant, he says seven police cruisers were already on the scene and an ambulance parked on the grass near a wooden gazebo, where the victim–- whose identity has not been released–- was being treated inside.
"I didn't know what happened," says Hannan, noting that the next day the neighbors who had offered her assistance by calling 911 described the horrifying sight that greeted them when they opened the door to find the traumatized woman asking for help.
"She was beaten bloody," he says.
That victim's eyewitness account of her assailant, along with his DNA recovered at the time and put into Virginia's DNA databank, now offers the best hope for an arrest in the Harrington case. Unfortunately, as anyone who remembers the Charlottesville serial rapist case can attest, a DNA match isn't always enough to solve a crime, and eyewitness accounts can carry troubles of their own.
Town on alert
From 1997 to 2007, women in Charlottesville had plenty of reason to fear. A violent predator hid inside homes and subdued female victims with a swift punch to the face before raping them. And while he left behind DNA evidence–- allowing investigators to tie the cases together–- his identity remained unknown even as the attacks increased in brutality.
It wasn't until one of the victims recognized an employee in the Harris-Teeter meat department that police were able to put the man under surveillance–- and tighten the dragnet.
Nearly three years ago, the butcher stopped for a meal at a fast-food restaurant and left behind his DNA profile via saliva on a soda straw. Before long, Nathan Antonio Washington, a married father of four, and previous stranger to any serious arrest record, was named the Charlottesville Serial Rapist. Washington pleaded guilty to four sexual assaults and received four consecutive life sentences.
Along the way to the conviction, the case triggered a scandal of sorts that Virginia State Police may be hoping to avoid in the Morgan Harrington investigation. In 2003, after eight of his victims described their assailant as a black man, and after a composite was released–- which would later prove to look almost nothing like Washington's mugshot–- Charlottesville police began asking African American men in Charlottesville to voluntarily submit to a "buccal swab," in which a DNA sample is collected from inside the mouth.
More than 500 men eventually got swabbed, such a broad net that critics cried foul–- including one man who sued a Charlottesville detective for $15,000–- claiming it was impossible to know for sure whether the attacker was actually African American, or if he might have some other dark-skinned ancestry, such as Middle Eastern or Latino, among others.
After all, eyewitness accounts, particularly when an attack occurs in the dark, are notoriously inaccurate. In response to the accusations of racial profiling, Charlottesville Police undertook the unusual step of having the perpetrator's DNA analyzed for ancestry and making those results public: indeed, the then-still unknown attacker's DNA was 85 percent of sub-Saharan African descent–- a virtual guarantee that he appeared black.
With only one eyewitness, the rape victim, in the 2005 Fairfax assault, are police worried that the public may now exclude viable suspects if they're told the perpetrator must be African American?
"It's a possibility," concedes State Police spokesperson Corrinne Geller, who says police would have actually preferred to withhold the information and the composite sketch from the public even longer than they did in order to collect more information and finish pursuing investigative leads with the Fairfax police department.
Geller says the timing of the release was prompted by a crime blog, which announced that investigators had discovered a link between the Harrington case and another recent Fairfax case–- the wrong one. When news outlets began contacting her for confirmation, Geller says, police feared widespread misinformation would damage the investigation by prompting a flurry of false leads.
"It pressured us to get this information out there," says Geller, admitting that the decision was so rushed that police hadn't even shown the composite to David Bass, the man who found Harrington's remains and who might have recalled seeing someone fitting the description on his 742-acre farm.
A reporter shared the image with Bass, who says the man is not familiar to him.
If police are piqued by the expedited release of information, bereaved parents Dan and Gil Harrington say they're grateful that the connection they've known about for "some time" has finally been made available to members of the public, who might be able to help.
"It's why I've been pushing them to release it," says mother Gil Harrington, via telephone on July 1, the day police announced the connection. "It's better to be able to make a statement to be alert and be cautious of someone who looks like this," she says. "It's much more likely to keep people in the community safe."
Indeed, Harrington has long asserted that her daughter was the victim of a violent predator who would very likely strike again. On June 17, the eight-month anniversary of Morgan's disappearance, Gil and Dan Harrington were increasingly vocal in their criticism of State Police and UVA officials, whom they said had not done enough to remind the public that a vicious predator was on the loose, quite likely right here in Charlottesville.
At that time, Harrington compared Morgan's killer to Joran van der Sloot, the Dutchman widely believed responsible for the 2005 death of American high school student Natalee Holloway and who is now charged with the May murder of a Peruvian woman on the fifth anniversary of Holloway's disappearance. Harrington's death and the Fairfax assault are separated by almost exactly four years–- but Gil Harrington is convinced they are not the only attacks the unknown perpetrator has committed.
"These people don't stop," she says.
Why eight months?
Why did it take so long to get a DNA match? Geller has long said DNA testing can take up to six months for the overburdened Virginia state crime lab to complete, even in a high profile case like Morgan Harrington's. She declines to say exactly when police received the results or even what type of forensic evidence was tested.
Ralph Barfield, a retired Charlottesville police sergeant and founder of Blue Ridge Forensic Services, doesn't doubt her explanation.
"In Virginia, there's such a huge backlog," says Barfield. And the complexity of DNA testing can slow things down even more, he says, especially if the sample is small or of poor quality.
For the first three months of the Harrington case–- prior to the January 26 discovery of her remains–- investigators had little to go on other than the witness accounts that placed Morgan at various points ending with her hitchhiking on the Copeley Road Bridge at 9:30pm, about an hour after she somehow ended up outside the Arena during a Metallica concert and was denied reentry. Her purse and battery-less cell phone, which were discovered the next day in the RV lot by Lannigan Field by a men's lacrosse player, yielded no clues, police have said, but a t-shirt, discovered in mid-November on a bush outside an apartment building at the corner of Grady Avenue and Fifteenth Street, would provide a bizarre twist in an already confusing case.
In April, five months after its discovery, police announced that forensic evidence revealed that the Pantera t-shirt–- which some believed was a lookalike shirt placed by someone unrelated to the case as a twisted joke–- did, in fact, belong to Morgan. That forensic evidence, says Barfield, was most likely DNA–- and, he says, a likely source for the match with the Fairfax case since extracting an assailant's DNA evidence from Morgan's decomposed remains, which were exposed to the elements for three months, would have been very difficult. (Like farm owner Bass, the UVA student who discovered the t-shirt had not yet been shown the composite sketch when a reporter showed it to him.)
Barfield also points out that there are other tests that police may still wish to conduct on the assailant's DNA, if enough was obtained. In addition to a test of his ethnicity, which could confirm or refute his Fairfax victim's description of him as a black male, another test could determine whether he has any relatives in the DNA databases of solved or unsolved crimes, further narrowing the search.
And Barfield agrees with Gil Harrington's assessment that finding Morgan's killer only becomes more urgent every day.
"It sounds like he's gone from a sexual assault to a homicide, and criminals tend to graduate," says Barfield. "He's going to keep killing."
Terror on the doorstep
At Oxford Row, residents were so frightened after the 2005 attack that they prevailed upon the neighborhood association to install increased lighting in the parking areas.
Diane Jenkins, mother of the young man who opened the door to the victim, remembers all too well the terror she witnessed in the young woman who she says was visiting neighbors the night of the attack.
"You could tell she'd been assaulted immediately," she says, recalling the woman's disheveled clothing, hair matted with sticks, and the blood on her face. Although the young, dark-haired woman was dazed, she had gathered some of her groceries, which she was carrying when she reached the door.
"She was very disoriented," says Jenkins. "She didn't realize she was knocking on our door–- she thought she was knocking on someone else's door that she knew."
Jenkins sent her teenaged son to summon the devout Muslim family the young woman was visiting, as she and her husband spoke with the woman so frightened that she refused to come inside the strangers' home and instead accepted their offer of a chair on the front steps.
"She told us she'd been coming back from Giant, had been walking along a back path along different apartments," says Jenkins, who then recalls perhaps the most chilling detail of all–- particularly in retrospect, since it may offer some hint of Morgan Harrington's fate.
"We both noticed marks around her neck," says Jenkins, who says the woman told them her assailant had choked her until she lost consciousness. "She thought she was going to die, then all of a sudden, she came to, and he wasn't there," says Jenkins, mentioning the passerby who scared the attacker away–- perhaps in the nick of time.
Jenkins says her son returned with a man and a woman who comforted the victim, and the three communicated in what she believes was Urdu–- a language primarily spoken by Muslims in India and Pakistan. The young woman "felt more comfortable speaking in her language," says Jenkins, who says she never saw the young woman again but heard she had moved in with family somewhere nearby.
Jenkins says the news that the assailant appears to have struck again in Charlottesville, and this time with a deadly result, has her revisiting the night of the first attack and, once again, worrying about the young woman she assisted.
"I hope they get him," she says, "before he attacks someone else."
First 24 hours
In the first 24 hours after the release of the composite and description, State Police received about 50 new tips, says Geller, and Fairfax police received another dozen. Geller says police still believe the suspect had intimate knowledge of Anchorage Farm, but they now know he is a darker skinned male, likely African American, who also has Fairfax and Charlottesville connections. These additional leads, she hopes, will prompt the tip that will help solve the case.
Those with information about the man featured in the attached “Wanted Poster” may contact City of Fairfax Police Detective Mike Boone at (703) 385-7959. Anyone wishing to provide information in the Morgan Harrington case is encouraged to call the Jefferson Area Crime Stoppers at (434) 977-4000 or Virginia State Police at (434) 352-3467 or email State Police at firstname.lastname@example.org. A reward of $150,041 is still available for anyone with information that leads to a resolution of the Harrington crime.