On the trail: Harrington's body creates new mysteries, angles
"There may be something like horse hair on the body, which would mean that she got there by horseback," offered a private investigator on a recent episode of TV crime show Nancy Grace . "Perhaps," he then suggested, "the body was even dropped out of [a] plane into this remote area."
Such wild speculation brought immediate jeers from Grace, but the remoteness of the location of the remains of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington is leading to flights of fancy and incessant speculation.
"I'm mystified," says Dave Bass, owner of 742-acre Anchorage Farm in southern Albemarle County and the man who discovered the skeletonized remains as he checked fences on his property on Tuesday, January 26.
The mystery of Morgan's final resting place isn't just about who put her there; it's about how anyone could have reached such a remote location in the first place.
A remote farm There is exactly one vehicle entrance to Anchorage Farm: a driveway off 29 South, known there as Monacan Trail. While the farm's original house, a two-story brick home with a white clapboard addition, is visible from the road, Bass lives in a sprawling Colonial-style mansion approximately one mile in, where the driveway ends, and Bass says it would be technically possible to drive to the end of his mile-long driveway and then continue another half-mile over rough terrain– pastures, hayfields, and thickets– on foot. But he doubts anyone could make the trek without drawing his attention. Any vehicle entering from 29 South also has to pass the smaller house– rented to UVA graduate students until June– but now home to Bass' adult daughter.
As police scoured the Farm in the days following the discovery, they considered alternative access points. Several lie along Red Hill Road, a winding country road also known as Route 708, that borders parts of both Anchorage Farm and Blandemar Farm Estates subdivision.
While various driveways reach closer to the location of the young woman's remains, one intriguing possibility is an old home site, accessible by a double gate on Red Hill. Chained shut on a reporter's recent visit, an old driveway leads at least part way through the woods.
But why would anyone pushing, pulling, or carrying a 120-pound woman keep going to cross a stream and a barbed wire fence after already negotiating a third of a mile of woods? It's conceivable that a dense forest might, in fact, offer a lesser cloak for nefarious deeds than the waist-high grass allegedly covering the pasture in October.
Particularly in the wake of the February 2 revelation that the death was indeed a homicide, such are the questions with which many are struggling. And the forest is not the only access. A nearby neighborhood actually offers a nearly straight shot toward Anchorage Farm.
From a Polish refugee In the early 1990s, Blandemar was a 1,400-acre tract around a 1790 house, owned by siblings Blanka Rosenstiel and Waldemar Dowiak. The two–- who coined "Blandemar" as an amalgam of their first names–- had escaped wartime Poland in 1944 with their mother after their Catholic father perished in a concentration camp.
Around 1991, says Rosenstiel, they began developing Blandemar Farm Estates around their historic house.
"I love the farm," says Rosenstiel, who was startled by latest news. "My farm manager called me a few days ago," she says, when reached at her winter home in Miami. "I can't believe something would happen so close."
Wrapping around the western and northern borders of Anchorage, the neighborhood comprises lots no smaller than 21 acres, and one of them appears to provide an open, level field over which a car could travel to within 100 feet of where Morgan's remains were discovered– all while remaining out of the sightline of the nearby mansions. And according to another Blandemar resident, police spent a significant period of time analyzing and photographing the area around the cul-de-sac that leads to the field.
Even if someone could have driven so close, he or she would still have had to traverse those last 100 feet on foot in order to cross a creek and, according to the resident, multiple barbed wire barriers.
"It would be very difficult," says the resident, who requested anonymity.
Despite such ardor, Morgan Harrington ended up in the corner of a cowfield which, the owner says, is accessible only by off-road vehicle. And that, says a criminal profiler, is a clue of its own into the assailant's identity.
"They'd probably need to know that area," says former FBI profiler Mark Safarik, noting that in order to dispose of a body, "killers will travel a distance to go someplace that's familiar to them."
As police hunt for the killer, Safarik says, they will very likely check– or recheck– the alibis of any nearby sex offenders. A review of the Virginia Sex Offender Registry reveals six men with North Garden addresses, ranging from a 20-year-old repeat offender, whose juvenile convictions for rape and sexual battery remain sealed, to a 79-year-old whose failing health seems apparent from the oxygen tubes visible in his online registry photo.
Two of the six registered offenders live in the Pine Grove Adult Home less than three miles from Anchorage Farm south on 29. The closest offender is the 20-year-old, who lives 1.7 miles away, as the crow flies, from the site Harrington's body was discovered.
Although these names are public record, the Hook has chosen not to repeat them here since no information suggests their involvement. A reporter's call to Pine Grove went unreturned, and a conversation with another offender's family resulted in a call from the Virginia State Police, cautioning the newspaper that such inquiry could constitute harassment or even obstruction of justice. (Not likely to stick, say civil libertarians.)
Safarik says he believes the assailant was a stranger to Morgan because of the discovery of her purse and battery-less cell phone in the RV lot next to UVA's Lambeth Field. "The fact she doesn't have her purse suggests it was a blitz attack," he says.
The age of the assailant– likely 18 to mid-30s, he says– is far less significant than the location of the remains.
"It's so isolated, so dark, why are you going that far out?" he wonders. "He hunted out there, he knew the property, he's been out there."
Safarik says the location may also bring police the tip that leads to an arrest.
"You want people who know this guy to think, 'This guy's capable of this,' and it's those tips you're looking for."
At a press conference held Wednesday, January 27 confirming identity of the remains, lead State Police investigator Lt. Joe Rader said evidence in addition to the bones had been recovered from the Farm, and suggested the focus of the investigation would shift from Copeley Bridge, where Harrington was last seen allegedly hitchhiking the night of the Metallica concert, to Anchorage Farm.
But that doesn’t mean police aren’t continuing to investigate clues in town. A black t-shirt touting the band Pantera– something that Harrington was said to be wearing– was discovered last fall on a bush outside a 21-unit Grady Avenue apartment complex.
The day after Harrington's body was found, several residents say they answered a knock on the door to find badge-carrying detectives asking questions.
"At first," says resident Brandon Shores–- who works at Miller's, plays drums for successful goth band Bella Morte, and had attended the Metallica concert–- "I thought they were interrogating me!"
But Shores soon realized that police simply wanted to show him a photo of a Pantera t-shirt on a bush.
"I'd seen that same style shirt on other people," he says, "but I hadn't seen it here."
One man had more direct knowledge.
It was a mid-afternoon while walking home from class last fall– he thinks it was November– that UVA student Blaine Eichner saw something black in the bushes in front of his apartment building. There on the 15th Street side, on a bush, was a black Pantera t-shirt.
"I didn't know what to think," says Eichner, who like most Charlottesvillians was well aware of the missing Metallica fan. Eichner says he and his roommate knew better than to touch possible evidence, so they reported the finding to Charlottesville police, who responded to the call with "two or three cop cars."
Like Shores and many of his neighbors in the building, Eichner was re-interviewed after Morgan's body was found. Does he think he found Morgan's shirt?
"I feel like, if it really had something to do with the case, it wouldn't have been thrown on a bush," he says. "But, it could be a crazy person who wants attention– I don't know."
Others have pointed to the low-key approach police seem to have taken around the shirt's discovery as a signal of its insignificance. Eichner says he couldn't tell the size of the shirt, and says it appeared it had pictures of the faces of the band members along with the name. Police have never released an image of a Pantera shirt like the one Morgan was wearing, but her mother has said it had only plain block-type letters and no images.
Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller declined to comment on the Pantera shirt and, when asked, declined to express concern that releasing such information could compromise the investigation.
One person who finds the discovery of the shirt interesting is Norma Parson. A newspaper deliveryperson who works early mornings, she has long insisted she saw Morgan– or a Morgan lookalike– walking out of a room on UVA's West Lawn around 3:45am on October 18, hours after the Metallica show ended. Accompanied by three males, Parson says, the blond woman she saw was dressed all in black and wearing a coat, miniskirt, and knee-high boots.
Parson has long claimed that police failed to fully follow her lead, although police insist her tip was fully vetted, and a student whose room is adjacent to the one Parson noted confirmed that police interviewed him and his neighbor.
"I still believe it was her," says Parson. Police have not recontacted her.
Online sleuths, new friends The chilling farm discovery has heated already intense online interest to a boil. The Help Find Morgan Harrington Facebook page has swelled to more than 34,000 members who post messages of grief, discuss theories, and expound on such diverse topics as "Are we 100 percent positive she was on that bridge that night?" to "Why does God allow suffering?"
Morgan's parents, Dan and Gil Harrington, are a regular online presence, with Dan offering information and expressing appreciation on various sites and Gil publishing diary-style entries at the family's findmorgan.com.
This ability to directly interact with the victim's family– a result of the social networking explosion of the last several years– may be part of the reason so many people feel so personally connected.
"It's almost like there's something pulling you into this case," says Roanoke resident Jamie Waldrop, who first became involved through Facebook and notes she's never been so focused on another family's tragedy. "It's almost otherworldly," she says.
Early on, as some Morgan-focused websites were nearly overrun by alleged psychics theorizing about gruesome fates and making overly general predictions, Waldrop sought a more private forum. She helped form "Morgan's Warriors," an intimate invitation-only group of 33 women whose mission, Waldrop says, of sharing information, investigating, and supporting the Harrington family recently included bringing food to the Harringtons and holding a well-publicized candlelight vigil on Copeley Bridge.
"We all just really empathize with the Harringtons," says Waldrop.
Such instant communities provide a new outlet for Morgan's suffering family and friends–- and for online sleuths who latch onto a mystery. But they are also presenting fresh issues.
"We have analysts keeping an eye on what's being published," says the State Police's Geller. "Not in a big brother way, but seeing what's out there."
While commenters over the past few weeks on both Facebook and Findmorgan.com have fretted that police were deleting their posts, some of which did seem to disappear, Geller disputes the charge of strong-arming blog moderators and says police have never removed a post or encouraged a moderator to do so.
"We have no intention of going after anybody based on information," says Geller. "If people are willing to put info out there, it's for public consumption."
Still, she does note one interesting trend.
"People will post stuff on a blog before they'll call police and provide us with the tip," she says. "It's an anonymity thing."
She says police have received multiple tips directly from commenters who have been encouraged to come forward by the online community in which they're participating.
Blogs are also crossing over into territory formerly reserved for traditional journalists, Geller says, noting she has regular contact with some bloggers including "Blink" of blinkoncrime.com, a national site that has been frequently reporting on the case.
"She'll contact me and ask me to verify and get info straight," says Geller. "That's helpful because [rumors] tend to proliferate. I spend half my time debunking."
A mother's certainty “I never thought I’d be spending my birthday planning my daughter’s funeral,” says Gil Harrington. It’s Monday, February 1, and she’s at home in Roanoke making arrangements to bury her daughter, whose remains were still that day in the possession of the state medical examiner.
Thousands of people around the world are devastated by Morgan's death and are speculating about how she died, and who could have harmed her. While many believe she was killed and taken to that spot, others considered the possibility that she was pursued through the woods.
Such theories were fueled by Morgan's bizarre behavior on the night she disappeared. As previously reported by the Hook, she kicked one man, declined another's offer of aid after he spotted blood on her chin, and–- in an utter 21st century rarity–- extended a thumb in an effort to hitchhike. All this after letting a friend drive her car from Harrisonburg to the concert and inexplicably ending up outside restroom-laden John Paul Jones Arena after telling friends she was taking a pre-Metallica "bathroom" break.
One theory had Morgan leaving a party on foot, wandering into the field, and dying of hypothermia. Another wondered whether she died of an accidental drug overdose and that a frightened companion panicked and left her to avoid blame.
Even before the medical examiner tipped off media that Morgan was slain, her mother rejected any suggestion that her daughter's death was accidental.
"I know she was murdered," she says in a February 1 conversation with the Hook, "based on knowing my daughter. She would be here with us if that wasn't the case."
She notes that Morgan's father, Dan, a psychiatrist, said all along that Morgan was taken by someone local and would be found in the Charlottesville area.
The extent of decomposition– Morgan's body was almost entirely bones– could have prevented the medical examiner from determining a cause of death. If Morgan were shot or stabbed, there would likely be marks on her bones. If she were strangled, the hyoid, a tiny bone in the neck suspended by ligaments above the larynx, could be broken. But according to profiler Safarik, sometimes that bone is never found, particularly in remains that have been exposed to the elements for so long.
Gil says she is not focused on vengeance, but she is concerned with the safety of other women.
"He's done other stuff before," she says of the unknown killer. "I'd hate for him to get this under his belt. What could he do next time?"
While Lt. Rader refused to offer any cautionary words about danger in Charlottesville at a recent press conference, both Harringtons have been outspoken about their fears.
"I am feeling a tendency to downplay Morgan’s abduction, to protect the idyllic reputation of the city," Gil Harrington wrote on findmorgan.com on January 23, just three days before Morgan's remains were discovered. "A bad event happened in Charlottesville," she wrote, urging residents to stand up and make Charlottesville "known as the place where this act was not tolerated, not dismissed, be relentless, be clever, be resourceful, and find Morgan. Protect people rather than reputations, they are infinitely more precious."
Gil says Dan Harrington expressed his concerns about safety to UVA, and soon after Morgan's discovery, University Vice President Patricia Lampkin sent an email to all students offering safety tips including traveling in groups, particularly at night, and even making sure not to get into any unmarked taxis.
Such cautionary tips, the Harringtons hope, will prevent anyone else from suffering as they have, and as they believe Morgan did, but it will do nothing to bring their daughter back. Living with her death, Gil says, is something she deals with differently from the average American.
"We do death up close and personal," she says softly, noting her career as an oncology nurse. "It is part of life," she says. "I'm sorry it came early in hers."
While she remembers Morgan's radiant beauty in life, she has memorably discussed the beauty she saw even in her daughter's "lovely bones" and explains her decision to view images of her daughter's remains.
"If Morgan's bones are around, it is my duty–- my right–- to see them," she says. "It is my honor."
And, she notes, Morgan's death is not the first terrible loss with which she's coped. When her sister died at home following an illness, Gil says she did not want her body to be "whisked away." Instead, she recalls, she laid beside her "as she stiffened and turned to alabaster."
She knows this is not the American way to cope with death, and credits time spent living among other cultures, including five goodwill medical trips to Africa, for giving her an appreciation for life as well as death.
"You don't pretty it up," she says. "You look at it."
As the investigation moves forward, she says, she will stay focused on keeping Morgan's memory alive rather than on revenge or anger.
"That kind of emotion is like acid in a person; it chews you up," she says. "Punishment is not mine to give."
A memorial service for Morgan Harrington is planned for February 5 in Roanoke, with a Mass at St. Andrew's Catholic Church at 3:30pm. A reception will follow at Hotel Roanoke.
–With additional reporting by Hawes Spencer
(story uploaded 8:37pm, Tuesday, February 2)
original tout for this story published Monday, February 1:
"I never thought I'd be spending my birthday planning my daughter's funeral," says Gil Harrington. It's Monday, February 1, and she's at home in Roanoke making arrangements to bury the partially skeletonized remains–- still this afternoon in the possession of the state medical examiner–- of 20-year-old Morgan Dana Harrington, the Virginia Tech student who disappeared in Charlottesville last October and whose bones were found last week on a remote farm in southern Albemarle.
At a press conference held last week confirming identity of the remains, lead State Police investigator Joe Rader said that evidence, in addition to the bones, had been recovered from Anchorage Farm, and he suggested the focus of the investigation would shift there from Copeley Road Bridge, where Harrington was last seen allegedly hitchhiking during the Metallica concert.
But that doesn't mean police aren't continuing to investigate clues in town. A black t-shirt touting the band Pantera–- something that Harrington was said to be wearing the night she inexplicably left the concert at the John Paul Jones Arena–- was discovered last fall on a bush outside a 21-unit Grady Avenue apartment complex.
In this week's issue of the Hook, the UVA student who found the shirt clarifies some of the speculation about that. And as shown in a new interactive Hook/Google map at right, the rough and remote site where Harrington's body was discovered may show, as property owner Dave Bass has tried to explain numerous times, why it's actually more easily accessed from several places in the adjacent Blandemar Farms Estates subdivision than from the two houses on his own 742-acre Anchorage Farm.
Also, in this week's cover story, by award-winning journalist Courteney Stuart, police warn the Hook that its reporters could face harassment charges for attempting to interview convicted sexual offenders living near Anchorage Farm. And Mrs. Harrington, an oncology nurse, speaks candidly about dealing with death.