Missing pieces: Witnesses share their tales of Morgan sightings
Amid a new police report that the woman who disappeared during the October 17 Metallica concert was seen hitchhiking shortly before she vanished, various witnesses in and around John Paul Jones Arena say a young, blond woman was causing concern before they ever heard that 20-year-old Morgan Harrington was missing.
Among the several witnesses who reported seeing Morgan injured both inside and outside the Arena, one Metallica fan inside says she seemed "upset" with blood on her chin but declined his offer to help.
Outside the Arena, another concertgoer says, he was on the southeast side of the building waiting for late-arriving friends to meet him around 9pm when he heard a "commotion" at an entrance.
"It was some shouting," says the 44-year-old man who'd traveled from Fredericksburg to Charlottesville and who asked not to be identified because of the high profile nature of the case. Moments after the shouting stopped, he says that a young woman with long blond hair and dressed all in black–- including, he says, a black Pantera t-shirt like the one Morgan was reportedly wearing–- approached him, put her arm out, bent, as though to walk arm in arm with him, and said, "Let's go."
"It seemed somewhat aggressive," he says.
Waiting for his friends and concerned that her behavior seemed "unusual," he says, he declined and turned to walk away. The young woman responded, he says, by cursing at him and kicking him.
"It wasn't that hard," he says of the kick, but it was disturbing enough that he immediately called his girlfriend to relate the encounter.
"She told me I should call the police and report her," he says. "Now I wish I had." The concertgoer, who now believes the commotion he heard was Morgan being denied re-entry to the Arena, says he reported the encounter to police on Monday, October 19, when he learned of the disappearance. Police have confirmed that Morgan ended up outside the Arena sometime around 8:20pm and made multiple attempts to re-enter. Security at the 16,000-seat facility is outsourced to RMC Events, a Richmond-based firm with a Charlottesville office. Company President Dan Schmitt has declined comment, referring questions to Arena management, who have also declined comment.
Minutes after the concertgoer's encounter, another witness says, a woman resembling Morgan was walking across the street with several companions.
"It was right about 9pm when we were driving down Massie Road with JPJ to left," says a Richmond bookkeeper/musician whose late arrival prevented her from hearing opening acts Gojira and Lamb of God–- but got her there in time to spot a "wobbly" blonde woman step in front of the car.
With the blonde were four young, white men–- a conspicuous group, says the witness, because of the direction they were headed: away from the Arena.
In addition to a black miniskirt, tights, and a black shirt, the young blonde was wearing distinctive high-heeled boots, says the witness, a mother of two who spoke on condition of anonymity over concern for getting "pulled into the fray."
Until now, the missing woman's boots have been described as "knee high," but this witness insists they were "over the knee." (Through a spokesperson with the Harrington's recently hired PR firm, Gil Harrington says the boots she saw Morgan try on prior to the concert were not above the knee.)
The men, says the witness, were allegedly laughing.
"I thought, 'That girl should have no business going off with those guys, walking into an empty parking lot when the concert is getting ready to start."
The blonde, however, did not allegedly seem distressed and even, seemingly as a joke, shook one leg at the men, also clad in black. The witness estimates the time at 9:05pm since she placed a phone call to a friend a minute later while still on Massie Road.
It wasn't the last time the Richmond woman saw the young blonde. After she, her husband, and friend parked near U-Hall, she says, she saw the same group of five gathered around a vehicle in the RV Lot, or Lannigan Field overflow parking lot–- the spot where Morgan's purse and phone were found and one of the last places police have officially placed her.
"I figured, 'They're going to party before they go into JPJ," says the woman, who estimates the RV Lot sighting as 9:15pm. When she learned about the disappearance on Monday, October 19, she says, she immediately relayed her information to police, who have interviewed her as many as five times in the past three weeks.
Two weeks ago, police released a timeline that placed Morgan at various locations immediately outside the Arena from approximately 8:20pm until after she spoke to her friends by phone at 8:48pm. According to police, in that phone call, Morgan told her friends she was stuck outside the Arena (which, even with a ticket stub, does not allow reentry) and that she would find her own way home. Police have confirmed that a friend inside the concert had driven Morgan's car and still had her keys.
Those friends, her Blacksburg roommate Amy Melvin and JMU student Sarah Snead, have declined comment to media including the Hook; however Snead spoke with a Roanoke television station during a massive November 6-8 search. She offered no details of the night Morgan disappeared, but defended her and another friend's decision to leave Charlottesville in Morgan's car–- but without Morgan.
"We wouldn't have done it if we didn't think it was okay," she said. "Obviously, we wish things had taken place differently." A male who traveled to the concert with the three women from Harrisonburg has never been publicly identified, and while police and the Harrington family have declined to name him, he is not considered a suspect, says Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller, who said on November 13 that Morgan had her thumb out to hitch a ride.
Gil and Dan Harrington have encouraged a national media blitz to keep focus on their missing daughter, appearing on shows including NBC's Today and CBS's The Early Show, as well as Dr. Phil, and Nancy Grace. In addition, Morgan was one of several missing people featured on the cover of an early November People magazine. Appearing on CNN Headline News channel's Prime News program on Monday, November 16, Gil Harrington expressed shock that her daughter might have hitchhiked or willingly left her purse and phone. She wondered if Morgan might have been "given something or taken something" that would have altered her normal behavior.
"None of it adds up to the girl I know," said her mother. "Who would give up their purse voluntarily?"
By 9:20pm–- about 10 minutes before she was last seen on the bridge–- according to the police timeline, Morgan was spotted in the RV Lot, directly across Copeley Road from the U-Hall lot and adjacent to the UVA track. Her black purse, which could also be worn as a backpack, and battery-less cell phone were spotted by a passerby the morning of Sunday, October 18. Geller says the battery cover was also recovered and that Morgan's family says the "condition of the phone" meant the battery could come out easily if the phone was dropped. Geller says there was no sign of a struggle.
According to several sources, members of UVA's men's basketball team were among the last to see Harrington in the grassy, tree-shrouded parking area before she was seen with her thumb out, hitching a ride on the bridge. Emails sent to numerous team members were forwarded to UVA spokesperson Carol Wood, who directed the inquiry to State Police, but Geller declines comment on the identity of any witnesses.
"We leave it to them whether they want to speak publicly," she says.
One possible witness has been speaking publicly, in part, she says, because she doesn't believe investigators have fully followed her lead.
"I know what I saw," says Norma Parson, a newspaper delivery woman who believes she saw Morgan– or an incredible lookalike–- coming out of a room on UVA's West Lawn at 3:45am October 18, six hours after the last confirmed sighting on Copeley Bridge.
"She was tall and thin," says Parson, who says the woman's high black boots had heels making her appear taller than Morgan's reported height of 5'6" and that she wasn't wearing the black hose or tights police have described.
Because the woman also was wearing a jacket that was fastened shut, Parson says, she couldn't determine whether the woman's blonde hair, which was tucked inside, was long or short. But as the blond woman–- accompanied by three young men, two shorter, one taller–- passed by her in the well-lit brick walkway along the Lawn, she says, she got a clear look at her face, and her heavily made-up eyes, in particular. She says the woman's presence in the wee hours of a chilly night–- and her bare legs–- seized her attention.
"I thought, 'What's she doing out here dressed like that,'" Parson recalls. When she learned of Harrington's disappearance two days later and saw photographs of heavy mascara- and eyeliner-wearing Morgan, "I knew immediately it was the same girl I saw," says Parson, who credits art training for teaching her to examine facial details–- even those she sees in passing. "I never had a moment's doubt," she insists.
Evidence experts, however, say that even the most earnest and certain witnesses can err.
"It's well established that confidence and accuracy are not clearly correlated," says UCLA Law Professor Jennifer Mnookin, an evidence expert. Mnookin says that's the reason police confirm every alleged sighting and look for multiple witnesses or surveillance tapes before releasing new reports.
"The mind isn't a camera," she says. "Recollections can be affected in all kinds of ways by other information, by what we want to believe, by other biases."
The female student who lives in the room Parson identified did not respond to repeated inquiries from a reporter, but a neighboring student says police interviewed him and his neighbors following Parson's tip.
"There is no blond girl who lives along this stretch," says John Griffin, a Fourth Year engineering student, who lives next door, near Pavilion VII.
Griffin says these rooms are among the quietest on the Lawn and that neither he nor the woman whose room the Morgan lookalike was allegedly seen exiting were home on concert night. In fact, he notes, the Colonnade Club, which occupies Pavilion VII, was busy that night, and Griffin wonders if Parson may have simply seen wedding guests. "There were people from that party all up and down here that weekend," he recalls.
Parson says she remains frustrated that police have not allowed her to identify the men she saw with the woman–- particularly because she saw one on a subsequent night on the Lawn.
"I just want them to let me identify who I saw," says Parsons, who now fears that her status as a potential witness may have put her in danger as she makes her middle-of-the-night newspaper rounds. But law expert Mnookin points out that police are limited when it comes to identifying people who haven't committed a crime.
"You can't arrest someone for no reason, and can't make someone be in a line-up," she says. If there were an already existing photo or if Parson could point one out in a public place, police could question him.
Parson acknowledges there's a possibility the woman she saw wasn't Morgan, but without knowing who it was–- or who the men with that woman are–- she says, there's no way to rule it out.
Two doors down from the room Parson identified, Fourth Year student Declan Tansey says he was not interviewed by police and hadn't heard anything about the case except what he's read in news accounts. He, however, agrees with Griffin's assessment that his room and the rooms around it are not the "party rooms" on the Lawn.
According to police spokesperson Corinne Geller, police have "thoroughly vetted" Parson's lead but have not found anything connecting it to Morgan's disappearance.
And Parson's is far from the only lead police are following.
In the early days of the investigation, Geller says, police reviewed hours of surveillance footage from the Arena and from area businesses but found no images of Morgan. According to the owner of the closest convenience store to John Paul Jones Arena, the 7-Eleven on Ivy Road, it was several days before investigators reviewed her store’s tapes.
“I believe it was Wednesday, October 21,” says 7-Eleven franchise owner Sabiha Raja.
Asked why it took so long, Geller said at a press conference, “It depends when that information might have come in.”
An employee of nearby BB&T bank declined comment on investigators reviewing surveillance at the bank, and the manager of the Cavalier Inn on Emmet Street did not return the Hook’s call.
Since Morgan's disappearance, police have received approximately 500 tips, Geller says, many of them reports of Morgan sightings after the official timeline ends; but so far, none have been confirmed.
Among several leads police haven't been able to rule out, says Geller, is a possible sighting of Morgan around 10am on Sunday morning, October 18, at the Sheetz gas station in Orange. An online poster using the name Karen55 on blogs dedicated to Morgan's disappearance describes seeing a slightly disheveled young woman with long blond hair, dressed in all black, exiting the store and then standing outside near a trash can. Notably, she says online, the young woman's t-shirt bore the name of the band Pantera–- she noticed, she wrote, because her daughter wanted a Pantech Matrix phone and she initially looked closer to see if those were the words.
Reached by phone, Karen55 requested that her full name not be used and says she remains "haunted" by the sight. "I don't know if it was Morgan," she says, "but I know she fit the description." She says the word Pantera was spelled plainly across the black t-shirt and that there were no images accompanying the letters.
Sheetz is a bustling gas station and convenience store in downtown Orange, and on a recent visit a reporter counted no less than 20 surveillance cameras inside and outside the store, including an interior camera trained at the door Karen55 says both she and the Pantera-shirt-wearing woman passed through. A Sheetz manager confirms police reviewed surveillance at the store, and spokesperson Geller says that police dispatched an agent the same day they got that tip. While there was no sign of Morgan on the video police reviewed, Gellar admits they can't rule it out and are waiting for further information that would confirm that sighting or any others that seem plausible.
"We deal in absolutes," says Geller. "We need to be sure that what we put out there is 100 percent accurate."
Correction: Newspaper delivery person Norma Parson's name was misspelled once. It has been corrected online.
Former headline: Concerned witnesses: Before hitching, Morgan Harrington caused worry
Story last updated Tuesday, November 17 at 5:04pm: battery cover, purse details, 500 tips called in
Story updated Tuesday, November 17 at 11:02am: Gil Harrington's response to boots, 7-11 surveillance, Sarah Snead's interview, Harringtons' media appearances, Sheetz description