NEWS- Funny girl: Friends mourn slain UVA student
On Thursday, October 5, bouquets of flowers and a candle mark the spot at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway where UVA grad student Lizzy Hafter was murdered. On this cool autumn afternoon a few days later, a dazzling sun breaks through rolling fog and illuminates colorful foliage on the mountainside and on Shenandoah Valley farms below. Visitors aren't immediately able to reconcile the beauty and the tragedy.
"It just totally takes you aback," says Dawn Landry of Swanton, Ohio, who hadn't heard about the murder before seeing the makeshift shrine at the Greenstone Overlook, two miles south of Humpback Rocks. "You have the God-given beauty that's here, and to have something that ghastly..." she trails off, shaking her head.
"It's surprising to hear that violence would happen in such a serene area," says another visitor, Virginia Beach resident Danielle Alaimo.
Friends say Hafter had gone to the overlook Friday, September 29 to study and enjoy the scenery. But another visitor to the Parkway that day wasn't there for the view.
On Monday, October 2, one day after Hafter's body was recovered from the steep slope below the overlook, police found 37-year-old Thomas Ashby in Florida, driving Hafter's 1996 Toyota Corolla. Another stolen car, an Oldsmobile Ashby had been driving, was discovered at the overlook by park employees, who also spotted Hafter's body, according to a report by the Staunton News-Leader.
Ashby, a Savannah, Georgia resident, died during a shootout with police; a coroner has ruled he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. In addition to killing Hafter, Ashby is the suspect in the shooting deaths of two liquor store clerks in Tennessee, the nonfatal shooting of a convenience store clerk in Georgia, as well as the murder of a fruit stand operator in South Carolina.
FBI spokesperson Lawrence Barry in Richmond says law enforcement officers are still trying to confirm that Ashby murdered Hafter. "Certainly he's a strong suspect," says Barry, "but until other investigative avenues are completed, we're not in a position to definitively declare that he was responsible." The FBI has jurisdiction in Hafter's murder because it occurred on the Parkway, which is federal property, while Ashby's other crimes occurred on private or state property.
Those who knew Hafter are still struggling to accept that the 22-year-old one colleague describes as "always happy, cheerful, a shining star" is really gone.
"She was addicted to Saturday Night Live," recalls Barbara Hatcher, a colleague at the UVA Education library, where Hafter worked all four undergraduate years at UVA and remained employed as a grad student. [Hatcher's last name was stated incorrectly in the print version of this story. It has been corrected online.]
Hatcher recalls Hafter, a petite brunette who'd double majored in drama and history, performing the SNL "cheerleaders" skit, which always ends with the female cheerleader crashing backwards into some type of furniture. "She loved slapstick," says Hatcher.
When Hatcher had a large new desk placed in her office, Hafter immediately saw an opportunity for more laughs.
"She just lay completely across the entire top," laughs Hatcher, "and started doing a Marilyn Monroe thing."
Even when Hafter was stressed, she added a touch of dramatic flair.
"Some days she'd literally be hunched over and dragging her bookbag beside her," says Hatcher. "She'd come in with puppy dog eyes and say, 'I'm exhausted' and just fall on the floor in my office. I'd just shake my head and say, 'You poor thing.' And then she'd tell me about her classes."
Like Hatcher, Jane Walker worked with Hafter at the library and says getting to know Lizzy over four years was "a joy."
"We watched her grow from a girl to a young woman," says Walker. "She was really a part of our family here."
Although many of Hafter's colleagues and professors declined to comment about Hafter, citing a request from her family, Hatcher and Walker say they feel compelled to share some memories.
"I respect the family's wishes, but I think Lizzy would really want to be remembered," says Walker. "It's a terrrble tragedy, but we don't want to forget Lizzy's life. We want others to know who she was and what a loss it is."
While Lizzy was always ready for a laugh and retained her childhood passion for collecting Care Bears, according to her October 7 obituary in the Daily Progress, Walker says she was also a reliable worker who never complained– even when asked to inspect large sections of the library for misshelved books.
"It's a terribly boring task, and most people can only stand to do it for 15 or 20 minutes at a time," says Walker. Hafter, she says, performed the task without complaint for hours. Walker says Hafter's reputation as a hard worker had prompted the library to offer her full-time hours starting next summer. And she'd accepted.
"She loved it here," says Walker.
Exiting I-64 at Afton, it's only a few hundred yards before the turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 469-mile scenic road that stretches southward from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. The narrow, winding road features frequent spots to stop and hike or to gaze at rolling fields, but few auto-accessible vantage points provide as much seclusion as the Greenstone Overlook, which is practically invisible from the Parkway.
Hatcher says Greenstone had special significance as a place Hafter and her father, whom she adored, had visited together before he died about 18 months ago.
His sudden death of a heart attack happened on a day when Lizzy was working alone in the library, Hatcher says. Given her tremendous personal loss, Lizzy might have been tempted to lock the doors and close up the facility, something Hatcher says everyone would have understood.
"She stayed here in the library," says Hatcher. "She called everybody, tried to get someone to come. She stayed here for two hours."
Though she wasn't a "partier," Hatcher says, Lizzie loved music, and took her MP3 player and headphones everywhere. Eight days before her death, says Walker, Hafter had a brush with a musical celebrity.
On September 21, Hafter was walking along the Corner to work around 7:30am when she was approached by a tall man with colorful dreadlocks who asked for directions to an ATM. Hafter recognized him immediately: George Clinton, whose world-famous band P-Funk had a performance that night at the Charlottesville Pavilion.
Hafter later reported that Clinton had asked her if she was coming to his show, and when she said, "I would, if I had some money," Clinton offered her tickets– and put her on the backstage list.
Hafter "bounced" into work, Hatcher says, and immediately called her family and friends. But despite her excitement, she skipped the concert because she had class that night.
"In the aftermath," says Hatcher, "it broke all of our hearts that she didn't go to that show."
Walker breaks down when recalling Clinton's kindness. "I hope he knows what that random act of kindness meant to her and to all of us," she sobs.
But even though the memory is painful, Walker says she prefers to recall Lizzy in happy times like that one.
"If you focus on the violence, to me it's another way of letting that horrible criminal win," says Walker of Ashby. "He's not going to snuff out Lizzy's life. We'll remember her forever."
A bulletin board at the UVA Education library memorializes Lizzy Hafter.
PHOTO BY COURTENEY STUART
A makeshift shrine to Hafter at Greenstone Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER