'Off the face of the earth': the hunt for Morgan Harrington

 

It's the kind of national attention no town wants. A beautiful college student goes to a rock concert, somehow becomes separated from her friends, and ends up outside, alone. Unable to reenter UVA's John Paul Jones Arena because policy prohibits it, she calls her friends and tells them not to worry– that she'll somehow find her way back to Harrisonburg, an hour away, on her own and without a vehicle or friends to accompany her. 

And then she vanishes.

Her terrified parents desperately want the answer to a question no parent should ever have to ask: where is my child? For State Police investigating her disappearance, the clues, though sparse, paint a grim picture.

 

First clue

On Sunday morning, October 18, a passerby discovers a purse and cellphone in a small parking area near the Arena. Campus Police may not have initially suspected anything sinister in the discovery. After all, the previous night, thousands of concertgoers had converged on the area around the Arena for a show by Metallica, the world's top heavy metal band. Among post-event detritus, forgotten personal effects are common.

But two hours south in Roanoke County, Dan and Gil Harrington are noticing something suspicious that Sunday. Their 20-year-old daughter, a junior majoring in education at Virginia Tech, hasn't arrived for a scheduled noon meeting with her father, at which he'd planned to help her balance her checkbook and study for a math exam.

Concerned by the absence and an uncharacteristic failure to call, the Harringtons contact her friends with whom they know she'd been the night before.

To their horror, they learn that her friends know nothing of her whereabouts. Morgan Dana Harrington, her friends reveal, had become separated from the group during the concert and had told them during an 8:48pm phone call that, although shut out of the Arena, they shouldn't worry– she'd either find them later or find her own way home. No one has heard from her since.

If there is a hell on earth, the Harringtons have found it.

 

At home

Still maintaining a faculty position at UVA, though the family moved away from Charlottesville shortly after their daughter was born, Daniel Harrington, who goes by Dan, is the dean of academic affairs for Roanoke's Carilion Clinic, a major health provider. His wife, a nurse, traces a French-Canadian ancestry, evidenced by the pronunciation of her first name Gilbert as "JILL-bare," or Gil for short. 

Their three-story brick house stands in a hilly neighborhood that, although tucked between Interstate 81 and the airport, remains quiet and offers no indication of the camera crews that have been traipsing through. Outside, a yellow ribbon adorns a front yard tree. Inside, a pair of candles burn on the kitchen counter.

This day, Saturday, October 24, one week after the disappearance, began at 5am with the parents arising for teams from both NBC's Today show and CBS's Early Show, and the couple express gratitude for the outpouring of support and for the outpouring of media, both of which they view as crucial to solving the case.

"We are trying to find our way in this uncharted territory that we're in," says Gil, in a living room interview, shortly before the arrival of two members of the Virginia State Police. She talks fondly of the "casserole brigade" who have been supplying a never-ending stream of family meals during the ordeal.

Four days earlier, she was on a phone link to HLN host Nancy Grace, the leader of the missing child world.

"She was excited about the concert," Gil was telling Grace, "and she brought home three outfits that she tried on for me. We chose one, and she said, 'Mama, it is a rock concert, so it is probably not what you would choose, but is this one okay?' It was cute, and she was covered, and I said, 'That will do fine.'"

"You know," adds the mother– aware that her daughter's attire has come under fire– "you have to give your kid wings."

"Ms. Harrington," replied Grace, "you did something right because there are not a lot of 20-year-olds who would ask their mom what they thought of the outfit she was wearing to a concert."

Indeed, Morgan had been so excited about the concert, according to her mother, that she had posted the tickets on her refrigerator six months ahead of time. 

Her daughter's outfit is not the only target.

 

No blame

"They're not to blame," says father Dan Harrington of Morgan's friends. "Everyone wants to make them out to be the bad guy, but they're not the bad guy."

Indeed, the friends who accompanied Morgan to the concert– her Blacksburg roommate Amy Melvin and JMU student Sarah Snead– have taken some heat in online discussion boards for their decision to leave Charlottesville before finding their friend or reporting her missing.

But should the friends at the concert have reported her missing?

"I wish they had," says her dad, "but I don't know that it would have changed anything. She's not a 7-year-old. They wouldn't have put out an Amber Alert."

"This is not about let's find who's to blame," adds Morgan's mother. "Let's find her."

Neither Melvin nor Snead responded to the Hook's emailed requests for interviews, but another friend who did not attend the concert says she can understand their decision to leave Morgan, who she describes as "bubbly" and also quite confident.

"Whatever happened that made Morgan unable to get back into the building, I don't think she was too concerned," says Megan Tyree, a Radford University junior who's known Morgan since kindergarten. "She would have instilled that confidence in her friends."

The early part of the evening, at least, had been uneventful.

Morgan and Melvin, who share an off-campus apartment in Blacksburg, drove to Harrisonburg, where they picked up Snead and, according to her father, the boyfriend of a friend. According to State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller, the four rode from Harrisonburg to Charlottesville in Morgan's car. Morgan, Geller says, allowed a friend to drive, so she didn't have her car keys with her during the show.

The group arrived safely, according to a 2005 UVA grad who parked next to them. Morgan– a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman clad in a black mini skirt, black tights, and knee-high black boots– seemed excited to go in, more so, even, than the rest of her friends.

"She pulled up with her party and got out of her party's car and kind of immediately engaged me and my brother and my cousin and my friend who were at the concert," Dave Gardner, now living in New Jersey, told Lynchburg television station WDBJ.

"She did seem excited to see Metallica because she asked us who the opening act was, and when we told her, she said 'Who cares, we're here to see Metallica, right?'"

Gardner, who did not return the Hook's calls, told the station he was "100 percent certain" that it was Morgan he'd spoken to and that he saw no signs of pre-concert drinking by Morgan or her friends.

Inside, according to her father's account, the girls settled into their seats, but sometime either during the second opening act, Lamb of God, or during the break before Metallica came onstage, Morgan left her group. 

"Amy gave Morgan a kiss on the cheek. and Morgan went to the bathroom," says Dan Harrington. "We know that Morgan got out of the building, and then it's like she fell off the face of the earth."

How an alleged bathroom trip resulted in her exiting the Arena is a mystery. Built in 2006, the $131 million structure has 32 restrooms– 18 for women– clearly marked. There are concession stands and even a smoking terrace overlooking Emmet Street. Security guards at the exits are trained to warn patrons that if they leave, they won't be allowed to reenter– even with their ticket.

Yet Morgan, somehow, ended up outside.

Speculation online has been constant and has ranged from theories that she simply got lost looking for one of the 18 bathrooms to the idea that she was lured outside by a stranger promising either backstage access or something else.

"Was she high, was she drunk, was she stumbling?" asked a television reporter at a recent press briefing.

Police have been cautious in their response.

"Her condition is being looked at from interviews," responded State Police Lieutenant Joe Rader at the briefing, declining to elaborate except to say, "She was able to move about the arena freely and converse with people."

At presstime, Tuesday, October 27, State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller confirmed that witness testimony places Morgan outside the arena until 9:30pm but that after that, the trail runs cold. Again, she declined to comment on Morgan's condition or possible signs of intoxication. 

A thorough law enforcement review of security videos not only from the Arena but from all nearby businesses equipped with surveillance, Geller says, shows no trace of Morgan.

A few stories that have surfaced in the media have been debunked. Among them were a grandmother who believed she might have seen Morgan in the Arena's parking deck arguing with a young man, as well as reports that items of Morgan's clothing have been found.

 

Bad policy?

If Morgan's friends have taken heat for their decision to leave Charlottesville without their friend, the John Paul Jones Arena has been the focus of white hot ire over a policy some believe could have contributed to Morgan's disappearance

"Shame on you! JPJ, as this burden clearly falls on your shoulders now," wrote a poster dubbed "Outraged" on the Hook news blog in response to a revelation about the Arena's policy.

Police spokesperson Geller confirms that Morgan made at least one effort to get back into the stadium, at which point she was informed by security she wouldn't be allowed.

"I'm sure there must be a good reason for the policy of not readmitting people," says father Dan Harrington, "but it certainly seems strange to me."

Venue manager Larry Wilson, however, says that the no-reentry policy is "standard operating procedure for every facility I know of in the country."

Interested citizen Steve Burger, a freelance journalist who has interviewed convicted killer Jens Soering, watched the police press conference online. He believes that Morgan would have been resourceful enough to try to other means get back inside.

"This was the event of the year for her," says Burger. "It's not very likely that she wouldn't try to get back in."

Burger says that while the Arena personnel may present a steep obstacle by blocking front-door reentry, getting past roadies and security at a service entrance might be easier for "a beautiful girl like that in a black mini-skirt." He says he emailed police and suggested they interview roadies and members of the two "death metal" opening bands, Richmond-based Lamb of God and France-based Gojira.

Burger drew no such link, but the so-called "Farmville murders" took place last month in another college town after a high school girl, who met up with a rapper at a horrorcore music festival, invited him to visit her family.

State Police Lieutenant Rader seemed prepared to deal with this line of meet-a-stranger thinking at the briefing and conceded that, despite the phone contact between Harrington and the two friends with whom she arrived, there was no arrangement for a post-concert meet-up.

"The friends were aware that they may not meet up with her after the concert," said Rader. "There was indication that she would manage to find a way to get away from the Arena."

Rader also confirmed– in a stunning parallel to the 1985 disappearance of never-found UVA student Pat Collins– that the Sunday morning discovery of Harrington's purse didn't immediately launch a criminal investigation. "It origin