'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 originally was handled as a recovered property report," said Rader.

As for the parking area where it was found, it is what a sign describes as the "RV lot," a small piece of asphalt, gravel, and grass that UVA spokesperson Elizabeth Wilkerson is typically filled with recreational vehicles at football games but reserved for athletes losing their usual parking during concerts.

The triangular parcel is surrounded by Copeley Road, the UVA athletic fields, and the CSX/Buckingham Branch train tracks. Shrouded by trees and not part of concert parking, it does not appear lit like the nearby paid parking lots.

Lt. Rader seemed to confirm that the young woman's cell phone was recovered without its battery but downplayed any significance. He also said that various jurisdictions offered officers–- on foot, with canines, and overhead in a helicopter–- to spend three days examining the area.

"Today," he said Wednesday, October 21, "we have concluded what we believe has been an appropriate time spent on a localized ground search. We don't know if she is alive or if she has met some kind of ill fate."

At that point, he said about 100 tips had come in–- including several reported sightings at impossibly concurrent sites across the country.


Profile of a disappearance

"There's really only two options," says Mark Safarik, a former FBI profiler who is now in private practice in Northern Virginia. "She's abducted for sexual purpose and murdered. Or she's left voluntarily."

Safarik says in cases like this one, in which someone disappears, seemingly without a trace, law enforcement set up "parallel investigations" in which they look into each possibility. They investigate the mental state of the missing person, relationships, and health.

Dan and Gil Harrington, however, no longer believe there's any chance Morgan voluntarily disappeared.

"We've gotten past the she-ran-away-with-a-boy idea," says Dan. "But I wish this had been the case."

Her parents say they don't think she was dating anyone, and Safarik thinks it's unlikely an abduction was planned because the venue, with so many people and police officers around, would be "risky."

Morgan's father believes that the person responsible for abducting his daughter is someone from the Charlottesville area.

"If I had to bet my guess," says Dan Harrington, "this is someone local."

Dr. Harrington bases his perpetrator theory on the idea that a local attacker would have the confidence and familiarity with the landscape. He says that his daughter, who was born at UVA medical center in 1989 when he was on the psychiatric faculty, is no stranger to Charlottesville concerts, having also attended shows at the Charlottesville Pavilion.

State Police spokesperson Geller says that troopers and agents spent the night of October 24 handing out fliers and interacting with passing motorists and pedestrians in the JPJ area, in the hopes of encountering someone who habitually passes that way and might have seen something.

Safarik says Harrington's theory is possible, and as for the idea that Morgan could be held hostage somewhere– like recently returned Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Dugard– and then rescued weeks, months, or years later, he says it's possible. But unlikely.

"You have control issues," Safarik says, noting Smart's and Dugard's young ages at the time they were taken. "How do you control an adult female who doesn't want to be abducted?"

If Harrington was taken and killed by a stranger, Safarik says, it could be anyone from a first-time murderer to a serial killer. The nature of a rock concert, he adds, makes it more likely that both victim and perpetrator had lowered inhibitions from some kind of substance use and that the victim's guard could be lowered, while the perpetrator's impulse control could be impaired.

The combination, he says, can be deadly.


Staying positive

These are not the thoughts the family or friends of Morgan Harrington choose to focus on in the agonizing days since her disappearance. Together, the eight remaining members of "the nine" put together a vigil that drew hundreds of friends and well-wishers who gathered at Northside High School on Thursday, October 22.

"We met with them on Thursday and cried," says Dan.

"They were eloquent, articulate, and they were undefended enough to give real feelings of themselves and for Morgan," says Gil. "They were just amazing."

As to why the nine in general and the two friends who, along with a boyfriend, accompanied Morgan to the concert, have not been giving press interviews, Morgan's mother sees innocent reasons.

"They're trying to go to class," says Gil. "They're trying to deal with the fact that their friend is lost."

Morgan's childhood friend Megan Tyree agrees and says the unbearable grief of losing a friend coupled with the glare of national media has been overwhelming for a group of girls who never experienced the loss of a classmate while in high school.

"A lot of spectators think we're not helping that much," says Tyree, explaining that while Morgan's friends have been cooperating fully with law enforcement, "we can't constantly be responding to media."

Gil and Dan Harrington however, have undertaken a media blitz appearing on the Today Show, Nancy Grace, The Early Show and FoxNews, to name a few, in a desperate attempt to keep the case active and to elicit as many tips as possible. They understand the interest in the case, as well.

"We're like anybody's mom and dad," says Gil. "Morgan could be anybody's child."

Meanwhile, they wrestle with the horrific thought that their daughter might have been lured outside the safe confines of the John Paul Jones Arena by a stranger.

"Has our fault been that we created a beautiful, shining— but guileless— girl?" asks Gil. "Should we have instilled fear?"


Keeping her memory alive

At the Harrington home, Morgan's room is untouched. Above her antique bed are the words she painted on the white wall: "Ramble on Rose," the title of a Grateful Dead song. Nearby are an array of music posters ranging from a blunt-smoking Bob Marley to a mop-topped quarter of Liverpudlian lads crossing Abbey Road. Vinyl records by soft-rockers Bruce Hornsby and Barry Manilow share a wall with posters for Led Zeppelin and Pantera.

Downstairs, the torment won't abate anytime soon unless Morgan somehow miraculously appears and puts an end to their suffering. 

"God, this has been a long week," says her father. "Time has telescoped," says her mother. "This has been physically, emotionally, quite a hit."

While investigators continue to express a desire for tips, photos, and video from concert-goers, Metallica has reportedly added $50,000 to the family's $100,000 to bring the reward up to $150,000.

During an interview, the couple speak fondly of the 20-year-old daughter they eagerly hope to see again; yet throughout an hour-long conversation, they occasionally refer to her, one week gone at that point, in the past tense.

"You have a choice," says Gil. "You can dissolve in the corner or become hard and bitter– or forge a way to find something positive because that's what Morgan is, or was."

"She always called me Papa," says Dan. "She said she needed to get back Sunday because she had a math test."

Dan Harrington's mobile phone rings. It's a reporter from FoxNews. Upstairs, the Harringtons' other child, 22-year-old Alex, who graduated last spring from UVA and now lives and works in New York, is asleep in his only sibling's bed. He's trying– his mother explains– to feel his sister's presence.

"He's been drifting around her room, looking in drawers," explains his mother. "There is an empty Morgan-shaped space right now."

It's exactly seven days since Morgan was in this house, having spent Friday night with the family and then the morning of Saturday, October 17, when she tried on a few potential outfits for the Metallica concert, the event from which she disappeared, and the questions haunt her father.

"Why didn't she call her brother?" he wonders. "Why didn't she call me?"

On the front door of the Harrington home, there are seven white dots, familiar now to those following the case on findmorgan.com as the family's fond mantra to each other: "I love you 2 much, 4ever, and 1nce more."

For now, there are precious few "moments of normal" for the the family, says her mother. 

"You string them together toward a new life," she says, gesturing toward a table. "We were like this table with four legs, but we're contemplating being a tripod. Tripods are shaky, but they can hold things."


The new tip line for information regarding the disappearance : 434-352-3467. "We'll actually have this manned 24/7 says state police spokesperson Corinne Geller.

Correction: Original story stated an 8:40pm phone call between Morgan and her friends. After publication, police adjusted that time to 8:48pm. Also corrected to reflect Gil Harrington used the word "instilled" not "installed."


Morgan Harrington on her 20th birthday.


The RV lot near the railroad tracks on Copeley Road is shrouded by trees.


Morgan drew this representation of the family slogan for Mother's Day 2006. "Thanks for showing me the woman I want to become," she wrote on the back.


Morgan with Kate Canterbury of Charlottesville.


Morgan, her dad, her brother, and friend Lizzy Rives of Keswick.


The front door of the Harrington home.


State Police Lieutenant Joe Rader meets the press.


Eclectic taste abounds on Morgan's bedroom wall.


Dad holds Kirby while Mom gives the "I love you 2 much" signal.PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER


The State Police took over the investigation from UVA.


Unlike the rest of "the nine," Morgan opted for a red dress on prom night. (Others: Amy Melvin, Maggie Herrick, and Jenna Testerman.)


The family sobbed as they went through cards and letters in their daughter's memento trunk.


Morgan Harrington, center, with her father at left and her mother at right, on a recent family vacation.


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