This composite sketch of a suspect in the Harrington case was created from the description given by the victim in a 2005 rape in Fairfax. DNA evidence links this unknown man to both crimes. "He's still here," Morgan's mother Gil Harrington has warned the Charlottesville community.
Morgan Harrington is not the only person to disappear from UVA. Back in 1986, a grad student named Pat Collins vanished. He has never been found.
It was a Saturday night in October 2009. The air outside was chilly, and a light rain was falling as the visiting father finished dinner with his daughter at a Charlottesville restaurant and the two returned to his car. As the father drove his daughter back to her dormitory around 9:20pm, their path took them past John Paul Jones Arena, where a major event was underway.
Heavy metal group Metallica had taken the stage only minutes before, and fans who'd flocked from all over the East Coast had gathered inside. As the main event roared inside the Arena, the parking lots outside were full and lights were blazing, but Copeley Road was nearly devoid of pedestrians.
As the father and daughter traveled toward Ivy Road and over the railroad bridge, the ordinary ride suddenly took them past an unusual sight. A young woman, dressed all in black with long blond hair, was standing on the bridge with her thumb extended in the classic hitchhiking gesture.
The pair would soon learn that they were among the last to see Morgan Dana Harrington alive.
It's been more than a year since the body of the 20-year-old Virginia Tech education student was discovered. With no suspects named, police have been reaching out to the public in hopes that someone will be able to help take the investigation a step further. How did Morgan's body end up in a cow pasture 10 miles away? Is a killer still stalking the streets of Charlottesville and Albemarle County?
During a recent tour tracing Morgan's last known steps, Virginia State Police Special Agent Dino Cappuzzo shared the story of that father and daughter– and revealed that it was their witness testimony that permitted police to pinpoint the time Morgan was likely abducted.
The father, whose identity has not been revealed, dropped his daughter off at her dorm, Cappuzzo says, a few minutes after the bridge crossing. Her electronic key was logged at 9:23pm by her dorm's security system.
On his way back to his hotel, the father stopped at the 7-11 convenience store on Ivy Road, says Cappuzzo. There, another time-stamp–- this one in the form of a register receipt–- provided police with another objective time mark around 9:30pm. When the father left the 7-11 and returned over the bridge no more than a minute or two later, Cappuzzo says, he remembered the young woman standing with short sleeves and no umbrella in the chilly drizzle. She was gone.
Within approximately 10 minutes of those two bridge crossings, two other unrelated witnesses reported to police that they'd seen a blond woman hitchhiking there. Cappuzzo says all witnesses' stories have been thoroughly vetted by police, and none are considered suspects.
The witnesses descriptions are several pieces of new information Cappuzzo released during the media tour he conducted on Tuesday, January 25, a day before the one-year anniversary of the discovery of the body. The tour marked the first news emerging from law enforcement since last summer, when State Police confirmed that DNA in the Harrington case was linked to a 2005 rape in Fairfax.
The victim in that case survived after her assailant was likely startled by a passerby; the composite sketch produced from her description of an average sized African American male, aged 25-35, is the only publicly known information about the suspected perpetrator, whose DNA now exists in the State's DNA databank, though his identity remains unknown.
Because eye-witness accounts–- particularly from traumatized witnesses–- are notoriously unreliable, police have been cautious in confirming the suspect's race. In a recent Hook story, "Familial Pain: Harringtons press police for new DNA test," police spokesperson Corinne Geller says investigators have considered various tests including an "ancestral" DNA test, which could reveal with greater certainty how the suspect might appear. That's the same test that Charlottesville police controversially ran during the serial rapist investigation in the 1990s. During that episode, mass swabbing of black men prompted cries of racism, one lawsuit, and proved unable to catch the perpetrator. (One of his victims later spotted her attacker working the meat counter at a local Harris-Teeter grocery.)
The other DNA test the Harringtons are pressing authorities to run is a familial DNA search, which could help narrow the pool of possible suspects by finding close relatives of the unknown assailant . That search will only work if the perpetrator has an immediate relative– parent, sibling or child– who is a convicted felon or has been arrested for a violent felony– the two ways an individual's DNA would end up in the identified zone of the state databank.
The Virginia Department of Forensic Science has obtained and is currently in the process of validating familial DNA searching software. However, State Police spokesperson Geller says investigators must proceed "very selectively and carefully" with any DNA testing because the evidence available for analysis is limited. DNA is destroyed by the testing process and cannot be retested for different purposes that might arise.
Investigator Cappuzzo says the witnesses in the three bridge sightings claim they didn't see Harrington carrying a purse. That, he says, could be because the black purse had backpack-like straps, and if she'd been wearing it, it might not have been visible against her black Pantera t-shirt. It also could be because she'd already dropped it in the RV lot, where on the morning of Sunday, October 18, a member of the men's lacrosse team discovered it near the fence and turned it in to a lost-and-found receptacle in U-Hall. Her back-less cell phone and an umbrella were among her items also recovered from that area.
Morgan's parents, Gil and Dan, have repeatedly expressed disbelief that their daughter could have dropped her purse, left it there, and then begun hitchhiking. Such behavior doesn't match their experience of their daughter, whom they have long described as having "good sense." But descriptions from multiple witnesses who interacted with Morgan earlier in the night– both inside and outside the Arena– suggest she wasn't in a normal state of mind.
Cappuzzo again confirmed that Morgan had consumed alcohol that night, but he declines to describe the amount or type of drinks imbibed. He also declines comment on any other substances she may have consumed "out of respect for her family." He adds there is no indication that Morgan was unwittingly drugged or incapacitated by someone with nefarious intent.
As the Hook first reported in the weeks after her disappearance, numerous witnesses inside the Arena reported erratic behavior. Cappuzzo says she left her friends to use the ladies room sometime after 8pm while opening act Lamb of God was on stage. While on her own, at some point, she fell and injured her chin. Cappuzzo says multiple witnesses reported seeing the injury and offering assistance– one woman saw Morgan applying paper towels to her face to blot blood from a "minor injury." Morgan, he says, rebuffed all offers of help.
The Arena's no re-entry policy has been a source of controversy, and Cappuzzo at last addressed questions about the moment Morgan left the Arena. While some have speculated that she was lured outside, Cappuzzo revealed that a ticket taker warned Morgan about the Arena's no re-entry policy as she prepared to exit through the main doors facing Copeley Road. Morgan acknowledged the warning, Cappuzzo says, then left anyway, where she was seen emptying the contents of her purse in an apparently unsuccessful effort to find her red Kodak digital camera, which has never been recovered. Standing in front of the Arena, witnesses also reported seeing her drop her phone, then retrieve it.
When she tried to reenter through the main entrance of the Arena, says Cappuzzo, the ticket taker asked for her ticket.
"She said, 'It's in pieces in my purse,'" says Cappuzzo, who says the ticket taker stopped her when it appeared she planned to dump the contents of her purse again. Told she'd need to purchase another ticket if she wanted to return, Morgan left the Arena a second time and remained in the immediate area for as long as 10 or 15 minutes, interacting with various concertgoers–- several of whom offered her assistance, which she again declined.
Among the witnesses who reported seeing Harrington was a 44-year-old man, whom the Hook interviewed a few weeks after the concert. Waiting on the Massie Road side of the Arena for a late-arriving friend who had his ticket, the man says he heard shouting from the front of the Arena and was soon approached by a young woman fitting Morgan's description and wearing a Pantera t-shirt.
She put her arm out, bent, as though to walk escorted, and said, “Let’s go," said the witness, who characterized the young woman's behavior as "somewhat aggressive." When he declined the invitation and turned to walk away, the young woman cursed at him and kicked him "in the butt."
“It wasn’t that hard,” he says of the kick, but he was disturbed enough that he immediately telephoned his girlfriend to relate the encounter.
“She told me I should call the police and report her,” he said. “Now I wish I had.”
Although that man– cleared as a suspect, says Cappuzzo, declined to walk away with Morgan, it wasn't long before she found a group of men to join. According to Cappuzzo, sometime around 9pm, two separate groups of students–- whom the Hook has previously reported to be members of the men's basketball team–- left John Paul Jones Arena. One group left through a side door, another through the main front doors. Morgan began walking with the side-door group as they traversed Massie Road and walked through the parking lots on the west side of U-Hall, on their way to the RV lot, where student-athletes park when the Arena is busy.
The male students told police Morgan was unsteady on her feet, says Cappuzzo. "They described her as having to support herself on vehicles as she was walking," he says. In the parking lot about halfway between U-Hall and the RV lot, she dropped her phone. The back piece of it would be recovered three days later, says Cappuzzo, but the battery has never been found.
A full 10 days after her disappearance, Cappuzzo says, a bloodhound was brought in to follow Morgan's path. The bloodhound, says Cappuzzo, followed the exact path the witnesses described– across Copeley Road and up the grassy slope into the RV lot.
That's where the two groups of male students converged, and although Harrington requested a ride from them– to where, Cappuzzo would not reveal– the students declined. Cappuzzo says the 14 men who saw her there have all been interviewed multiple times and their alibis have been thoroughly checked. "They had another event to attend that night," says Cappuzzo.
After the students departed, Morgan walked along the fence that separates the lot from the UVA track, according to Cappuzzo, who says her trail was picked up by the bloodhound, which stopped near a small line of portable toilets at the lot's rear. Cappuzzo says two non-student witnesses driving down a road that leads from the baseball stadium to the RV lot reported seeing Morgan in that area– and recalled yet another unusual behavior for a young woman alone on a dark rainy night.
"She curtsied," says Cappuzzo, but she didn't attempt to flag them down.
Why, many have asked, wouldn't Morgan have gone to her own car– which Cappuzzo says was parked in the lot between Emmett Street and U-Hall? As previously reported, one of the three friends who accompanied Morgan on their trip from Harrisonburg to Charlottesville was serving as designated driver that night, and as a result was holding on to her keys.
As Metallica prepared to take the stage, one of the friends called Morgan to ask where she was. The time of that call– 8:48pm– suggests a conversation before she left the vicinity of the Arena, and Cappuzzo says her friends tried to offer her tips to get back inside.
"They were trying to tell her to get to the smoking area," says Cappuzzo, who says the friend mistakenly believed that area could be accessed from outside. In fact, it is above ground and surrounded by concrete walls.
Unable to get back in, Harrington told her friend, "I'll get a ride." She was soon walking across Massie Road with the basketball team.
None of the friends who accompanied Harrington to the concert has yet spoken about that fateful night with media, but Cappuzzo says all have fully cooperated with the investigation. Other than a series of text messages with an out-of-town friend whose alibi has also been checked, Cappuzzo says Morgan had no other electronic communications.
Morgan's absence from surveillance videos has created a stir among armchair sleuths. However, a source involved in the Arena's design notes that cameras were primarily trained on the inside of the venue. Cappuzzo also downplays the absence of Morgan on security cameras at various businesses, including the Suntrust Bank at the corner of Ivy and Copeley Road. Such cameras, he notes, were designed for on-premises security, not for finding a missing person, he says. And, he adds, the relatively low quality of black and white video produced by the four-year-old John Paul Jones surveillance system makes picking one person out of thousands a difficult if not impossible task.
Even without photographic proof, Cappuzzo says plenty of evidence confirms Morgan did end up alone in the RV lot. From the portable toilets where she curtsied, the bloodhound tracked Morgan back to the bridge and then over it before turning west on Ivy Road, where it lost her scent near the Foods of All Nations grocery store. Unbelievable as it seems, Cappuzzo says that 10 days after Morgan was there, the bloodhound would have been able to detect her scent even if she had gotten into a car.
Another possibility for the scent reaching Ivy Road, he explains, is "scent drift," caused by wind and rain that may have brought the molecules the dog was detecting some distance from where she actually last stood. Either way, Cappuzzo says, police are convinced that Morgan got into a vehicle somewhere on or near the bridge, and very likely did so willingly.
There would be no sign of her for more than three months until her remains were discovered on a remote farm in Albemarle County nearly 10 miles away.
"How did she get there?" asks Cappuzzo. "That's the key."
In the days following the January 26, 2010 discovery of Morgan's body, which was found by a farmer as he drove a tractor checking fences in a secluded field on Anchorage Farm in southern Albemarle County, police repeatedly stressed the spot's isolation– and their belief that only someone familiar with the terrain could have placed her there. At the January 25 tour, Morgan's parents' had their first opportunity to experience that remoteness.
Led by State Police, a caravan of media vehicles traveled the nine miles from the Copeley Road Bridge south along U.S. 29 to the Farm entrance, and then another mile up the gravel driveway. The vehicles passed within approximately 100 feet of the property's two dwellings and through a pair of gates immediately adjacent to the main house. Once through the gates, the caravan crossed a bumpy downward-sloping field in full view of the property's main residence for approximately a quarter mile, driving through waist-high grass and over pitted ground before coming to a stop atop an even steeper downward slope.
From there, media trailed Gil and Dan Harrington as they walked the remaining quarter mile, Gil sobbing audibly, following a tractor path into a stand of trees and out the other side, to the secluded field where Morgan was found– a couple of acres enclosed by barbed-wire fencing on at least two sides and thick stands of trees on three.
Cappuzzo would not reveal investigators' theory about that night's most likely ingress path, but he admits that any perpetrator– particularly transporting a drugged, injured, or already deceased victim– would have been unusually bold to have driven via the route by which media arrived. The noise and lights of a vehicle might have been easily audible to residents of the two dwellings.
That leaves access from the Blandemar Farm Estates subdivision, which requires crossing a creek and then climbing over one and possibly two barbed wire fences. It also leaves Red Hill Road, which forms the southern border of Anchorage Farm.
While media have not been permitted to explore the Farm, the Hook has spoken with one local resident whose curiosity pressed her to journey to the property after Harrington's disappearance. The resident says access from Red Hill Road isn't as difficult as one might expect. The self-motivated sleuth describes entering through a series of unlocked gates that would put a vehicle on the correct side (East) of the main waterway that traverses the property, a branch of the Hardware River. All other obstacles, the resident believes, could be handled even by a small two-wheel-drive vehicle.
If investigators know how Morgan got onto the property, they aren't saying. But Cappuzzo tailors his comments to residents of the Red Hill/North Garden area.
"We're extremely confident he's still in this community," says Cappuzzo, citing multiple behavioral specialists who specialize in geographic profiling. All, he said, agreed "this person has been here before."
Will the killer be caught?
Standing on the spot where Morgan's remains were discovered, Cappuzzo disputes any notion that the case has gone cold and that the killer will go unpunished– and remain free to harm someone else.
"This case will be solved," he promises, though he admits to having "no timeline."
No timeline means the Harrington parents and Morgan's brother, Alex, will continue to suffer through the agony of their loss, compounded by the additional pain of not knowing what happened– and who's responsible.
Dan Harrington recalls the case of Pat Collins– a UVA grad student who vanished in 1986. In a series of feature-length stories in the mid- to late-1990s, local writer Barbara Nordin explored that case in depth– pointing out ways that UVA police had bungled the investigation by ignoring leads, contaminating evidence, and initially suggesting that Collins had simply walked away from his life. No evidence of a voluntary departure ever emerged, and Collins' family– including his retired police investigator stepfather– attempted to get the case reopened. It remains unsolved, with Collins' fate, perhaps forever unknown.
The Harringtons, however, aren't making any claims of official bungling in Morgan's case. Dan Harrington notes that by the time he and Gil had their first meeting with law enforcement 36 hours after Morgan's disappearance, UVA police had already called in Virginia State Police, who took over the investigation.
Citing a "thorough" early search conducted on Sunday, October 18 of the area immediately around the Arena, Lt. Melissa Fielding with UVA Police says her colleagues quickly realized "this case was likely to take us off Grounds" and sought a law enforcement agency with greater resources. UVA police have continued to assist in the investigation, as have Charlottesville's and Albemarle's police departments.
While Dan Harrington says the parents recognize the hard work State Police investigators are putting in to the case, he says he does wish they'd be more forthcoming with information– if only to generate more tips.
Dan Harrington says he and Gil will speak at a national convention for missing persons in Wisconsin next month, headlined by Beth Holloway, the mother of Natalie Holloway, who disappeared without a trace while vacationing in Aruba in 2005. Although Natalie is widely believed to have been killed by a Dutchman named Joran van der Sloot, who is currently imprisoned in Peru for allegedly murdering another woman on the fifth anniversary of Natalie's disappearance, van der Sloot has never been prosecuted in the Holloway case.
"You have to give something to get something back from the public," says Dan Harrington, explaining that his and Gil's regular public presentations are a way of keeping Morgan in the public's consciousness.
He also comments on a recent true crime show in which a young woman in a small town is murdered.
"That community was enraged and concerned that someone was out there," says Harrington. "I've never seen that in Charlottesville. I don't think that the community believes there's a murderer in their midst."
Already, more than a year has passed without a named suspect in the Harrington case, and Dan Harrington is realistic about the case, even as he expresses his concern that the unknown person, first implicated in the Fairfax rape, has increased his brutality to murder.
"The person who did this has hurt two people," warns the father. "There will be some other crime committed. It may not be this year, and it may not be next year, but there will be another one."
Anyone with information in the Morgan Harrington case or the Fairfax rape case should call the Virginia State Police tip line at (434) 352-3467. There is a $150,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.