Minutes before 9pm on October 17, 2009, somewhere between the entrance to the John Paul Jones Arena and the Copeley Road bridge where she was last spotted, 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington placed a phone call to a friend about a ride home that she never found. Nine months after Harrington’s remains surfaced in a remote part of a 750-acre Albemarle County farm, Gil Harrington, Morgan’s mother, still pays for her daughter’s phone plan, and calls it to hear her voicemail message.
The Copeley Road bridge, recently cleaned of items left in memory of slain Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, will be the site of a permanent memorial plaque, to be dedicated on the anniversary of her disappearance.
“I don’t know if we’ll do it forever,” says Harrington. “Maybe. It’s just nice to have it there and call her.”
If grief is temporary and loss lasting, how does a family or community move between the two? Last week, the University of Virginia collected items that composed a makeshift, evolving memorial to Harrington on the Copeley bridge, where a permanent plaque will be dedicated to Morgan’s memory on the anniversary of her disappearance. UVA said in a news release that items from the impromptu and ongoing memorial on the bridge would be sent to the Harrington family before October 17.
While Gil Harrington said last week that her family has not yet received the items, she recalls many of them from memory—vases of flowers, a string of Tibetan prayer flags, collections of rocks painted with the phrase “Morgan Rocks” placed near paper “Missing” posters smudged by rainfall. Harrington says her family contributed many of the items on the bridge.
“We’ve brought flowers, cards that have come to the house—particularly [those] from friends of Morgan,” says Harrington, who brought her own “Morgan Rocks” from Zambia, Africa. (The family is involved in the construction of a medical education site there, named for Morgan.) Also: “We had a butterfly release on the bridge for Morgan.”
Harrington says she communicates regularly with state investigators and members of local police forces. In July, Fairfax and state police announced a forensic link between Harrington’s death and an unsolved 2005 abduction and sexual assault in the Northern Virginia city. The Virginia State Police (VSP) released a sketch of the Fairfax suspect, described as a black male between 25 and 35 years of age, roughly 6′ tall and with a medium build. The suspect was previously described as having black hair, a beard and mustache, and wearing a black, zippered pullover.
Fairfax Police Officer Mike Boone says he received a greater number of phone calls pertaining to the 2005 Fairfax assault once it was linked to Harrington’s death, but investigators have not found additional links between the cases. “We followed up on the phone calls,” he says, “but nothing panned out.”
News reports of the recent arrest of Jeffrey Kitze, 49, for a violation of probation following his conviction for the 1989 rape of a UVA law student, mention that Kitze was questioned about Harrington by law enforcement. Kitze reportedly submitted to a polygraph test and provided a DNA sample.
VSP spokesperson Corinne Geller says police cannot comment on who they have spoken to in connection to the Harrington case, but Virginia’s Sex Offender Investigative Unit has worked to keep the state’s sex offender registry system current and enforced. She also says state police monitor “cyber-sleuth” websites like BlinkOnCrime.com for possible tips.
“In today’s society, it’s the nature of some folks to post information [online] rather than call a tip line and leave anonymous information,” says Geller. However, all tip lines monitored by state police remain open.