Call to action: Friends, family of Central Virginia victims come together after Jamisha Gilbert’s death

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“There is strength in numbers,” said Gil Harrington, pictured here embracing Alexis Murphy’s aunt, Trina Murphy (left). “We have a big number of people.” Photo: Help Save the Next Girl “There is strength in numbers,” said Gil Harrington, pictured here embracing Alexis Murphy’s aunt, Trina Murphy (left). “We have a big number of people.” Photo: Help Save the Next Girl

Three days after the body of 18-year-old Lynchburg teen Jamisha Gilbert was discovered, the families and friends of nine missing or murdered young people from Central Virginia came together on Saturday, December 7, to issue a call for community action.

“This is not right!” exclaimed Ronald “B.B.” Shavers, head of the Lynchburg-based nonprofit youth group Self Help Obtaining Positive Opportunities (SHOPO). Shavers urged vigilance to prevent future crimes and asked anyone who knows something about any of the cases to come forward with tips.

“The problem is when you know something’s not right, and you don’t do anything about it,” he said.

Shavers’ group led a recent search for missing Nelson County teen Alexis Murphy, who disappeared August 3 after being last seen at the Liberty gas station in Lovingston. He described the deaths and disappearances in Central Virginia as a tragedy not only for the victims’ immediate families but for the entire community.

“That young lady missing, that’s my daughter,” he said. “These are our kids. We are all family.”

Preceding a moment of silence, Shavers read off the names of nine victims, all of whom have disappeared in the past four years along a path that roughly follows Route 29 from Northern Virginia south to the Roanoke area: Morgan Harrington, Alexis Murphy, Cassandra Morton, Samantha Clarke, Jamisha Gilbert, Dashad “Sage” Smith, Heather Hodges, Bethany Decker and Cara Marie Holley.

While some of the names of the missing are well known thanks to extensive national media coverage, others remain more obscure, although their families’ suffering is no less acute.

“She was loved,” said the father of Cassandra Morton, a 23-year-old Lynchburg woman who vanished on October 10, 2009. Morton went missing a week before Morgan Harrington disappeared after leaving a concert at the John Paul Jones Arena and being denied re-entry.

Cassandra Morton’s remains were discovered in a wooded area near Liberty University in Lynchburg, a month and a half after she disappeared, prompting brief media speculation that the remains belonged to Harrington, whose body was ultimately discovered in late January 2010 on a southern Albemarle County farm. Neither Morton’s nor Harrington’s killers have been found.

The mother of Franklin County teen Cara Marie Holley, who was abducted and murdered by a former schoolmate in 2010, spoke lovingly of her daughter, a recent high school graduate who’d been born without an arm. Her mother, Lisa Cowling, said she had never considered her daughter handicapped until a predator attacked her and she was unable to fight him off.

“Then she was handicapped” said Cowling, who noted her gratitude that in her daughter’s case, the family had been able to hold a funeral for the 18-year-old and see her killer convicted.

The family of another Franklin County woman is still waiting for a sign of the young mother or a break in the case.

Twenty-two-year-old Heather Hodges was reportedly last seen by her then-39-year-old boyfriend, Paul Jordan, on April 9, 2012, at their Franklin County home outside Roanoke. According to media reports, Jordan told police he went to a nearby Dairy Queen to get Hodges a snack and that when he returned home 10 minutes later, she was gone and had left her phone, purse, and toddler behind.

“We are struggling right now to keep hope alive,” said her mother, Paula Hodges.

In the most recent case, the death of Jamisha Gilbert, police have remained tightlipped. According to Gilbert’s neighbor Courtney Scott, the 2013 high school grad had long been like a daughter to her. “She was sweet, intelligent, smart,” said Scott, describing Gilbert as an honor student who’d taken AP courses, and who would tutor her mother, who had returned to college.

Lynchburg police spokesperson Dave Gearheart said Gilbert was last seen by friends between midnight and 1am on Friday, November 29. The car she’d been driving, a 2002 Honda Accord, was found at around 8am Friday, crashed on Concord Turnpike, but police were not able to locate the car’s registered owner, who was not Gilbert. (Gearheart declined to identify the owner.) When Gilbert’s family reported her missing on Sunday, December 1, police made the connection to the crashed car immediately, Gearheart said, and the search began. Her remains were found three days later near a cemetery.

While Gearheart would say only that the investigation is active, neighbor Scott said “there are suspects.”

One person who doesn’t have to worry about being accused in Gilbert’s case is Randy Allen Taylor, who is currently behind bars in the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail, charged with abduction in the Alexis Murphy case and considered by police to be a suspect in the case of Samantha Clarke, who vanished from the Town of Orange in September 2010. Taylor has acknowledged having contact with both Murphy and Clarke on the days they disappeared, but he maintains he had nothing to do with their disappearances.

Through public statements by his attorney, Michael Hallahan, Taylor has said a black man with dreadlocks and a burgundy Chevy Caprice with 20″ rims accompanied Murphy to Taylor’s trailer on Route 29 in Lovingston with marijuana, then left with her.

C-VILLE has identified and reached that man, but is not naming him because of the nature of Taylor’s allegations. The man declined comment, other than to describe Taylor’s story as “lies.”

Hallahan did not return C-VILLE’s call for comment.

Taylor’s trial is scheduled to begin February 3 in Nelson County Circuit Court, and Nelson County prosecutor Anthony Martin has requested a gag order to prohibit witnesses from making any public statements that could hamper the investigation. A hearing on that gag order was scheduled for Wednesday, December 10, after this paper went to press.

The family of Alexis Murphy has been outspoken in their belief that Taylor has more information about Alexis’ whereabouts.

“I know who abducted my niece,” said Alexis’ aunt, Trina Murphy, in a recent phone interview. “And if it takes until my dying breath, I will not rest until we have her home.”

The Saturday event in Lynchburg showed that the Murphys—and the other families —won’t stand alone in their quest for justice.

“Our tears are the same color; our children’s blood is the same color,” said Morgan Harrington’s mother, Gil Harrington, echoing B.B. Shaver’s message of community, and mentioning each victim’s parents, siblings, friends, and children.

“These kinds of crises force us to recognize our common shared community,” she said. “We are family, bonded through the crucible of our loss to be sisters and brothers.”

Tip lines: Jamisha Gilbert: 434-455-4090; Cassandra Morton: 434-332-9580; Alexis Murphy: 434-263-7050; Samantha Clarke: 540-672-1491 or 540-672-7200; Morgan Harrington: 434-352-3467; Dashad “Sage” Smith: 977-4000; Heather Hodges: 540-483-3000; Bethany Decker: 703-777-1919