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

 

 

  • William F Thomas

    Many thanks to Courteney Stuart and C-Ville for your ongoing coverage of this important issue. As the brother of yet another unsolved murder victim in Virginia– my sister Cathy Thomas and her friend Rebecca Dowski were the first two victims in the still unsolved Colonial Parkway Murders– it warms my heart to see Virginia families working together to help solve these murders and disappearances, and to create awareness so that our young people will not be the next victim. I believe that some of these murders are linked, and call on the Virginia State Police, FBI and local law enforcement to work together to help solve these crimes and break the decades-long pattern of murders in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

    Bill Thomas,

    Brother of Cathy Thomas,

    Los Angeles, CA

    • dummiessuck

      I know the theory on the Colonial Parkway murders was that it was some transient guy in the military who went home just after the killings stopped, like the Camp Peary CIA base right down the road, or one of the Norfolk/Va Beach Navy bases, but I noticed that Ralph Leon Jackson also liked to attack couples. He also looks like the sketch for the Hwy 29 killer, although he was in jail for the latest abductions in that area.

      Here’s a tip for locals who are following these crimes. Look at the FBI’s most wanted mugshot of Glen Godwin. Not the sketch of what he might look like in the future, but the old mugshot, the real picture of the man.

      One of the men suspected as an accomplice in the Harrington murder looks a lot like that. He may not be the wanted fugitive, but if you see a man who looks like that and he’s Godwin, there’s a huge cash reward for turning him in. If he isn’t Godwin but looks that way, then think about whether you saw his look-alike around the time Morgan Harrington was abducted, what he was doing there, etc. Or if you know someone like that who you’ve suspected of doing something else or just seemed “off.” You might want to contact police with that info, or the Richmond FBI.

      Part of the reason I’m saying this is that if Godwin is into sex crimes now, he’s old enough to have committed a lot of older crimes, and anywhere in the country.

  • cara

    Why isn’t there an area code for Dashad Smith’s tip line?

  • FINN

    @dummiessuck:disqus

    I do realize you were replying to Bill however, I am curious, how do you know who is deemed or considered suspect and who is not?
    To my knowledge no suspect or accomplice has been released by VSP in the Morgan Harrington abduction and murder case. Are you privy to information no one else is?
    Are you basing your comment on assumption?
    If you are certain he is suspect as an accomplice to the abduction/murder of Morgan Harrington you should call Richmond yourself.
    Just trying to get a feeling for what you are thinking in regards to this suspect/accomplice.

  • RandomThoughts

    I thought the announcement of the “new section” stated there would be more reporting of local missing persons and cases like Alexis Murphys gaining more coverage in the area. I hope this turns out to be true as the downtown knock-out thugs was a big story this week and could have filled the reporting pipeline.

    If the Hook were still around I feel strongly the gag order in the Murphy case would have been challenged being it appears Nelson County slapped a gag order on a criminal defendant quickly when he stated he would be doing interviews from jail .

    Journalist ,and I use the term lightly as there are very few left should be the first to challenge such a violation of ones rights along with the rights of the free press.

    Our local journalist are in the back pockets of local government, I am beginning to wonder if maybe local stories are first edited and approved through the local Courts and Police Departments and our Journalist are just stenographers for the local government.

    It certainly seems as if the censor in chief of this publication gets on his knees at the drop of a hat or request of the local gubbermint as their personal lapdog.

    I hope the direction of the “new”section will change things.

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