Questions remain as police link Hannah Graham suspect to Morgan Harrington case

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Authorities escort Jesse Matthew from a plane at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport on September 26 after Matthew was extradited from Texas, where he was arrested. Photo: FBI Authorities escort Jesse Matthew from a plane at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport on September 26 after Matthew was extradited from Texas, where he was arrested. Photo: FBI

On Sunday, September 21, Dan and Gil Harrington stood quietly in the background at a press conference near Charlottesville Police Department headquarters, watching as another couple, John and Susan Graham, pleaded with the public to help them find their 18-year-old daughter Hannah, who disappeared from the Downtown Mall in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 13.

It wasn’t surprising that the Harringtons were there. Their daughter Morgan’s remains were found on an Albemarle farm three months after she vanished from outside a Metallica concert at JPJ Arena in October 2009, and since then, they’ve become advocates for campus safety legislation, founded the nonprofit Help Save the Next Girl, and have offered support to other families who have suffered similar losses.

Now the Harringtons and the Grahams are tied by more than circumstance and shared tragedy. State police announced that last week’s arrest of 32-year-old Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., charged with Graham’s abduction and taken into custody near Galveston, Texas, a day later, has led to a long-awaited break in the Harrington case, “with a new forensic link for state police investigators to pursue.”

On Monday, Gil Harrington indicated she had been informed of the link, but she stressed that the search for the UVA student must continue, even as her alleged abductor sits in isolation in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. “We’re incredibly grateful for the work law enforcement has done, and we want to keep the focus on the search for Hannah,” Harrington said. She repeated what she’s said often to reporters in the last three weeks: “I know where Morgan is. She’s in a box in my living room. Hannah Graham is still missing.”

State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller declined to elaborate on the nature of the evidence tying Matthew to the Harrington case, and said in her statement that “right now, the public’s focus needs to remain on helping Charlottesville Police locate and bring Hannah Graham home.”

The announcement of the link has thrust another Virginia case back into the spotlight: the September 2005 rape of a 26-year-old woman in Fairfax. The victim in that case told police she was grabbed from behind while walking home with groceries, forced into a wooded area, beaten, and sexually assaulted. The unnamed woman described her attacker as a black male with a medium build in his mid-twenties to mid-thirties, and a composite sketch of a suspect was released, but there were no leads until five years later, when investigators announced that DNA evidence linked the Fairfax rape to the Morgan Harrington case.

Police in Fairfax would not comment on whether the evidence that state police say ties Matthew to the Harrington case has also made him a suspect in the nine-year-old rape investigation, but said they are working with prosecutors and the Virginia State Police.
“We will thoroughly assess any new information we may receive regarding this case,” the City of Fairfax Police Department announced in a news release. “Details of the investigation and any related evidentiary information will not be disclosed at this time in order to protect the integrity of the investigation and any possible prosecution.”

Former Albemarle County prosecutor James Camblos is representing Matthew, and said he’s seen his client four times since he was extradited to Virginia last weekend, including a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with him on Monday, September 29. He declined to comment on Matthew’s state of mind, or anything he’s said.

“Everything is under seal, and I am waiting to see some evidence that links my client to these crimes,” said Camblos.

Who is LJ?

Matthew was first named as a person of interest in the Graham case on September 18, less than a week after private security cameras captured images of him walking late at night with an apparently intoxicated Graham on the Mall. He retained Camblos, then fled the area. Police charged him in absentia with abduction with intent to defile, and on September 24, he was spotted by a concerned citizen on a beach near Galveston, arrested by a sheriff’s deputy, and later extradited to Virginia. He is expected to appear via video feed in Charlottesville District Court for a bond hearing on Thursday, October 2.

Reports about the 32-year-old lifelong local, who worked at UVA hospital helping transport patients to surgery, have painted conflicting pictures. Eyewitness accounts from the night Graham disappeared gathered by local radio news host Coy Barefoot describe him as aggressively physical, especially with women he met in downtown bars Blue Light Grill and Tempo in the hours before he was seen with Graham.

An incident from Matthew’s past came to light last week, when the London Daily Mail reported he was kicked out of Liberty University in 2002 after a fellow student accused him of rape.

Matthew was never charged with a crime then, said Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Doucette. Doucette was an assistant prosecutor in Lynchburg at the time, but said he didn’t work on the case. He did, however, dig up investigators’ report and pass it along to police and prosecutors in Charlottesville.

He said he couldn’t disclose the entire contents of the report, because it’s now in the hands of people investigating another crime, and because it could reveal the identity of a sexual assault victim.

“At the end of the investigation, the issue was one of consent,” Doucette said. “She said she had not consented to the sexual intercourse; he said that she had. There were no independent eyewitnesses. The number-one reason no charges were placed was that after filing the complaint, the girl said she did not want to take any further part in the investigation.”

The accuser eventually stopped returning a prosecutor’s calls, said Doucette. “Then, as now, we have a policy that, if at all possible, we do not re-victimize victims.”

Doucette said he was aware of the evidence in the case, and whether the woman sought medical attention, but “I’m not going to answer that.”
Tony Jones remembers Matthew from the days when they were both drivers for Yellow Cab of Charlottesville. Details on Matthew’s employment with the company aren’t clear; owner Mark Brown, who purchased the company in 2012, told C-VILLE last month that his records don’t show the exact dates Matthew worked there, but Jones said that Matthew had left by 2009 and had begun driving for Access Taxi.

Jones didn’t know Matthew well, he said, but recalled an occasion when Matthew seemed aggressive toward a woman at BW3 restaurant.
“He walked over like he knew her, but he didn’t,” said Jones. “Grabbed her in a hug, put his arm around her. She pushed him away.”

But family and friends who remember Matthew from his days at Monticello High School have told reporters he’s gentle, caring, and kind. On September 27, some of those friends launched a campaign on the crowdsourcing website FundRazr to collect donations for his legal fees.

“Whether you are a friend of LJ, or a believer in the right to a trial by jury and due process, this fund’s goal is to assist LJ and his attorney in defending him against these charges and any future charges related to the Hannah Graham matter,” the campaign website read. By Monday afternoon, the Jesse “LJ” Matthew Legal Defense Fund had raised more than $1,800.

But shortly after police announced that evidence linked Matthew to Harrington’s five-year-old case, organizers shut down the campaign. One woman, who declined to be interviewed and asked not to be named, said she had received threats.

Connecting the dots

Police have remained silent on just what they found that links Matthew to the Harrington case—and, for that matter, on what led them to charge Matthew with Graham’s abduction. Charlottesville defense attorney David Heilberg, who isn’t involved in the case, said the language investigators have used leaves a lot of questions.

“‘Forensic evidence’ basically means scientific evidence,” he said, “pretty much anything they find that links a person to a scene or to someone else.” That means it could be that investigators tied Matthew’s DNA to some discovery from the Harrington case, but not necessarily. The link could be hair, fibers, fingerprints, even an object.

“In other words, it could be anything, really,” Heilberg said, and the purposely vague wording and the timing of the announcement might suggest police are sitting on something less than a slam dunk.

“If they had a strong DNA link, they could have issued an arrest warrant,” said Heilberg. “If they tell you there’s a link, the purpose would be [to see] if anybody in NoVA or anybody at JPJ the night Morgan Harrington disappeared can remember anything that before they couldn’t, or something that seemed innocuous before but is no longer innocuous.”

Investigators have also thrown gasoline on the already-raging fire of media attention surrounding Matthew, something that could complicate a trial, Heilberg said. While police can dangle potentially damning information before the public in the name of soliciting leads, prosecutors have to watch their step.

“There’s an ethical rule against Commonwealth’s attorneys trying a case in the press,” Heilberg said. “If there’s so much prejudicial pretrial publicity that you can’t fairly sit a jury because they’ve sort of made up their minds, then you might get a change of venue.”

Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, for instance, was tried in Tidewater, more than 100 miles away from the high-profile 2002 murders he was involved with. Such a change is less likely in Matthew’s case, Heilberg said, whether he’s charged with more crimes or not. His trial would have to be somewhere in Virginia, “and you probably don’t want to leave Charlottesville even if you have a case for it, because Charlottesville is probably as good a place to get a fair trial for a defendant as any in the state. It’s a real cross-section of people, highly educated—a good venue for defense.”

C-VILLE editor Courteney Stuart contributed to this report.