MORE COVERAGE RELATED TO MORGAN HARRINGTON:
More than 100 days after 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington was spotted on the Copeley Road Bridge, leaving a Metallica concert at John Paul Jones Arena, her remains were found in a 750-acre farm roughly 10 miles away. Since the discovery of Harrington’s body, Virginia State Police and local law enforcement have pursued new leads in a case that primary investigator Lieutenant Joe Rader said VSP considers a “potential homicide.”
"Very atypical," and a last sighting
On October 17, 2009 Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington went missing outside the John Paul Jones Arena after leaving a Metallica concert. Harrington had traveled with friends to Charlottesville from James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, to attend the concert.
The following day, Dan Harrington, Morgan’s father, filed a missing person report after his daughter failed to come home, which he called “very atypical.” According to police statements, Harrington ended up outside of the arena after leaving her friends to visit the restroom.
Harrington was denied re-entry to the concert, a policy regularly adopted by other ACC venues. After being criticized by some for Harrington’s disappearance, the University of Virginia released a statement on October 23, explaining that re-entry typically requires management approval. The policy, according to UVA, aids in crowd control and the prevention of contraband.
Although widely suspected, it took Virginia State Police two months to announce that Harrington was drinking and not acting normally on the evening when she was last seen.
According to a timeline constructed from tips the police received, eyewitnesses place the missing woman outside of the arena conversing and interacting with people before Metallica took the stage. At 8:48pm, Harrington had a phone conversation with a friend inside the arena. Harrington told the friend she would find a ride home from friends in Charlottesville.
Between 9pm and 9:10pm, police say someone matching Harrington’s description was seen walking through the University Hall parking lot, in front of the arena. Shortly afterwards, Harrington was seen at Lannigan Field, close to the UVA track, where her purse and cell phone were later found in the grassy area of the parking lot. According to police, Harrington was last seen hitchhiking for a ride on the Copeley Road Bridge.
In response to rumors that members of the UVA basketball team were somehow involved in the case, UVA spokesperson Carol Wood said in a November 24 statement that players were approached after practice by a female matching Harrington’s description the night she disappeared. “They cooperated fully with law enforcement investigators and, like other witnesses interviewed by the police, they provided information that is important to police efforts to establish Ms. Harrington’s movements,” said Wood.
In November, Harrington’s parents, along with the Laura Recovery Center, a Texas-based group, organized a massive search effort. Over three days, a total of 1,667 registered volunteers combed through nearly 2,600 acres of local land. Ultimately, however, the search didn’t recover any relevant evidence.
"Not a public place at all"
Dan Harrington believed that his daughter would be found within five miles of the Copeley Road Bridge, where she was last seen alive. In fact, Morgan Harrington was found a little more than 10 miles from the bridge, on a remote portion of David Bass’ 750-acre Anchorage Farm.
On Tuesday, January 23, Bass fed his cows and began to check his fences for damages from wind and rain two days earlier. Around 8:30am, Bass spotted what he thought was a dead deer.
“’Til I got close,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “And realized that I was looking at a human skull. And that’s when I called 9-1-1.” Bass said that there was some clothing near the remains, and added, “I would not have guessed the sex of the victim myself…it’s very decomposed.”
Bass, who has owned the property since 1985 according to county records, says his visits to that portion of his land are infrequent—“It’s not a public place at all.” Asked if he dealt with trespassing problems, he replied, “No. We get hunters, we get people that hunt without permission. But every farm has that. We’ve had no problem here at all.”
Reports of violence in a secluded area
Bass told reporters that Harrington’s remains were located within 1.5 miles from the entrance to his home. The Anchorage Farm property is partially bordered by a few other roads—Monacan Trail Road in front, roughly two miles of Red Hill Road, and less than three miles of residential roads within neighboring Blandemar Farm and Blandemar Farm Estates.
According to CrimeReports.com—a web site that maps crime data, linked from the Albemarle County Police Department’s web-site—there were two separate assault incidents reported in the month before Harrington’s discovery. The first, dated December 26, 2009, is listed at the 1800 block of Red Hill Road—less than 2 miles from the entrance to Bass’ property. The most recent occurred on January 6, in the 4900 block of Monacan Trail Road, less than 7 miles from the Anchorage Farm entrance. A call to Albemarle Police about those incidents was not returned by press time.
The front entrance to Anchorage Farm, which David Bass estimates is one-and-a-half miles from where Harrington’s remains were discovered. He said that there is no public road within a mile of where he found her, and added, “I’m completely baffled.”
The Virginia State Police’s Sex Offender Registry lists six registered offenders in the 22959 North Garden zip code that includes Anchorage Farm. One offender, listed with two convictions in Albemarle Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for rape and one for sexual battery in Charlottesville Circuit Court between 2006 and 2008, lives within two miles of Anchorage Farm.
John Ekman, who manages a gas station south of Anchorage Farm, knows David Bass and refers to the Bass family as “nice people.” Asked whether drivers along Red Hill Road could access Anchorage Farm easily, Ekman replied that he doubted it. “Not many places for people to pull over,” he explained.
Many of the homes in neighboring Blandemar Farm Estates sit on lots of 21 acres or more. According to one resident, the majority of Blandemar’s population is either retired or “semi-retired,” with grown children. Several residents claimed they were unaware of any trouble with trespassing in the area.
“It is secluded, and the lots are expansive,” said one resident. “People live out here because they like their privacy.”
The same resident said that a few bowhunters control the deer population in the community, but “they will always let us know when they are on our property.”
“The grass probably would’ve been at least two feet, maybe three feet tall, at the time of this tragedy,” said a resident about their property. “Anyone going through that field by foot or by car, I would’ve seen the tracks…[A]nd I saw no tracks.”
The resident also detailed the division between Anchorage Farm and their property in Blandemar: a half-mile that includes a ridge (“very steep”), a creek, woods and several rows of barbed wire fencing. “Not that it couldn’t be done. It could be done, but with great difficulty. At night, I’d say pretty much impossible.”
Colonel Steve Flaherty of the Virginia State Police told a crowd last Tuesday that “significant items and evidence” were found with Harrington’s remains on Anchorage Farm.
"Most likely it will be a homicide"
Roughly seven hours after Bass found the remains on his property, Virginia State Police discussed last Tuesday morning’s discovery. “Based on the evidence there that was recovered, we are fairly confident at this time that the remains are those of Morgan Dana Harrington,” said Colonel Steve Flaherty, superintendent of VSP. The remains were transported to the office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond.
According to Flaherty, “significant items and evidence” were found near the remains. As his comments joined the rumors spreading through the community that the remains were those of Harrington, Flaherty explained that state police “cannot release the evidence that leads us to this conclusion at this particular time.”
Lieutenant Joe Rader, the primary investigator on the Morgan Harrington case, said that while the investigation had been a missing person case, “we have always seen it as potentially a homicide.”
“We still proceed as if it is a homicide, and most likely it will be a homicide.”
"This is known to someone here"
By the next day, dental records had positively identified the remains as those of Morgan Harrington. During a 1pm press conference at the Copeley Road Bridge, Dan Harrington told reporters: “Even though Morgan has been found, she’s been murdered.” At that time, a cause of death had not been determined.
“This is known to someone here…,” he said, speaking about the location where the remains were found. “And as I’ve said all along, Morgan would be found within five miles of this bridge, and it was probably a local person. And I’m sure I’m 100 percent right.”
Dan Harrington was joined by his wife, Gil, and their son, Alex. Gil Harrington said: “We are very happy to know that Morgan very likely, as Dan has said, did not live through the time of the concert. She was a long time in that field. I am happy that she was not alive long, enduring unspeakable things.” No further details were given to clarify Gil Harrington’s statements.
A new lead on 15th Street?
On Friday afternoon, January 29, several residents of 15th Street, just over a mile from Copeley Road Bridge, reported they were interviewed by investigators who canvassed the area in connection with Harrington’s death.
David Bass (right), who found Harrington’s remains in a “remote area” of his Anchorage Farm, described the surrounding area as a “[v]ery nice area to live.”
“About 11:30am, I got a knock on my back door. I opened it up and it’s a guy who flashes a badge and says he’s a detective,” said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns. “He just told me that they were canvassing my building, because they had found what they thought was Morgan Harrington’s shirt somewhere in the bushes in front of the building.” Harrington was wearing a black Pantera t-shirt the night she disappeared.
The resident said the investigator, not in uniform, asked whether the resident remembered anything suspicious from the night Harrington disappeared, or since, and recommended that the resident call Albemarle County Police Department’s Crime Stoppers line [434-977-4000] if anything occurred. He did not leave a business card, but reportedly flashed a badge.
A second resident said that two days earlier, “I was going to my car, and there was a woman who was kind of digging in the bush, and there were two guys walking around the apartment across the street. I heard the one guy [say] they hadn’t found anything, so the one guy was like ‘Well, we found her shirt over here.’” A third resident confirmed the reports; both remained anonymous due to privacy concerns.
Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said she didn’t know whether there was a law enforcement presence on 15th Street. “We’ve gotten a lot of tips and a lot of different leads related to the case. They may’ve been just following up on a tip almost in a process of elimination versus it being some critical aspect of an investigation.”
After Morgan’s remains were positively identified, Dan Harrington (center), with his son, Alex (left), and his wife, Gil, told reporters that “it was probably a local person.” The family has not yet shared plans for a memorial service.
What comes next?
On Friday evening, January 29, members and friends of the Harrington family gathered in Roanoke for a candlelight vigil. The same day, Gil and Dan Harrington told the Associated Press that the site where their daughter’s remains were found held “a wealth of physical evidence,” which echoes the “significant items and evidence” that Virginia State Police Colonel Flaherty reported during the January 23 press conference.
According to Dan Harrington, there are no immediate memorial plans. “We just found out from police that, although they have positively identified Morgan’s body this morning, that the medical examiner will not release her body probably for another five or six days,” said Harrington last Wednesday.
The day that Harrington’s remains were found, an Albemarle High School student created a Facebook group called “R.I.P. Morgan Harrington.” The group currently has more than 10,000 members, and comments appear on the page nearly every hour. Many offer condolences to the Harrington family; one reads, simply, “Justice for Morgan.”—Brendan Fitzgerald and Chiara Canzi
Anchorage Farm, a 750-acre cattle farm, is partially bordered by Monacan Trail Road, Red Hill Road and a subdivision named Blandemar Farm Estates. “People live out here because they like their privacy,” one Blandemar resident said.