Canine expertise: Bloodhound at center of Jesse Matthew hearing

New Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Tracci leaves his first Jesse Matthew hearing with assistant prosecutor Carrene Walker.
Staff photo New Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci leaves his first Jesse Matthew hearing with assistant prosecutor Carrene Walker. Staff photo

A judge ruled that police did not make misrepresentations to a magistrate when seeking a search warrant during a hearing that stretched more than nine hours January 11 on a defense motion to suppress evidence in the capital case against Jesse Matthew for the abduction and murder of UVA student Hannah Graham.

Central to Matthew’s objection to the search warrant affidavit was the work of Shaker, a bloodhound from Louisa, whose findings the defense said were inconsistent with statements in the search warrant. The judge granted a Franks hearing, in which a defendant can challenge evidence obtained from a warrant based on false statements or reckless disregard for the truth.

Shaker was brought on the case September 16, 2014, as police frantically sought Graham, who was last seen early September 14 with Matthew. According to Shaker’s handler, former Lousia detective Stuart L. “Buck” Garner, the dog picked up Graham’s scent on Preston Avenue, where videos had placed her at McGrady’s Irish Pub heading east and going past Reid’s Market and the Shell station.

The bloodhound turned right on Fourth Street Northwest and followed that to West Main, headed east again toward the federal courthouse and the Downtown Mall, took Second Street Southwest to Water Street and down to Fourth Street Southeast where the warrant said the scent “terminated,” according to defense attorney Doug Ramseur. That omitted the fact that the canine team came back the next day, said Ramseur, and gives the impression the trail ends with Graham leaving with Matthew. A video from Norcross Station showed an orange car similar to his driving by that location the night Graham went missing.

Ramseur argued that the trail Shaker picked up was substantially different from video sightings of Graham, including one at 12:57am at the Crossings on Fourth and Preston and then at 1:01am on a video at Fellini’s on Second Street Northwest. “The only place the trail was ever corroborated was where it began,” he said.

Police witnesses said there were long periods when they had no idea where Graham was and that Shaker’s tracking of Graham was consistent because of “scent drift,” which over time can spread a scent up to 100 yards, according to Garner, who is no longer with the Louisa Sheriff’s Office. When Ramseur asked for Shaker’s training records, Garner said he destroyed them all “out of frustration the day my dog was terminated from the department.”

Garner and Shaker came back to Fourth Street Southeast on September 17, 2014, and tracked Graham’s scent down East Market Street to Woolen Mills. At a large mulch pile in an industrial area, Shaker found Graham’s scent so strong that it must have come from “fear or adrenaline,” said Garner, interpreting the reaction of Shaker, whom he referred to as his “partner.”

Unclear was how Graham reached the mulch pile 1.5 miles from the Downtown Mall or how she left. Garner told detectives it was possible to pick up her scent in a slow-moving car with the windows open, according to court testimony. Ramseur said Garner previously told him Shaker couldn’t track cars.

A third misrepresentation in the search warrant, said Ramseur, was when Shaker and Garner came back again on September 18, 2014, to Matthew’s Hessian Hills apartment complex. Ramseur said that Garner told him, “Hannah Graham was never present in Mr. Matthew’s apartment,” which Ramseur called “a crucial omission for a probable cause analysis” in the search warrant affidavit.

However, in court, Garner testified that the bloodhound indicated he picked up Graham’s scent by the passenger door of Matthew’s 1998 Chrysler, on asphalt by the passenger door, at a dumpster in the complex, at the entrance to Matthew’s apartment and outside Matthew’s door. “I meant I did not find her trail, but I did find her scent,” Garner explained.

“He told me there was a 60 percent chance she was there,” testified lead investigator Detective Sergeant James Mooney. That was in sharp contrast to a statement Ramseur produced of Garner telling him he never used percentages in characterizing Shaker’s findings.

In explaining her finding that police did not “knowingly and intentionally show a disregard for the truth,” Judge Cheryl Higgins noted that the six-page search warrant affidavit, which Ramseur had called the longest he’d ever seen, was inconsistent if police were trying hide information. And they had it reviewed by then-commonwealth’s attorney Denise Lunsford.

Higgins seemed sympathetic to the haste in which police gathered information. By the time Charlottesville Police obtained a search warrant September 19, 2014, tips was coming in every minute and many investigators had not slept because of a sense that time was crucial. “My decision was go to sleep or try to find Hannah alive,” said Mooney.

Higgins also said she wanted to address for the record whether there was probable cause for the warrant, from which she cited details. The warrant had previously been sealed.

A witness had spotted Graham with a black male wearing a white shirt and shorts—the same attire Matthew was wearing in the Sal’s and Tuel’s videos. The witness saw Matthew put his arm around Graham and told her friend, “She doesn’t know him.” They followed Matthew and Graham to Tempo, and saw Graham pull out her pink cell phone.

According to the warrant, Matthew used his Visa card to buy drinks costing $15.30 at 1:10am, said Higgins.

Another witness at the UVA Medical Center identified Matthew and his orange car, said the judge. The affidavit also noted that when police took his car, Matthew wanted to get paperwork—a passport application—out of it. And he refused to give police his cell phone number.

“The court finds sufficient probable cause even if you remove the canine,” said Higgins, denying the motion.

Monday’s marathon session was the first Matthew hearing for newly elected Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci. He sat at the prosecution table, but assistant commonwealth’s attorneys Elliott Casey and Carrene Walker handled the state’s case.

Matthew is scheduled for trial in July. He’s also been charged with the murder and abduction of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington in 2009. And last summer, he was sentenced to three life sentences for an abduction and sexual assault in 2005 in Fairfax. Matthew’s next hearing is January 21.

Outside the courtroom, attorney Scott Goodman explained the defense’s motion to suppress evidence: “Obviously [police] found something in Jesse Matthew’s apartment they don’t want the jury to hear. The first step is to get it thrown out.”

Updated 10:18am January 12.

Correction January 14: The year of Matthew’s 1998 Chrysler was misidentified in the original story.