Jail witness, high school friend describe suspect as search for Hannah Graham continues

Albemarle County Police Chief Steve Sellers spoke to reporters about the ongoing search for missing UVA student Hannah Graham at a press briefing Monday. Photo: Courteney Stuart Albemarle County Police Chief Steve Sellers spoke to reporters about the ongoing search for missing UVA student Hannah Graham at a press briefing Monday. Photo: Courteney Stuart

Reporting from this previous report by Courteney Stuart contributed to the following story.

The search for missing UVA student Hannah Graham is now almost four weeks old, and while the number of TV cameras in Charlottesville and the size of search parties combing the surrounding counties for the 18-year-old second-year begins to shrink, police won’t clarify whether they’re conducting a recovery effort or a search-and-rescue operation.

“It’s about finding Hannah Graham and bringing her home,” said Albemarle County Police Chief Steve Sellers at a press briefing Monday afternoon at the National Guard Armory just outside the city on Fifth Street Extended.

Within view of the small throng of about half a dozen reporters—one-tenth the number present at last week’s press events—was the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, where the man charged with Graham’s abduction is being held. Police say Jesse “LJ” Matthew, 32, was the last person seen with Graham before she disappeared from the Downtown Mall in the early hours of September 13. He’s been in custody since his arrest on September 24 in Galveston, Texas, and state police have since said they’ve found a forensic link that ties him to the case of Morgan Harrington, whose remains were found on an Albemarle County farm three months after she went missing from the John Paul Jones Arena in 2009. That case has been linked by DNA evidence to a 2005 rape in Fairfax.

While Matthew’s attorney, former Albemarle prosecutor James Camblos, has said little about his meetings with his client, one person who has seen Matthew since his arrest offered a glimpse. The Charlottesville man, who asked not to be named because of concerns about making his own arrest record public, said he spent part of Sunday, September 28 in a holding cell across from Matthew at the jail, waiting to be released after a DUI charge. From about 3am until noon that day, the man said he could see Matthew through the glass-fronted doors of their cells.

“I was 30 feet away,” the man said. For a while, he could hear Matthew through a small opening in the cell door used for passing food to those locked up, talking to a jail staffer in a voice that was higher-pitched than expected. “He was pacing a lot, and he seemed to be only wearing a brown blanket around his waist. He was asking for a shower, and saying he hadn’t gotten one since he got here.”

The heavyset, dreadlocked Matthew was easily recognizable, he said, but any doubts that it was him disappeared when a county police officer struck up a conversation. “He mentioned in passing, ‘I just want to ask that guy where she is,’” the man said.

So do others. Graham’s parents, John and Sue, appeared in a video released by police on Saturday, October 4, making a desperate appeal for information about the whereabouts of their daughter.

See the video here: Statement from John and Sue Graham from Charlottesville PEG-TV on Vimeo.

“Somebody listening to me today either knows where Hannah is or knows someone who has that information,” said Sue Graham. “Please, please, please, help end this nightmare for all of us. Please help bring Hannah home.”

Sellers said Monday the search for Graham will continue at least through the end of this week in targeted areas and with smaller numbers of searchers from various law enforcement agencies around the state.

Since Graham’s disappearance, the hunt for her has spread over a wide swath of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and into Nelson. In addition to law enforcement and trained volunteers, two drones on loan from the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, equipped with high-powered infrared cameras, have been used in flyover searches thanks to special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration—a first for a Virginia missing persons case. 

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management has called on multiple state agencies to pitch in. Even the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries was tapped last week, said DGIF spokesman Lee Walker. Conservation officers trained in search and rescue operations and a human tracking-trained K9 unit from the department were dispatched to the Rockfish Gap area in Nelson County, where they searched an area along the Rockfish River, said Walker.

Over the weekend of October 4 and 5, officials have focused their efforts on completing a thorough search of the eight-mile radius in Albemarle surrounding the spot where Graham was last seen, Sellers said. Tips have continued to come in that have helped investigators narrow their focus, he said, and over the weekend, 120 professionals searched about 70 percent of the target area. 

As the week started, the crew grew smaller. On Monday, 35 officers from the Albemarle County Police Department, the Virginia Park Police, and the Virginia State Police continued to work the county. Sellers again urged property owners to walk their own land for any sign of the missing teen and to call the tip line to let police know the area has been examined.

Sellers said investigators are particularly interested in hearing from anyone who saw or interacted with Matthew in the days after Graham disappeared, but they want to talk to anyone who has ever known him, “even if it was 10 years ago,” Sellers said, because information about areas he was familiar with could help them in their search.

Many of those people have been unwilling to speak to reporters. Matthew’s father, Jesse Leroy Matthew Sr., gave an interview to a national TV station shortly after police named his son a person of interest in the case, but his Charlottesville housemates turned a reporter away Monday. But some are speaking up about the emotional toll Matthew’s arrest has had on those who knew him.

“He was everybody’s friend,” said one woman who graduated with him from Monticello High School in 2000 and now lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She asked for anonymity, because she said she’s received threats when she’s spoken publicly about Matthew in recent weeks.

She wasn’t very close to Matthew in high school, she said, but Monticello was a brand new school when they graduated, and their cohort—the first full graduating class—was tiny and close-knit. Everybody knew each other, and Matthew always had a smile for all of them.

“I feel like it’s become trite to say this, because you see it everywhere, but he really was this big teddy bear, and just so nice, so gentle,” she said. It was a shock when he was named a suspect in the Graham case.

“When the Daily News first ID’d him, I clicked on the link, and I didn’t have to read any further,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s LJ.’”

The shocks kept coming. Old friends who hadn’t talked to each other in years connected on Facebook, she said, and found comfort in being able to talk about the man they remembered. After he was charged with abduction, some set up a website to raise money for his legal defense. The same day it went live, police connected Matthew to Harrington’s murder, and the crowdsourced fundraiser was disabled as those who contributed started getting hate messages.

“It was enlightening and terrifying for people,” the woman said. One person messaged her on Facebook to say he hoped she was raped and murdered. “I just could not believe the amount of people that have contacted us directly, and the words that they’ve said.”

Knowing that somebody so many knew as kind and good could be guilty of multiple heinous crimes is “nauseating,” she said. “It’s worldview shattering.” And she said she knows what she’s going through is nothing compared to the hell Matthew’s family is dealing with. She wished more people understood that pain, and her own desire for a fair trial.

“The reason I so strongly supported that defense fund is not because I say he’s innocent—I have no idea—but because I believe in constitutional rights, that he and every person should have the right to counsel,” she said. “It’s a due process issue. I want whatever verdict the jury comes down with to be the right one.”

She wants justice for murdered girls, she said, and a just system for her own kids to grow up in.

“There are a lot of people watching this and feeling pain. I wish people would understand, and not add to the pain that’s already there. I wish we’d work together to try to get through this situation, to come together.”

The police tip line in the Hannah Graham case is (434) 295-3851.

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