Forensics at center of missing U.Va. student case

Forensics at center of missing U.Va. student case

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Morgan Harrington's parents were so convinced that a serial offender was responsible for their daughter's killing in 2009, they started a nonprofit foundation aimed at protecting other young women.

Five years later, the Harringtons are reacting with a mixture of both sadness and relief to the news that the arrest of a man in the recent disappearance of a University of Virginia student has provided a "forensic link" to their 20-year-old daughter's unsolved killing.

Still, they say, authorities' top priority must be to find the missing student, 18-year-old U.Va. sophomore Hannah Graham.

"I think it's the most important thing," Morgan Harrington's father, Dan Harrington, told The Associated Press on Tuesday in an interview outside his home north of Roanoke. "There's still hope for Hannah. And I think that it's critical for us, for the community, to find her."

Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., 32, is scheduled for a bond hearing Thursday on a charge of abduction with intent to defile, or sexually molest, Graham. Virginia State Police have not said much at all about what evidence they have linking Matthew to Graham's disappearance. Nor have they charged him in connection with the death of Harrington, whose remains were found in a hayfield three months after she disappeared from a Metallica concert on U.Va.'s Charlottesville campus in 2009.

What they did announce Monday was that Matthew's arrest had provided a "forensic link" to Harrington's case.

Two years ago, the FBI said DNA evidence showed that Harrington's killer also was responsible for a 2005 rape in northern Virginia, so Matthew could be linked to that assault as well, although City of Fairfax police declined to comment, citing their ongoing investigation.

On Sept. 24, 2005, a 26-year-old woman was abducted and sexually assaulted while walking home from the store about 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, police said. They said the assailant grabbed her from behind, dragged her into a wooded area behind some townhomes, and fled when he was startled by a passerby.

Police described the 26-year-old woman's assailant as a black man in his mid-20s to mid-30s with a medium to heavy build, short hair and a beard. Matthew's current description: black, 6-feet-2, about 270 pounds with dreadlocks.

Matthew's lawyer, James Camblos, said he met with his client for about 2½ hours Tuesday but still doesn't know what evidence police have.

The authorities seem to be working systematically to link Matthew's DNA to an expanding circle of attacks on women, Steve Benjamin, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, suggested Tuesday.

Between searches of Matthew's car and apartment and his arrest on a charge of abducting Graham last week, police had ample opportunity to obtain genetic evidence connecting him to multiple attacks, Benjamin said.

Sept. 19 searches of Matthew's car and home would have been opportunities to obtain DNA evidence — perhaps from saliva on a toothbrush or dirty cup — as a preliminary step that could establish probable cause to obtain a search warrant for a more definitive cheek swab, Benjamin said.

"If you're going to rely on a DNA match (at trial), police are going to obtain what they call a direct reference sample," he said. "Anything else is helpful, but not as probative."

Matthew showed up at the Charlottesville police station the day after the search and asked to see a lawyer. Benjamin said police could have asked Matthew to voluntarily submit to a cheek swab at that time, perhaps suggesting they were looking to exclude him as a suspect — a common police tactic. It would take only an afternoon to obtain the DNA profile and run it through a databank to link it to other cases, Benjamin said.

The only thing police have said about the visit to the police station, though, is that Matthew sped away from officers who had him under surveillance. Authorities didn't see him again until a deputy sheriff arrested him Sept. 24 on a beach near Galveston, Texas. By then, Matthew was charged with a violent felony in connection with Graham's disappearance.

That arrest gave police authority under state law to take a cheek swab without Matthew's consent after he was returned late Friday to Virginia, where he is being held without bond in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. On Monday, Virginia State Police announced that his arrest had produced a "significant breakthrough" that investigators of Harrington's death will pursue.

Harrington, a Virginia Tech student from Roanoke, left the Metallica concert and was denied re-entry, stranding her outside. Matthew, a hospital worker, had a license to drive a taxi at the time, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Her parents have always believed she was the victim of a serial offender. They even started "Help Save the Next Girl," a nonprofit foundation aimed at protecting young women.

Graham's disappearance is on the minds of many people in Charlottesville. Having lunch on a park bench near the courthouse Tuesday, Cora Kessler, 21, said she has lived in the area her whole life. Although this case has made her more cautious, Kessler said she still believes her community is safe. "I don't want people to get the idea that it's full of serial killers," she said.


O'Dell reported from Richmond, Virginia. AP Writers Jonathan Drew contributed from Roanoke, Virginia, and Matthew Barakat from McLean, Virginia.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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