A forensic clue uncovered in the investigation of a missing University of Virginia student has led investigators to believe they have “a significant break” in the unsolved death of another young woman who had vanished from the campus five years ago, police said Monday, and perhaps an unsolved rape from years before.
Jesse L. Matthew Jr., 32, was charged last week with abduction with intent to defile in the case of 18-year-old Hannah Graham, who was last seen on Sept. 13 after she attended a party.
Leading up to Matthew’s arrest, police had searched his car and home and removed items, including clothing, that they consider evidence, though they have not been specific. On Monday, Virginia State Police said in a statement that the arrest “provided a significant break in this case with a new forensic link for state police investigators to pursue” in the death of 20-year-old Morgan Harrington, who, like Graham, vanished from the Charlottesville campus.
The Virginia Tech student from Roanoke had gone to John Paul Jones Arena for a Metallica concert on Oct. 17, 2009. A farmer found her remains three months later in an Albemarle County hayfield, which was among the places searched shortly after Graham disappeared, police have said.
The state police statement provided no specifics about what sort of forensic evidence led to the connection in the cases.
State police said they would have no further comment on the new lead, and neither Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo nor Capt. Gary Pleasants returned telephone messages. Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman and Matthew’s attorney, James Camblos, also did not respond to messages.
The latest development may also help solve a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax City, since the FBI previously said DNA from Harrington’s attacker matched that of the person who committed the sexual assault. On Monday, police spokeswoman Natalie Hinesley said that in order to maintain the integrity of their investigation, they are not going to comment on whether the developments in the Graham and Harrington cases affect their case.
Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler, said he was not surprised by the new evidence.
“Since this most recent victim disappeared, I said time and again that if they could find out who was responsible there was a good chance the same person would be responsible for Morgan Harrington and a number of others,” he said.
He said he was “not trying to indict the guy” but added that police likely will investigate Matthew for other crimes against women, including the 2005 sexual assault. At least two other women from the Charlottesville area are missing. Police previously said they had no reason to link those cases to Graham’s disappearance.
Harrington’s mother, Gil Harrington, told Richmond television station WTVR, “We worked five years to get to this point, so we are relieved.” She did not immediately return voicemail messages to The Associated Press.
If convicted, Matthew could face up to life in prison. Intent to defile in the law means intent to sexually molest.
Graham was reported missing a day after she was captured by surveillance videos as she walked or ran unaccompanied past a pub and a service station, then onto Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Police say that after leaving an off-campus party, Graham had sent friends several texts, including one saying she was lost, and that she was last seen by witnesses with Matthew at a bar.
Van Zandt said he was struck by the similarities between the Harrington and Graham disappearances. He said both women were separated from their friends in areas they apparently did not know well, and perhaps were offered assistance by a predator.
“Their looking for help was turned against them,” he said.
Matthew, a hospital worker, had a taxi license at the time Harrington disappeared.
Matthew was returned from Texas late Friday after he was found two days earlier on a beach near Galveston, Texas. He had fled on Sept. 20 after police named him a “person of interest” and said they wanted to question him about Graham’s disappearance.
He is being held without bond at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail and is scheduled to appear via a video link for a bond hearing in Charlottesville General District Court on Thursday.
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