CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The body found on an abandoned property outside of this college town has been confirmed as the remains of University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham, a grim result that came nearly six weeks after the 18-year-old from Fairfax County went missing.
Graham was last seen in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, after she was wandering the Downtown Mall here, about a mile and half from her apartment near U-Va.’s idyllic campus. Police on Sept. 24 arrested Jesse L. Matthew Jr., 32, on charges related to Graham’s disappearance after witnesses identified him as the last person with her.
A graduate of West Potomac High School, Graham was known by friends for her vibrant smile, jovial personality and spontaneous sense of humor. She spent the last night before she went missing socializing with friends from U-Va.’s ski club.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beautiful daughter, Hannah,” her parents, John and Sue Graham, said in a statement Friday after authorities confirmed her death. “Put simply, Hannah lit up our lives, the lives of our family and the lives of her friends and others who knew her. Although we have lost our precious Hannah, the light she radiated can never be extinguished.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) expressed sympathy for the Graham family.
“Our hearts are broken by today’s news, but that will not diminish our resolve to get justice for Hannah and her family,” McAuliffe said.
Graham, who police say had been drinking, left her apartment at about midnight on Sept. 13 to meet up with friends, but she became disoriented on Charlottesville’s streets. She began walking east and soon became lost, turned around in a neighborhood where she’d only lived since classes began for the fall semester, about two weeks earlier. Realizing she was in the wrong place, she sent text messages to friends asking for someone to meet up with her.
She arrived by chance at the Downtown Mall, where she was seen walking with Matthew, who at one point had his arm around her, according to surveillance videos police have released. She disappeared shortly after 1 a.m., walking away from a downtown restaurant with Matthew, according to witnesses.
Jenna Van Dyck, 20, a senior who was close friends with Graham, said that the sophomore never meant to be in that area that night.
“What’s most frustrating is that she just got lost and crossed paths with a predator,” Van Dyck said.
A widespread search for Graham commenced in the days following, with authorities and volunteers spreading out across all corners of the city and the surrounding counties of Nelson and Albemarle.
Police on Oct. 18 announced that a Chesterfield County sheriff’s deputy had discovered human remains near a run-down house on Old Lynchburg Road, about 12 miles southwest of Charlottesville.
Hannah Graham’s parents issued a statement upon confirmation that remains found on an abandoned property last week are those of their 18-year-old daughter, who went missing Sept. 13. Read the Graham family’s statement.
“Since the discovery along Old Lynchburg Road, officers and detectives have been working around the clock to process the scene and preserve evidence,” Albemarle County police officials said in a statement Friday. “We remain committed to this investigation and will work to ensure that justice is served.”
Graham’s body was found about five miles from a hayfield where the remains of slain Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington were discovered in 2010, 101 days after she went missing in October 2009. Two people close to the investigation have told The Washington Post that a “forensic link” between the Graham case and the Harrington investigation have been traced to Matthew’s DNA. No charges have been filed in the Harrington case.
Court records show that Matthew once lived at a home about five miles from where Graham’s body was found. Matthew has been charged with abducting Graham with the intent to sexually assault her.
Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney Denise Lunsford said that she is exploring additional charges against Matthew. In Virginia, if a victim is killed in the course of an abduction, rape or an attempted rape, it can be charged as a capital offense, which can carry the death penalty or a mandatory life sentence upon conviction.
“We are working diligently with local law enforcement on the investigation to ensure that we make the best determination for our community and the Grahams in the pursuit of justice,” Lunsford said.
Matthew is being held without bond and is expected to be moved to Fairfax County soon to face charges related to a violent sexual assault and attempted slaying that occurred in Fairfax City in 2005. He was indicted in that case this week.
James L. Camblos III, a lawyer who is representing Matthew in the Graham case, said that Matthew’s family expressed sorrow for the Graham family.
“On behalf of the Carr family, and speaking for myself as well, the Graham family is in our thoughts and prayers in their time of bereavement,” Camblos said, referring to Matthew’s relatives. “The Carrs also asked me to say that they will continue to pray for the Grahams and the Harringtons throughout this ordeal.”
Graham’s death is casting a pall over the U-Va. campus in Charlottesville, where thousands of students, alumni and community members plan to gather for homecoming festivities this weekend.
“Hannah showed great promise as a student and as a young woman,” U-Va. president Teresa Sullivan said in a statement. “For Hannah’s young life to end so tragically, and for her destiny of promise to be left unfulfilled, is an affront to the sanctity of life and to the natural order of human events. This is a sorrowful day in the life of the University.”
Abraham Axler, 19, who serves as president of the Class of 2017, said that the ordeal has deeply affected the school. He is among a group of students preparing a memorial on campus to honor Graham.
“It’s very scary that something like this could happen in such a serene place,” said Axler, of New York. “Hannah’s disappearance represents a permanent change in consciousness about what it means to be safe in our community. The legacy of Hannah is how Virginia can be the safest campus in the country.”
Axler said that students and those in the community will be able to visit the memorial on Sunday morning. It will feature a chair constructed of skis, an homage to her passion for the winter pastime, covered with flowers.
The Grahams said that their daughter intended to pursue a career in global public health, where she could offer assistance to those in need.
“It is heartbreaking for us that she was robbed so tragically of the opportunity to fulfill her dream,” the Grahams said.
Since Graham went missing almost six weeks ago, the Grahams have lived what they described as “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
“When we started this journey together, we all hoped for a happier ending,” the Grahams said Friday. “Sadly that was not to be.”
The Grahams also noted that several young women remain missing in the greater Charlottesville area, and throughout the country, who deserve the nation’s attention.
“Although the waiting has ended for us, there are other families both in Virginia and beyond who have not been as fortunate in that their loved ones are still missing,” the Grahams said. “Please continue to hold these families in your thoughts and prayers.”