Finding Morgan’s Killer

Last Friday, a Virginia man discovered the skeletal remains of a woman on his 720-acre southern Albermarle County farm.  Soon afterwards, investigators confirmed that the body was that of Morgan Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who went missing after leaving a Metallica concert held on the University of Virginia campus in mid-October.

Video surveillance captured Harrington between 8:20 and 9:00 p.m. on October 17 standing outside the John Paul Jones Arena prior to concert’s conclusion. Like many other commercial entertainment venues, the arena’s policy prohibits reentry. At 8:48 p.m., Harrington telephoned friends inside the arena and said she would find a ride home. Between 9:00 to 9:10 p.m., a video image captured the young woman walking through the University Hall parking lot alone. Witnesses later observed Harrington inside the Lannigan track and field parking lot.

A witness told police that a woman matching Harrington’s description was standing on the Copeley Road Bridge attempting to hitch a ride.  Standing over a set of railroad tracks, the bridge runs between University Hall and Ivy Road, a few blocks north of U.S. Highway 29. At 9:30 p.m., she was last observed standing on Copeley Road near the intersection of Ivy Road, about a block west of the bridge.

When Harrington failed to arrive home the following day, her parents reported her missing.

Personnel from the University of Virginia Police Department, the Virginia State Police and the FBI searched the area surrounding the John Paul Jones Arena.  Police later discovered Morgan Harrington’s purse and cellular telephone in parking lot between the John Paul Jones Arena, the Klockner baseball stadium and the Lannigan track and field complex. Fox News claims that investigators located one or both of these items in a trash receptacle. Prior to discarding these items, the perpetrator likely removed Harrington’s cellular telephone battery.

For the next 101 days, police continued the search for the young woman, which ended when the owner of Anchorage Farms, David Bass, observed what he thought, was the carcass of a deer lying near a fence line on his property.  Bass described this area as a pasture with tall grass. 

The tall grass likely concealed the young woman’s body until over 20 inches of snow fell in December.  The melting snow matted down the tall grass making the remains visible from atop Bass’ tractor. 

Bass points out that the body rested about a mile from the closest public road, although maps indicate that a cul-de-sac in the nearby Blandemar Farm Estates subdivision may have provided access to the dumpsite.

Criminal profiler Pat Brown told Fox News that the disposal of the body strongly suggests that Harrington’s killer is familiar with the area. In my opinion, I believe it is too soon to make such an observation. 

When trying to ascertain how a particular event occurred, it is important to reconstruct a scene that enables detectives to walk in the shoes of the perpetrator. Judging by the totality of the circumstances, as well as my training in criminal investigative analysis (more commonly known as profiling), Morgan Harrington’s killer(s) is probably a troubled individual who has fantasized about committing sexual homicide. As I noted in my e-magazine expose, The Killer in Our Midst: the Case of Milwaukee’s North Side Strangler, in many instances, these fantasies persist and grow ever stronger until the point of action. 

Here is one scenario. 

Imagine the would-be killer trolling for possible victims, which he probably has done a dozen times before. A heavy metal concert is taking place on a large college campus that is bound to produce a target rich environment of attractive co-eds — the kind of women that, in a typical social setting, would never give the killer so much as the time of day.  He is probably driving a van or an SUV with heavily tinted windows. Having run through this scenario in his head a hundred times before, he is on the lookout for the perfect victim: a woman isolated and slightly inebriated.  The perpetrator — and their may be more than one — is hoping to find a woman whose inhibitions may be numbed by naïveté and/or alcohol.  He finds this woman thumbing for a ride on Copeley Road.  As she jumps in, the driver checks his mirrors for possible witnesses, and believes he’s in the clear.

With is prey at hand, the vehicle quickly deviates from the main thoroughfare, probably an area close to the Copeley Road Bridge, with the driver explaining that he needs to pick-up a friend.  He pulls over and quickly subdues the young woman.  Soon, with the deceased woman concealed in the back of the vehicle, the killer drives to the University Hall parking lot.  He is keenly aware that investigators can track the victim’s location via the GPS chip inside her cellular telephone. He removes the battery from the victim’s phone, exits the vehicle, and deposits the items in a trash container.

This is where the killer may have slipped up.  If he waited to disengage the victim’s cell phone battery prior to entering the parking lot, investigators — armed with Harrington’s GPS information — probably learned the phone’s location and searched the nearby trash receptacles. If not, GPS will pinpoint the young woman’s location up to the point she was subdued. Regardless, if those parking lots are equipped with surveillance cameras, an image of the killer, although likely concealed, may exist.

Absent the autopsy results, one can only speculate about the cause of the death; however, an educated guess is strangulation.  If the suspect had bludgeoned or stabbed the young woman, his clothing would likely contain noticeable bloodstains. Why would the perpetrator then risk returning to the parking lot, where potential witnesses may observe signs of foul play?

Now that the perpetrator has fulfilled his fantasy, he needs to dispose of the body.  U.S. Highway 29 is just a few short blocks from the Copeley Road Bridge. The killer turns right and proceeds approximately ten miles. Continuing west on U.S. Highway 29, he either turns right on Anchorage Farm Road or proceeds to Red Hill Road.  The turn taken may very well determine if the dumpsite was preordained or random.

If the suspect dumped the body under the cloak of darkness, he probably wouldn’t take the time to carry the victim almost a mile from the end of Anchorage Farm Road. The more likely scenario is the killer drove to the area of Waldemar Drive, a cul-de-sac in the Blandermar Estates subdivision.  From there, the perpetrator probably carried the body into the tall grass.  This scenario strongly suggests that Harrington’s killer is familiar with the area.  On the other hand, if the killer drove to the end of Anchorage Farm Road and disposed of the body at the break of dawn, the dumpsite may have less significance.

A possibility exists that more than one individual is responsible for the death of Morgan Harrington, although history tells us that that most sexual killers act alone. A family Web site lists Morgan Harrington as 5-foot-6 and 120 pounds. One person could carry a person this size from the cul-da-sac to the dumpsite.  Dragging the body to the area would have matted down the tall grass that concealed the body until the December snow.

Let’s hope that the Virginia State Police obtain the evidence needed to initiate a prosecution. Sexual killers typically go through a cooling-off period. Once they taste blood, however, their fantasies continue until the urge returns to strike again. Notoriety aside, this is precisely why the crime lab should give the investigation of Morgan Harrington’s death top priority.

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Steven Spingola is a retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective and the author of The Killer in Our Midst: the Case of Milwaukee’s North Side Strangler.

Copyright, Steven Spingola, Wales, WI, 2010

9 Responses

  1. sharon popplewell

    I’ve not heard that Morgan’s belongings were found in a trash can. (?) Otherwise, I think your scenario of the events as they probably unfolded to be solid and logical.

    March 16, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  2. Steve Spingola

    Sharon, I don’t have my notes in front of me. However, I recall reading that Morgan’s cellular telephone was recovered from a garbage can and the battery for the phone was dislodged. Thanks for passing your comments along.

    March 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm

  3. Meri

    Great article. Myself, I’ve wondered if Morgan was taken to a location and kept there until a later time in the night. This allows the perp(s) to return to the concert for whatever reason and to pick up where he left off when he/she returns. Giving the perp ample time to dispose of the body at dawn or to place her in a nearby culvert to be moved at a later date. For all we know items with potential evidence could have been hidden nearby.
    It would not surprise me if Morgan fought a good fight for her life and marked this person as a constant reminder of what he has done.

    March 17, 2010 at 3:48 pm

  4. duannah

    According to a report by UVA police, the purse was found by a jogger the following morning. Also, LE continues to tell the public there were no surveillance videos with Morgan on them. Another girl who looked very much like Morgan was found to be in most of the videos posted by other concert goers. Did you get your information that surveillance videos captured Morgan outside JPJA from the police?

    March 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm

  5. Steve Spingola

    Duannah:

    My information came from the media reports, although I have heard from an individual who claims to have seen video of Morgan. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to corroborate this information. In my opinion, the cellular phone records may play a critical role.

    Steve

    March 24, 2010 at 2:31 am

  6. Ray

    Seems more likely that she dropped her phone and purse in the parking lot before she was trying to hitch a ride. It would also seem likely that if the killer new of a safe spot to park his vehicle while accessing the dump site he probably has hunted on that land in the past. maybe even jacked deer at night. Also it seems that the killer new a particular place in the field that did not get hayed. He probably was reluctant to hide the body in the woods because another hunter might stumble upon it.
    Also if he was used to carrying deer out of the woods than carying a body would not be a big to him.
    I’m wondering how many sexual killers are also hunters. Is deer hunting a typical hobby for a sexual killer?

    March 30, 2010 at 5:15 am

  7. Mary

    I think Ray is assuming too much. Fox reported that her phone or purse was found in the trash. Sounds to me like whoever took her wanted to toss the police of the scent and deposited the personal belongings after the fact. Her cell phone battery was dislodged. Unknown if the suspect did it or something else happened. I think Ray’s theory on the dump site also makes too many assumptions. He probably knew the area. The suspect could have dumped the body in the grass instead of the woods because the grass was closer to the road in the subdivision. Who said ANYTHING about the suspect being a hunter?

    March 30, 2010 at 10:50 am

  8. cassidy collins

    He’s right about her locations around the arena. But, the locations didn’t come from surveillance, according to media releases. Witnesses put her in these places. I too, think he/they returned to her later for disposal.

    April 13, 2010 at 5:16 pm

  9. Pingback: Morgan Harrington abduction and murder - UnsolvedMysteries.us

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