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.
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