Broken Bones, Broken Hearts

New information has surfaced regarding the homicide of 21-year-old Morgan Harrington. On St. Patrick’s Day, Morgan’s parents, Dan and Gil Harrington, held a news conference in front of the John Paul Jones Arena on the University of Virginia campus. 

Morgan Harrington disappeared after attending a Metallica concert at the JPJ Arena last October. A farmer discovered her body on January 26 in a relatively remote area of his property.  Forensic pathologists wasted little time declaring the missing woman’s death a homicide. Investigators have not disclosed the specific cause of death. 

Police, however, released Morgan’s body to her family in February. Her parents believe broken bones made it evidently clear that their daughter suffered a violent death.

“A monster walks among you,” Morgan’s mother, Gil Harrington, told the media, “a violent, sadistic and dangerous man.”

By going public with this information, the Harrington’s are walking a tight rope. In most instances, detectives usually prefer to keep details of an open investigation under wraps. When specifics about a case leak out, two things generally happen: first, the killer discovers details of the criminal inquiry from the newspaper. Second, information that bleeds into the public eye can compromise the integrity of a confession.

Why then would the Harringtons go public with any details that may reduce the chances of the government obtaining a conviction in their own daughter’s tragic death? It is apparent that the Harringtons do not want to see another family suffer through the same ordeal that has rocked their lives. By painting a picture of a possible serial killer fulfilling his violent fantasies of power and control, the Harringtons are providing notice to potential victims. I also see the Harringtons’ news conference as an effort to keep political pressure on investigators and prosecutors.  Not for one minute do they want this case to get back benched or turn cold.

The Charlottesville, Virginia news publication The Hook reports that Gil Harrington suggested “a possible link between Morgan’s abduction and death and other unsolved cases in Virginia, including the Colonial Parkway murders and the Route 29 stalker.”

The modus operandi of the Colonial Parkway killer differs significantly. From 1986 to 1989, the suspect killed three couples, primarily young adults. Links from these cases to Morgan Harrington’s are the disposal of the bodies.  In two instances, September 1987 and October 1989, investigators located victims of the Colonial Parkway killer in secluded areas.  At first glance, it appears the suspect targeted couples in parked vehicles — primarily in remote areas — in the vacinity for the purposes of sexual liaisons. Investigators believe the killer may have impersonated a police officer. Nearly 20 years have passed, which leads me to believe that the Colonial Parkway killer is either dead or incarcerated. 

The Route 29 stalker developed and fined tuned his demented fantasies as a Good Samaritan motorist.  Active during the late 1980s, this middle-aged white male would flash his headlights and pull along side female motorists.  Using the ruse of car troubles —  sparks emanating from underneath the car or other mechanical problems — he would encourage his victims to pull off to the side of the road.  The suspect would then conduct a supposed examination of the car and offer transportation to a nearby telephone or service station.  Initially, several women accepted rides without consequence.  Later on, however, he attacked one woman, who escaped, while another, Alicia Reynolds, went missing and was later found dead in a remote wooded area. Victims described the suspect, at the time, as being clean-cut and 35 to 45 years-of-age. 

Although specific details pertaining to the deaths of the victims in both the Colonial Parkway and Route 29 matters are not public, I believe the current ages of these suspects, as well as their methods of operation, may exclude them as suspects in the death of Morgan Harrington.

In my February 1, 2010, Spingola Files post, I provided a limited profile of Morgan Harrington’s killer:

“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.”

As in the Route 29 stalker case, investigators working the Morgan Harrington investigation are likely on the lookout for potential witnesses offered rides by a probable white male suspect. The broken bones on Morgan’s body indicate a classic power and control killing. These types of suspects go through cooling off periods; however, over time, the urges to kill — propelled by their intense fantasies — rise to the surface. They garner great satisfaction in reveling in their control of the victim and the pain they have inflicted. 

In the interim, the Harrington family and investigators anxiously await the results of DNA testing from the state crime lab. “One thing we have clearly learned,” Dan Harrington told the Charlottesville Daily Progress, “is that things do not work as they do on CSI.”


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

7 Responses

  1. Bill Thomas

    My name is Bill Thomas. I am the brother of Cathleen Thomas, one of the first two victims along with her friend Rebecca Dowski in the Colonial Parkway Murders. Actually there are four double homicides in the Colonial Parkway Murders which ran from 1986 to 1989. The Route 29 Stalker, who operated near Charlottesville, about 2 hours away, committed his assaults and at least one murder, that of Alicia Showalter Reynolds in 1996.

    Many experts see some similarities between the Murder of Morgan Harrington in October 2009 and that of Alicia Showalter Reynolds. The Childs/Metzler murder of two young Virginia Tech students in August 2009 is similar to the Colonial Parkway Murders, as are the Williams/Winans murder of two young women in the Shenadoah National Park in 1996. There are even more killings that I have not mentioned.
    Clearly, Virginia has a problem with unsolved murders.

    It is time for Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to set up a task force with the Virginia State Police BCI, the FBI and local alw enforcement to to look into these many unsolved murders. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

    Bill Thomas
    Brother of Cathleen Thomas

    March 20, 2010 at 7:39 pm

  2. Steve Spingola


    Thank you for taking the time to place a comment. I enjoy the feedback provided by visitors to the site.

    In the Colonial Parkway homicides, I believe one couple is missing; however, they have never been located and are ‘presumed’ dead.

    Obviously, having worked in Milwaukee, I’m not privy to the autopsies of all the victims, including Alicia Reynolds and Morgan Harrington. What I have to work with are the suspects’ MOs. The Route 29 stalker targeted women in isolated areas. It is plausible, but unlikely, that the suspect would later seek victims in heavily populated areas, such as a college campus during a rock concert, outside his zone of comfort. From what I’ve read, the Colonial Parkway killer is an individual who fantasizes about catching couples in the midst of passion. It is only a hunch, but he may have marched one or two of these couples into the wilderness and ordered them to have sex with each other before taking their lives.

    It would be interesting to compare the autopsies from these various homicides. As I mentioned in my e-magazine article on, The Killer in Our Midst: the Case of Milwaukee’s North Side Strangler, serial killers sometimes alter their killing methods slightly, although it is more like improving technique than changing an MO.

    Virginia does have its handful. That being said, with budgets so tight, I doubt the governor will form a task force. In general, when personnel are assigned to a task force, other investigators are required to fill-in to cover their regular duties, often on overtime. State budgets are so tight right now that it would take a lot of a political pressure to get a task force up and running.


    March 20, 2010 at 9:03 pm

  3. Jen


    I am Jennifer Phelps the sister in law to AnnaMaria Phelps. Thanks for taking an interest in our case. I want to make a few comments to your article.

    Anna was one of the last victims of the Colonial Parkway Murders. Anna and Daniel were just friends. Anna dated Daniel’s brother. That is the only difference in our case. The killer might have believed that they were a couple but the were not. Danny’s car was packed with all of his belongings so he could move in with his sister in Virginia Beach.

    They were found in the woods about a mile or so off of a logging road. They were last seen at the rest area in New Kent Co. off of I-64. The car was then found on the on ramp on the opposite side of the interstate headed back to Richmond. We believe they were at the rest stop or pulling back onto the interstate from the rest stop when they were approached and taken to a secluded area.

    April 1, 2010 at 7:56 pm

  4. Steve Spingola


    Thank you for the feedback and the additional information. I am very interested in taking a closer look at these cases. If I can sell enough polo shirts, I would like to visit Virginia and report back to this site’s readers. Even though I’m not privy to the details in the investigative files, there may be something there — no matter how small — that may prove critical to the case. Please pass along more details and keep plugging away.


    April 2, 2010 at 3:09 am

  5. Jen

    Just something to think about. I have read several articles on our murders and the Route 29 Stalker including Alicia Showalter Reynolds. I came across an article yesterday and found out some new information that has stuck with me. Ms. Reynolds body was found in a logging camp in Culpeper, Virginia. Anna and Danny were found off of a logging road in New Kent, Virginia.

    We would love for you to come out and dig into our case. The more help or suggestions we can get the better.

    Thanks again for all of your interest.

    April 3, 2010 at 4:12 am

  6. Steve Spingola

    The primary reason for a visit would be to get a look at the various scenes. Some suspects pre-select disposal sites while others– like the Green River killer — are simply familiar with the areas. I’d also like to chart the crimes.

    April 3, 2010 at 8:49 pm

  7. Wondering and wandering

    I normally don’t get into criminal cases like this, despite being a sexual assault victim myself (and my attackers were some of the worst ones — the gang drug-rapes that are videotaped, with the videotapes circulated in the communities around Reading and Harrisburg, Pa — the cops still haven’t caught them). But the Morgan Harrington crime drew me into it because I was in Virginia at the time, and may have seen her attacker taking a route out of the state several hours after the killing. I’ve already contacted the police with that info, but of course I don’t know for sure if it was the same man. It was only an odd time for a man who looked like the sketch they released to be on the road and acting aggressive. ANYWAY, I just wanted to say that I’ve found your articles informative, and they have helped me to understand some of my attackers. This whole “rehearsal” thing makes sense. I don’t mean to dwell on my stuff, though, I just wanted to say that I wonder if the Ralph “Leon” Jackson person who shot and killed the radio station worker months after the Harrington case was actually the Route 29 Stalker. I base that entirely on the fact that he looks so similar, if you take into account that he’d be older with whiter hair by now. But it looks like his hair used to be reddish, he has a similar facial structure, and even the haircut looks almost the same! Did they have DNA in the Reynolds case? If so, I hope they test it against his.

    September 4, 2010 at 3:20 am

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