DNA links Fairfax assault, Virginia Tech student's slaying, police say

By Maria Glod and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; B01

A man who sexually assaulted a woman in Fairfax City in 2005 may be the same person who abducted and killed Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington after an October rock concert in Charlottesville, police and law enforcement sources said Thursday.

Virginia State Police said only that there is a forensic connection between the two unsolved cases, but the sources said DNA evidence links them.

That means police have a description and a composite sketch of a man they call a "person of interest" in the disappearance and death of Harrington, 20, who was last seen Oct. 17 outside a Metallica concert at the John Paul Jones Arena at the University of Virginia. Her body, the bones shattered, was found months later in a remote field of an Albemarle County farm about 10 miles from the arena.

Harrington's parents, Dan and Gil, said Thursday that they are convinced someone knows or recognizes the face of the man they think killed their daughter, an education major who wanted to be teacher. A $150,000 reward is being offered in the case.

"He's there. He's hiding in plain sight," Gil Harrington said. "This puts us closer to getting this obscenity off the street. He did not kill the woman in Fairfax. He did kill Morgan. I want to get him off the street for the next girl."

Police seeking the man's identity said they don't know where or how he came upon Harrington, but they are certain that he is the same person who attacked a woman who was walking home alone on Jermantown Road from a Fairfax City Giant on a Saturday night nearly five years ago.

It was about 10 p.m. Sept. 24, 2005, when the man grabbed the 26-year-old woman from behind and dragged her to a nearby pool outside the Oxford Row townhouses directly across the street from Lanier Middle School, police said. The man sexually assaulted the woman but took off running when a passerby came.

Sources said the woman strenuously fought her attacker, and police at the time said he might have had scratches on his face. The woman described the man as black and about 6 feet tall. He had a medium build, short hair, and a moustache and beard.

Officers said that his appearance might have changed in the past five years. "We're trying not only to identify him, but to determine what kind of contact he had with Morgan Harrington the night of her disappearance," Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.

Harrington, a music buff, left her parents' home in Roanoke about noon the day of the concert and headed to Charlottesville with friends. When she left the group to go to the restroom, she ended up outside the arena and couldn't reenter because she didn't have a ticket stub, police said. Just before 9 p.m. she called a friend and said not to worry and that she'd find her way home.

Harrington was last seen about 9:30 p.m. walking alone on the Copeley Road railroad bridge near the arena. By that time she had a scratch on her face, but police think it was from a fall, not an attack. Her purse and cellphone were found the next day in a grassy lot used for overflow concert parking.

In November, Harrington's T-shirt -- black with the name of the rock band Pantera spelled in tan letters across the front -- was found on 15th Street near Grady Avenue in an area heavily populated by students and just east of fraternities along Rugby Road.

After the link was made to the Fairfax case, investigators reexamined hours of surveillance video from the area around the arena as well as video that concertgoers posted on YouTube. Harrington doesn't appear on the video, and there was no sign of someone matching the man's description, police said.

On Jan. 26, a farmer on a tractor found Harrington's remains in a remote hayfield on his 700-acre Anchorage Farm off Interstate 64 southwest of Charlottesville. The hay would have been waist-high at the time Harrington disappeared.

Police have not said how Harrington was killed or whether she was sexually assaulted. But officers said they think whoever left her body in the field was familiar with the area because the field isn't easily accessible.

Geller said Thursday that investigators continue to think the person knows the Albemarle area where Harrington's body was left. He could have previously lived in Northern Virginia or might have been visiting.

"Who's to say this person isn't from Charlottesville and was visiting Fairfax?" Geller said. "There are so many what-ifs."

As police do their work, family and friends have been remembering Harrington. Her mother said a wing was being built in her honor at a school in Zambia. Some of her ashes were scattered in the foundation.

Anyone with information about the man in the sketch is asked to contact Fairfax City police detective Mike Boone at (703) 385-7959 or Virginia State Police at (434) 352-3467 or bci-appomattox@vsp.virginia.gov.

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