Every year on Oct. 17, Gil Harrington and her husband, Dan, stand on a bridge in Charlottesville and tie a black ribbon around a lamppost. Today’s will be the fifth black ribbon — one for every year since their daughter, Morgan, was killed. And perhaps, Harrington says, this one will be the last.
The ceremony will be different from the ones of the past few years. There’s now a man behind bars who has been linked to the investigation into Morgan’s death. But there is also another girl — Hannah Graham — who may have been abducted by that man. And she is still missing.
And the Harringtons know how important it is that she be found.
Gil Harrington is aware that it sounds crazy, but the truth, she says, is that “it’s worse to have your daughter missing than to know that she’s dead.”
Morgan Harrington was missing for 101 days. For her parents, that was three months and nine days trapped in a hell of not knowing. “There are no rituals for the missing,” says Gil. “There are no Hallmark cards” for them.
During the summer of 2009, Morgan and her friends had been excitedly planning for the Metallica concert at which she spent the last night of her life. She liked Metallica, but really she liked all kinds of music — her Roanoke bedroom was decorated with posters of the Beatles, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin. She was artsy, creative and caring, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who’d recently decided on an early education major and moved into her first off-campus apartment in Blacksburg.
But on Oct. 17, 2009, the morning of the concert, she woke up in her parents’ home, where the Metallica tickets hung on the refrigerator. Her mother lent her a favorite metal bracelet and helped her get ready. “Do you think I can dance in these boots, or should I go a little lower?” Gil remembers her asking.
Then they walked out to the driveway, where Morgan got in her car, swiped on some lipstick and said “2-4-1, Mama,” before she pulled away. That’s private Harrington-family code: “I love you too much, forever, and once beyond forever.”
The next morning, the phone rang and University of Virginia police told Dan Harrington that they’d found his daughter’s purse. He thought that Morgan would be annoyed to have lost it and went back to reading the Sunday paper. Then he told his wife.
That moment, she says, “was the great divide. I said, ‘Something’s wrong. Something terrible has happened.’ ”
Morgan’s friends, who were frantically looking for her, told the Harringtons that their daughter had gotten up during the concert to go to the bathroom and hadn’t come back. When they called her cellphone, she told them that she’d left Charlottesville’s John Paul Jones Arena and wasn’t being allowed back in because of a no re-admittance policy. She told them that she’d get a ride home. But the Harringtons would later learn that witnesses told police they’d seen Morgan bleeding from the chin and crying in the bathroom, and that she seemed disoriented. The Harringtons suspect that she fell and suffered some kind of head injury.
Morgan was last seen on that Charlottesville bridge where a black ribbon will flutter in her memory today. She was hitchhiking, perhaps. Or, suggests her mom, maybe trying to hail a cab.
And so began the Harrington’s hell. The one Hannah Graham’s family is in right now. “It’s a pendulum swinging between hope and despair,” Gil Harrington said from her home in Roanoke earlier this week. “And sometimes it cycles so fast that to keep holding on is just debilitating.”
It was all alertness, vigilance and questions. “You think, ‘It’s getting cold. Is she in the snow somewhere? Is she chained up in some outbuilding?’ ” says Gil, a nurse. “And isn’t that a hard thing when your best-case scenario is that your daughter is being held against her will.”
Dan Harrington, a physician who wasn’t available to be interviewed this week, drove around with a gym bag packed for his daughter. It held cozy things, says Gil, like pajamas, plus a hairbrush and lipstick. So that when they found Morgan, they could wrap her in comfort.
But somewhere along the way, Gil quietly gave her daughter permission to let go. “I can remember saying to her, ‘If you, Morgan, are up against something that is just so hard for you that you think your best option is to opt out, go. Do it. I release you.’ ”
Of course, Morgan had already gone. On Jan. 26, 2010, her skeletonized body was found on a farm 10 miles from Charlottesville.
Soon Dan Harrington took the gym bag out of his car. “That was a sad moment,” says Gil. “That was like the give up.”
There were no strong leads on who had killed their daughter, but within a few months, says Gil, they were told of a forensic link to a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax City. And they were told something else: that investigators would probably find their daughter’s murderer “from evidence from another body.” From the next body.
“Something in me reared up and said, ‘Maybe so, but I’ll be damned if I just sit back and wait for it to happen. I’ll fight,’ ” says Gil.
The Harringtons founded an organization called Help Save the Next Girl, which educates young women about safety awareness, advocates for anti-violence legislation and works to support the families of others who vanish. Today, the Harringtons’ fridge holds a map of Virginia labeled with the names of 13 other missing or murdered women — all unsolved cases.
“ I was not going to let him win,” Gil says from her living room, where the sound of wind chimes floats in air. Sitting on a stand beside Gil is her father’s old cigar box, which now contains Morgan’s ashes. “I said, ‘There’s going to be no collateral damage. He had one hit and he took it, but after that, my marriage is going to stay intact. Dan is going to be okay. I’m going to be okay. [Morgan’s brother] Alex is going to be all right.”
And they are okay — though forever altered — in part because of Gil’s fundamental belief that the “nature of life and this existence is towards good.”
“So if that’s true, despite all appearances, good is trying to show up. But you have to be willing to accept it,” she says.
Only once, Gil says, was she angry with God. For many years she has volunteered as part of a medical team that offers care in tribal regions of Africa. She went back to Zambia the summer after Morgan was killed. “I said, ‘I couldn’t save Morgan, but I can save somebody else’s kid,’ ” she recalls.
One of her first assignments was to rush a young mother and her 10-month-old baby to the nearest hospital — 45 minutes away. As they made the frantic drive by bus, the little girl, whose name was Gift, began to have trouble breathing. Her black fingertips turned white from lack of circulation. By the time they arrived at the hospital, she was all but dead.
“I was livid. Inside, the dialogue was, ‘I came here to save children, not to let them die in my lap,’ ” Gil recalls. It was two days before she realized that the young mother, just 20 years old herself, had gotten to be with her baby for only 10 months. “And I’d been feeling sorry for myself because I lost my daughter — the gift of my daughter — when she was 20. Where did I get off feeling bad for me? So I said, ‘I get it. Message received.’ ”
Service, Gil says, has been “a way through the abyss.” They set up a scholarship fund in Morgan’s name and built a school in Zambia for their daughter. Morgan may not be able to teach, but children will be educated in her honor.
When the Harringtons first heard that 18-year-old Hannah Graham was missing in September, Gil thought, “Oh God, no. Not another one. Her poor family.”
As videos of Graham walking with Jesse L. Matthew Jr. emerged and were compared with composite sketches of the man wanted in the Fairfax case, the Harringtons became increasingly convinced that this was the same man who had killed Morgan. Matthew had been working as a cab driver around the time of Morgan’s disappearance.
And days after Matthew was arrested, Virginia State Police said that his detainment had provided a “significant break” in Morgan’s case.
When she thinks about whoever killed her daughter, Gil insists that she feels no hatred. She compares him to “a marauding bear. You don’t hate it. It’s doing what bears do. You’re not mad at it, but you just want to make sure it’s not around people it could hurt.”
Since Matthew’s arrest, the Harringtons have been feeling “a little off-balance,” says Gil, who has the numbers 241 tattooed on the inside of her wrist. They’ve spent five years banging the drum for answers. Now that some are becoming apparent — though Matthew has not been charged in Morgan’s case — a lingering question has arisen: What next?
“I think the direction is to be a little more measured. To not wear ourselves out breaking ourselves against the stone quite as hard,” Gil says. “The joy part needs to be amped up. We’ve had some, but we both know we’re deficient in that area.”
So when they return to the bridge next year, it may not be a black ribbon that they’ll tie around the lamppost. It may be green, such as the one around the cigar box in their living room. It’s the color of a new leaf budding in spring.
But Hannah is still missing, and this year’s ribbon will be black.
After Matthew’s arrest, the Harringtons invited the Graham family to their home. They tried to offer what solace they could, which, as Gil knows, is very little as long as Hannah’s whereabouts remain a mystery.
So as they gather on the bridge to mark the fifth anniversary of Morgan’s disappearance, the Harringtons will also be thinking about Hannah and appealing for continued vigilance in the search. Because, Gil explains, even if what’s found is death, that is infinitely better than finding nothing. “When you recover the body, then you know that no one is going to do anything else to them. You cannot hurt my kid anymore.”
The Harringtons will tell whoever’s there to listen — and to keep looking. To do anything they can to help release Hannah Graham’s family from their hell.
“They need to find their daughter still,” says Gil. “They need their girl back.”