CHARLOTTESVILLE — Police on Sunday combed a narrow two-lane back road near an abandoned property in Albemarle County south of here, where searchers on Saturday found human remains thought to be those of missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.
Graham, an 18-year-old from Fairfax County, vanished in the early hours of Sept. 13. Jesse L. Matthew Jr., a 32-year-old Charlottesville man with whom Graham was last seen, was arrested and charged in her disappearance, but the young woman’s whereabouts were unknown.
The remote location where the body was found was within three or four miles of the hayfield where the body of another missing college student was found in 2010. Both Graham and the second woman, Morgan Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student, disappeared late at night in Charlottesville.
Police on Sunday blocked off a three-mile section of Old Lynchburg Road near where the body was found as investigators scoured the area. For much of its length the road is unmarked and without shoulders, surrounded by woods that are turning amber, gold and crimson, and with houses set back from the pavement, several with white country fences. A tiny brick church sits at one end of the barricaded stretch, across the road from a cemetery with several dozen weathered tombstones.
The northernmost police barricade on Old Lynchburg on Sunday was at its intersection with Red Hill Road. From that point, Red Hill winds a little more than three miles to the northwest before it borders the 742-acre Anchorage Farm. It was there that Harrington’s skeletal remains were found.
Virginia State Police investigators said last month that the arrest of Matthew was a “significant break” in the Harrington case and provided an unspecified “new forensic link” in the quest for her killer.
The remains found Saturday were discovered by a sheriff’s deputy searching an abandoned property, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo Sr. said. A conclusive identification has not been made and the remains were sent to the Virginia medical examiner’s office for forensic testing.
Longo said Graham’s family members had been notified. They have not commented on the discovery of the remains. Authorities also called off a search for Graham planned for Sunday, saying they would focus on identifying the body.
Graham’s disappearance has shaken Virginia’s flagship public university, where students have held candlelight vigils and worn orange ribbons in the hope of Graham’s return.
Student council president Jalen Ross helped organize a vigil on the U-Va. campus that attracted hundreds of students. Ross and others at the event, which occurred five days after Graham was last seen, spoke about the missing sophomore in the present tense. Now Ross said that the student council was planning a memorial for Graham to provide a central place on campus for students to honor her.
“Nobody wanted to hear there’s been a body found,” Ross, 21, said Sunday.
But it was the news many students were expecting, Ross said. In the five weeks since Graham disappeared, a dark mood has again descended over the school.
"It revives the whole pool of sadness everyone went through originally," Ross said.
Many students have donned orange ribbons to keep Graham in mind. Every day since Graham vanished, Ross has worn one pinned to his shirt.
"I told myself I'd wear it until they found her," Ross said.
Ross said many students recalled that it took investigators 101 days to find Harrington.
"A lot of us were worried that it would take a long time or infinite time to get closure” in Graham’s case, Ross said.
On Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Heather Warren crafted the words for her evening sermon at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, across from the Charlottesville campus.
“It’s just profoundly sad,” Warren said. “There was always this hope that she might be found alive. That’s not there now.”
In the weeks after Graham vanished, the church kept its doors open for students distressed by the sophomore’s disappearance. Warren said the church has helped students find solace in prayer and passages of Scripture. In recent days, Warren said, she has been drawn to Psalm 139, which explores the constant presence of God even in the worst of times.
“Whither can I go from your presence?” Warren said Sunday, quoting the psalm’s first verses. “You might not know what that presence feels like. But that does not mean you are abandoned.” She began Sunday evening’s service with a moment of silence for Graham.
Friends and teachers have described Graham, a 2013 graduate of West Potomac High School in the Alexandria area of Fairfax, as a good student with a sense of humor.
At U-Va., Graham participated in an alternative spring break as a freshman, volunteering to spend long hours rebuilding homes destroyed by tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala. She was known as a central figure in the college’s ski club.
The investigation into Graham’s disappearance has produced leads in other unsolved cases.
Matthew, who had worked as an orderly at the U-Va. hospital, has been linked by DNA evidence to the investigations of two violent crimes: a sexual assault in Fairfax City in 2005 and the abduction and slaying of Harrington, police have said.
He has not been charged in either case.
In addition, two Virginia universities that Matthew attended between 2002 and 2003 said he was implicated in sexual assault cases. Both women declined to press charges against Matthew, and he was not convicted of any crime connected to the allegations.
Graham spent the evening of Sept. 12, a Friday, drinking and socializing with friends near campus before going out about midnight. By 1 a.m., she was seen wandering the Downtown Mall, about a mile and a half from her apartment. She sent messages to friends indicating that she was lost.
Shortly after 1 a.m., witnesses saw Graham with Matthew near the Tempo restaurant.
Brice Cunningham, the owner of Tempo, told The Washington Post that his employees later saw Graham and Matthew leaving the area together. She had not been seen since.
Police quickly focused on Matthew, searching his car and his Charlottesville apartment and eventually seeking a warrant for his arrest. Matthew was arrested Sept. 24 on a beach near Galveston, Tex., more than 1,300 miles from his apartment.
Matthew was charged with abduction with intent to defile, indicating that police think he planned to sexually assault Graham.
He is being held without bond in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
James L. Camblos III, the lawyer representing Matthew, said he would await further information.
“The police have located human remains, and we will wait to see what the medical examiner says to see who it is,” Camblos said.