A Charlottesville man who was the last person seen with missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham has been charged with abducting her, and police said they are actively searching for him.
For the first time since Graham, 18, disappeared from the city’s Downtown Mall area early Sept. 13, police said they believe Jesse Leroy “LJ” Matthew Jr., 32, took her against her will. Matthew, a patient technician at the U-Va. hospital and longtime Charlottesville resident, was seen in surveillance video walking with Graham shortly after 1 a.m., and witnesses saw the two together a short time later at a nearby bar.
Police said Graham left with Matthew, but Graham has not been seen since. Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy J. Longo vowed to keep up the intense search for Graham, and he expressed hope that she might be found alive.
“We absolutely are continuing our search for Hannah, and we will continue to search for Hannah,” Longo said Tuesday night at a news conference announcing the charges.
Although police had talked to Matthew earlier — at his apartment Friday and over the weekend at police headquarters — Longo said police went to the commonwealth’s attorney with new evidence Tuesday and that the prosecutor agreed there was enough to press charges. Police then obtained an arrest warrant, but Longo declined to discuss what that evidence is.
Police searched Matthew’s apartment again Tuesday, and authorities had been waiting on analysis of forensic evidence gathered earlier from Matthew’s car and apartment — evidence that could indicate that Graham was with Matthew in either of those places before her disappearance. Police have said they believe Graham got into a car with Matthew, but they do not know what happened to her after that.
Matthew was charged with “abduction with intent to defile,” a felony that in Virginia indicates that the alleged attacker kidnapped the victim with an intent to have sex with the person. Upon conviction, such felonies carry sentences of 20 years to life in prison.
Graham’s disappearance after a night of drinking and socializing with friends has stunned the U-Va. community and led to a wide-ranging search for her in the college town that surrounds Virginia’s flagship public university. Graham had been walking alone, apparently after taking a wrong turn, and ended up more than a mile east of the center of campus. She had been texting with friends to say that she was lost, texts that abruptly ended at 1:06 a.m., about the time police say she crossed paths with Matthew.
Police focused on Matthew as a suspect after they received tips about his car, a bronze Chrysler coupe, and spotted him in surveillance video with Graham. A witness also said he saw a man fitting Matthew’s description approach Graham as she walked alone, and police said she appeared intoxicated.
Matthew has hired an attorney, Charlottesville lawyer James L. Camblos III, who said he met with Matthew on Saturday after Matthew voluntarily went to the Charlottesville police station and briefly spoke with police. Camblos declined to discuss the case or his client when contacted Tuesday night.
After the meeting Saturday, Matthew was allowed to leave the police station because police did not have grounds to make an arrest. Longo said early Tuesday that Matthew then drove to an address in nearby Albemarle County, switched cars and then left at a high rate of speed. Matthew evaded a police tail, and officers lost track of him.
Police believe he was driving his sister’s 1997 light-blue Nissan Sentra with Virginia license plate VAC4575 and said he has contacts in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District.
A man who identified himself as a relative of Matthew’s said over the weekend that he believed Matthew was being “framed” but declined to elaborate.
Matthew, who lives in an apartment on Hessian Hills Way in Charlottesville, grew up in the area and attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., from 2000 to 2002, according to school records. Liberty University officials said that Matthew was on the school’s football team during the 2000, 2001 and 2002 seasons, and the school’s Web site indicates that he played on the defensive line.
Dave Hansen said he first met Matthew at church in Charlottesville, when Hansen was an assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel, and they prayed together during Sunday services.
“He was a nice, gentle guy,” said Hansen, who now serves as pastor of Calvary Chapel of Louisa. “When I found out LJ was the person of interest, I was shocked. I said, ‘LJ? You got to be kidding!’ I was really blown away.”
Hansen described Matthew as a gentle giant. A volunteer ambulance driver, Hansen said that in recent months he bumped into Matthew at the university hospital, where Matthew was a patient technician in the operating room.
“He seemed happy,” Hansen said. “The whole thing has puzzled me. If he’s not guilty, the whole world already thinks he’s guilty. If he’s not guilty, I can’t imagine what he’s feeling right now with his face plastered all over the place.”
Police are casting a wide net for Matthew, who is considered a fugitive. There also is a $50,000 reward for information leading to the safe return of Graham.
Graham’s close friends from the U-Va. ski team expressed hope that if and when police find Matthew, it will help explain what happened to Graham.
“We’re hoping that this will lead to finding Hannah,” said Jenna Van Dyck, 20, a junior. “It’s another step in the case and it shows that everyone who is working hard to find Hannah is doing an excellent job.”
U-Va. junior Hallie Pence, 21, said she believes the arrest warrant is a positive development.
“I think it’s good news, because that means that they are getting more information and the investigators are continuing to make progress,” Pence said. “I think it’s really good news that they haven’t hit any walls or found anything they can’t get past.”
Nick Anderson, Mary Pat Flaherty and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.