Hannah Graham was a senior at West Potomac High School when she made a trip to Charlottesville to visit the University of Virginia. A straight-A student, Graham had her pick of colleges that spring, but after taking one look at the Lawn, with its white-columned porticos, brick pathways and leafy gardens, she fell in love.
“We knew it was a very highly rated school,” said her father, John Graham, who noted at the time that his daughter would be tucked away in the rural foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, far from the perceived dangers of the nation’s big cities. “Your kids grow up and they go away to school. It’s just what happens. It seemed as safe as can be. But how wrong can you be?”
Graham’s 18-year-old daughter disappeared in the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 13, at the beginning of her sophomore year. The avid skier, focused on a career in global public health, had been doing what most students do on the weekend: She was hanging out with friends. Then she was gone. The last hint of her was grainy surveillance footage of Graham wandering an unfamiliar area of the college town.
During a six-week search for their child, the Graham family lived “every parent’s worst nightmare.” Their fear melted away to grief on Oct. 18, when police found Graham’s skeletal remains on an abandoned property in Albemarle County about 12 miles from campus.
“We had the tiniest sliver of hope that she was still alive,” her father said. “Then that little bit of hope was extinguished.”
In his first interview since his daughter’s disappearance, John Graham told The Washington Post about the search for his youngest child and the excruciating loss the family has experienced.
“She made us smile. She made us laugh,” Graham said. “She was clearly a remarkable young woman and someone we are very proud of. She was bright. She was witty. She was beautiful. And she made people happy.”
Hannah Graham’s disappearance stunned many members of the university community, both because her fate was unknown for so long and because it showed that bad things could befall almost anyone at any time, even at U-Va. Photos of the 5-foot-11 sophomore with auburn hair were plastered around campus, spread over the Internet and became a news show staple. Her death cast a pall over students during the fall semester.
On Saturday, the Graham family and friends will gather for a memorial service in her honor at West Potomac in Fairfax County, Va., where she was known as a standout athlete, honor roll student and accomplished musician.
“It’s going to be very emotional,” John Graham said. “But it’s going to be helpful as part of the healing process for us. . . . Our lives have totally changed, and we are really trying to make the best of what we can.”
Graham said he and his wife, Sue, remember clearly the day Hannah Elizabeth Graham was born, on Feb. 25, 1996, in Reading, England, at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. She was their second child, after a son, James, now a student at Northwestern University.
The family moved to the Washington region in 2001, where John Graham is an environmental specialist at the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. The family settled in the Alexandria area.
Dan Fitzgerald, a French teacher at West Potomac, described Graham as among the best students he’s had in his advanced classes.
“She had a raw intelligence,” Fitzgerald said. “She could remember things seemingly effortlessly, and she had a lot of natural curiosity.”
Fitzgerald said that Graham spoke with an authentic French accent that proved she had an ear for languages. She understood the subtleties of the language well enough to tell jokes to her classmates and knew how to make the teenagers laugh with her wry wit.
“She enjoyed being ironic in French,” Fitzgerald said. “If irony was her first foreign language, then French was her second.”
Graham fit in immediately at U-Va., her father said, joining the school’s tight-knit ski team, where she was known for her gregarious personality and ability to fly down treacherous slopes with ease. During a ski trip to Wintergreen last year, Graham took part in a costume race outfitted in a black-beaded flapper dress with a Union Jack tied around her shoulders as a cape.
She took courses in biology and chemistry and made the dean’s list, her father said. This fall, she decided to pursue studies in global health development. The last e-mail she sent him, he said, was a description of the program at the school.
The night she went missing, she partied with ski team members Jenna Van Dyck, 20, and Hallie Pence, 21. At the Fig Bistro and Bar near campus, Graham performed in a raucous conga line with friends.
“She was happy as can be,” Van Dyck, a junior, told The Post. “She had a smile ear to ear.”
Later that night, Graham left her apartment and headed out on the town. Becoming disoriented in a maze of streets, she sent text messages indicating she was lost and looking for help. She was last seen on the Downtown Mall, about a mile and a half from campus.
The next day, Van Dyck and Pence were among the first to call police to report her missing.
John Graham said the first indication he had that something was wrong was when his daughter didn’t responded to an e-mail. Fear seeped in and took over.
“I thought, ‘Why hasn’t she responded to that e-mail I sent last night?’ ” Graham said. “After she first went missing, we thought ‘I wonder what’s happened?’ ‘Has she gone off with some boy or something?’ But of course she hadn’t.
“Then she was missing for Saturday and Sunday, and we hoped she would turn up at class on Monday. Then she didn’t. Then we hoped she had an accident or maybe got lost and we hoped we’d find her somewhere. I suppose as time went on those hopes progressively diminished.”
Graham said that while in Charlottesville, joining the massive search for Hannah, he walked the route she took the night she went missing. He was searching for a clue, for answers, something even now he knows might never come.
“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Graham said. “She was a victim of an unspeakable act. I don’t think there’s any explanation, except that her attacker is evil.”
The man police believe was responsible for her disappearance, Jesse L. Matthew Jr., was arrested after a nationwide manhunt on Sept. 24, on a beach near Galveston, Tex., more than 1,300 miles from his Charlottesville apartment. Matthew was seen with Graham on surveillance video, and patrons of a local restaurant said they saw the two together after 1 a.m.
Matthew is being held in the Fairfax County jail, where he faces charges stemming from a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax City, an attack that left the victim battered and close to death. Court records show that Matthew’s DNA was under that victim’s fingernails, and the woman is expected to testify in that case.
Law enforcement officials have not fully explained what evidence they have against Matthew in the Graham case, and the medical examiner’s office has not said how Graham died. Matthew has been charged with abduction with intent to defile in the case, and prosecutors say they are considering additional charges.
Since their daughter went missing, the Grahams have kept close one of her treasured childhood possessions, a small stuffed bunny she named BeBe. One day, when Hannah was 3 years old, the stuffed animal vanished. When it turned up months later, hidden behind a piece of furniture in the nursery, young Hannah embraced the bunny with joy.
BeBe was constantly with her, even during her freshman year at U-Va. But before heading to school this fall, Graham deliberately left BeBe behind on her bed. It was the first time she had left home without the stuffed animal, and her father took it as a sign that his daughter saw herself as coming into her own as an adult.
Driving around Charlottesville looking for their daughter, the Grahams passed a run-down home on Old Lynchburg Road. Weeks later, police officers searching for the college student found her body in a wooded area on the vacant property.
Not long after, the parents went back to where they found her body.
“We just wanted to see where she was,” Graham said. Reached by a short gravel road, the wooded spot seemed far removed from the bustle of the college town. The surrounding trees were beginning to shed their amber, golden and crimson leaves.
“It was very peaceful,” the father said.