Morgan Harrington (Courtesy of Harrington family)

Virginia State Police investigators said Monday that the arrest of Jesse L. “LJ” Matthew Jr., who allegedly abducted missing U-Va. student Hannah Graham this month, has provided “a significant break” in the case of a young woman who similarly disappeared in Charlottesville five years ago and was later found dead.

Police said Matthew’s arrest last week has given state police investigators “a new forensic link” to pursue in the abduction and slaying of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, 20, who went missing in Charlottesville on Oct. 17, 2009. Harrington’s body was found in a field 10 miles south of town 101 days after she disappeared outside a Metallica concert at a U-Va. arena.

Charlottesville police allege that Matthew abducted Graham in the early-morning hours of Sept. 13 after he found her walking alone and intoxicated in the city’s downtown area. Graham, who was seen with Matthew sometime after 1 a.m. that day, has not been heard from since. Extensive searches for Graham have been unsuccessful.

Police and other law enforcement officials would not disclose what evidence they have collected, how it is related to Matthew, or how it might be linked to Harrington’s case.

But any connection between Harrington’s disappearance and Graham’s could indicate what many in the U-Va. community have feared: that an attacker has preyed on at least two young, vulnerable women near the state’s flagship public college campus.

Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy J. Longo said Monday that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the developments: “My focus is finding Hannah Graham.”

James L. Camblos III, who represents Matthew in the Graham case, said he met with his client for 2 1 / 2 hours Monday, but he declined to comment further.

Virginia State Police notified Gil Harrington, Morgan’s mother, about a connection between the cases, but she said police did not elaborate on what evidence links them.

“My daughter’s bedroom is still as empty as it ever was,” Harrington said. “And I know there is another missing girl out there that has brought this suspect to light. . . . We have ridden this roller coaster and thought so many times, ‘Could this be the person who killed Morgan?’ ”

Those familiar with the two disappearances said privately Monday that there are obvious similarities, with both women vanishing suddenly, at night, while alone in Charlottesville after separating from friends. And both appeared to have been seeking help or perhaps a ride: Graham had indicated to friends in text messages that she was lost and was looking for a way back to her off-campus apartment; Harrington had ended up outside the U-Va. arena, called a friend to say she would find her way home, and was last seen hitchhiking.

Graham’s parents, John and Sue, said in an interview last week that while they maintained hope that their daughter would be found alive, they suspected a crime in her case.

“If she’s a victim of foul play, then someone perpetrated it,” John Graham said. “We want to prevent that person or persons from doing it again.”

Matthew, who worked at U-Va.’s hospital as a patient technician, has been described by friends as a church-going “gentle giant” who used his collegiate football experience to help coach high schoolers. Longtime friends said he is well known in Charlottesville; a relative has said that he believed Matthew was being framed.

Should Graham’s disappearance be directly related to Harrington’s, it would suggest the work of a serial offender, as police in 2010 linked Harrington’s death to a violent sex assault in Fairfax City in 2005. The FBI later said that Virginia authorities submitted forensic evidence in the Fairfax case to the FBI’s national DNA database and that a search matched DNA from the Harrington investigation.

In the Fairfax attack, a 26-year-old Fairfax woman was grabbed by a man on Rock Garden Drive as she was walking home from a Giant supermarket around 10 p.m. on Sept. 24, 2005. The man carried the woman to a nearby swimming pool and assaulted her before running away. The woman described the suspect as between 25 to 35 years old and having a medium build and dark hair.

Fairfax City police declined to comment on whether a photograph of Matthew, 32, who is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 270 pounds, has been shown to the victim of the 2005 sexual assault there.

“We will thoroughly assess any new information we may receive regarding this case,” the department said in a statement.

Linda Jackson, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, said the department could not comment on the Virginia State Police news release regarding the Graham and Harrington cases because the investigations are active. She also declined to say whether the department has finished analyzing items processed in the disappearance of Graham, which includes evidence gathered from Matthew’s car and apartment.

Virginia State Police said Monday that investigations into both Harrington’s death and Graham’s disappearance continue in earnest.

“There is still a great deal of work to be done in regards to this investigation, and we appreciate the public’s patience as we move forward,” Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for Virginia State Police, said in a statement Monday. “The public’s focus needs to remain on helping Charlottesville Police locate and bring Hannah Graham home.”

The search for Graham is ongoing, and police have scoured the area where Harrington’s remains were found as well as an expanding area of rural land surrounding the U-Va. campus. Dave Bass, who found Harrington’s body on a farm in Albemarle County in early 2010, said he and his family do not know Matthew.

Graham, a sophomore from Fairfax County, disappeared after spending the evening of Sept. 12 socializing and drinking with friends. Later that night, Graham left her apartment near the popular Corner area of Charlottesville to meet up with another group of friends, apparently got disoriented, and crossed paths with Matthew on the Downtown Mall, a pedestrian area lined with shops, bars and eateries.

Brice Cunningham, the owner of the Tempo restaurant and bar, said that Graham was seen walking away from the establishment with Matthew after 1 a.m. Cunningham said that Graham, 18, waited outside his establishment while Matthew went in and paid for two drinks.

Charlottesville police later searched Matthew’s car and apartment and said they found evidence linking him to Graham’s disappearance. Matthew was charged with abduction with intent to defile, indicating that police think he intended to sexually assault her.

Matthew was found last week on a beach near Galveston, Tex., where a tip about a suspicious person led a local sheriff’s deputy to confront him. It is not clear why Matthew was there, approximately 1,300 miles from Charlottesville. Matthew waived an extradition hearing and arrived in Charlottesville on Friday. He is scheduled to appear in court on Thursday for a bond hearing and is being held in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

Matthew’s longtime friends said they were surprised by the allegations. Two friends who knew Matthew in high school started a Web site that raised $2,000 to help cover his legal fees. They suspended the site Monday after receiving threats.

“The LJ that I knew was a very joyful person,” said one high school friend, who spoke anonymously because of threats made against her for starting the fundraising portal. “He made you happy just to be around him.”

She said that Matthew, who played football at Liberty and Christopher Newport universities, was the kind of player in high school who would make a tackle and then offer a hand to opposing players.