CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jesse L. Matthew Jr. hopped from bar to bar, making ever more aggressive advances on women and getting rebuffed, before he spotted Hannah Graham weaving drunkenly down a Charlottesville pedestrian mall in the early hours of Sept. 13, 2014.
A witness watched as Matthew, a burly former football player, caught up to Graham and slung his arm around her neck. The witness protested to Matthew, “You don’t even know her.”
Matthew replied simply, “Hush.”
The moment was the beginning of Matthew’s abduction and murder of the 18-year-old University of Virginia sophomore, whose disappearance would touch off a massive search and make headlines across the country.
The fresh details in the high-profile case emerged Wednesday as Matthew, 33, pleaded guilty to killing Graham, of Fairfax County, and Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington in a similar abduction in 2009.
The guilty pleas in an Albemarle County court — to two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abduction with intent to defile — were part of an agreement with prosecutors that spared Matthew the possibility of facing the death penalty if convicted at trial in Graham’s murder.
Circuit Court Judge Cheryl V. Higgins sentenced Matthew to four life terms, added to the three life terms he is serving for a brutal sexual assault in Fairfax County in 2005. He was convicted in that case last year. As part of the deal, Matthew may not appeal or seek geriatric release, ensuring that he will die in custody.
The emotional hearing brought a close to a long, slow journey for the Grahams and for Harrington’s family, which had waited more than six years for her killer to be brought to justice.
Susan Graham, Hannah Graham’s mother, read a statement to the court.
“Her friends said that she would change the world, and she did, but at a terrible price,” Graham said, noting that her daughter helped police arrest “a serial rapist and murderer hiding in plain sight. She is a heroine.”
Wearing a black-and-white-striped jumpsuit, Matthew spoke only to answer the judge’s questions. Douglas Ramseur, his attorney, read a statement on his behalf.
“He’s very sorry for what happened,” Ramseur said. “He loves his family very much.”
Harrington, 20, disappeared after leaving a Metallica concert in Charlottesville in October 2009. Her body was found months later in an Albemarle County pasture, but it would take years and Graham’s disappearance to catch a break in the case.
Graham set out with friends on the evening of Sept. 12, 2014, to go to a restaurant and attended two parties. Witnesses told authorities that Graham had been drinking all night and had become increasingly intoxicated.
Around midnight, Graham said she was not feeling well and left the second party for home. Soon, she was lost.
Meanwhile, Matthew had made his way to several bars, where women would later tell investigators he made them feel uncomfortable by touching them and making unwanted advances. At one bar, prosecutors said Matthew took off a woman’s sock and grabbed her foot.
“A woman that takes care of her feet takes care of everything else,” he is said to have told her.
After 1 a.m., a surveillance camera captured the moment Matthew and Graham met — the same scene described by a witness. Susan Graham talked in court about the horror of watching Matthew notice her daughter and then make his way toward the young woman.
“We saw what evil looks like,” Graham said. “He hunted her.”
Matthew and Graham went to a bar called Tempo, where he ordered a drink for her. As the pair were leaving, prosecutors said, a witness who observed Matthew and Graham told someone ominously, “He’s gonna [expletive] her up.”
Matthew and Graham were then seen walking to his car. When they arrived, another witness heard Graham shout: “I’m not getting in that car with you! What is it, stolen?” The witness told investigators that Graham seemed frightened. The witness said he kept walking and listened, but heard nothing else.
It was the last time anyone saw Graham alive.
Friends quickly reported Graham missing, and searches for her began in the days that followed. Police soon found the surveillance footage of Matthew and Graham together, and he fled the area after being questioned. He was arrested in Texas after a nationwide manhunt.
About a month after her slaying, Graham’s body was found in a ravine behind an abandoned home in a remote part of Albemarle County. Susan Graham commented in court on the indignity of her daughter’s treatment.
“He dumped our daughter’s body like a bag of trash,” Graham said, noting that the remains sat for weeks in the wooded area, “to be picked over by buzzards and vultures.”
After Matthew’s arrest, he was linked through a DNA test to a cold case that bore striking similarities to the Graham disappearance — the slaying of Harrington. Harrington had stepped out of the concert alone and was unable to get back inside the arena. Matthew was driving a taxi in the area at the time, and a witness saw Harrington just feet from his cab that night.
A bloody T-shirt that Harrington wore was discovered in Charlottesville the next month, and her remains were found on a farm in southern Albemarle County three months later.
A DNA analysis of blood on the shirt yielded a match with a profile of a suspect in a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax County. In addition, investigators found a dog hair on the shirt, prosecutors said. A lab that specializes in animal DNA would later determine it shared genetic similarities with hair taken from Matthew’s dog, Popcorn.
It was just one example of the lengths investigators went to in gathering evidence in the cases. In Graham’s case, detectives called on a botanist who determined plant material removed from the chassis of Matthew’s car matched plants at the location where Graham’s body was dumped. Forensic anthropologists examined the skeletons in both cases.
Last year, Matthew was convicted in the Fairfax County case. Evidence showed that DNA recovered from the victim’s fingernail was highly likely to belong to Matthew.
After he took the witness stand steps away from his daughter’s killer, Dan Harrington described the void left in his family by her death and asked aloud the questions that he had thought about for 6
“How could he? Why would he?” Harrington said.
Matthew said nothing.