Virginia Horror

The Girls Who Were Taken Before Hannah Graham

One was snatched as she carried groceries. Another was trying to get home from a Metallica show. Now both are linked to Jesse Matthew, charged in 18-year-old Graham’s disappearance.

09.30.14 9:55 PM ET

The woman was grabbed from behind as she was walking from a grocery store to a friend’s home in Fairfax, Virginia, on the night of September 24, 2005.

The attacker dragged the 26-year-old into a darkened park and beat her and raped her. He then began to choke her, and as she lost consciousness it must have seemed that his might be the last face she would ever see.

But the attacker was apparently scared away by a passerby. The woman awoke sometime later and was so stunned that she reflexively retrieved some of the groceries she had been carrying when she was attacked.

She was clutching the groceries as she staggered up to what she mistakenly thought was her friend’s door. A neighbor opened it to see her standing before him, bleeding, twigs and grass in her dark hair, a mark on her throat where she had almost had the life choked out of her.

When the police responded, she was able to help them prepare a sketch of that face she saw before everything went dark. Investigators were able to secure a sample of the man’s DNA, and they only needed to match it with somebody in the state database for the next step to be an arrest.

But there was no match.

The sample was entered into the database, and five years later it was matched with another sample, this from a case involving a 19-year-old student named Morgan Harrington. She had gone missing in Charlottesville on October 17, 2009, after she left a Metallica concert to use the bathroom and had been refused reentry to the arena. She had last been seen alive walking along on a nearby railroad bridge. Her purse and cellphone—minus the battery—were later found in the arena’s overflow parking lot. Her T-shirt was recovered some distance away.

On January 26, 2009, a farmer discovered Harrington’s body in a hayfield southwest of the city. Her attacker had raped her and beaten her savagely, splintering her bones as he might if he were seeking to ensure this victim was dead.

“A monster walks among you,” the victim’s mother, Gil Harrington, said. “Violent, sadistic and dangerous.”

She had taken to writing a blog. One entry read:

“I try not to think of how scared you were, the terror you felt. I try not to think of how much pain you were in as you were slaughtered.”

She and her husband, Daniel Harrington, founded an organization dedicated it to preventing other young women from suffered their daughter’s fate.

Help Save the Next Girl” is the name.

On Monday, police in Charlottesville announced that they had “forensic evidence” linking Harrington’s murder—and therefore the Fairfax rape—to the prime suspect in the September 13 disappearance of 18-year-old Hannah Graham.

The suspect was Jesse Matthew, who is now behind bars, charged with abducting the still-missing Graham.

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Back in 2009, Matthew had driven a yellow cab such as Harrington might have felt safe getting into as she sought to leave the area where the concert was held.

After five years, Harrington’s parents now suddenly had reason to hope that their daughter’s killer has finally been caught. But they insisted Monday that the focus at the moment has to remain on finding Graham.

All the attacks occurred in the early fall, between mid-September and mid-October, that time when another school year and a new football season have begun, no doubt a time of particular significance for a one-time high school gridiron star such as Matthew who had gone on to less than glory.

At the time of her disappearance in 2009, Harrington was wearing a necklace that had been given to her by her mother. She was no longer wearing it when she was found, and detectives were unable to recover it. That raised the possibility that the murderer had kept it as a trophy, as sometimes happens with serial killers.

The hope now is that with Matthew in custody, there will be no next girl.