While throngs of University of Virginia students poured into the basketball arena to hear a talk by Kevin Spacey this past Saturday, a smaller, much more somber gathering took place across town at the Charlottesville police station. At 6 p.m., Charlottesville police chief Tim Longo took the podium at a press conference to deliver a grim development: At around noon, a team searching for missing 18-year-old U.Va. student Hannah Graham uncovered human remains in southern Albemarle County. The site of the discovery—a wooded, abandoned property along Old Lynchburg Road—is less than 10 miles from where Graham was last spotted on the early morning of Sept. 13.
“Forensic tests need to be conducted to determine the identification of those remains,” said Longo, “but nonetheless, we wanted to be quick and timely to share that information with the Graham family.”
Planned search efforts for Graham have been called off, and Albemarle County Police have taken charge of the investigation. Authorities have begun combing the areas surrounding the site, and police are interviewing local residents. The remains have also been sent to the chief medical examiner in Richmond for official forensic identification.
Upon learning the news, some students expressed a sense of relief—saddened, yet grateful for some sense of conclusion after weeks of speculation.
“We have hoped and prayed for a safe return but must now be relieved, at the very, very least, that there is some form of closure,” said a friend of Hannah, who wished to remain anonymous. “We are all mourning the loss of a very vibrant and special member of our U.Va. family.”
Other students argue that the discovery of remains cannot fully mollify public consciousness surrounding the case.
“The mood is fundamentally sober on Grounds. … Even if we do receive confirmation [of her remains being identified], so many questions about that evening remain unanswered. Until we find who is responsible, the community will never be able to have complete closure,” said second-year class president Abraham Axler. Axler, who has served as a liaison to the public throughout the case, has been deeply involved in U.Va’s response to the repercussions of Graham’s disappearance.
Still, after weeks of news coverage—and a slow trickle of inconclusive evidence—many students found the discovery of remains to be a tragic confirmation of their suspicions.
“The longer we went without getting positive news, the more likely it seemed to me that this would be the result of the investigation,” third-year student Russell Bogue said.
“I just feel a pit in my stomach… even the most cynical of us had the tiniest bit of hope that she would come out of this. Hearing that a body was found gives concrete evidence that Charlottesville isn’t as safe as we think it is,” third-year student Katie Morley said.
While authorities still have not officially confirmed the identity of the remains, U.Va. students and strangers alike have taken to social media to express their grief. Some friends of Hannah changed their Facebook profile pictures to photos of themselves with Graham, while tweets described far-reaching “heartbreak” over the news. Popular social media app YikYak, which allows users to post anonymous comments within specific college communities, filled with blurbs mourning and commemorating Graham within minutes of the press conference.
The community response and search for the missing student has been “unprecedented” said Longo, who thanked the hundreds of volunteers who donated time and money to the effort. Albemarle County police chief Colonel Peter Sellers was also present for the conference.
“I ask for the public’s patience as we move forward and pursue what is now an ongoing death investigation,” said Sellers.
The 35-day search for Graham, who was born in the United Kingdom before moving to Virginia at age 5, has drawn international attention to the university and the surrounding community of Charlottesville. During the past month, news vans and camera crews became a common sight in a community that students describe as “a small college town” with a “sense of security.”
In the weeks following her disappearance, hopes of finding Graham were kept alive. Graham’s parents teamed with school administrators and student leaders to rally support for search efforts. A public vigil on U.Va.’s campus attracted an estimated 6,000 people, with vigils taking place at other Virginia universities as well. Hundreds of civilian volunteers were recruited and trained, scouring communities for any evidence of Graham. Orange ribbons were also distributed on U.VA.’s campus, symbolizing hope for Graham’s return to her parents and friends.
Yet, despite strong morale, suspicions of foul play were fueled by the discovery of security video footage, some of which showed Graham on the pedestrian mall where she was last seen walking with Jesse Matthew, the 32-year-old suspect arrested in connection with her disappearance. Searches of Matthew’s car and apartment provided further evidence for his arrest in Texas 11 days after her disappearance. Recent forensic evidence also links Matthew to the murder of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who disappeared after leaving a concert at U.Va. in 2009.
For many on U.VA.’s seemingly placid campus, the recent news is just one part of a long and painful wakeup call that has affected college campuses across the nation. Morley added that, before Graham’s disappearance, some students at U.Va. were accustomed to moving between parties and bars on campus, alone, intoxicated, “with reckless abandon.”
“I don’t think safety was the first thing on people’s minds [before Hannah disappeared],” she said.