They are a small society, bound by tragedy.
When a child goes missing, few people can fathom the awful wait, the filling in of blanks, the nightmares. There aren’t many who can relate to the horror that Hannah Graham’s family is living now.
The Harringtons can, and they reached out to offer companionship – if not comfort, because there is no such thing as comfort here — to the parents of the 18-year-old University of Virginia sophomore who vanished September 13.
“There are no Hallmark cards for missing. Missing is tough,” said Gil Harrington, who spent three horrific months in “missing” hell only to have it replaced with something different, but equally painful, once the body of her 20-year-old daughter, Morgan Harrington, was found in a Virginia field five years ago.
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The Harringtons, who exist in a constant state of mourning, mending, advocating and wondering, immediately recognized their own anguish when they saw the Grahams on television, pleading for the public’s help in finding their daughter.
“You look at their faces and see the broken look. You know that look, that feeling,” said Gil Harrington, who runs a foundation called Help Save the Next Girl. “I remember what it was like when it was one week old. When it was two weeks old.”
Then they learned that their ties could be deeper than a shared emotion, a shared experience.
Graham, who’d been out with friends, was last seen with Jesse L. “L.J.” Matthew Jr. near a Charlottesville restaurant. Police arrested Matthew, 32, in Galveston, Tex., and charged him with kidnapping with intent to defile. And then they acknowledged that his arrest provided a forensic link to Harrington’s death. Harrington was a student at Virginia Tech when she left a Metallica concert at U-Va. on Oct. 17, 2009. She was found dead three months later.
Matthew has not been charged in connection with her death, but the information has the Harringtons reliving all of it all over again.
When the Harringtons’ daughter disappeared, the mother of Chandra Levy, a Washington intern who was missing for a year before her remains were found in Rock Creek Park in 2002, reached out to them. Last summer, the Harringtons did the same for the family of Alexis Murphy, who was 17 when she was last seen at a gas station near Lynchburg. Her body has not been found, but Randy Taylor, 49, was convicted of murdering her.
All these families understand one another in a way the rest of the world simply can’t. “I think that great tragedy catapults you from your great differences to your shared humanity,” Gil Harrington said.
She tries to stay focused on campus safety for women, especially during the first few months of school, when her daughter and Graham went missing, when students newly on their own are off-kilter and vulnerable.
We now know that Matthew was accused of sexual assault at two colleges, in 2002 and 2003. Both times, at Liberty University in Lynchburg and then at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, police investigated, but neither incident led to a criminal case.
The alleged 2002 rape at Liberty was on October 17, the same date Harrington was last seen alive. The Christopher Newport case was in September, the same month as Graham’s disappearance. Police also said they have DNA evidence linking Harrington’s death with the abduction and rape of a 26-year-old woman who escaped from her kidnapper in Northern Virginia on September 24, 2005.
If this is all the work of one person, he could be a back-to-school killer, Gil Harrington said.
The Graham case brings into sharper focus the crisis of sexual assault at American colleges. Too often, the same person is accused of assault multiple times. And if a predator moves around, it can be hard to track him.
For the Harringtons, the work of their foundation feels more crucial than ever. Their mission will be to try to save the next girl — after Hannah.
© 2014, The Washington Post