BLUEFIELD, Va. — Bluefield College graduate Jeremy Carper, a detective with the Charlottesville, Va., Police Department, returned to his alma mater Tuesday to discuss his role in the high profile murder cases of Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington.
“This is the largest search effort in the state of Virginia,” Carper said of the investigation.
After an 18-year-old student at The University of Virginia (UVA), Hannah Graham went missing in September 2014, law enforcement began an investigation that would later charge her killer, Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., of Virginia, with the separate 2009 murder of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington. The investigation also linked and charged Matthew with the 2005 sexual assault and attempted murder of a Fairfax woman.
According to Carper, Matthew was charged with the capital murder of Graham, the abduction with intent to defile and first-degree murder of Harrington. As part of his plea deal, which was accepted after prosecutors discussed the possibility of the death penalty, Matthew has no likely hood of leaving prison as law enforcement stripped all opportunities including geriatric release.
Of how this case affected him and his career, Carper said, “With this kind of successful case people start depending on you a little bit more.”
Other crimes that Matthew was linked to include the 2002 rape and sexual assault of a Liberty University student, though it was not prosecuted he was dismissed from the university. Matthew then moved to Christopher Newport University where a 2003 sexual assault claim was filed against him though charges were not pressed.
In September 2014, Graham vanished from Charlottesville, Va. sending local and state law enforcement into a full-blown search. According to Carper, she went missing after attending off-campus parties where she was filmed by surveillance cameras walking unsteadily. Surveillance footage captured Graham looking distressed and panicked while getting into a vehicle with Matthew Jr.
After playing surveillance footage of Graham, Carper said, “A witness told investigators that a female matching her description said, ‘I’m not getting in there what is it stolen?’”
As law enforcement was investigating Matthew as a suspect a search of his car with a blue ultraviolet light resulted in the discovery of Graham’s DNA. During the investigation, Matthew asked law enforcement to retrieve documents from his vehicle that included his birth certificate and passport application.
“You don’t have to be a seasoned investigator to see the writing on the wall here,” Carper said, “Does this sound like a man that’s going to stick around? No, he’s going to go on the run.”
As the investigation continued Carper began to realize the high probability of Matthew’s involvement in other crimes. Prior to his conviction of the sexual assault, law enforcement had DNA on file but hadn’t matched it to Matthew. Upon searching his home Carper collected an indirect piece of DNA evidence.
“What better than a black and mild cigarette butt from the wallet that contains the ID of your suspect? That’s a pretty good alternate DNA sample,” Carper said, “It’s not directly from his person so we can’t call it his known DNA but we can call it an alternate.”
While DNA test results typically come back in six to eight months, the cigarette tested positive for Matthew’s DNA in three days, after the governor of Virginia called the state lab. Due to this case causing campus security concerns, the governor stepped in to speed up the test results, Carper expressed.
The positive results connected him to both the Fairfax assault and Harrington’s murder. Prior to his conviction Matthew had been a suspect of Harrington’s murder, while he was a taxi driver in the Charlottesville area, but was not charged at that time. During the time of Graham’s murder Matthew was working as an orderly at the UVA hospital.
Of the 301 pieces of evidence found pointing to Matthew as Graham’s killer included vegetation found on the underside of his car that matched the area where her body was found. After discovering her body investigators were astounded that in just five weeks her remains were entirely skeletal.
The area where Graham’s remains were found was covered in dense vegetation which took investigators six days to remove. Carper explained that though the vegetation around the remains was removed the remains themselves were not moved to leave the scene intact.
Carper noted that Harrington’s and Graham’s bodies were found in a two-mile distance from each other in rural Albemarle County, though the murders occurred five years apart, showing that Matthew was familiar with the area.
Prior to his arrest and charge, while the investigation was ongoing, Matthew fled Virginia and was located living in a tent on a Galveston, Texas beach.
While the case itself was complicated enough, there were unique difficulties according to Carper. During the investigation, people continually described Matthew as quiet and sweet-natured.
“Most of the time if you have a homicide case you’ll get one of those witnesses that’s just like ‘Yea I saw this coming. It was only a matter of time,’” Carper said, “It was kind of a crime of opportunity.”
While Matthew is serving multiple life sentences in prison he was recently diagnosed with stage four cancer. “He wasn’t getting out of jail before that [his diagnosis],” Carper said, “But he will die in jail.”
— Contact Emily D. Coppola at firstname.lastname@example.org