Reflections on the murder of Hannah Graham from a reporter who covered it


To say that I can’t imagine what the parents of Hannah Graham are going through doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. On Friday, law enforcement took John and Sue Graham to the spot on an abandoned property on rural Old Lynchburg Road in Albemarle County where the remains positively ID’d as that of their daughter were found.

Almost a week after finding remains, the Medical Examiner confirmed that the remains found were those of the missing UVA student. It was the news we thought may be coming, but no one was prepared to take in.

This is the Graham’s statement:
“When we first met Chief Longo he promised to find our precious daughter, Hannah, and during five long weeks his resolve to fulfill that promise never wavered. When we started this journey together we all hoped for a happier ending. Sadly that was not to be, but due to the tenacity and determination of Chief Longo, Hannah is coming home to us and we will be eternally grateful to him for this.

The search for Hannah would not have been successful were it not for the many, many people who helped, including Mark Eggeman and VDEM, local, state and federal law enforcement officers, the staff of the City of Charlottesville, and the dedicated members of numerous volunteer search and rescue groups. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We also give our heartfelt thanks to all those who took part in the community search, to the citizens of Charlottesville, and to the individuals, businesses and organizations, both local and national, who provided untold resources to help support the search for Hannah. We would also like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude to those who provided support to us and to our family throughout this ordeal, including the staff and students of the University of Virginia, our friends, neighbors and work colleagues, the staff and students of West Potomac High School, Hannah’s friends, and the countless kind people who have sent us messages of support. We thank you all.

We are devastated by the loss of our beautiful daughter, Hannah. Over recent weeks Hannah has been described by those who know her as bright, witty, thoughtful, loyal and fun to be around. She was all those things and more. Put simply, Hannah lit up our lives, the lives of our family and the lives of her friends and others who knew her. Although we have lost our precious Hannah, the light she radiated can never be extinguished. We will hold it in our hearts forever and it will help sustain us as we face a painful future without her. We are so very proud of Hannah and all that she achieved. Although only 18 years old, Hannah had just started her second year at the University of Virginia when she disappeared and was excelling academically. She loved U.Va. and the City of Charlottesville, and was very happy to return there after the summer break. Hannah had intended to pursue a career in global public health, she wanted to help others, and it is heart-breaking for us that she was robbed so tragically of the opportunity to fulfill her dream.

In closing we would like to draw attention to the fact that, although the waiting has ended for us, there are other families both in Virginia and beyond who have not been as fortunate in that their loved ones are still missing. Please continue to hold these families in your thoughts and prayers.”

For three weeks, I had been in Charlottesville, Virginia, covering the latest developments in the story of the 18-year-old UVA student’s disappearance.

By now, you may now that Hannah disappeared from the downtown mall section of Charlottesville on September 13th. The last person she was seen on surveillance camera video with is 32-year-old Jesse Matthew. Police arrested him in Galveston, Texas and brought him back to Charlottesville where they charged him with her abduction, with intent to defile. That’s a fancy way of saying police say they have proof that Matthew intended to sexually molest her.

It’s one of the toughest stories I’ve ever covered. And I’ve covered a lot. This young woman’s disappearance has rocked this community, and the country. We are all Hannah Graham.

I’d never been to Charlottesville before. It is a beautiful, family-oriented spot with small-town appeal, yet hip restaurants, shops, and an air of sophistication can be found in many areas. There are beautiful rolling hills and countryside, set in the backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains. It’s idyllic and breath-taking.

Yet, here we are, with one teen vanishing into thin air, a Charlottesville native sitting behind bars, and all of it happening in the shadow of a 2009 murder and sex assault of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington. Police say Matthew is forensically linked to that case too. The fact that this man was out and about, holding a job, having friends and relationships, and drinking in local bars while all this was allegedly happening is eye-opening to us all.

Suspect Jesse Matthew is due in court in December. He is charged with Graham’s abduction but hasn’t been convicted. It’s safe to say that now that Hannah’s remain have been found, the Commonwealth Attorney for Albemarle County will be upgrading charges against him, if evidence allows. Here’s the thing, police know a lot more than the reporters do. There’s a lot of rush to speculate, especially in the 24-hour news cycle, but there’s a lot we don’t know.

What we do know is just this week police in Fairfax County indicted Matthew for allegedly attacking, sexually assaulting and trying to kill a 26-year-old woman in 2005. Chilling. They say he’s forensically linked to this crime too.

People called Matthew a gentle giant, and people who know him including his family are stunned, but there’s also allegations of two rapes at two colleges back in the early 2000s. To be clear, he was never charged. These are the facts we know. There’s many we don’t.

What I do know for sure is that the people who charged with the search for Hannah and providing justice for her family are some amazing, strong and dedicated people. Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo shares what he can with the reporters out here, and is always respectful and steadfast in his task at hand – to find Hannah. Much has been said about his compassion, dedication and resolve. I tend to agree. The search effort was phenomenal and seemingly never-ending, with anywhere between 30 and 150 trained professionals from all around the state walking, hiking, riding horses, riding ATVs, flying in helicopters, working with drone operators, working with imaging analysts from a company that provides high-resolution cameras affixed to a manned aircraft that shoots pictures every day – all looking for Hannah Graham. It’s impressive, and comprehensive.

The case has received worldwide attention. That means hundreds of phone calls from reporters to the press people who represent Chief Longo, and the man at the head of the search, Mark Eggeman of VDEM. For the most part, they have been responsive, polite, and accommodating. We want to tell an accurate story, so we have a lot of questions to make sure we are putting the right facts out there. It is our responsibility and every one of the reporters I’ve met out here, from Maria Hallas at NBC29, to Stephon Dingle at CBS19 to so many others have been professional, dedicated, caring and we all feel like we have a responsibility to this story. It has touched each and every one of us.

One thing that nags at me are the rape allegations at the two schools that Matthew attended. The alleged victims never pressed charges. That could be for a myriad of reasons, including that Matthew did not commit rape. We have to consider that. Scott Pelley of the CBS Evening News reported last week that only 3% of rapists ever do time. 3%. That’s it. Sad.

To be clear, I have no evidence Matthew raped the two women at the two colleges that raised the allegations. But, IF, and let me repeat, IF the rapes did happen at Liberty University and Christopher Newport University in the early 2000s, I feel for the victims involved.

I know from my reporting that it is not easy to subject yourself to a 4-hour rape kit test where a nurse swabs and combs your body for DNA. Then, you have to go through the pain of reliving your worst nightmare at a trial. There are many reasons why victims feel they can’t go through with all that. After all, like Pelley said, only 3% of rapists do time. Add to that, it is estimated that 400,000 rape kits sit on shelves untested all around the country – what does that say about your chances of getting your rapist convicted? Not to mention, it speaks volumes about the priority this country has placed upon getting rapists off the street.

If you don’t think rape in this country is an epidemic, read this – 1 in 5 women in college in this country will end up victims of sexual assault as undergrads, according to a study touted by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

She’s part of a bipartisan bill right now being looked at on Capitol Hill that aims to make college campuses safer by confronting sexual violence against students. It’s called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. It is trying to protect and empower students, and strengthen accountability and transparency for schools, including stiff penalties for not complying with training and data standards.

Sexual violence is a very real problem for women in this country. Covering this case has reminded me of this. But, it’s also reminded me of the good in people. In addition to Chief Longo and Mark Eggeman and the hundreds of dedicated searchers, I met a woman named Kate Webster who works at the 911 call center. She takes tips all day long on the Hannah Graham tip line. I watched her as she patiently and politely talked to people and took tips. She did her job, taking down all the info accurately, but she also went above and beyond, assuring the caller that no information is too little, it can all add up. She sympathized with them, and made them feel that she shared their concern. As a mom, this case stays with her too. As a reporter, I’ve covered many cases, many of them tragic. My resolve is to do the best job I can to put accurate information out there, respectfully. And to fight for the stories that need to be told. If it changes one person’s perspective, it’s all worth it.IMG_6790.PNG



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