T. Rees Shapiro (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Police on Saturday announced that they found human remains believed to be those of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, who disappeared from Charlottesville five weeks ago after an evening out with friends.
Graham, an 18-year-old from Fairfax County, Virginia, vanished in the early hours of Sept. 13. Jesse Matthew Jr., a 32-year-old Charlottesville man who was last seen with Graham, was arrested and charged with her abduction, but the young woman’s whereabouts remained unknown.
Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo Sr. said the remains were found by a sheriff’s deputy during a search of an abandoned property in Albemarle County. Authorities stressed that a conclusive identification has not been made and said the remains would be sent to the Virginia medical examiner’s office for forensic testing.
Longo said police have notified Graham’s family. Authorities also called off a search for the teen planned for Sunday, saying they would focus on the newly discovered evidence.
If the body is that of the sophomore, it marks a grim end to a massive and emotional search that involved more than 4,000 tips and the help of family, students, community members and law enforcement who scoured the city and rural areas.
“I want to thank everyone who gave up their days, their nights, their weekends,” Longo said of the search for Graham. “People who called, wrote and dropped food and good wishes and words of encouragement to the search groups and the detectives who work so hard through this investigation.”
“Today would have not been possible without their prayers, their encouragement and their help,” the chief said.
Longo said a police official reached out to Graham’s parents, John and Susan Graham, with “a very difficult phone call to share this preliminary discovery.”
Police said they have been searching the abandoned property for any clues and said they would not release further details at this stage of the investigation.
“Today’s discovery is a significant development. And we have a great deal of work ahead of us. We cannot and we will not jump to any conclusions in regards to today’s discovery,” said Col. Steve Sellers of the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office.
“This sadly is now a death investigation,” Sellers said.
Graham’s parents did not immediately comment Saturday night. Five days ago, they issued a statement pleading for information about their daughter’s whereabouts.
“It is heart-breaking for us that the person or persons who know where Hannah is have not come forward with that information,” the Grahams said Monday. “It is within their power both to end this nightmare for all and to relieve the searchers of their arduous task.”
In an interview with The Washington Post in September, John and Susan Graham said they had been holding out hope that their daughter would be found alive but suspected a crime in her case.
Friends and teachers describe Hannah Graham, a 2013 graduate of West Potomac High School in the Alexandria area of Fairfax, as a good student with a sense of humor. At the University of Virginia, Graham participated in an alternative spring break as a freshman, volunteering long hours rebuilding homes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, destroyed by tornadoes. She was known as a central figure in the college’s ski club.
“If she’s a victim of foul play, then someone perpetrated it,” John Graham said last month. “We want to prevent that person or persons from doing it again.”
The investigation into Hannah Graham’s disappearance has led to leads in other unsolved crimes.
Matthew, who had worked as an orderly at the University of Virginia hospital, has been linked by DNA evidence to the investigations of two violent crimes: a violent sexual assault in Fairfax City in 2005 and the abduction and slaying of Virginia Tech University student Morgan Harrington, 20, in October 2009, police have said. He has not been charged in either case.
In addition, two Virginia universities that Matthew attended between 2002 and 2003 said that he was accused in two separate incidents of sexually assaulting women. Both women declined to press charges against Matthew, and he was not convicted of any crime connected to the allegations.
Witnesses said Graham and Matthew crossed paths sometime early the morning of Sept. 13.
Graham spent Sept. 12, a Friday evening, drinking and socializing with friends near campus before heading out on the town around midnight. By 1 a.m., she was seen wandering Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, about a mile and a half from her apartment. She sent messages to friends indicating that she was lost.
Shortly after 1 a.m., witnesses saw Graham with Matthew near Tempo restaurant. Brice Cunningham, the owner of Tempo, told The Washington Post that his employees later saw Graham and Matthew leaving the restaurant together. She had not been seen since.
Police quickly focused on Matthew, searching his car and his Charlottesville apartment and eventually seeking a warrant for his arrest. After a nationwide manhunt, Matthew was arrested Sept. 24 on a beach near Galveston, Texas, more than 1,300 miles from his apartment.
Matthew was charged with abduction with intent to defile, indicating that police believe he planned to sexually assault Graham. He has been held without bond in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
James Camblos III, the lawyer representing Matthew, said he would await further information.
“The police have located human remains, and we will wait to see what the medical examiner says to see who it is,” Camblos said.
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Washington Post staff writers Clarence Williams, Mary Pat Flaherty and Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.