Morgan Harrington’s family marks five years since their lives changed

Posted at 10:43 AM, Oct 17, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-17 11:30:10-04

ROANOKE, Virginia (Special to CNN) — On this day five years ago, Dan and Gil Harrington became members of a club they never wanted to join and one they can never quit.

The dues are more than steep. They are crushing. And yet, membership in this club grows.

The Harringtons belong to the Murdered Child’s Club.

That’s how they describe it, anyway. Their membership began October 17, 2009, when their daughter, Morgan Dana Harrington, went missing in Charlottesville where she was attending a rock concert on the University of Virginia campus.

101 excruciating days later, the 20-year-old’s skeletal remains were discovered 10 miles from the concert arena, on a hillside of a sprawling farm in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her death was ruled a homicide.

With each passing year, the Harringtons have had to work harder and harder to stay connected to their daughter. They keep her cell number active so they can call it and hear her voice mail message. They also have been mindful to keep grief from becoming their undoing, both as individuals and as a couple.

On Friday, the Harringtons mark the fifth anniversary of their daughter’s murder the same way they have marked four others – with a ceremony on Charlottesville’s Copeley Road Bridge, the last place witnesses reported seeing Morgan alive. The family has used these annual milestones to try to generate new information on who may have killed Morgan and to warn young women in Charlottesville to be vigilant.

This anniversary brings with it new hope that Morgan’s case will be solved.

Ironically, and many fear tragically, the disappearance almost five weeks ago of another young woman, University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, has offered the most promising lead yet.

On September 24, a patient technician at the University of Virginia Medical Center was charged with abducting Graham with an intent to defile. Police say DNA now links that man, Jesse L. Matthew Jr., 32, to Morgan’s death. No charges in that case have been filed. In a statement, Matthew’s lawyer, James L. Camblos III, said he has “not been provided with any evidence that links (Matthew) to either” the Graham or Harrington cases.

Although the developments may turn out to be the break the Harringtons have longed for, it is not one they are celebrating. “Our feeling is not joy,” Morgan’s mother says. “There is another missing girl, and we have tried really hard to prevent that.”

The months that Morgan was missing, her mom says, were far worse than the years since her death. “It is debilitating to try to swing on the pendulum between hope and despair. You don’t want to just sit in mourning because you don’t want to quit on your kid. It really is easier to know that your child is dead. It is primitive. Once you have the body, you know that nobody is going to hurt them again.”

Easier, maybe, but far from easy. The Murdered Child’s Club comes with a lifetime membership. “Unless you belong to this club,” Dan Harrington says, “you simply have no clue what it’s like.”

Staying connected

In the family room of their two-story brick home in Roanoke County, two hours southwest of Charlottesville, Dan Harrington works on a laptop marked with evidence tape. Sitting nearby is Kirby, Morgan’s silky terrier.

Dan, 62, bought Morgan the computer to take to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where she was studying to be a teacher. Police returned the laptop after combing it for possible leads. The evidence tape has proved too stubborn to remove.

“I use it all the time,” he says of his daughter’s computer. It contains her coursework, pictures and thousands of iTunes downloads, featuring artists ranging from Jerry Garcia to Bob Marley to Metallica, the band Morgan went to see the night she died.

“I have to have these connections to Morgan,” says her dad, who offers that he and his daughter traveled on the same wavelength. “We just got each other.”

He brings up her cell phone account. “I hate AT&T but they will always have our business,” he laughs. He then tears up after calling her number and listening to the lilting voice on her message.

‘Hi guys. This is Morgan. I can’t talk just now but if you leave me a message, I’ll call you as soon as I can.’

“She always says that she’ll get back to us but she never does,” says her mom, 57, who has her own way of staying connected. Gil has taken to using the hand lotion in Morgan’s bathroom sparingly. “I like to use it because Morgan’s hands touched it but it’s almost done. The stuff of Morgan, and the things that ran through her hands, are fewer and fewer in our lives. The ones that are there we like a lot. We find comfort in them.”

What connects members of the Murdered Child’s Club, and by extension, the Murdered Sibling’s Club, to the people they grieve depends of course on the connections they had. After Morgan died, her brother Alex, 27, a fashion photo stylist in New York with Vogue, asked her parents for her duvet, eyeglasses and retainer. When he comes home, he sleeps in Morgan’s bed.

“It is funny where you find comfort,” says his mom, who has given some of Morgan’s shirts and jewelry to her daughter’s friends. “I like to see Morgan’s clothes on other people. It lets me know that they think of her when they get up in the morning.”

While the Harringtons have a hold on the past, they realize that, as a matter of practicality and necessity, they have to go on with their lives, too. That’s why the cigar box in the living room, the one that belonged to Morgan’s grandfather and now holds her ashes, is no longer always front and center on the coffee table. “We needed someplace to put the cheese plate,” Gil says with a laugh.

Morgan’s ashes also have been scattered where the family vacationed in North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in a remote spot in the Himalayas, carried there by a college professor who taught Morgan and is now a close family friend.

Gil carried still more to Zambia, where she does relief work with the Orphan Medical Network International, a Roanoke-based organization that offers medical care and education to people in that southern Africa country. In 2012, the group opened the Morgan Harrington Educational Wing in the country’s third-largest city, Ndola, which is on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“The building came from a ‘feeling sorry for yourself’ moment,” Morgan’s mom says. “I thought, ‘All I have are these freaking ashes.’ Before we started building, I took some of them and rubbed them into the foundation area. Now I can say that Morgan’s ashes made cinder block and built something.”

Gil plans to travel to Zambia in November to see the school’s next graduating class. “I find that very gratifying,” she says. “What has made this terrible and tragic murder at all palatable to Dan and me is that we have squeezed and cajoled a whole lot of good from the fact that Morgan Harrington was and that her death has not eradicated her.”

Building on heartache

The Harringtons may be better equipped than most to construct something positive from heartache. “What choice do we have?” Morgan’s dad asks. “It is amazing what people can do if they have to.”

He and his wife joined the Murdered Child’s Club already knowing a lot about suffering and loss. Dan is the senior dean for academic affairs of the new Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute in Roanoke. He also is a psychiatrist. Gil is an oncology nurse. The couple is educated and experienced enough to know that the kind of hit they took shatters families. They are determined to keep it from shattering theirs.

That means respecting their son’s wishes to remain out of the spotlight after his parents stepped into it in an effort to keep Morgan’s case in the public eye. “Alex told us that he is proud of us and that he will do what we ask of him, but that he doesn’t want to lead his life with this,” his mother says. “We said, ‘Honey, go and be wonderful.'”

She understands the self-inflicted wounds that being in the spotlight brings. “I’ll be in Kroger and people will blurt out, ‘Are you the mother of the dead girl?’ Happens all the time,” Gil says. “I always stop and talk. I’ve put myself out there. It still cuts a little bit.” Others recognize her and avert their eyes, which may be even more painful. “Some people have said, ‘When are the Harringtons going to get over it already?'”

The couple joke about the mental list they have compiled of “things never to say” to the parents of a slain child, derived from things people have said to them in an attempt to be comforting.

No. 1: Don’t compare the loss of a child to the loss of a cat.

No. 2: A child can’t be replaced. “I had some guy hug me and say, ‘You can always have other children,'” Gil says. “That would be remarkable given my age.”

Her husband seizes on the opening. “I told Gil that if she gets off a plane from Zambia with a child, she better get a lawyer.”

The Harringtons can be disarmingly irreverent and funny, which they recognize as a sign of healing. “We are not going to get closure. And we are not going to get over it,” Gil says. “I do think you can get beyond it. I think you can recover. That makes sense to me.”

Recovering means listening, really listening, to one another and cutting each other some slack. Gil tunes in intently as her husband describes his initial ambivalence at having some of Morgan’s paintings hanging in the hallway outside his office at the medical school. Instead of viewing his comments as insensitive or an affront to their daughter’s memory, his wife asks, “Do you want them taken down?”

“I don’t know how I feel,” he answers. “I am grateful that they are there but they are also a painful reminder that hits me in the face every day.” In the end, gratitude won out and the paintings are now part of the medical school’s permanent art collection.

Although a united front, each parent has limits. A softspoken, reserved man, Dan endures gawks and weird looks as he drives his Toyota Highlander around Roanoke with car magnets with the FBI sketch of Morgan’s murder suspect affixed to the doors. “I have to admit it is a little embarrassing when I pull up to a stoplight,” he says. But he hopes that among the gawkers is someone who recognizes the man.

Gil gave her car magnets to her brother. “I can’t look at that face every time I get in my car to go to the grocery store,” she says. “It totally throws me off my game.”

The artist rendering came from the victim of a 2005 sexual assault in Fairfax City, Virginia. That woman, who survived her ordeal, provided police with enough of a description to make a sketch. Police at the time did not give the name of the woman and said only that “forensic evidence” linked her assault with Morgan’s slaying.

Yes, the loss of a child, and especially the loss of a child to murder, can sink a couple, Gil says, or it can pull you closer together. “I think that we are really doing well,” she says. “But you have to be willing to change and morph. We are not the same people that we were before Morgan was killed.”

After Morgan died, Dan quit seeing his mental health patients. “It’s not that I didn’t sympathize with them,” he says. “It’s just that I’d always be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, you think you have problems. My daughter was murdered.'” He recently began seeing a few patients again, another sign of recovery.

Both Gil and Dan have lost their parents. “We still think about them, and we miss them,” Dan says. But “a murder, especially the murder of a child, does not get processed in the same way as a natural loss. Ten years out, I would think that Morgan’s loss is still going to be acute.”

His wife’s continued anguish comes across on a family blog that she contributes to from time to time. She posted an entry this past June after police returned the signet ring that Morgan was wearing when she was killed.

“I see the flash of gold on my hand as I rinse out a teacup and I pray ‘Please Morgan, help me see things more clearly.’ I smile to realize that I now pray to you rather than for you, knowing you are beyond all pain and harm, — angelic now…

Wearing your ring, the one you were wearing when you were beaten, and your heart stopped beating, is my sacred honor and duty. The beauty of it, the pain of it continues to open me and whisper its teaching. I promise to listen so carefully and to stop grasping worry and fear and constructing barriers to wisdom. Hoping that acceptance and understanding will arrive eventually, I hear, learn, and choose to let the negative slip aside and instead allow growth to have its way — untethered.

Always and always,



“2-4-1” is the family’s code for “I love you too much, forever, and once more.

Trying to save the next girl

Before Morgan was killed. After Morgan was killed.

This is how the Harringtons date their existence as family. They have spent the past five years, the “after Morgan was killed” part, working to give their daughter’s short life meaning.

“Those of us who are still breathing topside feel that, rather than be cut off at the knees, to be motivated to perhaps accomplish some of the things that Morgan was not able to do,” her mother says. “People have said that Morgan’s case has gotten a lot of publicity because she was a pretty blond girl. She was more than that. She was going to make a difference.”

For years, Morgan worked with children who were victims of domestic violence and spent summers at Camp Easter Seals near Roanoke as a counselor for children with disabilities. The summer before she died, she interned at the medical school where her father works. “It probably sounds stupid but that was a life-changing time for her,” her dad says. “Yes, she watched ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta,'” Dan laughs.

She also grew close to two women at the medical school in top leadership positions, he says, which shored up her appreciation for the strength of women. The medical school faculty and staff have created a scholarship in Morgan’s honor, funded in part by Metallica.

During the band’s concert at the University of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena, Morgan left her friends to go to the ladies’ room. She fell and cut her face, witnesses told investigators. She somehow ended up outside, and staff refused to let her back in because of a “no re-entry” policy. The Harringtons have filed a multimillion-dollar civil suit claiming negligence against the company that provides arena security. The company, R.M.C. Events, did not return requests for comment. In court documents, it denied wrongdoing.

Especially painful and conflicting to the Harringtons is that Morgan’s killing occurred in a place they thought of as Camelot. The tight-knit community of Charlottesville revolves around the University of Virginia, founded by President Thomas Jefferson and among the country’s most prestigious colleges. It’s where Dan was doing his medical residency when he met Gil, who was studying nursing. It’s where both their children were born.

“There are predators even in Camelot,” Gil says.

Investigators have long believed that her daughter’s killer was intimately familiar with Charlottesville and the surrounding area because of where Morgan’s body was discovered, on a remote and largely inaccessible hayfield of a 700-acre farm in south Albemarle County.

Gil says each fall now brings with it mounting anxiety. She confesses to being the owner of the lip prints that show up on the gray slate plaque honoring Morgan on the Copeley Road Bridge. “I put on a lot of dark lipstick and kiss the plaque because it makes it stand out,” she says. “Every year, there’s a whole new class that doesn’t know the story of what happened to Morgan. Young girls are smaller, weaker, slower. That is what prey is. And if you are a predator, where do you go? College campuses.”

With the arrest of Matthew in the Graham case, authorities have said they are studying other unsolved homicide and missing person cases in Virginia: In Campbell County, the sheriff’s office is investigating a possible link to the case of Cassandra Morton, whose body was found in a wooded area near Lynchburg in November 2009; in Orange, police are checking for possible ties to the missing person case of Samantha Ann Clarke, who was last seen September 13, 2010; and in Montgomery County, the sheriff’s office is looking for possible links to the unsolved 2009 shooting deaths of two Virginia Tech students, Heidi Childs and David Metzler.

In 2010, the Harringtons started “Help Save The Next Girl,” a national campaign to educate young women on how to avoid becoming victims. Authorities have said that both Morgan and Hannah Graham had been drinking when they disappeared, which may have impaired their judgment. Witnesses saw Morgan hitchhiking.

The Harringtons say there’s only one person responsible for their daughter’s death: the person who killed her. Still, they want college students to be more alert and look out for each other. “I think Morgan was like all kids her age, like I was at that age,” her father says. “They don’t think bad things can happen to them. They take some chances they shouldn’t.”

There were six “Help Save The Next Girl” chapters before Hannah Graham’s disappearance. With the publicity surrounding the case, Gil says, the number has doubled.

And even when Morgan’s case is solved, she says, there still will be work to do. “Morgan’s school in Africa. Her scholarship. Help Save The Next Girl. Those mechanisms of salvation already are in place. We want to engage in all these opportunities to create some goodness. That is how you trump evil.”

By Ann Hardie, special to CNN