Chilling Details Surround Suspect in U.Va. Student, Hannah Graham, Disappearance

Police on ATVs search the fence line along a highway for any sign of missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham in Keswick, Va., on Oct. 2, 2014. (Photo: Steve Helber, AP)
Police on ATVs search the fence line along a highway for any sign of missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham in Keswick, Va., on Oct. 2, 2014.
(Photo: Steve Helber, AP)

Jenn Finazzo had to watch the footage from her restaurant security camera several times before she noticed what the man did.

Jesse Matthew Jr. had been easy to spot in his white cargo shorts and dreadlocks, sauntering along the still-lively pedestrian mall at 1:06 a.m. on a Saturday.

The restaurant manager also had quickly picked out Hannah Graham, who appears moments later on the opposite side of the mall, hurrying in the other direction.

Then Finazzo noticed the chilling part: Matthew cut through an outdoor seating area, reversed direction and walked in pursuit of Graham.

“He totally follows her,” Finazzo said in her first public comments on the video.

The 41-second clip provides one of the last images of Graham, a University of Virginia sophomore whose disappearance Sept. 13 has brought new scrutiny to a spate of unsolved cases of missing or murdered young women and raised the specter of a serial attacker operating across Virginia for more than a decade. The sporadic attacks to which Matthew is now linked match the profile of someone who takes long cooling-off periods between assaults, experts say.

Matthew, 32, is being held on a charge of abducting Graham with the intent to sexually assault her. Virginia State Police say his arrest provides a “new forensic link” in the unsolved 2009 murder of college student Morgan Harrington in Charlottesville. That murder has previously been linked to a sexual assault in 2005 on a quiet street in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.

Two universities in Virginia also have disclosed that Matthew was accused of rape when he was enrolled in 2002 and 2003, but that the accusers declined to press charges.

“When you look at all the rape charges there have been, it’s staggering,” said Gil Harrington, Morgan Harrington’s mother.

Now, as search teams comb the woods and farms of central Virginia for a sign of Graham, at least four law-enforcement agencies in Virginia are reviewing unsolved murders and disappearances for Matthew’s potential involvement.

“We’re putting fresh eyes on it,” said Lewis Thurston, a police spokesman in Newport News, Va., where two women went missing in 2003 while Matthew was a student at Christopher Newport University in the city and have not been found.

USA TODAY reconstructed the events leading to Graham’s encounter with Matthew using surveillance videos, court records and interviews, and got the news media’s first look inside the apartment Matthew occupied until his arrest.

On Sept. 13, Matthew moved quickly. He caught up to Graham and went with her to an upscale restaurant and bar a block off the pedestrian mall.

“He seemed to be excited,” said Brice Cunningham, owner of Tempo, where Matthew went twice that night.

Experts who have studied the security footage say it shows a pro at work.

“He has the ability to identify a potential victim — somebody who is young, out by themselves late at night and may be under the influence,” said former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt. “This guy has been around.”

LIFE AND TIMES OF THE SUSPECT

Jesse Matthew Jr. lived by himself 3 miles from Charlottesville’s historic downtown in a red-brick complex of garden apartments built in the late 1960s. His two-bedroom first-floor bachelor pad, which has been closed to the media until USA TODAY visited, was dominated by a large-screen TV that was frequently tuned to football games, and decorated with inspirational messages.

“Sing like no one’s listening,” urges the peel-and-stick wall art in one bedroom. “Dance like nobody’s watching. Love like you’ve never been hurt.” In the living room, a small “Leadership” poster in a cheap plastic frame shows a bird soaring over a lake and advises that “Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can fly.”

“It’s the nice-guy side of Jesse,” his landlord Frances Lee-Vandell said in a nod to Matthew’s mild temperament punctuated by outbursts.

A Charlottesville native, Matthew occupied the apartment for a year, paying $895 a month in rent, which suggests that as a hospital worker he had taken a small step up the economic ladder of the service class that tends to the doctors, professors and students who dominate the city of 45,000.

Although Matthew completed at least two years of college between 2000 and 2003, he had returned to his hometown and worked for several years as a taxicab driver, earning $150 a week in 2009 with assets of only $30 in cash, according to court papers he filed that year. In another application for the services of a court-appointed attorney a year later, Matthew listed income of $200 a week and no assets.

Matthew faced financial problems, including three default judgments in 2012 and 2013 for $6,547 in unpaid medical bills, a litany of traffic infractions and two more-serious charges involving blow-ups at random people seeming to block his path.

While driving his cab the night of June 4, 2009, Matthew confronted a driver he felt had cut him off in a Charlottesville parking lot, punched the man in the face — and then changed moods, driver Erik Wilke wrote in a police complaint. “He calmed down and actually seemed remorseful,” Wilke wrote. Matthew helped Wilke find his glasses and drove him to a hospital. An assault charge was dropped.

Matthew’s attorney, James Camblos of Charlottesville, said Matthew comes from “a really nice family. They’re good hard-working people.” He declined further comment.

Matthew transitioned into more stable work in 2012, becoming a nursing-home aide at Martha Jefferson House in Charlottesville and then an orderly at the University of Virginia Medical Center’s 604-bed hospital. The regular salary from Charlottesville’s largest employer would have helped finance Matthew’s carousing through the city’s lively bar scene.

As a nighttime regular on Charlottesville’s restaurant-lined pedestrian mall, Matthew’s presence was augmented by his size: 6-foot-2 and 270 pounds, with the weight sagging over his belt and puffing his face. “He’s a very recognizable person,” said Andrew Pratt, manager at Commonwealth restaurant.

Matthew’s barroom style also was noted. “He would hit on the drunkest girl in the bar,” said Cecilia Rodi, owner of Rapture restaurant, which features $14 hamburgers made from grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef. “He was just kind of awkward.”

GRAHAM LOOKED LOST

Matthew would have had little opportunity to cross paths with University of Virginia students, who stay ensconced in the stately 195-year-old campus a mile from the mall and patronize The Corner, a nearby neighborhood of yogurt shops, cafes and pizzerias.

But Graham, after dining at a Corner restaurant with friends the night of Sept. 12, went off by herself, possibly drunk, dressed stylishly in black slacks and a shiny crop-top that exposed her midsection.

“We believe she lost her bearings,” Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo said. “She was lost.”

Graham, 18, surfaced on security cameras at around 12:45 a.m. on Sept. 13, wandering in a shadowy no-man’s land of gas stations and car dealerships a mile from campus. Happening upon McGrady’s Irish Pub, she stopped at the entrance. A bouncer sensed Graham might be lost and asked if he could help, McGrady’s general manager Laura Harris told USA TODAY. “She said, ‘I’m OK, I’m just walking.'”

Reversing direction, Graham headed toward the pedestrian mall and arrived 20 minutes later. The security footage from Finazzo’s restaurant, Sal’s Caffe Italia, shows Graham moving fast, leaning slightly forward with a straight-ahead gaze. “She was walking with determination, like she needed to get somewhere,” Finazzo said.

Matthew also was by himself on the mall, walking leisurely by the restaurants, bookstores and ice-cream parlors. After he reversed course and followed Graham, his pace quickened, and he closed a 10-second gap behind her in one block.

A security camera from Tuel Jewelers, a block from Sal’s, shows the two walking side-by-side. Matthew appears to have his arm around Graham and went with her to Tempo, where he had been a half-hour earlier, dancing and drinking.

A woman working the door “saw them walking away together,” said Cunningham, the restaurant owner.

It is the last place Graham is seen.

More than a week later, after police searched Matthew’s apartment and car, he too was gone.

Click here to continue reading.

SOURCE: USA Today – Thomas Frank

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