Author’s Note: The reporting of this story largely came via hours of interviews with Morgan Harrington’s parents, Gil and Dan Harrington, conducted in 2012 and 2013. Dozens of news accounts and releases from the Virginia State Police, along with my own fact-checking, helped piece together a complicated story. I did my best to include as many voices as possible. During the reporting of this piece, and due to the nature of the case, the police weren’t at liberty to discuss it with me. In many instances, there is also recalled dialogue, usually told to me by Dan Harrington. In these instances, I’ve italicized the other side of the conversation, but left what Dan recalls he said in quotations.
Dan and Gil Harrington grow weary when apart from each other. They hold each other tighter now, but they spend much of their days as they always did. Just because their daughter Morgan is gone, are they any less a family of four? Gil calls her family “triangulated” now, like a three-legged dog moving forward albeit with an unmistakable hobble.
When Gil leaves the house to attend a yoga class, as much for her mind as her body, she passes the unmistakable family logo on the door: two dots, four dots, one dot.
Some people will approach Gil if they’re out to eat and say how brave she is, how sorry they are, but they can never truly know. They ask, “Can I give you a hug?” There’s also the people who avoid them, who can’t look her in the eye, even after seven years when Morgan was last seen on October 17, 2009. The Harrington’s are now marked, as was Hester Prynne, and any look cast their way is heavy with new context. Nothing and everything has changed.
Dan and Gil call their daughter’s cell phone when they need to hear her voice. Once a month they’ll listen to her. Within the phone she is immortal.
They listen to her voice and they can almost imagine Morgan—Mogo they called her—picking up to say hello.
When they place that call, they can almost imagine Morgan saying, as she had hundreds of times before, 2-4-1.
Two: I love you too much.
One: And once more.
Dan spends much of his time at work, at the medical school, where he is the dean of academic affairs and where a scholarship now bear’s Morgan’s name. He loses himself in his work, hour upon hour. He walks the halls of the school and sees Morgan: a self-portrait she painted. Dan understands his colleague’s gesture, but it’s also a reminder—as if he needs another reminder—that the only way he can see her are in photo albums or here at the school, on a wall.
In 2005, a 26-year-old woman from Fairfax City, Virginia, was attacked. She escaped, but traces of the man’s DNA were found on her body. Five years later, when Morgan’s body was tested for traces of DNA, there was a match in the system. It’s presumed, both of these women shared an attacker.
“Before today, there was the abstraction of a murderer that killed our daughter,” Dan says, “but now that you see a face with it, it makes you very angry. The anger that I have has kind of been multiplied because I now see a face of someone who did this to another human being.”
That face. Dan can picture him hiding in plain sight, an obscenity on the street. He walks the neighborhoods, at the corner of This Road and That, USA. The day of his capture is a day that never comes.
“Have you ever heard of the Metallica song “Enter Sandman”?” Dan asks.
One of Metallica’s most popular songs, it blasts through Virginia Tech’s football stadium as the Hokies charge onto the field. Some 80,000 spectators jump up and down shaking the stands beneath them. There are t-shirts available, Jump VT Jump, the proceeds of which go toward Morgan’s scholarship fund.
James Hetfield, Metallica’s front man, put out a public address before America’s Most Wanted ran a feature on her story. Maybe that will stir the leaves of memory.
The Harringtons have found just how short people’s memories are. They wished for more urgency.
Gil has a hard time even remembering Morgan’s favorite foods. She has to think. She hasn’t made a meal for Morgan in seven years. But when she thinks, she remembers eating Middle Eastern food, the kind Gil ate growing up the daughter of an Ambassador in Beirut, and drinking smoothies while outside tanning. Gil does remember Morgan and her brother Alex getting into the cookie dough around Christmas, chowing it down before anyone had a chance to bake them.
Gil thinks of her son, and how he’ll be the one who must live the longest without Morgan. “He’s the guy left standing with the inside jokes,” she says. “When you’re at that point, they’re not jokes anymore. They’re not funny. You look around to say, “Remember when Mom dropped the turkey at Thanksgiving? Wasn’t that funny?” But, nobody remembers. Nobody was there.”
Dan and Gil never wanted material from their children. Rather, they wanted a piece of their children—something drawn up, handmade, from within them.
They fish around in their sock drawers and they dig through cards, pictures, and papers. They pull out a letter dated December 2005. Morgan was sixteen. She’d written a letter to her father in purple and red marker, underlining a congruency in her middle name and his first:
I want you to know that you are my hero. You do so much for everyone else and very little for yourself; it amazes me how you maintain such a busy schedule…The other day I got the chance to listen to you comfort a patient on the phone. Your attitude was so genuine and caring; you really wanted the best for her. I must admit I even felt uplifted! That is the first time I have ever really listened to you deal with a patient in crisis and it really opened my eyes to see how much of a selfless, kind man you are. I am proud to be your daughter, to be associated with such a dependable and upstanding person makes me smile. I am Morgan Dana Harrington; and my dad is Dan Harrington. I could shout it form the rooftops but I don’t need to; this whole community already knows what a fine person you are. Thank you for working so hard to give me a good life. Thank you for being gentle and patient, even when we fight. Thank you for helping me feel happier when I was at a low point. Thank you for loving me, mistakes and all … You are the best dad in the world and I hope you realize how much I care about you.
Since Morgan’s murder, Gil has leaned into her charity work. She helped build a school with an educational wing named after Morgan in Zambia. It’s an ever-burning torch to Morgan’s legacy in the field she would’ve made a lifetime of contributions. Morgan was all set to join her mother on a trip to Zambia in the fall of 2009. Morgan had packed a bag and everything.
Gil has rationalized Morgan’s death, has tried to find meaning. Speaking in a voice that sounds broken, a voice stripped of something, says, “This is her destiny. I believe people choose when to leave when you get to a point where the pain and staying here is too much. I released her. That’s true. I see many people do it when you tell them to.”
Gil is an oncology nurse. She sees death every day. She sees people cling to life and she sees the relief of letting go.
She kept both her parents at home to die in comfort. Gil remembers the moment after her mother passed away in her bed. Morgan, still small, played on the mattress while, Gil says, “my mother was cold and stiff.”
“Dan brought Morgan and Alex in. There was this very white, bloodless woman in her nightgown there. The kids got on the bed and brought her cards. ‘Why is Nanny cold? Is she OK now?’ They had their answers and left. It was part of the fabric of their lives. It wasn’t that, because my mother had died just moments before, she turned into a demon or something malevolent or obscene. It was their grandmother.”
Dan copes, but hasn’t made his peace. He doesn’t see things as Gil does. When he sees the composite sketch—now an image with and without a beard, reflecting a possible change in appearance—he says, “I want him to burn in hell. I’m into punishment. Gil’s less into punishment issues. Even if you find him, you’re never going to know what happened. You’re not going to have someone who confesses. So we’re never going to know that. To me, I think Gil feels the same way. Our goal is to get him off the streets. He attempted to murder the first woman. He was choking her and was interrupted by passerby. He’s probably had two rapes and one assault and an attempted choking. Our daughter was probably choked.”
The police won’t say how Morgan was killed and what purpose, at this point, will that serve except to further enrage? Some things may be better left unknown. Patching together the mosaic may be too much to stomach. It won’t awaken Morgan.
Gil writes. She writes to share her pain. She communicates her strength and less at findmorgan.com. On December 11, 2012, nearly three years after her daughter’s body was found, she looked at Morgan’s ashes in the cigar box resting on the table, and wrote “Our path through the holidays: close Christmas boxes.”
The Harrington’s soon realized holidays would be unsettling as traditions would lack all that Morgan once brought. Gil knew she had to “jettison” some memories, like years ago when Morgan and Alex left milk and cookies for Santa, but also the carrots they thoughtfully left on the lawn for Santa’s reindeer. Dan, without complaint, ate the cookies and drank the milk. Searching for the carrots in a cloud of his steamed breath with a flashlight was the small price to pay for perpetuating this Christmas myth.
“Nope, we won’t open that box,” Gil wrote.
Gil remembers Morgan, probably in second or third grade, coming home from school brandishing an ornament she made: A flattened pop can, sprayed gold and dusted with glitter. “It was actually sort of hideous,” wrote Gil. Gil hooked the ornament on the back of the tree, but Morgan found it and repositioned it, front and center. “Definitely must keep the lid on the ornament box,” wrote Gil.
Morgan, a talented artist, a young woman who left an indelible mark, couldn’t be contained. Gil wrote, “We are not unscathed by the holidays. Predictably we become a little raw around the edges. Yes, raw, diminished but still whole and moving forward. Raw, but still permeable to the joy of this season of giving. Raw, but so grateful for the time we had with Morgan our precious little girl now placed in yet another closed box.”
The field in Abermarle County where she was found isn’t evil, Gil thinks. Morgan was not thrown on a slab of asphalt or heaped into a dumpster. Gil was told by one of Morgan’s professors that the land held her. “Maybe her hair is in a nest where birds or mice are. Her molecules are pushing up some of the hay there. It’s a continuum. It’s not just a garbage heap.”
It’s given Gil time to meditate on death, particularly death avoidance in our culture. She prefers to tell it like is. Morgan has not, “passed on or been called to heaven,” wrote Gil. “She was murdered and is DEAD. The truth is, death is really ok, it can be heart wrenchingly beautiful.”
When the Harringtons arrived at Anchorage Farm in Abermarle County, Virginia, on January 26, 2010, it was a crime scene, not a field where the cows wander, not a benign cradle. The police told Dan and Gil they couldn’t proceed any further onto the farm.
I’m going, Gil said. This is my daughter. I want to see where she is.
If you go, you will be arrested, Dan recalls the prosecuting attorney telling Gil.
Dan said, “Well, that is really going to look good in the Charlottesville paper, isn’t it?”
The police called in a helicopter to take Dan and Gil to the site. From high above, the property was so big. It looked like an archeological dig. Everything was covered. The ground was barren, cold, cloaked in snow. How lucky they felt to find her. They can’t get out of the chopper, but below, in the middle of it all, rests Morgan’s bones, her molecules, her blonde hair.
The farmer climbed into the chair of his tractor that morning and turned the ignition. He planned to check the fences that keep the cows from roaming too far off his 742-acre farm. It has been some time since he traveled to the outer recesses. The recent snow that had fallen gave him reason to check the integrity of his property.
The farmer reached an oft-neglected quadrant of the farm and saw the shape of a body on the ground. Most likely a deer, he thought. He hit the brakes and climbed down. He approached the body. This was no deer.
This was human with “significant items” found in the field that would help identify the body as Morgan’s.
The farmer called 911 and the state police rushed to his property, Anchorage Farm, a heavily wooded area in Abermarle County.
When the Harringtons took trips from Roanoke to Charlottesville for media appearances to bring attention to Morgan’s case, they drove over the mountain and into Abermarle County. The Harringtons had friends combing the area with dogs. The police said, she’ll likely be found by a runner or a hunter. Dan thought, You’re waiting for her to be found! You’re not looking for her!
Driving past, “You’re constantly looking into the woods,” Dan says. “Could she be in there? Could she be in there? Where could she be? Where could she be?”
The police had said all along, when they find Morgan, they’d call and arrange a ride because, That’s going to be an upsetting day for you.
When Dan’s phone rang on January 26, 2010, 101 days after Morgan disappeared, it wasn’t the police. It was a Charlottesville TV station. Someone asked Dan, Have you heard? They found Morgan’s body.
“No,” Dan said
Well, they haven’t confirmed it yet, but they think it’s Morgan’s body.
Dan called the police. “Were you going to call us?”
Dan and Gil climbed into their car in Roanoke and drove that hour and forty-five minutes to the Abermarle County farm, just over ten miles away from the John Paul Jones Arena where Morgan was last seen alive.
They cried the entire drive.
When Morgan vanished, Dan reached out to Ed Smart, whose daughter Elizabeth had gone missing, but was later found alive. “Tell me how you all did this,” Dan asked. “How did you maintain sanity? How did you all handle this with such grace for all that time?” Have you heard of the Laura Recovery Center? Smart replied. You might want to call them. You’re overwhelmed.
There were the searches organized by the Laura Recovery Center, an organization named after Laura Smither, a twelve-year-old girl who was abducted on April 3, 1997 while jogging near her home in Friendswood, Texas. She was found dead later that month on April 20th. The LRC’s goal is to form a “triangle of trust” with law enforcement, the community, and the missing child’s family. The first pillar, the law enforcement, according to Dan, was not happy by this grassroots search.
“We had 2,000 people searching for Morgan over a weekend,” Dan says. “The police were not happy.”
In November of 2009, while everyone still harbored hope of finding Morgan alive, Morgan’s black Pantera t-shirt turned up in Charlottesville, displayed on a bush by the fraternities. The state police canvassed the area. Corrine Geller, information officer for the Virginia State Police, said, “Why put it there? What purpose?” By and large, Geller wasn’t at liberty to speak too specifically about the case; the investigation was still ongoing at that time.
The Harringtons read about Morgan’s shirt in the newspaper two weeks after she’d disappeared. Finally, the police confirmed for them that yes, it was Morgan’s t-shirt.
One month before Morgan was taken, Dan and Gil witnessed how one couple handled a similar experience. Two Virginia Tech students were murdered in the national forest close to campus. They were completely silent. Dan wondered “if maybe their approach allows for more healing or more mourning than what we’ve done.”
The Harringtons decided to be public, to put pressure on the police. “You wonder,” Dan contemplates aloud, “if it doesn’t affect the ability to mourn and move on.”
They cut a wide swath of media outlets. They were on televisions and in newspapers and magazines. It was a media blitz. The Today Show, Nancy Grace, America’s Most Wanted.
Whether a taunt or not, the shirt was a callback to the Morgan they saw blossom barely three months prior. During the summer of 2009—the “Golden Summer,” according to Dan, and the “Miracle Summer,” according to Gil—Morgan was entering her junior year at Virginia Tech, an education major entering her prime. She was twenty years old.
Morgan spent most of the summer working with her father at the medical school, though Dan knew she’d never apply. “That summer, she could have gone out every night with her friends,” Dan says. Instead, “Morgan was watching TV with [her] Mom and Dad. It was pretty amazing.”
They went white water rafting and on their yearly beach vacation in Avon, North Carolina. Gil recalls scenes of Morgan’s youth when freckles bloomed on her nose and when Gil had to apply Noxema to Morgan’s pink, sun-burnt skin.
Well into August 2009, Gil was in Zambia building a school, so Dan insured his wife that Morgan would get to her apartment in Blacksburg for the start of the new school year. Gil hoped Morgan could join her on a future trip to Africa. He stocked her apartment with the staples of the college pantry. He bought her books. They went out to lunch.
Knowing he’d see her soon, Dan drove away. Gil describes Morgan as a bit of a homebody, despite wanting to be at school. The last time they saw her alive was October 17, 2009, at noon. They wouldn’t see her again for 101 days.
Gil stood in her daughter’s room and looked at all those CDs. Gil even laughed because she spotted a Barry Manilow album in Morgan’s room. “You kidding?!” Gil thought. The Purple People Eaters, The Flaming Lips, The Doors, Harley Davidson Road Songs, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, American Idol Songs, Korn, Jack Johnson, Simon and Garfunkel, Black Sabbath, The Who, The Beatles, and, of course, Metallica.
Inside Morgan’s room sits a big oak bed that was Gil’s when she was a girl in Charlottesville. It’s draped with Morgan’s “going away to college guardian fairy sheets,” and prayer flags along the headboard. A cushy duvet rests on the mattress. The walls hold her artwork. The room and Morgan are undefinable.
They appreciated how Morgan had made a home for herself in Blacksburg, a life away from Roanoke. So much so, it saddened Dan. I need to go home, Dad, Morgan said.
“But, honey, you are home,” he said.
No, I mean, back home to my apartment in Blacksburg.
As much as she wanted to flee the nest, she still called home to inquire how to properly prepare boxed macaroni and cheese even though the directions are right on the side of the box.
New Year’s passed.
Dan knew, well before they recovered Morgan’s black Honda Civic with the “Namaste Tibet” sticker on it. “I knew Morgan was dead the first day,” he says. “Morgan was not going to go and run away. I’m a pessimist, but I knew Morgan was dead. Gil kept saying, “I have this feeling she is alive.” Of course you want to believe that, so there’s a part of you that holds on to that.”
The days passed, calendar pages flying off. Soon it was January 26th, 2010. The phone rang on that day. A farmer had found a body.
Dan was right.
On October 18, 2009, Dan Harrington woke early to exercise. He was at the gym by 7, his usual routine. He put in an hour of exercise, cleaned up, and went to church on his own. Dan arrived home at 10 and prepared to do some work.
The night before, Morgan and a group of friends went to see Metallica play at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. He expected Morgan to be home any minute and was surprised, though unalarmed, that he hadn’t seen her yet. She needed help balancing her checkbook and she needed help with her math homework.
At 11:30, he still hadn’t seen her when the phone rang: The UVA Police Department. They said they had found Morgan’s purse in a parking lot, a backpack purse. Dan said, “That’s weird. Morgan’s going to be really pissed about this.” Dan said he’d drive the two hours to pick it up.
Dan recalls them telling him, We’ve already put it in lockdown. We can’t get to that.
Fair enough, and Dan hung up the phone. Gil came home thirty minutes later. Morgan’s not home yet? she said.
“Well, no, it’s really strange,” Dan said. “UVA just called me a few minutes ago and said they had Morgan’s purse.”
Uh, oh. Morgan is not going to leave her purse. Uh, oh. Gil paused then said, There’s something wrong here.
At this point Dan thought to call Morgan’s friend, who went to nearby James Madison University, the rendezvous point the group used before heading to the concert.
“Have you talked to Morgan?” Dan asked. … “What do you mean you haven’t seen Morgan since last night? … “Number 1, Morgan’s car is there. And Number 2, what do you mean Morgan‘s going to find her way home?”
Morgan’s friend told Dan that Morgan somehow ended up outside the arena and could not reenter.
According to Dan, Morgan’s girlfriend (whose father is a detective) called another friend the night of the show.
Dan reached out to the UVA police, “I think we have a more serious problem. I think Morgan is missing.”
You have to call Virginia Tech’s police, they said.
“What are you talking about? The last time Morgan was seen was on your campus. It wasn’t at Virginia Tech. It was on your campus.”
Around 8:20 p.m., the opening act to the Metallica show hammered on and Morgan, along with her two girlfriends listened from their seats. Morgan was going to walk to the bathrooms and turned to one friend for company; she expressed a desire to stay and watch the band. Morgan bent down, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and left.
Morgan may have made it to the bathroom, then again, she might not have. There are so many gaps, like walking in a strobe-lit room.
Next, close to 8:30 she was seen by witnesses, who recalled a woman fitting Morgan’s description, trying to reenter the arena. She had a gash on her chin. Had she fallen? Was she battered? The security guards adhered to the rules of the arena: No reentry without a ticket stub.
At 8:48, she pulled out her phone and called her friends who were inside getting ready to watch Metallica. They suggested to her other ways she may be able to get into the arena, but didn’t go so far as to meet her at the door and lobby to get her in. “I’ll find my way home,” she told them.
Morgan continued to walk around the arena. After 9:00 p.m., at about the time Metallica launched into “That Was Just Your Life,” Morgan walked through the University Hall parking lot toward nearby Lannigan Field, a practice field near the John Paul Jones Arena.
Morgan was seen in the RV overflow parking lot by a group of UVA basketball players. She wandered over to the Copeley Road Bridge at 9:30 p.m. She may have been hitchhiking. She may have just been walking. Either way, she was never seen alive again.
It’s early in the day, October 17, 2009. Morgan Harrington arrives home to Roanoke in her black Honda Civic. She comes home because she has tickets to a concert, to see the heavy metal band Metallica play at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia, touring with their new album Death Magnetic, a set where they will, no doubt, play “That Was Just Your Life,” “The End of the Line,” “Broken, Beat, and Scarred,” and “The Day That Never Comes.”
Gil can tell by speaking with Morgan and by seeing the look in those electric blue eyes, this is a fun day for her daughter. Morgan spends the night at her parents’ house, the better for travel, the better to meet up with her friends to go to the show.
In the morning, Morgan summons her mother to help her pick out an outfit.
I want to take a purse that’s not a shoulder bag, so I don’t swing it on my shoulder or leave it down on the seat, Morgan says. Gil smiles. Because I’m going to be dancing.
They select her purse. Among her stock of footwear—Birkenstock sandals, red high top Chuck Taylors, and leopard print stiletto heels—she opts for black boots, high enough to look good, but not too high to be uncomfortable to walk or dance in. “All those little choices girls going to a dance or concert make,” Gil recalls.
Gil suddenly feels ill and rests in bed while Morgan puts the final touches on her heavy-metal outfit. Gil even calls her husband—a self-proclaimed workaholic—and he drives home since Gil’s feeling unwell
By the afternoon Morgan is ready to pick up her friend and head to the show. Though Gil still feels sick, she rises from bed and walks Morgan to the door, a matter of ritual, to see her child off into the world. “You don’t just wave them away while you’re planted on the sofa,” Gil says.
Two-Four-One, Mama, Morgan says. Morgan walks to her Civic wearing a black skirt and tights, a black Pantera T-shirt, and those boots perfect for head banging and dancing. She pulls the visor down and checks her lipstick in the mirror.
Gil stands by the door and watches Morgan flip up the visor, smile, and give their family signal on one hand. Two fingers: I love you too much.
Four fingers: forever.
One finger: and once more.
Then Morgan, their Mogo, drives away.
BRENDAN O’MEARA is a freelance writer—and purveyor of odd jobs—who authored Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year and is hard at work on his forthcoming memoir The Tools of Ignorance: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball. He also hosts the #CNF Podcast. He loves IPAs, doughnuts, his dogs, his sugar-mama, and Batman. He lives in Eugene, Oregon. ☆ Judge Bronwen Dickey selected “The Day That Never Comes,” as winner of Proximity’s 2016 Narrative Journalism Prize.