CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The weekslong search for a missing University of Virginia student appears to have come to a sad end with the announcement by police officials that they have discovered human remains that could be hers.
Further forensic tests are needed to confirm whether the remains are those of 18-year-old Hannah Graham, but Graham’s parents were notified of the preliminary findings, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo told a news conference Saturday, shortly after the discovery was made.
A volunteer search for Graham that had been planned for Sunday has been canceled so law enforcement can turn their attention to the new evidence, officials from the Albemarle County Police Department said.
Longo said a search team from the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office found the remains Saturday on an abandoned property in southern Albemarle County – the same region where police found the body of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington three months after she vanished in 2009.
Last month, after arresting a suspect in Graham’s disappearance, police said they found a “forensic link” between the two cases.
Thousands of volunteers had searched for the 18-year-old Graham in the weeks since her disappearance Sept. 13.
“Countless hours, thousands of hours, have been spent by literally hundreds of law enforcement, civilian volunteers in an effort to find Hannah,” Longo said. “We think perhaps today proved their worth.”
Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., 32, has been charged with abduction with intent to defile Graham. A preliminary hearing is set for Dec. 4 on the charge. In the meantime, Matthew is being held in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
Albermarle County Police are now taking over the investigation. County Police Chief Steve Sellers said anyone who may have seen suspicious activity in the area or may have seen someone who fits Matthew’s description in the area after Graham’s disappearance, should contact police.
“Today’s discovery is a significant development and we have a great deal of work ahead of us,” Sellers said. “We cannot and we will not jump to any conclusions regarding today’s discovery, so I ask for the public’s patience as we move forward and pursue what is now a new ongoing death investigation.”
Police officials Saturday afternoon had blocked the road leading to the site where the remains were found.
Surveillance videos captured some of what Graham did the night she vanished. Authorities say she met friends at a restaurant for dinner Sept. 12 before stopping by two parties at off-campus housing units. She left the second party alone and eventually texted a friend saying she was lost, authorities said.
She can be seen walking unsteadily and even running at times, past a pub and a service station and then onto a seven-block pedestrian strip that includes the Tempo Restaurant.
Tempo Restaurant owner Brice Cunningham has said Graham appeared to be incapacitated as she walked away with Matthew. Police have said they have no reason to believe she and Matthew knew each other before their encounter.
Matthew, an operating room technician at the university’s hospital who sometimes drives a taxi, had been drinking at the bar earlier that night before he encountered Graham, Cunningham has said.
A week after Graham went missing, Longo publicly described Matthew in detail without naming him, saying investigators wanted to talk to the “person of interest” and had searched his apartment because he was the last person to see her.
Matthew showed up at police headquarters, asked for a lawyer, and then sped away, according to a police account. His exit prompted a warrant for “reckless driving,” a charge that Longo cited as he named the suspect and appealed for information from anyone who saw him with Graham the night she disappeared.
Matthew was arrested a few days later in Galveston, Texas.
While Matthew was a fugitive in Texas, Virginia police added a charge of abduction with intent to defile, a violent felony that under Virginia law compels suspects to submit to DNA testing.
Very quickly thereafter, Virginia State Police announced a “forensic link” to Harrington’s killing. That case, in turn, has been linked by DNA evidence since 2012 to the rape of a woman in Fairfax, Virginia, who survived after a passer-by startled her attacker, the FBI has said.
Following Matthew’s arrest, Christopher Newport University released a statement noting that he had been named in a police file involving a Sept. 7, 2003 sexual assault on the Newport News campus. Matthew was a student there from January 2003 through Oct. 15, 2003.
Matthew had transferred to CNU after three years at Liberty University, where he also was briefly on the football team.
When he was at Liberty University, he was accused of raping a student on campus. That charge was dropped when the person declined to move forward with prosecution, Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Doucette said.
Associated Press Writer Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Virginia, contributed to this report.