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Va. prosecutor hopes arrest leads to break in disappearance case

Friday - 8/16/2013, 6:55am  ET

A Virginia Department of Corrections officer uses a K-9 to search for missing 17-year-old Nelson County girl Alexis Murphy, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 outside the home of Randy Allen Taylor in Lovingston, Va. Taylor, 48, of Lovingston, was arrested Sunday and charged with abduction in the disappearance of Murphy, who was last seen Aug. 3 by her family. (AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Andrew Shurtleff)

LARRY O'DELL
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A prosecutor said Thursday that she hopes an arrest in the suspected abduction of a central Virginia teenager will provide useful information in the investigation of another young woman's disappearance in a nearby county three years ago. However, the suspect's attorney says authorities have arrested the wrong man.

Randy Allen Taylor, 48, of Lovingston is charged in the Aug. 3 disappearance of 17-year-old Alexis Murphy of Nelson County. The search for Murphy continues.

Orange County Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler said in a telephone interview that Taylor has long been a "person of interest" in the September 2010 disappearance of Samantha Clarke, 19. However, authorities never obtained enough evidence to make an arrest. Clarke remains missing.

"We've always been interested in Mr. Taylor and trying to follow up on every little lead," Wheeler said.

She recalled an investigator telling her that Taylor had been linked to Murphy's disappearance.

"My first thought was, 'I knew it!' That was my gut feeling," Wheeler said.

She said that while she hopes the arrest will lead to a break in the Orange County case, she has not yet reviewed any information that Nelson County authorities have collected.

The counties are about an hour's drive away, and located on each side of Charlottesville, which sits near rolling mountains and is the home of the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home.

Meanwhile, Taylor's court-appointed attorney contends that his client is innocent.

Defense lawyer Michael Hallahan told media outlets Wednesday that Murphy was at Taylor's camper with another man on the night she disappeared. He said Taylor bought marijuana from the man and smoked it with him. Hallahan said Murphy and the man left in separate cars. He said Taylor didn't know the man but provided a description of him to investigators.

A voice message left Thursday evening for Hallahan by The Associated Press was not immediately returned.

Authorities have said Murphy was last seen around 7 p.m. Aug. 3 when she left her home to go shopping in Lynchburg. Her car was found in the parking lot of a multiplex in Charlottesville three days later.

After finding a strand of Murphy's hair in Taylor's camper eight days after she was last seen, authorities arrested him on an abduction charge, Hallahan said. Taylor is being held without bond in Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail and faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

"The evidence is very weak, from what I hear," Hallahan said. "Finding a hair in the residence doesn't mean he abducted her."

FBI spokeswoman Dee Rybiski declined to comment on Hallahan's statements about the other man or say what evidence has been collected. She said federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have agreed not to say any more publicly about the investigation until they have something substantial to report.

Wheeler would not say specifically why she was unable to charge Taylor in the Orange County case, but she alluded to the difficulty of bringing a case built on circumstantial evidence and no body.

"Once you charge and bring someone to trial, that's your one shot," she said. "You'd better be able to make it stand."

Taylor was a person of interest in Clarke's disappearance because he was the last person to have telephone contact with her, Wheeler said. She said Taylor, who worked as a vehicle repo man, and Clarke had met a few days earlier through some mutual acquaintances. There was no indication of any romantic involvement, she said.

Last fall, Taylor complained about police investigators' tactics in an interview with The Hook, a Charlottesville weekly newspaper.

"This case needs to be solved, but the way they're going about it is ridiculous," he told the newspaper.

Police investigating Clarke's disappearance searched an area in Greene County where Taylor kept a trailer. Taylor told The Hook that police informed his employer he was a suspect in a murder investigation and warned women he was dating. He later was pulled over and arrested on several charges, including illegal possession of a gun, and discovered that police had hidden a GPS device on his car to track his movements. A judge dropped the charges because the tracking device had been placed on the car without a warrant.

Taylor's arrest and the renewed interest in the Clarke disappearance has prompted speculation about whether he could be connected to other unsolved missing persons cases in the area.

"That's sort of the question swirling around here," Wheeler said. "There are people checking that out."

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Follow Larry O'Dell on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LarryOatAP


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