CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The man who found the key piece of evidence linking Morgan Harrington’s murder to a 2005 Fairfax City rape — and perhaps to the Hannah Graham disappearance — hopes his discovery will lead to justice.
Blaine Eichner was a second year University of Virginia student when Harrington disappeared Oct. 17, 2009.
Eichner found the Virginia Tech student’s T-shirt in front of his Charlottesville apartment building 25 days after Harrington was last seen outside a Metallica concert at John Paul Jones Arena.
In an interview with WTOP and WVTF, Eichner remembers the tension in the college town after Harrington mysteriously disappeared.
Police had asked citizens to be on the lookout for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary, and had described Harrington’s appearance, including a black T-shirt, with the band name Pantera across the front.
Eichner says as he walked back from class to his apartment building at the corner of Grady Avenue and 15th Street on Nov. 11, 2009, he noticed a piece of black clothing draped over a bush — and didn’t think anything of it.
“Our building didn’t have a very good washer and dryer, so it wasn’t uncommon to see clothes hanging on banisters and such — I did it myself often,” says Eichner.
As he looked closer, Eichner noticed the black T-shirt had the word Pantera across the chest.
“It was just obviously spread out across the bush,” says Eichner. “It was so nicely laid out.”
Eichner was aware that police were looking for a Pantera T-shirt in connection with Harrington’s disappearance, but seeing the shirt lying atop a bush in downtown Charlottesville made him think someone was playing a sick joke.
Later that evening, as he was driving to Richmond, Eichner decided he shouldn’t ignore what he’d seen.
“I called my roommate who was still at the apartment, and asked him to go outside and see if the shirt was still there,” says Eichner. “It was, and then he called the authorities.”
Police recovered the shirt, and sent it for forensic testing.
Harrington’s remains were discovered by an Albemarle County landowner in a field on his 700-acre farm on the morning of Jan. 26, 2010. The autopsy concluded Harrington had been murdered.
The missing link
Five months after his discovery, Eichner received an unexpected phone call from Virginia State Police.
“Someone in the police department told us it did match the DNA of Morgan Harrington,” recalls Eichner.
Eichner was shocked that his discovery had, in fact, been related to the ongoing search for the teenager’s murderer.
In spring of 2010, Eichner received another shock — Morgan Harrington’s T- shirt was forensically linked to the unsolved 2005 rape of a woman in Fairfax.
“When we first heard it was connected to a different case we thought maybe they would have an ID or identity of the person,” says Eichner. “But they still had no ID, just a description.”
Fairfax City police were able to develop a composite sketch of the assailant four years ago, but never named a suspect.
Last month, on Sept. 29 — one week after Jesse Matthew’s car had been seized and his apartment searched — Virginia State Police announced a new forensic link connected the disappearance of Hannah Graham, with the murder of Morgan Harrington. Police have not identified what the link is.
This past Monday, Jesse Matthew was indicted by a Fairfax County grand jury on three felony counts — attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile, and object penetration — for the 2005 attack.
A type of bravado that was chilling
Morgan Harrington’s mother, Gil, has never met Blaine Eichner. In fact, she never knew the name of the man who found her daughter’s T-shirt.
“It was pivotal,” Harrington tells WTOP. “It was also concerning.”
The out-in-the-open discovery of her daughter’s Pantera shirt is telling, in Harrington’s mind.
“To have blatantly taken the most obvious, identifiable item that law enforcement was asking for, and kind of draping it like a trophy displayed a certain type of bravado that was chilling to me,” says Harrington.
“It really seemed like a trophy presentation of a pretty serious predator,” says Harrington.
Harrington and her husband Dan are instrumental in the Help Save The Next Girl organization, formed in honor of their daughter.
Gil Harrington hopes other concerned citizens will follow Eichner’s lead, and help find other missing girls.
“If you have any little awareness at all, don’t filter it — give it to the police,” says Harrington.
Though police have not specified that Matthew’s DNA is on Morgan Harrington’s T-shirt, or on the surviving Fairfax victim, the genetic material on the T-shirt will no doubt be compared to evidence gathered in the Graham investigation.
Human remains discovered behind an Albemarle County home this Saturday by searchers in the Graham case have yet to be identified by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner or police.
Eichner says he has not been contacted by any investigators or officers since Graham disappeared, but hopes his discovery will help in the prosecution of the person forensically linked to the T-shirt.
“If this does lead to a conviction of the person who did it I would be happy,” says Eichner, “because whoever did these terrible things to these women needs to be punished.”