Remembering Morgan; Hoping to Save Others

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(L - R) Jamie Waldrop, Arturo Gomez, Laura Gomez, Dan Harrington, and Heidi Campbell in front of Paco's Tacos.
(L - R) Jamie Waldrop, Arturo Gomez, Laura Gomez, Dan Harrington, and Heidi Campbell in front of Paco's Tacos.

by Cheryl Hodges

It has been a good while since Dan Harrington lived through the terrible night when “normal time” stopped for him, his wife Gil and their son Alex.

In fact, it has been almost two years since October 17, 2009 when they got word that their 20 year old daughter Morgan went missing.  A lot has changed since then. A family’s “forever” love for a daughter and a sister has propelled them in new directions, and at a speed they probably never imagined.

The name “Morgan Harrington” has become identified with the tragedy of her loss, as well as her memory, and her family’s and friends’ quest to find her killer, in an arc from Roanoke to Blacksburg, to Charlottesville, Fairfax and back, becoming part of the backdrop of life in southwest Virginia.

While there is a sense of shared pain and grief in our community, some may have privately begun to wonder if it is time to let this slip a bit more under the collective radar; after all, what pains the most is that nothing can bring Morgan back.

However, just a brief encounter with her father Dan brings into refreshing focus the new purpose of his days and a feeling of connection to that “forever love” that won’t go away … a love both he and wife Gil seem to want others to share with them.

Because of Morgan, Dan spent last Saturday  (Gil had other obligations) with some of his fellow “Morgan’s warriors,” putting themselves before the public on her behalf once again, gathering beneath a tent in front of Paco’s Tacos restaurant. Owner Laura Gomez (married to co-owner Arturo Gomez) used to tutor both Morgan and her brother, and now had an opportunity to contribute in some way to the causes the Harringtons have chosen to support in memory of Morgan; all of the profits from Saturday’s sales at Paco’s were donated to those charities.

In addition, they had self-defense trainer Heidi Campbell from Waynesboro on hand to give free “safety awareness” demonstrations and tips to females, especially, “to help the next girl,” she said.

Harrington is warm and approachable, easy to talk to, even about this difficult subject. He is also sharp and articulate … and while he speaks, one can’t help but notice how much Morgan’s photos show the resemblance to her dad … but then seeing a picture of mom Gil—there are those big beautiful eyes.

Sadly, he matter-of-factly recounts his worst fear when he heard his daughter was missing. “I [immediately] said ‘Morgan is dead’ – she would not just go off somewhere.” When details of what happened that night later came to light, Harrington said “she wasn’t doing anything that most college age kids don’t do. There are some that don’t” . . . he added, referring to drinking in particular.  But the  reality is she was dressed like most kids dress for a Metallica concert, behaved like so many her age, and like so many young adults, was a bright, intelligent, loving person who ended up in an unthinkable situation.

Think again: it could be anyone. Harrington cites the paralyzing statistic that “3000 people go missing every day in the US.” Young people, especially college age kids, “don’t want to think it could happen to them–but it can,” says Harrington. While many of that number are not abducted, there is “story after story” of “mostly women” who are harmed or killed. This is one of the reasons the Harringtons remain committed to keeping Morgan’s story before the public.

Jamie Waldrop, one of the people who has been “supernaturally” placed in the Harrington’s lives since Morgan went missing, is often on hand for events such as these, as is Kenny Jarels, self-proclaimed “crazy Hokie,” both of whom were touched by Morgan’s case. They wanted to help out in some way and have been helping ever since. Both were administrators on the online forum that Dan initially opened up in an effort to keep Morgan’s name before the public, knowing that would be the best way to increase the chance of finding her.

 Now the focus of the case is to find her murderer. Things are not at a standstill; each time they participate at an event there are usually tips and calls. One of the latest efforts which the Harringtons pushed for is “familial DNA testing,” which can determine if someone is a second or third degree relative of the suspect. A hit could point investigators to someone distantly related to the suspect, substantially narrowing the search. Harrington said, “Virginia is only the third state in the country to be doing that.” The results are not yet back in. They would like to see the technology used in other cases that could benefit.

Waldrop said it had “been an amazing day” at Paco’s, with a packed house during lunch hour; there were many faces both old and new who were there to enjoy a meal and help donate to the OMNI village, Zambia, Africa – where an educational wing is named in memory of Morgan, and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine scholarship in Morgan’s name. (Dan works there as Associate Dean and Morgan interned there one summer.)

Addressing the charities they have chosen, Dan eased back in a folding chair, becoming a bit more thoughtful.  He explained that “the fundraisers are NOT the main purpose; the reason we do this is twofold. In murder cases, if you don’t keep things public, people lose interest, then the police can lose interest.” He added, “We keep Morgan’s case out there because a murderer continues to be at large in the Charlottesville area … [we want to] help save the next girl.”

He adds that secondly, he and his wife want to address the question of “how do you find meaning in such a loss?” Part of that answer is in the specific charities they chose to assist them in keeping her name from getting too far from the public consciousness, and also link her memory to things they hold dear.

They hope that they also might show others how to grieve – “we have been pretty transparent with it; how do people get through tragedy? We have tried to show the public you do somehow have to get on with [your] lives.”

Dan and several of his friends sported polo shirts with a unique design stitched above the words “Justice for Morgan.” It a symbol made up of little polka dots, arranged in rows; two on top; four in the middle; one single dot below.

Asked what it meant, Dan explained that it is a “family symbol with [corresponding] words. We say it all the time; it’s a sign of love and connection.” He said it means: “I love you; too much; forever, and once more.” He held up fingers to correspond with the numbers as he said it (2-4-1).

Dan wanted Gil to elaborate.  Later reaching her by phone, Gil said it was a childhood saying that “my sisters and brothers and I used to say when we were little.”  It evolved from the young siblings trying to out-do each other with “I love you more” … “I love you forever” … until it became the “2-4-1” that can be “a gesture from across the room to say ‘I love you.’”

She added, “After chickening out several times, Alex and I got a thumbnail size tattoo [of the symbol] inside our wrists.”

Gil signs off her blog with 2-4-1, and others on Facebook do the same almost all the time. But the heartfelt saying has taken on so much more meaning since Morgan died. His voice cracking and tears barely discernable for the first time that day, Dan added, “That was the last thing Morgan said to Gil as she left for the concert; she said “2 – 4 – 1 Mom!”

It their gift to each other:  “forever love.”

Detailed information on Morgan’s case, including tip line, reward, Gil’s blog, and charitable donations can be found on www.findmorgan.com