DNA Ties Two Virginia College Students’ Homicides To ‘Back-To-School Killer’

One victim’s mother called Jesse Matthew Jr. "a serial rapist and murderer who had been hiding in plain sight."

Hannah Graham [left] was found murdered on Sept 24, 2014; Morgan Dana Harrington [right] was found in January 2010. DNA has linked the two murders to Jesse Matthew Jr.

DNA ties two Virginia college students' homicides to "back-to-school killer" Jesse Matthew Jr.

Photo by: Charlottesville Police Department [left]; Virginia State Police [right]

Charlottesville Police Department [left]; Virginia State Police [right]

By: Aaron Rasmussen

A British-born college student in Virginia was abducted and murdered after an evening out, and the prime suspect, dubbed the “Back-to-School Killer,” admitted he killed her as well as a second coed.

On the evening of Sept. 12, 2014, University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham, 18, attended a house party in Charlottesville and later texted friends that she was lost.

That same night, Jesse Matthew Jr., a 32-year-old former hospital orderly and cab driver, was spotted at multiple area bars, where he was accused of groping several women. One witness said Matthew looked at her in a “crazy way” after he grabbed her leg and she told him not to touch her, according to a statement of facts from the Albemarle County Commonwealth Attorney's Office, CBS News reported.

Around 1 a.m., Matthew, then 32, left the bar Rapture, and surveillance video on a downtown pedestrian mall captured footage of him passing by Graham. She appeared intoxicated and unsteady on her feet. He turned and began to follow Graham, and a bystander pointed out that Matthew didn’t appear to know her.

“Hush,” Mathew responded, according to the court document. The bystander and a second witness then followed the pair into Tempo and noted Matthew had ordered drinks for himself and the underage Graham.

A short time later, around 1:18 a.m., a third witness — the last to see Graham alive that evening — recalled seeing the teenager back on the street walking ahead of Matthew, who “did not look friendly” as he caught up to the student and put his arm around her, the document states.

According to the third witness, Matthew then guided Graham to the passenger side of his nearby orange Chrysler Sebring, and Graham’s voice sounded “elevated, rapid, and frightened, as if she did not know [Matthew]” when she refused to get into the vehicle.

Matthew and Graham were gone when the witness drove past the spot where Matthew’s vehicle had been parked two minutes earlier.

According to court documents, in the days that followed Graham’s disappearance, Matthew’s colleagues told investigators he had a swollen jaw, acted “very, very not himself and very weird” and told them he was “not okay.”

Matthew was quickly identified as the prime suspect in the case, and police arrested him in Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 24, 2014. Several weeks later, Graham’s skeletonized remains were located behind a vacant lot around 12 miles from downtown Charlottesville.

DNA evidence connected Matthew to Graham’s murder, but investigators also were able to tie him to two other unsolved crimes — a 2005 abduction and rape in Fairfax, and the murder of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Dana Harrington four years later.

On Oct. 17, 2009, Harrington attended a Metallica concert at Charlottesville’s John Paul Jones Arena. She exited the arena and wasn’t allowed to reenter, so she began to hitchhike in the area where Matthew was driving a cab, the court document states.

Harrington’s remains were found on farmland in January 2010 and Matthew’s DNA was tied to forensic evidence on the victim’s t-shirt, which was located months earlier not far from the arena, authorities said.

In March 2016, Matthew took a plea deal to avoid the death penalty and admitted to abducting and murdering both Graham and Harrington. A judge sentenced him to four consecutive life terms in prison for the slayings, and he is also serving three life terms in connection with the rape in Fairfax.

In a victim impact statement at Matthew’s sentencing, Graham’s mother, Sue, said her daughter was a “heroine” who “helped capture a serial rapist and murderer who had been hiding in plain sight in Charlottesville for years.”

For more on Hannah Graham's story, stream this episode of Hometown Homicide: Local Mysteries on discovery+.