Drone used in Hannah Graham search; cops check for cold case ties

Hannah Graham. (AP photo)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WJLA/AP/CNN/ABC News) - The search for missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham now includes the use of an aerial drone -- the first time, according to authorities, one has been used in the search for a missing person in the state of Virginia.

The addition of the drone to the search effort comes more than two weeks after Graham disappeared from Charlottesville's Downtown Mall area.

The drone has a high-quality camera, and it will "look closer" at objects of interest, said John Coggin, chief engineer of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and one of the members of the team operating the drone.

As the drone worked from overhead Wednesday, more than 50 law enforcement personnel participated in the ground search of an area.

Police still aren't saying much at all about their evidence against the suspect in Graham's disappearance, but they seem to be working systematically to link his DNA to an expanding circle of attacks on women, a criminal defense expert suggested.

Between searches of Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr.'s car and apartment and his arrest on a charge of abducting Graham last week, police had ample opportunity to obtain genetic evidence connecting him to multiple attacks, said Steve Benjamin, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Matthew's lawyer, James Camblos, said he met with his client for about 2½ hours earlier this week, but still doesn't know what evidence police have.

Already, police said they have linked Matthew via DNA to Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington's 2009 death, and previously, authorities had said DNA in Harrington's case was connected to a 2005 abduction and sexual assault in Fairfax City

At least two additional sheriffs' offices in Virginia - Campbell County and Montgomery County - said they are now reviewing old murder cases to see if they are connected to Matthew.

Cassandra Morton, 23, was reported missing in Lynchburg on the same night that Harrington, 20, vanished in Charlottesville in October 2009. The two young women were approximately 60 miles apart. Morton's remains were found on Candlers Mountain in November of that year, while Harrington's remains were not found until January.

Campbell County Sheriff Steve Hutcherson said "there are definitely some similarities, and it warrants further looking into." But he cautioned: "It's way too early to say that someone's a suspect in the case."

Investigators 70 miles further east in Montgomery County were checking to see if there was any connection between Matthew and a double homicide that occurred near Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

"Our investigators will certainly follow up and look at the facts surrounding the Hannah Graham case to see if there is a connection" to the murders of Heidi Childs and David Metzler, who were shot near a camp ground in August 2009, said Sheriff's Capt. Brian Wright. "However, at this time we have nothing to lead us to believe that there is a connection."

Benjamin said Sept. 19 searches of Matthew's car and home would have been opportunities to obtain DNA evidence - perhaps from saliva on a toothbrush or dirty cup - as a preliminary step that could establish probable cause to obtain a search warrant for a more definitive cheek swab.

"If you're going to rely on a DNA match (at trial), police are going to obtain what they call a direct reference sample," Benjamin said. "Anything else is helpful, but not as probative."

Matthew showed up at the Charlottesville police station the day after the search and asked to see a lawyer. Benjamin said police could have asked Matthew to voluntarily submit to a cheek swab at that time, perhaps suggesting they were looking to exclude him as a suspect - a common police tactic. It would take only an afternoon to obtain the DNA profile and run it through a databank to link it to other cases, Benjamin said.

The only thing police have said about the visit to the police station, though, is that Matthew sped away from officers who had him under surveillance. Authorities didn't see him again until a deputy sheriff arrested him Sept. 24 on a beach near Galveston, Texas. By then, police had charged Matthew with abduction with intent to defile, or sexually molest, the 18-year-old Graham.

That arrest on a violent felony charge gave police authority under state law to take a cheek swab without Matthew's consent after he was returned late Friday to Virginia, where he is being held without bond in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. On Monday, Virginia State Police announced that his arrest had produced a "significant breakthrough" that investigators of Harrington's death will pursue.

Matthew was scheduled to appear by video link for a bond hearing in Charlottesville General District Court on Thursday. He has not been charged with either Harrington's slaying or the Fairfax City rape.

Harrington, a Virginia Tech student from Roanoke, left a concert at U.Va. and was denied re-entry, stranding her outside. Matthew, a hospital worker, had a license to drive a taxi at the time, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Her parents have always believed she was the victim of a serial offender. They even started "Help Save the Next Girl," a non-profit foundation aimed at protecting young women. Discussing the case this week outside their home north of Roanoke, Dan Harrington said Matthew's arrest triggered a mixture of relief, sadness and anxiety over revisiting details of their daughter's death.

But the top priority, he said, should be finding Hannah.

"I think it's the most important thing," he said. "I mean, Morgan's in a box in the living room. We know where she is; she's not coming back. Hannah, there's still hope for Hannah. And I think that it's critical for us to for the community to find her."

Graham's disappearance is on the minds of many people in Charlottesville. Having lunch on a park bench near the courthouse, Cora Kessler, 21, said she has lived in the area her whole life and this case has made her more cautious, but she still believes her community is safe. "I don't want people to get the idea that it's full of serial killers," she said.

Neighbors of Matthew said they are shocked, frightened and disturbed by the accusations against him.

"It's scary for any woman to be out there," said Bev Johnston, whose apartment is in the same building as Matthew's.

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