As I packed my bags for the Virginia Festival of the Book last week, I thought about Hannah Graham. The pretty, freckled 18-year-old University of Virginia student was abducted and murdered last September. Graham has been on my mind since I first heard she was missing, so I wanted to retrace her final steps while I was in Charlottesville. I wanted a way to honor her, and to reflect on the dangers fraught for female college students these days. I didn’t expect to learn so much when I did so.
I had no idea until I stepped onto the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville how upscale a neighborhood Graham was in when she disappeared. Or, as one resident told me, why Graham wouldn’t have been inside Tempo, the 5th Street SE restaurant where she was supposedly seen for the last time on Sept. 13, 2014. Where the news media camped outside its doors for the next few weeks, as eager for scraps of information as a passing canine would be for leftover beef ribeye scraps.
More important and certainly more unsettling, I learned why Graham’s alleged killer, Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., would not have been inside Tempo with her. It’s something I haven’t seen in the media, and I’m wondering why reporters are keeping it quiet. Especially the local media, whose connections with townspeople and business owners surely offer them better access to the truth than any big-city reporters. I suppose they really might not know, but that seems a little farfetched.
I was sitting inside Tempo sipping an espresso martini Thursday after listening to Lucinda Franks talk about her marriage to Robert Morgenthau, as part of the panel discussion, “Lives, Loves, and Literature.” A few feet away, a live press conference was taking place. For a crime reporter, there is nothing quite like finding yourself smack dab in the middle of a breaking story that becomes national news. For this crime reporter, who has become very saddened by how badly decent black men who are not criminals are treated, I was glad to be discussing writing and books with a young couple seated at the bar next to me, instead of becoming sadder still, as I’m sure I would have had I attended the press conference.
At the heart of the event was what really happened to Martese Johnson, the 20-year-old black UVA honors student who was thrown to the ground by Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agents a day earlier, after they claimed he was causing a disturbance. (Witnesses and even the bar owner where Johnson was denied entry say he wasn’t.) What really happened matters, you see, because Johnson was left very bloodied, with a head injury, and 10 stitches to close the gash the agents gave him when they threw him to the ground.
I can’t speak to that incident, but other Charlottesville residents can. “They’re the worst,” one older (white) shop owner said, comparing the ABC agents to thugs. A black engineer I talked to during my four-day stay said race isn’t a factor. Then he told me about Elizabeth Daly, whom ABC agents harassed in 2013 when they thought she was buying alcohol. (It was sparkling water.) Daly was then 20, and also a UVA student.
According to Reuters, “Daly, who is white, filed a $40 million lawsuit, which the state attorney general’s office eventually settled for $212,000.”
Suffice to say the agency has given itself a very black eye, and this week some federal officials are calling for it to be stripped of its powers. Given how reckless its agents are, is it any wonder?
With the media focus on Martese Johnson, it might be easy to forget about Hannah Graham. But I can’t. In large part because Hannah might still be alive, if not for the fact that local authorities apparently missed the clues so many people saw in Matthews’ odd behavior, down through the years.
For example, I was told that Matthews, who has a lower-than-normal IQ, was regularly refused entry at several local bars. Why would that be? Well, Matthews would show up late at night and try to hit on young, drunk, female college students. No wonder police believe they might have a serial rapist on their hands.
Word got around about Matthews’ tactics, so he was blacklisted from many of the local establishments that serve alcohol. One of which was . . . Tempo.
Speaking of Tempo, it’s a pricey place that serves duck and a clientele of “rich white men,” as one resident told me. Which is why I chose to go inside for a drink, to see for myself. Yep, it sure is. I can’t imagine it being a favored hangout for many—if any—college students. Graham, I am told, was turned away at the door, because she was underage.
And that’s where it seems Matthews found her. He escorted her around the corner, into his car, and . . . that’s the last anyone saw of Hannah Graham.
Matthews—who comes from a well-respected family—has known anger issues. But he is also said to be so nice to some small children he knows well that they couldn’t believe he was possibly connected to Graham’s disappearance—was once asked about his late-night bar tactic. “It levels the playing field,” he supposedly said.
Well, not for Hannah Graham.
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I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”