When 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington’s skeletal remains were found in 2010 on a Virginia farm three months after she vanished in Charlottesville, her mother vowed to help catch the man who took her daughter’s life.
“There was a predator out there and I wanted to do everything I could to find him,” Gil Harrington tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t want him to strike again.”
After police found a link between Morgan’s murder and the brutal 2005 rape of a 26-year-old woman in Fairfax, Harrington and her husband, Dan, and a small army of volunteers distributed hundreds of flyers of a composite sketch of the suspect. They hung posters all over Charlottesville and displayed the suspect’s sketch on billboards.
She and her husband even started the organization, Help Save the Next Girl, a nationwide non-profit aimed at trying to prevent crimes against young women by promoting personal safety.
“We never let up on him,” she says. “I moved heaven and earth to stay on top of him and stop him.”
After six long years, Harrington she felt “vindicated” when she and her husband sat in court just feet away from Jesse Matthew Jr., the man charged with abducting and murdering University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, at his arraignment on Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder and abduction with the intent to defile in the disappearance and death of their daughter.
“I wanted him to see my face,” she says. “There’s a visceral justice in forcing someone to look in the eyes of the family whose loved one you murdered.”
When Matthew got up to leave court – led by officers and in chains, “He looked long and hard at me and Dan,” she says “It was like a predator to hunter – but we were the ones who had hunted him down.”
In June, Matthew was convicted on charges of attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile and sexual assault in the 2005 Fairfax attack. He had entered an Alford plea, acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him without admitting to committing a crime. He faces up to three life terms when he is sentenced.
Matthew is expected to go on trial for Graham’s murder in 2016. He has not entered a plea in either murder case, a spokesperson for the Albemarle County Court told PEOPLE.
He faces the possibility of the death penalty if he is found guilty of murdering Graham. In Harrington’s case, each charge he faces carries a sentence of up to life in prison.
“I’m glad they got him,” says Harrington. “He’s left a trail of sorrow wherever he’s been.”
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