By Jill Smolowe
May 17, 2010 12:00 PM

On the lacrosse field, University of Virginia senior Yeardley Love was a fleet-footed defense player known for her ferocious stick skills and sunny disposition. “No matter what you asked her to do, she did it with the biggest smile,” says her former UVA coach Amy Appell. “She was joyful, a dream to coach.” Quiet in large groups, Love, 22, was a dynamo when the gathering was small. “She was so funny,” says Ally Faulkner, who grew up with Love in Cockeysville, Md. “She could make anyone laugh for hours.” Just weeks from graduation, Love was hoping to close out her college career by representing her beloved Cavaliers at the upcoming NCAA tournament. But on May 3 tragedy struck: Love was found dead, the victim of a brutal physical assault.

Word of Love’s death no sooner rippled across the UVA campus than a second shocking piece of news jolted the student body: Police had arrested George Huguely, a fellow senior and lacrosse player, and charged him with first-degree murder. “I believe there was a relationship at some point,” Charlottesville police chief Timothy Longo told reporters. “Certainly that’s a relevant aspect of our investigation.” Fran Lawrence, Huguely’s attorney, weighed in a day later with a statement that read in part: “We are confident that Ms. Love’s death was not intended, but an accident with a tragic outcome.” He added that Huguely is withdrawing from school. Meanwhile, university president John Casteen III gave voice to students’ anguish. “That Love appears now to have been murdered by another student,” he said, “compounds this sense of loss.”

The fast-moving police investigation was triggered at 2:15 a.m. with a call by one of Love’s two roommates. According to Lt. Gary Pleasants, the roommate saw injuries when she returned to their off-campus apartment to find Love lying facedown. When police discovered damage that Longo described as “very severe,” they moved to secure the crime scene. Their interest quickly settled on Huguely, who, Longo told NBC’s Today show, came to the police station voluntarily and was “cooperative.” Within four hours, Huguely was under lock in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. As police awaited autopsy results, Longo would only say of the cause of death, “No weapon was involved.”

A strapping 6’2″, 209-lb. defense player who, like the slender Love, could have stepped out of a J.Crew ad, Huguely has brushed up against the law before. In November 2008, after partying with friends at a Washington and Lee University fraternity, he was arrested on a Lexington sidewalk for public swearing and intoxication. At that point, says the Rockbridge County courthouse clerk, Huguely attempted to take off and “started showing resistance.” The upshot was two misdemeanor charges, a $100 fine and a six-month probation period. The clerk says Huguely, who is from a prominent D.C.-area family involved in real estate, did 50 hours of community service and, after a substance-abuse assessment, was ordered to complete a 20-hour education course. “He was a perfectly fine client,” says attorney Ross Haine, who represented Huguely in that case. “He seemed like the all-American boy with a lot of potential.”

Love had a lot of potential too. High school friend Rachel Mech describes her as “mature and responsible,” and says that when Love’s father died of cancer in 2003, “she handled it with a lot of grace.” Close to her mother and older sister, Love also had a wide network of friends. “She surrounded herself with good friends and good people,” Mesh says, then, sighing, adds, “I guess with one exception.”