For some of the people dressed in buttons and T-shirts Saturday, their nightmares began years ago. For others, it came within the past week. Regardless of their stories, the families felt connected Saturday by a shared, empty space where their children should be.
“It may not look like we are family, but we are family through the crucible of our loss,” said Gil Harrington, mother of 20-year-old Morgan Harrington whose remains where found in an Albemarle County field nearly four years ago.
Saturday, these torn families gathered in Miller Park in Lynchburg to raise awareness for their cases and the safety of all children.
BB Shavers, founder of the Self Help Obtaining Positive Opportunities, or SHOPO, Foundation for Youth, said he brought the families together as their burden did not just rest on them, but on the community.
“This is not just about Lynchburg. It’s about every young person in our nation,” Shavers said. “These are all our kids. Today, we are all family.”
Shavers invited each of the families to speak about their children. Dan Harrington, father of Morgan, spoke first.
His daughter disappeared in Charlottesville following a Metallica Concert the night of Oct. 17, 2009.
“Do you know the sounds that come out of your mouth when you hear your daughter is missing?” asked Gil Harrington. “It’s an animal scream.”
One hundred and one days after the Metallica concert, Morgan was found dead.
Since then, the Harringtons formed the Help Save the Next Girl foundation to try to protect other children.
“We have worked very hard to not have this happen to anyone else,” Dan Harrington said. “These are tragedies for families that we can never get over.”
That tragedy befell the family of 17-year-old Alexis Murphy four months ago, after she disappeared from Lovingston.
“There are no words to describe what we’re going through,” said Trina Murphy, Alexis’ great-aunt.
On Aug. 3, Alexis told her family she planned to drive to Lynchburg for hair extensions for her senior portrait. Surveillance footage at the Liberty gas station on U.S. 29 from that evening captured the final moments before Alexis disappeared.
Investigators with the FBI said 48-year-old Randy Taylor, of Lovingston, was also spotted in the surveillance photos, though the two did not appear to be together.
Taylor has since been charged with one count of abduction and faces trial in Nelson County Juvenile and Domestic Court later in January.
A civilian search was conducted through the SHOPO Foundation on Dec. 8 along U.S. 29 in Nelson County with the hope of discovering clues leading to Alexis.
Angela Taylor, Alexis’ aunt, said the FBI continues to actively search for her niece and keeps in touch with the Murphys.
Together, the stories of Morgan Harrington and Alexis Murphy flooded national airwaves as crews worked to locate the two.
However, the Saturday news conference gave other families a chance to draw attention to their stories.
The parents of 23-year-old Cassandra Morton asked that anyone with information on their daughter’s death come forward.
Morton was found dead on Candlers Mountain in Dec. 2009, 48 days after she was reported missing. Investigators never named a suspect in Morton’s death.
Gil Harrington brought a map Saturday showing 14 young people who had gone missing or whose deaths remain unsolved in Virginia or just outside of the commonwealth in the past four years.
“This is a hideous map,” she said. “The anguish this has caused in our community is immeasurable.”
Shavers said the family of 18-year-old Jamisha Gilbert could not attend the Saturday news conference, though donations were taken to help with Gilbert’s funeral.
Lynchburg investigators recovered Gilbert’s body Wednesday in a heavily wooded area near the intersection of Concord Turnpike and U.S. 460.
Gilbert’s friends have organized a candlelight vigil for her at 5 p.m. Monday at the Megginson School on Spinoza Circle, close to where police found her.
Though their stories differed, each family made a plea that parents and communities work to prevent any future missing person cases.
“My main message is that this is a call to action,” Murphy said Saturday. “There are predators in our midst. The police can’t be everywhere. Everyone needs to be paying attention.”
Through the Help Save the Next Girl foundation, the Harringtons have created public service announcements among other effort to increase children’s safety.
“It’s when you become complacent that the predators continue to act. There are simple things you can do,” Gil Harrington said. “We’ve got to make this stop.”
Contact Barrett Mohrman at (434) 385-5531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.