Ensconced beneath the small patch of trees just beyond the slow-trickling creek bed beside Nelson County High School lies a newly dedicated garden. Students in the school’s horticulture class will plant and maintain the garden’s swirl of pink and white flowers year after year. The garden, which also features a small bench and lacquered tree stump, soon will bear a plaque designating the space.
“This [school] is a place where Alexis had her hopes and her dreams,” said Shawn White, the Virginia coordinator for the CUE Center for Missing Persons. “It’s now a place where her mother can come to get away and just reflect on happy memories.
“This will keep Alexis’ memory alive.”
The garden dedication for Alexis Murphy, the Nelson County teenager who disappeared last August, was one of a few highlights at the second stop in the commonwealth for CUE’s 11th annual “On the Road to Remember” tour. At the Saturday gathering just outside of this school, which gave the Murphy family an honorary diploma for Alexis last June, family and friends came together to remember Murphy, Morgan Harrington, Janet Renée Field and other missing persons or unsolved homicide victims whose families have never received closure for their losses.
The sizable turnout for the event gave Alexis’ mother Laura Murphy hope.
“It means that everyone still cares,” Murphy said. “They still have Alexis on their minds — not just Alexis, but all the other missing too.”
Gil and Dan Harrington, the parents of Morgan Harrington and founders of Help Save the Next Girl, came out to show their support and plead for the community to not give up hope. The Harringtons have been close with the Murphys since Alexis went missing last year. While a jury has convicted Randy Taylor of murdering the then-17-year-old volleyball captain and honor student, her remains have not been found.
“The Murphy family wants the body found — they want a funeral for their girl,” Gil Harrington said. “This whole community is injured because Alexis was taken from them”
The event comes just on the heels of the disappearance of Hannah Graham, the second-year University of Virginia student who was last seen Sept. 13. While police have charged Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr. with abduction in Graham’s disappearance, a massive search and investigation has turned up little evidence of the 18-year-old’s whereabouts. Police have sealed warrants for Matthew’s home, vehicle and recently, financial records. Matthew remains behind bars in Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail after police arrested him in Texas weeks ago. His arrest has now been linked to the disappearance of Harrington as well.
“Talking about Hannah Graham and seeing all this, it’s opening wounds,” Murphy said. “It was another family going through what we had to go through — Alexis would have been 18 this year.”
While the disappearance of Murphy, Graham and Harrington are fresh in the public eye, the interstate tour, which spans more than 4,000 miles, aims to draw attention to lower-profile missing persons cases.
The third stop on the tour through Virginia was at McIntire Park, where families gathered to remember Bonnie Santiago and Dashad “Sage” Smith. Santiago, 56, vanished from Carter Mountain in July, and Smith, a 19-year-old Charlottesville High School grad, was last seen two days before Thanksgiving in 2012.
After members of each family openly shared stories of their lost loved ones, the crowd released multi-colored balloons, each with the name of different missing person, into the sky.
From Charlottesville, the tour continued to a stop in Fredericksburg to remember more missing women, including 19-year-old Samantha Clarke, who went missing from Orange County in 2010. Afterwards, the CUE team plans to stop in a few more states, reminding communities of those lost but not forgotten.
“It rebirths new support,” said Monica Kaison, executive director of CUE. “It rebirths and rekindles people’s hearts to get more involved.”
Along with raising awareness, the tour also helps investigators and families gain access to more resources to continue their searching, Kaison said. While the tour takes a different route each year, Kaison said that Virginia was a priority this year, as a result of the string of disappearances along U.S. 29 that has gained significant media attention.
As the tour moves forward, Shawn White said she can keep her resolve, knowing that Alexis Murphy’s family has a place to reflect on their daughter. White learned about CUE after attending a stop for Alexis Murphy in last year’s road tour. The Murphy case hit home for White, a Nelson County High School graduate herself, as her father had been one of Murphy’s volleyball coaches.
“This is my community, my hometown — it’s in my backyard, so when this happened, it was something that hit my heart very hard,” White said.
Friday will mark five years since Morgan Harrington disappeared from a concert in Charlottesville, last seen crossing walking away from John Paul Jones Arena. For a community reeling from another disappearance, it will serve as another reminder of the many loved ones that haven’t been found.
“We’ll get through,” said Laura Murphy. “As long as we have our faith and our hope.”