Alexis Murphy had her life laid out before her on that first Saturday of August in 2013.
She was about to begin her senior year at Nelson County High School, where she would have been captain of the volleyball team. College was on the horizon.
Then her story took its well-known turn toward tragedy, which closed a key chapter in 2014 with the first-degree murder conviction of Randy Allen Taylor.
Alexis has never been found. Yet she seemingly is ever present in Nelson County, where fading pink ribbons dangle from signposts along U.S. 29 and “Missing” posters with her image remain in shop windows in Lovingston.
Her family received her diploma at the May graduation of the Class of 2014 at Nelson County High School, where a garden in her memory was dedicated. The Murphy family is raising money for an Alexis Murphy Scholarship and, in August, as part of remembrances marking one year since her disappearance, volunteers hosted a basketball tournament at the high school to raise money for the fund.
The school also has started a chapter of Help Save the Next Girl, an initiative begun by Gil Harrington after her daughter, Morgan, disappeared in 2009. The program draws attention to missing person cases and urges people to be careful, so other families will not share in what the Murphys refer to as “their reality.”
Along with drawing even closer a tight-knit community, Alexis Murphy’s legacy can be found in the heightened awareness her case has brought to the real-life dangers of abduction for young people. For these reasons, she is The News & Advance’s Person of the Year for 2014.
“I’d like to see a Help Save the Next Girl chapter in every school. We talk to little kids about being abducted, but it’s not a household topic and it needs to be,” Alexis Murphy’s great-aunt, Trina Murphy, said.
She has traveled to different schools and counties to do the work of the initiative.
“There’s that old adage that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to keep a village safe. Everybody needs to be watching,” she said
The Virginia State Crime Commission interviewed Trina Murphy for its report on the ability of multiple law enforcement agencies to deploy quickly and cohesively in cases involving missing, endangered or abducted victims. That report is expected to go to the General Assembly at the start of the 2015 session.
“We had a cohesiveness. Nelson County, State Police, FBI, they all worked together. There was no ‘I’m the big man on campus.’ I don’t know why it worked that way in our case. I’m glad it did, but it didn’t happen that way for everybody,” Trina Murphy said.
The Harringtons and Murphys first crossed paths shortly after Alexis Murphy vanished the evening of Aug. 3, 2013. Amid the flurry of cards, casseroles and candlelight vigils, the Murphys found their greatest support and empathy from a couple that survived this place of darkness and unknowing.
“Those are really the only people who can understand it,” Trina Murphy said. “When somebody dies, you say, ‘Oh, I know what you’re going through.’ But this is so far removed from what people can understand.”
After months of searching, a farmer stumbled across Morgan Harrington’s remains in an Albemarle County field.
The Murphys, however, remain unsure whether to grieve, to hope, to keep her bedroom just as it was or to accept that she will never return home.
“Until you have the remains to lay somewhere, your mind is always going to go back to that possibility that she is still out there. That’s torture. You try not to let your mind go there,” Trina Murphy said. “You think she’s dead, she’s gone, and I’m going to accept it. Then something happens and you see something about sex trafficking where fifteen girls are found in a house, and you wonder, is one of them her?”
Laura Murphy goes to work each day for the U.S. Postal Service, just as she did before her 17-year-old daughter disappeared. But now, driving back and forth on U.S. 29, she looks for dilapidated barns, outbuildings strung with kudzu, any structures showing signs of neglect.
“I just look at abandoned buildings and wonder if she’s there. I wonder if they checked there. I want to call them up and ask if they checked that barn.”
Alexis Murphy’s family has dreams of her reaching out, talking with them, comforting them. Laura Murphy fell asleep one night, hearing her daughter tell her “I’m OK.”
“Alexis and I were very close. I honestly feel like that’s Alexis communicating,” she said. “I very seldom have dreams about her. And believe me, I lie there and want to have dreams about her every night.”
Alexis Murphy is presumed murdered. Her killer, 49-year-old Randy Taylor, was convicted in May and ordered in July to serve two life sentences in prison.
Before sentencing came down, Randy Taylor’s attorney, Mike Hallahan, offered a deal — for a reduced sentence, his client would give information on Alexis Murphy’s whereabouts.
Her mother already had considered the offer for days, wondering if such a deal could bring her the peace she longed for.
“With all the stuff he has said, he just kept lying,” Laura Murphy said. “Who’s to say that he was really going to tell us where she was?”
She rejected the deal, left with the mystery.
The family believes one day the answer will reveal itself.
“I pray to God, send me something. I guess in His time, He will,” Laura Murphy said.
Randy Taylor maintains his innocence. His attorney filed an appeal in July, asking the Virginia Court of Appeals in Richmond to overturn the verdict. The appeals process can take years, with some cases going on to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Once that process concludes, Laura Murphy wants to visit the prison, sit across from Randy Taylor and ask where she can find her daughter.
Until then, the family continues to ponder the unanswered questions. Their main question lies in a span of a few minutes, when the missing teenager and her killer crossed paths. The cashier at the gas station testified in May the two talked briefly in the parking lot.
“The million-dollar question is still how he got Alexis from the Liberty gas station to his house. That haunts me more than knowing where she is, honestly, knowing how he lured her there,” Trina Murphy said. “Her going voluntarily is not the answer I’m looking for. I don’t believe it. You’ll never convince me of it.”
At 17 years old, the missing teenager still feared the dark and often fell asleep with the light on. Her family cannot believe such a skittish girl set off willingly to a strange man’s home.
Whether to grieve, pray, interpret their dreams as messages beyond the grave or signs of hope, the Murphys concretely mourn the irreparable break in their family and the loss of Alexis Murphy’s potential for life.
“She would have been coming home from her first semester of college,” said Angela Taylor, Alexis Murphy’s aunt. “You hear about those experiences and you see some of her other friends who are coming home, but we don’t get that.”
When she disappeared, Alexis hoped to attend college on a volleyball scholarship. The teenager was lean, athletic and beautiful. She obsessed over fashion and spent hours at the mirror fixing her hair.
“She wanted to be a model. I told her one day, you probably will be. But, I didn’t expect for her picture to be everywhere with the word ‘missing’ overtop it,” her mother said.
Nearly one and a half years later, the missing posters remain in shop windows.
“If you live here, you just can’t get away from it,” Trina Murphy said. “People still have pink ribbons on their mailboxes. You go to Liberty and the tree is still there.”
To honor Alexis Murphy’s memory, the community placed a pink Christmas tree near the gas station where she vanished.
While the pink ribbons may bring a sting, the family agreed they should continue to fly, serving not only as a path to guide Alexis home, but as a warning for others to take heed.
“That will be her contribution to the world. And it’s up to us to carry that burden now. It’s not a burden, it’s an obligation and an honor,” Trina Murphy said. “If we can save just one other girl, it’s been worth it.”
That will be her contribution to the world. And it’s up to us to carry that burden now. It’s not a burden, it’s an obligation and an honor. If we can save just one other girl, it’s been worth it.