CBSN
crimesider

Parents of missing U.Va. student fear foul play

Missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham (lower left) is seen on a surveillance camera outside a Charlottesville pub at 12:45 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, the day she disappeared.

CBS affiliate WCAV

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The family of a missing University of Virginia student suspects foul play in their daughter's disappearance.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo read an emotional statement from the family of Hannah Graham, 18, who vanished after a night out with friends early Saturday.

"Hannah is beyond precious to us. We are truly devastated by her disappearance," read the statement issued by her parents, John and Susan Graham. "It's totally out of character for us not to have heard from her and we fear foul play."

Police have said they have no evidence to point to any criminal elements in her disappearance, however.

1graham.jpg

Hannah Graham

CBS affiliate WCAV

No one has seen the second-year student since she texted a friend around 1:20 a.m. Saturday after leaving a party, saying she was lost. At the press conference, Longo confirmed that investigators believed Graham had "lost her bearings." They played two previously-unreleased surveillance videos showing the teen walking next to an Irish pub around 12:45 a.m., and then later running past a gas station before slowing to a walk.

An eyewitness later placed the teen near Charlottesville's downtown pedestrian mall, a busy strip of restaurants and retail shops. Longo said investigators were working to obtain surveillance video of Graham on the mall.

Acting on the eyewitness' tip and the new video, police were canvassing downtown businesses Wednesday in hopes of retracing her steps.

Longo said he met with Graham's parents and learned more about the teen, a straight-A student and accomplished skier. Growing emotional, Longo said, "I can't imagine, as a parent and as a husband, I can't imagine what they're going through these past several days."

"I assured them, and I'm assuring you today, this department's focus is to find their daughter - first and foremost, to find their daughter, and by the grace of God return her to their care," he said.

He urged anyone with information to call a dedicated tipline, and asked residents to search their own properties.

The search for the northern Virginia woman has involved local police, the Virginia State Police, University of Virginia police and the FBI, which is processing leads. The search has also included canine teams and helicopters. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is in the process of completing a new poster, Longo said.

Graham had apparently been drinking on the evening she vanished, and Longo blasted those who he said were "quick to attack the character of this young lady, I think unfairly."

Longo said investigators released the information because it suggested "she was vulnerable - she may not have been in a position to protect or defend herself," and that "she may not have been in a position to make good decisions."

"I find it unfortunate that people are latching on to that and speaking poorly of this young lady's character, someone they don't even know," he said.

Investigators who reviewed the surveillance video said they were initially concerned that Graham was seen running. But Longo said that she is also seen slowing to a walk, and it didn't appear she was being pursued.

Longo said Graham met friends for dinner at a restaurant Friday night, dropped by parties at two off-campus housing units, and left the second one alone. Police are reviewing "numerous" text messages Graham sent the evening of her disappearance, including one telling a friend she thought she was lost in the area of 14th and Wertland streets.

Police said earlier they now believe she was never in that area, and that they were working to obtain phone records to pinpoint the location from where the text was sent.

Longo didn't go into detail about the contents of the other text messages, but he said it didn't appear Graham was afraid.

"It suggested to me she wasn't familiar with where she was, but I didn't get a sense there was fear," Longo said.

Longo said he had no evidence to suggest Graham's disappearance could be linked to the case of Morgan Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who disappeared from the University of Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena while attending a rock concert in October 2009. Her remains were found three months later in a rural area, and no arrests have ever been made.

However, he conceded it was a "legitimate question" because both are young women who vanished from the university area.

"We as investigators need to be cautious before we make those leaps," he said.

Detective Jim Mooney, the lead investigator, said police have interviewed about 50 people. He also said the rural area where Morgan Harrington's remains were found has been checked just in case.

Police describe Graham as a white female, about five feet, 11 inches tall, with blue eyes, light brown hair and freckles. She was last seen wearing a black crop top with mesh cutouts.

Anyone with information about her whereabouts is asked to call 434-295-3851.

  • Erin Donaghue

    Erin Donaghue covers crime for CBSNews.com's Crimesider.