Oct 3, 2014 5:12 PM

UVa kidnap suspect: 'Gentle giant' or predator?

The Associated Press

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr. was the kind of guy who would bust your lip, then regretfully drive you to the hospital. A "cool individual" around other guys, but a bit too "touchy-feely" with the ladies, family friend Rod Brown says.

"He doesn't mean to be creepy; he's just a little off, just a little awkward," says Brown, who's known "LJ" for about 15 years. "If he gets around women, I've never seen it NOT be awkward."

Authorities say Matthew's interactions with women went way beyond awkward.

The former college football lineman and sometime cab driver is in jail on a charge of "abduction with intent to defile" in the Sept. 13 disappearance of University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham. Police say forensic evidence also connects the 32-year-old Charlottesville man to the 2009 murder of another college student, which in turn is linked by DNA to a 2005 sexual assault in northern Virginia.

Friends expressed shock that this "gentle giant" he's 6-foot-2 and weighs 270 pounds could be suspected of such violence. But court records reveal a man capable of explosive rage, and hounded from one college, then another by allegations of sexual assault.

"It's just a sad story," says Brud Bicknell, who coached Matthew on the Monticello High Mustangs.

Defense attorney James Camblos III has said only that Matthew comes from a "hardworking, blue-collar" family. "Neither Mr. Matthews (sic) nor I are giving interviews at this time. If you're calling about an interview or to chat, do not leave a message," his answering machine says.

Matthew wrestled, played football and ran track at Charlottesville's Albemarle High School. Then in 1998, his junior year, he was transferred from overcrowded Albemarle to the newly completed Monticello High, and his parents separated.

Debra Carr Matthew retained custody of Jesse and his younger sister, Latasha. Court records show Jesse Matthew Sr., with a history of public intoxication arrests and one misdemeanor indecent exposure conviction, was living an hour away in Farmville and owed several thousand dollars in support.

The younger Matthew seemed destined to rise above all this. He became co-captain of the Monticello football squad as a senior, and then enrolled in psychology at evangelist Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, where he suited up as a redshirt defensive lineman for the Flames.

His college career took a sharp wrong turn in his junior year, when a fellow student accused Matthew of raping her. Matthew withdrew from Liberty on Oct. 17, 2002 hours after a reported sexual assault behind the university's sports arena. The university said privacy laws prevent disclosing more details, or explaining why Matthew withdrew. Prosecutors said the case was dropped when the woman declined to press charges.

Matthew returned to school in January 2003, enrolling at Christopher Newport University in southeast Virginia. He joined their football team that August, but the second act was short-lived.

On Sept. 7, 2003, a fellow student accused him of sexual assault on the Newport News campus. Five days after the attack, Matthew dropped off the team roster; a month later, he was gone.

University spokesman Bruce Bronstein said "the matter was thoroughly investigated by University Police. No physical injuries were reported. The victim chose not to proceed with a criminal prosecution."

Student privacy laws cloak that case as well, but another CNU spokeswoman, Lori Jacobs, observed that "students don't usually leave in the second month of the semester or leave the football team within a month."

Back in Charlottesville, the former tackle went from rushing quarterbacks to hustling for fares and tips behind the wheel of a taxicab.

On June, 4, 2009, Charlottesville attorney Erik Wilke had just pulled out of a convenience store south of UVA's Scott Stadium when he heard persistent honking behind him. Wilke sped up and turned left, but the Access Taxi minivan continued its pursuit, the driver honking and shouting out the window.

Wilke finally pulled over, and Matthew boxed him in, angrily accusing the lawyer of cutting him off. When Wilke threatened to call the police after Matthew refused to move, Matthew exploded.

"He then got out of his car and walked up to my window," Wilke told police. "He reached in my window and grabbed my cellphone out of my hand. I attempted to get out of the car to get my phone back, and as I was doing so he punched me twice in the face."

The blows knocked off Wilke's eyeglasses.

Wilke told police that Matthew took his phone to his van, where he "eventually calmed down and actually seemed remorseful."

"I was bleeding from a deep cut in my lip and told him that I was going to need a ride to the hospital to get stitches," Wilke said.

Matthew returned the phone, helped find Wilke's glasses, and then drove the attorney to the emergency room at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

Police arrested Matthew a month later on charges of felony grand larceny and misdemeanor assault and battery on Wilke. In a request for a public defender, Matthew claimed a weekly salary of $150 and $30 cash in total assets.

About two months later, on Oct. 17, 2009, Morgan Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student, disappeared after leaving the University of Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena during a Metallica concert. Her remains were found several months later in an Albemarle County hayfield.

Police had no real leads on her killer, but they now had DNA to work with.

In the spring of 2010, he was convicted of misdemeanor trespassing at a local garage, and Wilke agreed to drop the assault and larceny charges.

In August 2012, he got a job as an operating-room orderly at UVA Medical. He often bumped into volunteer ambulance driver Dave Hansen the men had prayed together years earlier at Calvary Chapel, where Hansen was an assistant pastor.

"I always thought he was a gentle giant," says Hansen. "Just a nice guy."

A night owl, Matthew was a fixture in restaurants, bars and clubs along Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. Another club-goer, Kirk Ishitani, says he sometimes ran into Matthew there.

"If I went to Rapture, either he'd be there or he'd show up," says Ishitani. While he did not know Matthew well, Ishitani says, "You wouldn't get any 'Hey, I'd be scared to walk down a dark alley with this guy' kind of vibe."

Graham was last seen disappearing into the early morning darkness of Sept. 13, when a jewelry store's surveillance camera captured Matthew walking off with his arm around her.

Dan Harrington, who founded the awareness group "Help Save The Next Girl" after his daughter's slaying, hopes Matthew's arrest might spell the end a violent spree.

"If you look at the number of cases in central Virginia, there is a large number," he says. "And it's a little scary to think: If he's not associated with more of them, then there are other people that you have to worry about."


Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C.; Associated Press writers Alan Suderman and Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Virginia, also contributed to this report.


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