EXCLUSIVE: Looking for Hannah
Second Tipster Identified
He came around the back of the empty house and saw a cut in the treeline, and that’s where he entered the woods. He stepped cautiously, noticing a lot of garbage in the brush— broken glass, discarded oil cans— and he didn’t come to a stop until the fallen limbs and branches became impassable.
In the trees above him, the black vultures hissed and grunted. The birds were massive, any slight movement on their part seemed to shake the entire tree. The land fell away at his feet, dropping down a hill to the creek bed below. He scanned the woods, not quite sure what he was looking for— maybe some clothes, perhaps a body.
But he didn’t see anything like that. An uneasy feeling came over him as he stood there alone in the woods with the silence and the buzzards. He turned around and walked out the way he’d come— back out into the sunlight, got in his car, and drove away.
It takes a lot to make a 20-year veteran Navy SEAL uneasy. A man who’d survived two grueling tours in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. A man who by his own admission has “seen it all.”
But standing there in the woods by himself behind the empty house on Old Lynchburg Road, there was no question 73-year-old Al Quist felt nervous, edgy.
“I can’t really explain it,” he later said, recalling that day. “There was just something about it. I had to get out of there.”
That was the morning of Monday, October 6. It was the morning Al Quist had stopped his car and gotten out to have a look around. It was the third day he’d seen an unusual collection of black-headed buzzards on the same property— a place he’d known was empty and un-rented.
Like most everyone else in the area, he’d heard a second-year University of Virginia student had gone missing weeks before. He’d seen the surveillance videos of Hannah Graham on the Downtown Mall from the night she disappeared. He was, like most people, constantly checking the news for updates. He’d kept an eye out as he drove around, looking suspiciously at abandoned homes, wondering about turn-offs into empty fields, and of course looking for any sign of curious activity among the buzzards.
“You see them all the time,” he said. “We’ve lived down in this part of the County since ’85. Buzzards can be a common thing. But there was something strange about what I saw on Old Lynchburg Road. It didn’t seem normal. There were too many of them. And they were always there in the trees in that same spot whenever I drove by.”
Al Quist searched the property by himself until he felt too uneasy to continue. He drove home and a few minutes later, at 9:45am that morning, he called the tip line. “I reported the address, and told them about the buzzards. I also told them I knew the property wasn’t rented, so I was concerned it hadn’t been properly searched. I offered to meet anyone out there and help. I knew those woods needed to be searched better.”
Al was one of two men who alerted law enforcement about that same property. The other, a landscaper named Bobby Pugh, also noticed the unusual vulture activity behind the house. Their tips were two of well over 4,000 that were called in, many of which had reported buzzard activity in rural Central Virginia.
Volunteer searchers with the Chesterfield Sheriff’s Department finally got back into those woods on the morning of Saturday, October 18. Sergeant Dale Terry discovered skeletal human remains in the creek bed— remains that were later confirmed to be those of Hannah Graham.
“I wish I’d seen her that morning,” Al told me, shaking his head in disappointment. “It would have meant finding her sooner. It would have meant less days her family would have suffered. I really wish I’d seen her then.”
Thirty-two year old Jesse Matthew remains behind bars, charged with Hannah’s abduction. Prosecutors continue to consider additional charges, as forensic examiners test Hannah’s remains for other evidence. Matthew is also charged with three felony counts from a 2005 rape and attempted murder in Fairfax— a case which is linked by DNA evidence to the 2009 abduction and murder of Morgan Harrington.
Coy Barefoot is a best-selling and award-winning author and investigative journalist. He is the host and producer of Inside Charlottesville, a radio and TV program. He also teaches history at the University of Virginia. You can learn more at coybarefoot.com.