LOVINGSTON, Va. — Alexis Tiara Murphy was last seen alive more than seven years ago at a Virginia gas station, leaving her family grieving, wondering and waiting.
Although the 17-year-old remained missing, authorities in 2014 convicted Randy Allen Taylor, of Lovingston, of her murder. Taylor, 55, is serving two life sentences in the Shipman high school student’s abduction and killing.
Now, authorities say they have finally been able to close the book on what happened to the teen.
Nelson County officials, along with the FBI and the Virginia State Police, announced Wednesday that remains found Dec. 3 on private property along Route 29 in Lovingston have been positively identified as belonging to the missing girl.
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Nelson County Sheriff D.W. Hill said in a news release that the remains were identified Feb. 5 at the Central District Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond. A public announcement was held back to allow Murphy’s family time to grieve and make arrangements for her proper burial, he said.
Hill thanked Murphy’s family, friends, classmates, teammates and the community at large for their patience as his department worked to bring her home. The Murphy family released a statement thanking law enforcement officers, in turn, for their “commitment and unwavering support to find Alexis.”
“You all kept the promise made in 2013 to bring Alexis home,” the statement read.
A chance encounter
Murphy vanished the evening of Aug. 3, 2013, after stopping at a Liberty gas station in Lovingston, where she was spotted on surveillance footage. C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville reported that the teen had told her family she was heading to Lynchburg to buy hair extensions.
Her white 2003 Nissan Maxima GLE SE was found abandoned three days later in Charlottesville, according to FBI officials.
As local, state and federal officials investigated Murphy’s abduction, they identified Taylor as a man seen on the gas station’s surveillance footage, holding the door open for the teen as she entered the store. A cashier testified at his May 2014 trial that Taylor and Murphy were seen talking to one another.
The store clerk had described for police Taylor’s distinctive Daffy Duck neck tattoo. According to Investigation Discovery, when police circulated images of the man seen talking to Murphy, a local porn shop owner recognized him as Taylor.
See Taylor’s first interaction with Murphy below, along with other details of the case.
The surveillance footage also showed Murphy’s white Maxima leaving the parking lot behind Taylor’s camouflage SUV, heading away from Lynchburg and toward the rundown camper where Taylor lived.
FBI agents searched the camper four days after Murphy disappeared. They located a torn fingernail and a small stud earring that had the teen’s DNA on them, C-Ville Weekly reported.
Taylor was arrested Aug. 11 and charged with Murphy’s abduction, according to the FBI.
After Taylor’s arrest, a second FBI search team found more damning evidence under his sofa: a hair extension, a false eyelash and the blue T-shirt Taylor wore in the gas station surveillance footage.
The shirt was stained with Murphy’s blood.
“The defendant thought he was smart and didn’t think they would come back,” Nelson County prosecutor Anthony Martin told jurors during closing arguments.
Taylor was ultimately indicted on charges of first-degree murder, felony murder and abduction with the intent to defile.
Testimony at Taylor’s trial indicated that he initially lied to police about seeing Murphy, and about being at the gas station the night she vanished, according to C-Ville Weekly. He later changed his story and said he was buying marijuana that night in Charlottesville with a friend.
Eventually, after learning that her DNA was found in his camper, Taylor’s version of events involved Murphy visiting his home with a Black man, Dameon Bradley, who went there to sell Taylor marijuana. He claimed Murphy was alive and well when she and the man left together.
There were multiple problems with Taylor’s story. For one, Bradley had an alibi.
Secondly, C-Ville Weekly reported, Murphy’s cellphone records put the teen at the camper — and her smashed iPhone was found discarded about 70 feet from the camper in the days after her disappearance.
“The biggest problem in (Taylor’s) story — and it is a story — is that she left alone and was fine,” Martin argued at trial. “Is it reasonable to leave without her hair extension, her nail, her blood and cell phone?”
Other circumstantial evidence involved Murphy’s Maxima, which was dumped in a movie theater parking lot around 10 p.m. Aug. 4. Though surveillance footage showed the car pull up, the driver was not visible.
About 30 minutes later, however, Taylor was seen at a nearby Applebee’s, where he ordered a couple of beers before leaving in a cab, C-Ville Weekly reported.
Taylor and his defense attorney argued that he was innocent of killing the teen, who was set to begin her senior year of high school at the time of her death. Jurors rejected his claims of innocence and convicted him of first-degree murder and abduction with the intent to defile, WTVR in Richmond reported in 2014.
At the time of his July 23, 2014, sentencing, Taylor’s attorney told the judge that his client claimed a third person had committed the murder — and that Taylor knew where Murphy’s body was.
“I did not kill Alexis Murphy,” Taylor told Circuit Judge J. Michael Gamble.
The convicted killer, calling the prosecution “overzealous,” told Gamble he “didn’t profile Black girls” and that publicity made the case “the biggest thing to ever happen to Nelson County.”
Taylor offered to lead authorities to her remains in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence, the news station reported.
Gamble refused the offer and sentenced Taylor to two consecutive life sentences, WTVR reported.
Rumors and other allegations
Three months after Taylor was sent to prison, he requested that investigators test another man, Jesse Matthew, to see if his DNA matched the unidentified genetic profile found in Murphy’s car. Matthew, 32, was charged at the time with the killing of University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham.
Graham, who was last seen alive at a restaurant with Matthew, vanished early Sept. 13, 2014, after texting friends that she was on her way to a party in Charlottesville. Her remains were found more than a month later on property in Albemarle County.
In January 2015, test results showed that Matthew was not linked to Murphy’s abduction and murder, WSET in Lynchburg reported.
In 2016, Matthew pleaded guilty to Graham’s abduction and murder, along with the kidnapping and killing of Morgan Dana Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who vanished Oct. 17, 2009, after attending a Metallica concert at the University of Virginia.
Like those of Graham, Harrington’s remains were found a few months later on rural farmland in Albemarle County.
All of Taylor’s appeals of his conviction for Murphy’s murder have been denied.
Murphy’s disappearance is not the only one in which Taylor was suspected. C-Ville Weekly reported that Taylor was a suspect in the 2010 disappearance of Samantha Clarke, 19, of Orange.
Clarke vanished Sept. 13, 2010, three months after she graduated from Orange County High School, after going out in the middle of the night, a 2012 story in the now-defunct Charlottesville weekly, The Hook, stated.
Her mother, who worked nights at a tool-manufacturing plant, figured she was meeting some new friends she’d made the weekend before when mother and daughter went to a restaurant and bar together.
Clarke was never seen again.
Taylor told The Hook he was at the bar that same night, with the two men Clarke had befriended. Clarke’s mother, Barbara Tinder, said Taylor was also present when her daughter met with one of the younger men, who invited her along on a vehicle repossession the day before she vanished.
The unnamed 23-year-old, in whom Clarke had expressed romantic interest, already had a girlfriend, who Clarke said had “jumped her” for hanging out with the man, Tinder told The Hook.
Taylor claimed he had texted Clarke and spoken to her on the phone to warn her to stay away from the young man, who had a criminal record. He alleged that, in a second phone call, he could hear a man’s voice in the background.
Tinder believes, however, that Taylor was the last person to see her daughter. Taylor told The Hook, and police, that he was home with his young son the night Clarke disappeared.
Taylor claimed that police were harassing him in the search for Clarke, and he accused them of planting a gun in his car so they could arrest him on a traffic stop. He told The Hook he didn’t own a gun because of a prior conviction for accessory to burglary.
“I’ve always been an upstanding citizen,” he said. “I’m trying to raise my son.”
Just 10 months after he made that statement, Taylor was tied to Murphy’s abduction and murder.
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Orange County investigators said last month that Clarke’s case is now an abduction and murder case.
“Due to new information and advances in investigative and forensic technology, Samantha’s missing person investigation has been reclassified as an active abduction and murder investigation,” Orange police Chief James Fenwick told CBS 19 in Charlottesville.
Fenwick declined to say what technology has produced the new leads. He also declined to say if Taylor remains a lead suspect.
“It’s no secret that Randy Taylor was one of the last people to have contact with Samantha Clarke,” the chief told the news station. “Beyond that, we’re not going to comment any further.”
Murphy’s family said despite the seven years she was missing, and a conviction in her murder, there had remained some lingering hope that she might still be found alive.
“Alexis was the fashionista, athlete and joker of our family,” the family’s statement read. “We were blessed to have loved her for 17 years, and her memory will continue to live on through us all.
“During this time, we ask that you continue to lift our family up in prayer and, in the words of Alexis, ‘keep hope alive.’”