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DNA evidence links victim, suspects

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DAYS 2-4: Items police took from suspects David Eisenhauer and Natalie Keepers had blood stains that matched 13-year-old Nicole Lovell’s DNA

By Shannon Watkins

CHRISTIANSBURG — As David Eisenhauer’s murder trial continued this week, prosecutors presented a mounting pile of evidence and DNA analysis they say links the former Virginia Tech student to the stabbing death of a Blacksburg teen.

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Eisenhauer, 20, of Columbia, Md., has pleaded not guilty in the 2016 killing of 13-year-old Blacksburg native Nicole Lovell. He stands accused of murder, abduction and concealing a body.

In Montgomery County Circuit Court, prosecutors brought forth witnesses and entered evidence that they argue link Eisenhauer and co-defendant Natalie Keepers to Lovell’s death — a shovel with a bloodstained handle; a bloody sock; stains on a tire rim and in a car trunk.

A DNA analysis report entered as evidence on Thursday showed that blood on these items and more likely belonged to Lovell, and Eisenhauer’s DNA was found on Lovell’s body.

The jury also saw video footage from Eisenhauer’s police interrogation and heard testimony from Lovell’s mother.

The Blacksburg case has local connections, as Eisenhauer has family in the Twin Counties and Lovell’s body was found beside Route 89 in North Carolina, just south of the Galax city limits and the Grayson County border.

Investigators say he was familiar with that area due those family ties, which became clearer as evidence was presented this week. His vehicle registration and bank account both list his grandmother’s Galax address, according to prosecutors.

On Thursday, Nicole Harold, a forensic biology expert with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, testified about her examination of blood found on evidence.

DNA from the blood was compared to profiles developed from examinations of Eisenhauer and Keepers.

Lovell’s body examination showed foreign DNA in clippings of her left fingernails. Eisenhauer, said Harold, could not be eliminated as a contributor of this DNA.

She said no seminal fluid or other foreign DNA was found on Lovell’s body.

Other body swabs, hair samples and forensic bags placed around Lovell’s hands and feet were not examined.

Lovell could not be ruled out as a contributor to DNA found in blood on a blue gym bag, a blanket, a wooden stick, three blue cleaning gloves and two blood swabs. Her DNA was also apparently found in blood on Eisenhauer’s car and the shovel found inside it.

DAY 2

Tammy Weeks, Lovell’s mother, was called as a witness on Tuesday.

She spoke of her daughter’s early illness that led to a liver transplant, which from childhood on necessitated Lovell to take immunosuppressive drugs so that her body would not reject the donor organ. Weeks or Lovell’s grandfather, who also lived there, would set out Lovell’s pills in the morning.

Weeks painted a picture of a normal young girl, just turned into a teenager, who liked to go to the mall and hang out with her friends, and would kiss her mother goodnight before retreating back to her own room of their shared Lantern Ridge apartment in Blacksburg to play and dress up before her own bedtime.

The night of her daughter’s disappearance, Jan. 26, 2016, Weeks said Lovell went to her room as normal.

The next morning, she found that her daughter had not taken her pills.

A nightstand was slid in front of her door — which was not unusual, said Weeks — and her room was cold, because the window was partly open.

After calling friends and neighbors, Weeks said she contacted the police and the investigation began.

“When was the next time you saw her?” asked Pettitt.

“In her coffin,” said Weeks.

Prosecutors allege that Eisenhauer — who had an online relationship with Lovell — visited her apartment, lured her outside, took her to a wooded area and killed her by stabbing her in the neck with a knife, as established by testimony earlier in the trial.

Keepers, 20, of Laurel, Md., also a former Virginia Tech student, has told police that she helped plan Lovell’s death, destroy the evidence and clean and hide the body. She is charged with being an accessory to murder before the fact and concealing a body.

Eisenhauer’s legal team made a motion for mistrial, which Judge Robert Turk overruled.

The request was related to video footage showing Eisenhauer’s initial police interrogation.

The defense team of John Lichtenstein and Tony Anderson objected to the footage, saying that it was “deeply prejudicial” and would plant the idea in juror’s minds that Eisenhauer was a sexual predator.

“Both sides have agreed that there is no sexual component to this case,” said Lichtenstein.

Pettitt argued that the footage was necessary to build context.

“I understand your concern,” Turk said to the defense, but ruled in favor of the prosecution.

The footage, shown from a corner of the small room where Eisenhauer spoke with Special Agent Travis Witt of the Roanoke FBI office and former Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Matt Wilburn, ran for about 55 minutes. (Wilburn is now retired, but was still active at the time of the investigation.)

Both spoke to Eisenhauer separately.

At the beginning of the video, Eisenhauer is seen signing a paper to waive his Miranda rights.

As the footage continues, Witt attempts to elicit a confession, or at least information, from Eisenhauer, who speaks in an even, calm tone while describing how his relationship with Lovell started on anonymous online chat programs.

Eisenhauer told investigators that he backed away once he met Lovell in person the night of Jan. 26, 2016, and realized how young she was. He claimed to feel bad for her because Lovell, according to Eisenhauer, told him she was abused by her father. Eisenhauer said he spent two years enduring abuse in his childhood.

At the time of the interrogation, marked at Jan. 30, 2016, Lovell’s body had not yet been found.

Witt repeatedly suggested that there was a sexual component to their relationship and suggested that in such cases, a person might “make a mistake,” not out of a predatory urge but because a situation became difficult.

“I can see how a good person could make a bad decision,” Witt said in the video.

After Eisenhauer gave his version of events — which involved him leaving Lovell’s place once he realized she was very young — he answered a few basic questions about himself, regarding his family and background. He did not respond to any of Witt’s gambits to get further information.

In the footage, Eisenhauer appears cooperative but anxious for his general future and anxious that he get back to campus for classes and activities.

He volunteered information about a shovel in his car, saying it was out in the open and that he had bought it for snow removal, purchasing it from a Walmart the previous weekend.

“I didn’t do anything, but I understand,” he said to Wilburn at one point in the footage. “‘You’re the last person to see her,’ and then there’s a shovel in my car.”

(Audio was somewhat out of sync with the video, and at times difficult to hear. Pettitt told The Gazette that she was unable to clarify some of the statements from the interrogation.)

Eisenhauer also said that Keepers was with him when he bought the shovel, apparently his first mention of her during the interrogation.

In one sequence of footage from Witt’s interrogation, Eisenhauer said to the investigator, “I’d rather have someone actually trying to find the truth, which is my innocence, rather than stonewalling me, not answering questions...I believe that the jury will set me free.”

Eisenhauer said to Witt “I know it’s your job to suspect everyone.”

He then stated he had to get up at 6:30 a.m., later that morning, for classes.

In another clip, Eisenhauer said that he did not know where Lovell went after he left her outside her apartment building on Jan. 26, 2016, “if she went to her room” or elsewhere.

“My only thought is that if she did this with me, what’s the chance that she did it before?” he asked.

Eisenhauer continued to express concern about having an arrest on his permanent record, and the notoriety associated with Lovell’s case. “I won’t be able to do anything for the rest of my life,” he said.

At a later point, Eisenhauer said, “I know this is a child who has run away for hours,” in the past.

“A child who is missing,” corrected Witt.

“I don’t want to go to jail,” said Eisenhauer. “I know the motto [is[ ‘the truth will set you free,’ but I’ve seen people get wrongfully convicted and spend 22 years in jail.”

Further clips show Eisenhauer asking Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Matt Wilburn, “Do you think I should be worried about going to jail tonight?”

“Honestly?” replied Wilburn. “Probably.”

“Great,” said Eisenhauer. “Do you think there’s enough evidence to convict me?”

“I’d rather not answer that,” said Wilburn.

Almost at the end of the footage, Eisenhauer stands up, announces “I’m done” and leaves the room.

The defense objected to the footage at various points during the trial; Turk allowed it to be shown each time, but cautioned the jury that it should not be considered as proof.

DAY 3

On Wednesday, John Robertson and Kris Olin, Keepers’ lawyers, tried to argue a motion to kill a subpoena for Keepers to testify, which was filed last week by his defense team. She would be brought out of jail to serve as a witness.

Her attorneys argued that any testimony she gave would be incriminating.

Keepers’ trial is set for Sept. 17. She has confessed to investigators to helping plan Lovell’s abduction and murder, and the concealment of her body.

Judge Robert Turk said he will not rule on the motion to quash Keepers’ subpoena unless Eisenhauer’s lawyers call her to the stand. The subpoena says she may be called during the period of the trial, which is scheduled through the end of next week.

If she is called to testify, Keepers’ attorneys said she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In their opening arguments for this week’s trial, Eisenhauer’s defense attempted to shift blame for Lovell’s death on Keepers.

After the interrogation clips, the rest of Wednesday proceeded with a dizzying parade of evidence introduction by the prosecution, with multiple objections by the defense. At least four times, the jury was sent from the courtroom while arguments were made about whether the evidence was fit for the trial.

Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Patrick Jensen spent the majority of the day from that point on building the prosecution’s case, calling in multiple witnesses from the investigation.

Each witness was questioned to establish their credentials and that they had followed correct procedures to collect, identify, handle and preserve their evidence.

Christopher Grzelak, a state police diver, recovered Lovell’s phone from a pond on the Virginia Tech campus, and a knife on the ground adjacent to the pond.

Shaun Caudell of the Virginia State Police investigated Eisenhauer’s dorm room. His findings included a Walmart receipt for the purchase of a shovel.

In a lengthy testimony, Detective Michael Czernicki of the Blacksburg Police Department presented photos of bloodstains on and in Eisenhauer’s car and belongings.

The photos showed items found in Eisenhauer’s Lexus, including several bloody wet wipes, along with cleaning fluids and a shovel, which was brought into the courtroom, taken from evidence wrapping and presented to the jury.

Eisenhauer had not shown any emotional reaction to evidence to that point of the trial, but was visibly alarmed when the shovel was brought out.

Czernicki noted that the spots on it handle, which in pictures had a bloody handprint, would appear different after being treated with forensic chemicals used to recover biological information.

There were also multiple photographs of evidence shown at the defense’s prompting, which Czernicki identified as a suitcase of Keepers’ and a blue, blood-stained gym bag that was also in her possession at the time.

Additional items stored in the suitcase included a blood-stained “Minions” blanket, a female undergarment, a bloodstained paper takeout lid, a bloody sock and a stick with blood and hair on it.

In his testimony, Michael Via of the Blacksburg Police Department also confirmed the existence of a bloodstain in a clearing off the road near Craig Creek Road in Blacksburg, where police say Lovell was killed.

Detective Scott Craig of the Blacksburg Police Department testified that he extracted files from Eisenhauer’s phone.

Testimony also was heard from detectives Deziree Twigger and Ryan Hite of the Blacksburg Police Department, establishing that Twigger had taken Eisenhauer’s phone when the investigation became aware that he and Lovell had contact with one another, but there was no warrant for the phone at that time.

DAY 4

Twigger returned to continue testifying on Thursday.

Under questioning by Montgomery County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt, Twigger said she had been to the location where Lovell’s body was found. She said it was 4.5 miles away from Eisenhauer’s home address on Crown Ridge Road in Galax.

John Singleton of the state police’s high-tech crimes division testified that he pulled files from a GPS device in Eisenhauer’s car.

Deena Jones, an intelligence analyst with the Blacksburg Police Department, established that data from the GPS, given to her by Singleton , indicated the device had traveled to the Walmart in Christiansburg and Craig Creek Road on Jan. 26, 2016, and the Walmart in Wytheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 77 on Jan. 27, 2016.

Twigger identified Eisenhauer and Keepers as the couple shown in surveillance stills from the Christiansburg Walmart and Blacksburg Cook Out restaurant on Jan. 26, 2016, and the Wytheville Walmart on Jan. 27.

Chance Harrington of the Wytheville Walmart’s asset protection team identified footage of a young couple caught on surveillance footage, seen entering, shopping and leaving; and of a receipt for cleaning supplies and medium and large cleaning gloves.

Officer Austin Sumners of the Virginia Tech campus police described going to a dumpster on campus next to the parking lot where Eisenhauer kept his vehicle and retrieving a Walmart bag with a bleach bottle in it. Cpl. Jason Brooks of the campus police also recovered paper towels and wet wipes with dark stains. These items were turned over to Blacksburg Police.

Cory Bartoe of the Virginia Department of Forensic Services examined evidence for fingerprints.

A container of disinfecting wipes came back with both Eisenhauer and Keepers’ fingerprints; a container of Clorox wipes and a Walmart bag only had Keepers’ prints.

The shovel, which tested positive for Lovell’s blood, only tested positive for Keepers’ prints, from her right ring and middle fingers.

Just before court recessed Thursday around 4:45 p.m., the prosecution and defense argued about admitting Keepers’ phone records as evidence. Judge Turk did not rule on the request to exclude the records from evidence, saying he would take up the issue when the trial resumes Friday morning.

READ MORE

DAY 1: TRIAL BEGINS IN LOVELL MURDER CASE

DAY 2: DEFENSE SHIFTS BLAME TO KEEPERS

See Monday’s edition of The Gazette and galaxgazette.com for more updates as the trial continues.