BLACKSBURG, VA - It's a story that seems to defy sense: A middle-schooler disappears. A student and accomplished athlete from the big-time college that dominates the victim's town is accused of killing her. Then, another student at the school is accused of helping the murder suspect dispose of the teen's body.
Though little is known, publicly at least, about how or why 13-year-old Nicole Madison Lovell died, the teenage Virginia Tech student accused of killing her and the one accused of helping dispose of the girl's body have appeared in court.
David E. Eisenhauer, 18, of Columbia, Maryland, and Natalie M. Keepers, 19, of Laurel, Maryland, were arraigned Monday in connection with the death of Lovell, whose body was found Saturday in North Carolina. Both suspects will be held without bail pending a March 28 preliminary hearing, according to the Montgomery County, Virginia, court clerk's office.
Their appearance Monday was in Montgomery County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. Such courts often are the first to hear criminal cases involving juvenile victims, according to court officials.
They are being held in the Montgomery County jail.
Arrest warrants filed in court on Monday revealed little. Boxes were marked to indicate no firearm was used and that neither suspect had a criminal record.
Police said they arrested Eisenhauer based on tips and leads obtained from social media, and they say he and Lovell knew each other. But they haven't elaborated on that relationship or how it allegedly turned to murder.
This chilling synopsis is all they've released: "Eisenhauer used this relationship to his advantage to abduct the 13-year-old and then kill her. Keepers helped Eisenhauer dispose of Nicole's body."
The lid will stay on for now, police say. The Blacksburg Police Department said in a statement that authorities would not be releasing any details about evidence in the case.
Lovell was last seen Wednesday night at her home in Blacksburg, according to police.
The family found a dresser pushed against her bedroom door. They believe the middle-school student probably climbed out the apartment window, according to The Roanoke Times.
Police, the family and members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets had helped with the search, which ended Saturday afternoon when Lovell's body was found about 100 miles from home, Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson said.
"We were able to determine an approximate area where she might be found," he said. "Virginia State Police were dispatched to the general area Saturday afternoon, and she was located just inside the North Carolina border on Route 89 in Surry County."
Lovell's body was returned to Virginia for an autopsy, which was performed on Monday at the Western Division of the Department of Forensic Science in Roanoke, according to a statement from the Commonwealth's Attorney for Montgomery County. Results of the autopsy are expected "just prior" to the March 28 preliminary hearing, Commonwealth's Attorney Mary Pettit said Monday.
On Sunday, Virginia State Police said divers in scuba gear searched a lake on campus, WDBJ reported.
First-degree murder carries a sentence of 20 years to life and abduction carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, Pettit's office said. Transporting or concealing a dead body is punishable by up to five years and being an accessory after the fact is punishable by up to 12 months in jail.
Girl had survived a liver transplant
Lovell's mother, Tammy Weeks, told The Washington Post her daughter had survived a liver transplant, MRSA and lymphoma when she was 5.
"God got her through all that, and she fought through all that, and he took her life," she said.
Weeks said her daughter was a seventh-grader at Blacksburg Middle School.
"She was a typical student," Weeks said. "She didn't like going to school because she was bullied. She was telling me that girls were saying she was fat and talking about her scars from her transplant."
Some of the girl's friends learned of her death Saturday night at a candlelight vigil held near her home, reported CNN affiliate WFXR.
"It hurts real bad," said Kyrra Winters, one of Nicole's classmates. "But now we know she's in a better place."
'Just doesn't make sense'
Eisenhauer and Keepers both have attorneys now. The attorney for Eisenhauer, Christopher Tuck, had no comment for a CNN reporter on Monday.
The office of Keepers' attorney, Kristopher Olin, declined to comment.
People who knew the suspects said they couldn't believe the news about their arrests.
"We're all just in utter shock," Joe Keating, who ran on the cross-country team with Eisenhauer at Wilde Lake High in Howard County, Maryland, told The Washington Post. "We can't get our heads around it."
Eisenhauer was one of Maryland's top high school runners, the Post reported. In March, CNN affiliate WMAR named him its high school athlete of the week. In the interview, he talked about his desire to excel in athletics and academics.
"I make my personal goals achievable or just out of reach of achievable," he told WMAR. "That way I'm always constantly striving to better myself. ... I will not stop until I reach my peak performance."
He was majoring in engineering at Virginia Tech. He was a member of the college cross-country team but was "immediately suspended from the the team," according to school spokeswoman Tracy Vosburgh.
Keepers went to Hammond High School in Columbia, Maryland. One of her former teachers at the school said "I am really shocked and upset, it just doesn't make any sense to me right now. I have never had anything like this happen in my 36 years of life."
The university said it would make help available to students who need it.
"As a father, as well as Virginia Tech's president, I want to reassure you that our community is supportive and resilient," Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in an open letter. "Lean on that support and the resources available to you. It is normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed at a time such as this. You are not alone."
The Blacksburg community is reeling too, the police chief said.
"We have some very wounded folks in this community, and please show them some respect," Wilson asked reporters. "We will continue to be very transparent with you during this investigation, but please remember these are the kinds of crimes that rip communities apart."