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Search for missing UVa. student Hannah Graham has profound impact on childhood friend

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RICHMOND, Va. — As the search for missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham entered a crucial stage with an arrest warrant issued for suspect Jesse Matthew Jr., high school friends and acquaintances of Graham who now attend Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond contemplate what might have happened to her.

In interviews with the iPadJournos project for WTVR.com, the former West Potomac High School students talked about their time with Graham in Fairfax and how her disappearance on Sept. 13 has affected their own lives as college students.

VCU sophomore Sydney Maniglia (#3) played softball in high school with Hannah Graham (#11). (PHOTO: Sydney Maniglia)

VCU sophomore Sydney Maniglia (#3) played softball in high school with Hannah Graham (#11). (PHOTO: Sydney Maniglia)

Sydney Maniglia, a VCU sophomore who studies fashion merchandising, has known Graham as a friend and neighbor since she was seven years old. She said she still remembered when the Grahams moved to Fairfax from England and Hannah Graham was so self-conscious about her accent that she tried to adopt an American accent to fit in.

“She was probably the most well-rounded person I’ve ever met,” Maniglia said. “She’s very intellectual, caring and knew exactly what to say.”

Click here to listen to an interview with Sydney Maniglia about her friend Hannah Graham.

Maniglia and Graham grew up playing softball together and took turns switching between center field and left field for the high school team. Maniglia said Graham’s parents went to every one of their softball games.

It wasn’t until Maniglia saw Graham’s parents on television speaking about her disappearance that reality sank in.

“She cared about everyone,” Maniglia said. “She was always worried about how everyone else was doing and was really involved in everyone’s life. She was really approachable. She really did care.”

Sean Wright, who studies psychology at VCU, said that he was “shaken” when he learned of Graham’s disappearance. Wright played in the marching band with Graham and although he is two years older than her, they took many of the same band classes together.

“You think these things don’t happen and we pretend that it’s never going to happen to me, never going to happen to somebody I know, until it actually does,” Wright said. “Then that’s when it settles in and you’re thinking, ‘This is a reality.’”

Wright said Graham was very passionate about the band and played the saxophone. In high school she was very outgoing, respectable and diligent in her studies. He said she always played by the rules and never caused any trouble.

Wright added Graham’s disappearance has brought some of their old friends closer together to support each other in an emotionally trying time. The disappearance has also brought a refreshed awareness to student safety at VCU, he said.

As a residential assistant at VCU, Wright has put a lot of thought into a buddy system and insisted that people think twice before walking home alone.

Maniglia echoed the sentiments.

“I’ve definitely been a lot more conscious about what I’m doing and what my body language is, if I ever am to walk home alone,” Maniglia said. “But I definitely haven’t walked home alone since she’s been missing.”

“It could happen to anybody and you always need to keep your guard up,” she said. “There’s no excuse to walk home alone.”

Sami Kadonoff, a mutual acquaintance of Maniglia and Graham, said that it has been especially hard since they all knew Graham as a smart and respectful person.

Kadonoff said this past week has been really heartbreaking for her and called seeing Graham’s face in media coverage overwhelming at times. Taking to Maniglia about Graham, she said, was not the same as talking to other friends who see Graham as just another victim in the news.

“When I talk to other people [about Hannah’s disappearance], it’s just different,” Kadonoff said.

In a latest development in the case, the Charlottesville Police Department has an arrest warrant for 32-year-old Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr. for abduction with intent to defile Graham.

By Rachel Mahoney and Michael Melkonian (Special to WTVR.com)

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.