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Murder suspect arrested in Niagara Falls

Valerie Hamilton had been missing since Wednesday

By Steve Lyttle, Ely Portillo and Meghan Cooke
slyttle@charlotteobserver.com; elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com

The man sought by police in connection with the murder of Valerie Hamilton is in a New York jail after being arrested Monday morning while sleeping on a couch at a friend's house in Niagara Falls, authorities say.

Michael Neal Harvey, 34, who faces murder charges in Charlotte for the death of Hamilton, the 23-year-old daughter of Concord police Chief Merl Hamilton, was arrested without incident, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe.

Multiple reports in the Buffalo area say Harvey was located by FBI agents and federal marshals at a home in the 5600 block of Stephenson Street, not far from Niagara Falls' airport.

Harvey apparently drove to New York from Charlotte, as police in Niagara Falls said the 1996 white Chevy Blazer he was driving was found behind Summit Park Mall. The insides of the car were burned out, according to Buffalo TV station WBKW.

"It was some great investigative work by New York authorities," Monroe said in a midday news conference.

Harvey, a registered sex offender, had been on the run since Hamilton's body was found Saturday evening in a storage locker on Monroe Road. Monroe said the Chevy Blazer that was being used by Harvey was stolen and had not been found, but that vehicle later was located in New York.

Monroe said two CMPD detectives are headed to New York to interview Harvey and begin work on extraditing him to North Carolina, where he is wanted on murder and stolen vehicle charges. Harvey has an initial court appearance Tuesday morning in Niagara County.

During the news conference, Monroe said police found Hamilton's body wrapped in some sort of material, but he said investigators are not sure how she died.

"The medical examiner's office is conducting an autopsy today, and that will provide us with a lot of information," he said.

However, Monroe said police believe Hamilton was killed fairly soon after she left Thomas Street Tavern early Wednesday morning. Video surveillance from the restaurant, off Central Avenue in the Plaza Midwood area, showed Hamilton leaving with a man. Investigators believe that man was Harvey. Monroe said detectives have not determined "the nature of the relationship" between Hamilton and Harvey, a question that investigators will hope to answer when they interview the suspect.

Ashley Barton, a 20-year-old from Waxhaw, told The Observer she’d known Valerie Hamilton for about a month.

Hamilton called Barton just after 3 a.m. Wednesday. Barton said Hamilton asked her if she wanted to come out to the hot tub with her and a friend at Valerie's apartment complex. Now Barton assumes that friend was Harvey.

Barton said she later learned that the phone call was the last made from Hamilton's phone. When Barton learned that her friend was missing, all she could think about was that phone call. “I keep wondering, was there something she was trying to tell me?” she said. “If I had gone out that night, would she still be here? Or would I be missing, too?”

Monroe said police believe Hamilton was killed either at Harvey's home on East 13th Street in north Charlotte, in a room at an East Independence Boulevard hotel where Harvey stayed late last week, or at the storage locker site in the 4500 block of Monroe Road.

Monroe said information from witnesses "and some exhaustive work by detectives" guided CMPD much of the way.

Police searched Hamilton's apartment in the Arboretum area, but by late Friday and Saturday, investigators clearly were focusing on Harvey. On Saturday afternoon and evening, they searched a room at the Econolodge on East Independence Boulevard and talked to a number of guests there. A man who fit the description of Harvey reportedly stayed at the hotel but checked out Friday.

Investigators also searched a residence on East 13th Street in north Charlotte where Harvey lived.

"What we learned led us to the storage facility," Monroe said.

Harvey's arrest came a few hours after Concord police Chief Merl Hamilton took the search for the suspected killer of his 23-year-old daughter nationwide, asking a network television audience for help.

Hamilton, joined by Concord Mayor Scott Padgett, asked viewers of ABC's "Good Morning America" to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg police catch the man accused of killing his daughter, a college student and youth swim instructor.

"I just want to get this guy now," Merl Hamilton said, his voice breaking several times. "I want to ask my law enforcement brothers and sisters across the country to help with this.

"I'm trying to stay strong. They know what it means, because the cameras are on, but they took my daughter, guys.

"Play it straight, play it by the rules, but you all get out there and find this guy for me. When it comes back my way, I'll pay you back."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Deputy Chief Harold Medlock said early Sunday investigators thought Harvey might still be in the Charlotte area, but with nearly 36 hours having passed, the search widened into New York. Harvey moved from the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area to North Carolina about seven or eight years ago, according to several reports.

Harvey already is awaiting trial on several other charges, including breaking into a motor vehicle in Gaston County and drug and firearm possession in Mecklenburg.

According to court records, Harvey was convicted of first-degree sex offense in western New York state in 1996 and served four years in prison.

He has been in North Carolina at least six years, based on court records. In 2006, he was convicted of failing to register as a sex offender in Mecklenburg and given three years probation. In 2007, he was convicted of drug paraphernalia possession and driving with a revoked license in Iredell County and given 20 days in jail.

In June 2009, Harvey was convicted of felony larceny and breaking and entering in Mecklenburg. He was sentenced to 21/2 years supervised probation.

In September 2009, he was convicted of shoplifting in Iredell. He was sentenced to 24 hours of community service, fined $180 and banned from Lowe's.

Harvey was arrested twice last March. On March 15, he was arrested in Mecklenburg and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of heroin with intent to sell and possession of a firearm by a felon. Two weeks later, he was charged in Gaston County with breaking into a vehicle and injury to personal property.

He was released on bond both times and is scheduled to be tried later this month in both cases.

Meanwhile, Valerie Hamilton's family and friends are left to cope with the death.

Robin Varner told "Good Morning America" that she and the victim's other friends are stunned. "We don't understand how anyone could do this to someone so sweet and so kind," she said.

Merl Hamilton told ABC-TV, "She was a good kid. She was a wonderful kid. She lived her life to take care of children. That's all she wanted to do.

"She was the perfect daughter, and I miss her, and I need justice for her."

Padgett said, "There has been a tremendous outpouring of support from the community. We are all shocked by this."

The Hamiltons moved to Concord nine years ago, when Merl Hamilton became police chief. Valerie was 14, always outgoing and athletic. She was a swimmer at Concord High School.

Her mother and father were dedicated parents, often bringing their two daughters to official events in Concord, Padgett said.

"Chief Hamilton was and is close to his children," Padgett said. "He had good relations with them, and checked on them often. He's very proud of both of them."

In an interview with the Observer last Friday, Merl Hamilton said he and his daughters were very close.

"Valerie and I talk every night," he said. "We've always been close. The last time we talked before she went missing, it was about a homework assignment.

"She was having problems getting the assignment attached to an email, so she could send it to a teacher. We talked for a while on the phone, and I was able to help her."

Speaking of Valerie and her 20-year-old sister, Sarah, Hamilton added, "Those girls are the love of my life."

Hamilton released a statement Sunday afternoon that referred to his wife, a teacher, according to his biography on a city website, and Sarah.

"Susanne, Sarah, and I are surrounded by family and friends at our home, and comforted by the outpouring of support from both those that know us and those that do not in this difficult time of grief," he said.

"Miss Valerie," as she was known to kids, had worked at Little Otter Swim School in southeast Charlotte for about three years, said the school's owner, John Kirk.

"She was a wonderful teacher and friend. The kids loved her," said Kirk. "She was known for singing - and singing loudly - which her kids loved. If a child came in crying, they would not cry for long," Kirk said.

More than 50 parents had written on the school's Facebook page with messages of sorrow by Sunday night.

ABC-TV and WKBW-TV contributed.

Observer news partner WCNC-TV contributed.
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