Two Virginia Tech students appeared before a judge Monday in the death of a seventh-grade girl who was reported missing after she apparently climbed out the bedroom of her home in Blacksburg, Virginia, west of Roanoke.
Nicole Madison Lovell, 13, was described as "an awesome little girl" who had a tough life -- she survived a liver transplant as a youngster and suffered from bullying at middle school and online, her mother said.
Police found the child's body in Surry County, North Carolina, a two-hour drive from Virginia Tech, on Saturday, four days after she disappeared.
David Eisenhauer, 18, of Columbia, Maryland, is charged with her kidnapping and first-degree murder. Natalie Keepers, 19, of Laurel, Maryland, is charged with improper disposal of a body and accessory after the fact in the commission of a felony.
Police in Blacksburg said they have evidence showing Eisenhauer knew the girl before she disappeared, but have not released any details about what led to her death.
"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," a police statement said.
"I believe the truth can set me free," Eisenhauer said when he first spoke with investigators, court documents say, WSLS in Roanoke reported. After he had been charged with murder, he had no comment, the station reported.
Eisenhauer's hearing occurred ahead of schedule Monday and out of sight of reporters. Keepers appeared later, handcuffed and shackled in an orange jumpsuit. She told Judge Robert Viar Jr. she understands the charges. Both have lawyers; neither college student commented.
The arrests of the two students shocked people who knew them in high school, where they lived nearby each other in Maryland. Neither had prior criminal records, police said.
"We had no reason to think he would be unsuccessful in his goals, because he was very focused," said Principal James LeMon at Wylde Lake High School, where Eisenhauer graduated last year.
Eisenhauer, named Boys Indoor Track Performer of the Year by The Baltimore Sun last March, chose Virginia Tech to pursue engineering while competing with the Hokies' top college runners, LeMon said.
Keepers interned at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, led science experiments at her church's Bible school and hoped to build a future in aerospace or ocean engineering, her online resume said.
"It's just very, very surprising," said her principal, Marcia Leonard.
Nicole's family said they discovered Wednesday morning that she had apparently blocked her bedroom door with furniture and climbed out a window overnight.
Eisenhauer was arrested Saturday, hours before Nicole's remains were found. Blacksburg police Chief Anthony Wilson told The Roanoke Times that Eisenhauer did not provide information that led to the body.
A gun was not used in Nicole's killing, court documents show.
State police divers have been searching a pond on campus, but authorities would not say what they were looking for.
Nicole was just 5 years old when she survived a liver transplant, the drug-resistant bacterial infection MRSA and lymphoma, her mother, Tammy Weeks, told The Washington Post.
"God got her through all that, and she fought through all that, and he took her life," Weeks said.
Nicole didn't like going to school because girls called her fat and talked about her transplant scars. "It got so bad I wouldn't send her," Weeks said, but the bullying continued on social media.
Nicole's classmates were grieving Monday at Blacksburg Middle School, where 10 counselors were brought in to support them, Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Brenda Drake said.
Drake said privacy laws prevent her from commenting on Nicole's experience, but she said the school has anti-bullying programs.
Davy Draper, a close family friend, called Nicole an energetic and outspoken girl who got along with everyone.
"She was an awesome little girl. She was an angel here on Earth, and she's an angel now," Draper said Sunday.
A number listed for Eisenhauer's parents rang busy. A message left at Keepers' home was not returned.
The child's father, David Lovell, told WSLS that he's looking for answers.
“These two individuals took my daughter from this planet and I want to know why. I want all the information I can get,” he told the station.