Murders shock Appalachian Trail fans Fellow hikers recount September days when slain couple was found.

May 23, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

NEW BLOOMFIELD, Pa. -- Beside a country meadow in central Pennsylvania, next to an Amish buggy maker's shop, lies the modest grave of Molly Ann LaRue.

She is buried beside her grandfather, beneath fresh daisies and a gray granite stone that tells when she lived -- Feb. 10, 1965-Sept. 13, 1990 -- and how: "A life shared with children, art and nature."

Molly LaRue and her boyfriend, Geoffrey Hood, were murdered last year on the Appalachian Trail, about 70 miles from where she is now buried. As the trial for their alleged killer proceeds here, it has provided a bittersweet glimpse into the final days of the two young lovers -- and the close-knit community of hikers who shared their near-mystical affection for the path.

"I love the trail, I just love it," said Brian Bowen last week, as he and his wife, Cindi, prepared to leave the brick Perry County courthouse to return to the Appalachian Trail in Damascus, Va. "It's kind of a religious experience. You meet so many good people. That's why this is such a shocker -- it's such a freak thing."

Bowen had just stepped down from the witness stand, and he was eager to shoulder his pack again and resume the long walk toward Springer Mountain, Ga.

The Bowens discovered the bodies of LaRue and Hood in a trailside shelter about three miles south of Duncannon, Pa., last Sept. 13. Badly shaken, the couple had quit the trail there, but they returned to Duncannon two months ago to pick up where they left off. Now, they are within 450 miles of the end of their journey.

The Bowens, who called themselves "The Lone Moccasins" on the trail, never met LaRue and Hood last year, but they felt as if they had known them all summer.

They had been following the couple for months since the trailhead in Maine, gaining ground slowly, reading their entries in the trailside registers, chatting with other hikers who had met them. They knew them as Geoff and Molly, and they knew them by their trail nicknames, "Clevis" and "Nalgene" (names taken from two common pieces of hiking equipment: a backpack frame pin known as a clevis pin, and the Nalgene plastic water bottle favored by hikers).

"We knew we were going to catch them," said Cindi Bowen, an elementary-school teacher.

LaRue and Hood spent the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, at the ramshackle Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, enjoying cold beer and hot shrimp and mushrooms and french fries.

They phoned home, picked up a load of supplies that was waiting for them at the post office, washed their clothes and made plans to visit the next day with LaRue's great-aunt, Kathryn Barnitz. They were halfway through their 2,144-mile trek and looking forward to a reunion with their families in a week at Harper's Ferry, W.Va.

On Wednesday, Barnitz arrived from the Methodist nursing home in Lewisburg, accompanied by her cousin, Kenneth Royer, and Royer's wife, Helen. The three elderly Pennsylvanians lunched with the young hikers, chatting about their former jobs as teachers for troubled youths and their plans for the future and their long trek through the Appalachians.

Barnitz, the sister of LaRue's grandfather, was especially intrigued by the hike. She asked the couple to pose with the packs in front of the Doyle Hotel for a picture before they headed back up the trail.

The last snapshots of their lives showed LaRue and Hood, tanned and happy, grinning at the camera.

Gene Butcher was in Duncannon the day after LaRue and Hood left. A 47-year-old retired Army intelligence analyst, Butcher called himself "Flatfeet" on the trail, but he didn't let his fallen arches slow him down.

Molly LaRue had another name for him. She called him "Gene, the Hiking Machine." She knew Butcher only from the scribbled entries in the trailside registers, as LaRue and Hood had leapfrogged ahead of Butcher when he had stopped over in Delaware Water Gap on the New Jersey border. But LaRue and %% Hood knew Butcher was gaining on them, and LaRue had written in a trail ledger that "Gene, the Hiking Machine" was right behind them.

After lunching with the Bowens in Duncannon on Sept. 13, Butcher hugged the Lone Moccasins and headed up the steep, rocky slope that led out of Duncannon.

Within two hours, he was at a wooden sign that said, Thelma Marks Shelter, 100 yards.

Butcher paused and looked down the side trail that headed toward the hidden shelter. But he did not follow his usual custom of stopping to make an entry in the shelter register.

"Should I go down there?" he asked himself. "No, I'll make an entry at the Darlington Shelter" seven miles farther down the trail.

At the time, he says, he wasn't sure why he didn't stop. Now, he says, he's certain the spirits of LaRue and Hood were warning him off.

On Friday, Sept. 14, Joe Baker, a state archaeologist who lives near Carlisle, was late for work.

He stayed home longer than normal because he had just heard a frightening radio news report: Two hikers had been killed on the Appalachian Trail near Duncannon.

After hearing the news, Baker spoke with Karen Lutz, the regional representative of the trail conference. Yes, it was true, Lutz told him, a man and a woman had been murdered.

Finally, Baker got into his van to drive to work. But as he was pulling out, he saw a lone hiker coming down the trail. He hailed the man. It was Gene Butcher.

"Are you a south-bounder?" Baker called. Butcher said he was.

"I have to talk to you. There's been an emergency on the trail," Baker said. He turned the van around and called Butcher over.

"A couple was murdered last night on the Appalachian Trail at the Thelma Marks shelter," Baker said.

Butcher burst into tears.

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