NEW BLOOMFIELD, Pa. -- A jury yesterday convicted Paul David Crews, a sullen drifter on the run from Florida police, of murdering two young teachers as they camped on the Appalachian Trail.
The jurors will be asked today to decide if Crews, 38, should be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment without parole.
The murder of the couple last September at a trailside shelter had shaken hikers' sense of safety along the famous footpath and prompted an intensive hunt for the killer. Crews was caught nine days later walking from Maryland into Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
After final arguments, the jurors were told at midday yesterday to eat lunch and begin deliberations. They returned 50 minutes later having done both: They found Crews guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.
"This is a great relief," said Glenda Hood, the mother of 26-year-old Geoffrey Hood, who was killed Sept. 13. "Our prayers since our children have died is that he is never freed to harm anyone else."
Mr. Hood and Molly LaRue, 25, were almost midway in their 2,144-mile Maine-to Georgia hike last fall when they were killed about 5 a.m. at the trail shelter just west of the Susquehanna River.
Mr. Hood was shot three times. Miss LaRue was raped, her hands were bound behind her, and she was stabbed to death in the throat and back with a knife.
Crews did not testify. No motive has been offered, and it is not known why Mr. Hood and Ms. LaRue were singled out. Prosecutor R. Scott Cramer speculated in his comments to the )) jury that the couple met Crews on the trail and befriended him before he turned on them.
Mr. Hood and Ms. LaRue were teachers at a Kansas program in which they took troubled youths on wilderness trips to challenge and counsel them. They had left their jobs in June to hike together the length of the Appalachian Trail, a feat accomplished by only about 100 people a year.
Crews, born in South Carolina, worked at occasional jobs and picked fruit, drifting through Southern states. He is wanted in Bartow, Fla., for the 1986 murder of a woman who allegedly gave him a ride home in the rain. When her mutilated body was found, he fled.
An officer of the Bartow Police Department said this week that officials there are waiting for the outcome of the Pennsylvania case before deciding whether to extradite Crews in the 1986 killing of Clemmie Jewel Arnold. He also faces capital charges there.
Crews was captured on the Appalachian Trail because several hikers recalled his menacing appearance and unusual clothes. He was seen before the murders hiking in combat boots and heavy clothing, carrying two gym bags under his arms. After the murders, he was spotted carrying Mr. Hood's custom-fit backpack and wearing Mr. Hood's boots.
Hikers who converged at the trail headquarters in Harpers Ferry got a description of the unusual man from police and spotted Crews walkingsouth across a bridge over the Potomac River. Rangers arrested him on the bridge. In the backpack were a .22-caliber revolver and a knife, both of which were identified in the trial as the likely murder weapons.
"It's time now to render justice, justice to the defendant and to Molly and Geoff," Mr. Cramer told the jury after seven days of testimony. His case against Crews was a circumstantial one that linked him to the crime but did not explain it, he acknowledged.
"We're never going to know precisely what happened up there," he said. But he argued that the "evidence is plentiful, if not overwhelming," against Crews.
Jerry A. Philpott, the attorney for Crews, presented only one defense witness, a genetics expert who questioned the conclusion of tests that linked Crews to semen samples taken from the body of Ms. LaRue.
Mr. Philpott argued that without any accounts of what happened, "there is considerable, reasonable doubt" about his client's guilt. Crews, cleanshaven after having shed his beard and long hair, remained impassive when the verdict was announced.
In New Bloomfield, the Perry County jury will be asked today to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances before deciding if the death penalty is warranted. No one has been executed in Pennsylvania in nearly three decades.