In aftermath of murders, trail won't be as peaceful

May 26, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW BLOOMFIELD, PA. THC WBB — NEW BLOOMFIELD, Pa. -- Molly and Geoff had made it halfway. After three months on the Appalachian Trail, after the swarms of black flies in New England, after the ankle-bending rocky welcome of the Blue Mountain of Pennsylvania, the $10-a-night bed at the ramshackle Doyle Hotel in Duncannon seemed a luxury.

"It's not the Waldorf. But it's friendly," said Marjie Moses, the barmaid at Doyle's. The Appalachian Trail spills down the mountain and becomes Market Street in front of the hotel, and much of its foot-weary traffic turns in.

For Molly LaRue and Geoffrey Hood, this was to be a temporary stop on a grand adventure. They were walking into a new life with bold confidence. They had quit their jobs as teachers at a Kansas wilderness school and plunged into this six-month hike without knowing what they would do or where they would go when it was done.

Their dreams were stillborn. Four miles after they left Duncannon, after the arduous climb back up Cove Mountain, they met Paul David Crews. Early the next morning, in an open log lean-to built to shelter hikers, Crews shot Geoffrey Hood three times with a pistol. He tied up Molly LaRue nude, raped her and slashed her throat. Both victims lived for several minutes more.

A jury here sentenced Crews to death yesterday for the murders, rejecting his attorney's appeal that they impose a life sentence.

Their decision came after hearing testimony that the 38-year-old drifter had told a psychiatrist he committed the crimes in a haze of cocaine and alcohol.

The psychiatrist, Gene L. Cary, said Crews was "remorseful" and began crying as he described the incidents.

Dr. Cary said he believed the mixture of cocaine and alcohol made Crews explosively violent and sexually aggressive.

This secondhand account offered by Dr. Cary was the first explanation of the crime and was greeted with groans of disbelief by those in the courtroom.

Crews, described by Dr. Cary as "very secretive and isolated," has refused to testify.

Families of both victims attended the entire trial in this shady county seat, 30 miles northwest of Harrisburg.

So have members of the hiking community. Both groups lost something in the murderous rampage. The families lost a daughter, 25, and a son, 26, and the hikers lost a feeling of security.

"Many really felt this special resource had somehow been violated," said David N. Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the non-profit organization that manages the trail from its headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"Everybody would like to believe there is someplace left in America where you don't have to worry about this kind of thing," he said. "If there were people out there who believed the trail was completely insulated from crime, that bubble has burst."

The murders on Cove Mountain Sept. 13 have prompted a debate within the hiking community that is wearyingly familiar to the rest of society: What, if anything, can be done about crime?

It has led Mr. Startzell's group to talk about things that seem heretical to the goal of a serene and isolated wilderness experience: Are call boxes on the trail feasible? How do we set up an 800-number to quickly report problems? Should each shelter have directions to get to a phone? Can anyone patrol a thin strip of land that stretches from Maine to Georgia?

The debate is far from over, but Mr. Startzell acknowledges the futility of trying to prepare for all possibilities.

"There's probably not a lot we can do to prevent random crimes. There's nothing we or anyone can do to prevent a psychopath from going out and doing someone in," he said.

Some critics of the Appalachian Trail Conference feel the organization was too slow to react to the crimes. Some argue that warnings should be posted, trails should be patrolled, and hikers should not be discouraged from carrying firearms.

The problems are complex because the Appalachian Trail cuts through 14 states and about 200 counties.

There is a hodge-podge of federal, state and local jurisdictions that lap over the trail.

But its defenders say for a trail that accommodates as many as 4 million users a year, there are comparatively few crimes.

"The trail is peaceful and serene, and this is just an aberration," said Karen Lutz, an ATC staff member who noticed Crews on the trail before the murder and shuddered at a feeling "he emitted evil," she said.

"The fact that it has happened on the trail has made everybody more cautious," she said. "I don't think the trail is more dangerous, but the world is more dangerous."

The meandering, ever-changing Appalachian Trail commands fierce loyalty among its admirers. The families of Molly LaRue and Geoffrey Hood have made extraordinary gestures to prevent the blood of the crime from tarnishing the trail.

Geoffrey Hood's mother, Glenda, and sister, Marla, hiked 17 miles on the trail last Sunday. They stopped at several wayside shelters, including the Thelma Marks shelter where the murders occurred.

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