Hikers are uneasy after two slayings along path Some change direction, plans after women killed in park on Appalachian Trail

June 08, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

HARPERS FERRY, W.VA. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- Rich Ashburn enjoys the solitude of hiking and camping along the Appalachian Trail, but as he left yesterday morning on a four-day jaunt, he made a few changes in his routine.

He decided to head north into Maryland from Harpers Ferry, instead of south toward the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, as he originally planned. He will camp near other people. And he is packing a can of Mace.

Ashburn's anxiety was shared by many hikers along the Appalachian Trail after two women were found slain in their tent June 1 in the backwoods of Shenandoah National Park, their throats slashed. The women were identified as Julianne Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minn., and Lollie Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine. Winans was a graduate of Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills.

"It put a chill on just about everyone," said Richard Spare, 64, of Pottstown, Pa., who is hiking the entire length of the 2,159-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. He was in the Shenandoah National Park last week when the bodies were discovered.

"We don't hike alone, or if you do, you look behind you or carry a stick. Maybe hike on the road. It's just made you extra cautious and a little fearful," he said. Monday night, when he first heard about the slayings, "I moved my tent a little closer to some people so I'd feel more secure," Spare said.

The women, who were accompanied by a golden retriever named Taj, had filed a back country permit with park rangers to begin a five-night camping trip on May 22. They were last seen on May 23 at the nearby Skyland Lodge on Skyline Drive.

On May 31, Williams' father called park officials, concerned that his daughter and her friend had not returned to New England.

Park rangers began searching for the women at 4: 30 p.m. that day. "The longer it took them to find anything, the more intense it [the search] became," said Terry Lewis, the park's chief spokesman.

Their bodies were found about 8: 30 p.m. the next day. "Their throats were cut, and the dog was running loose," said Brian King, a spokesman with the Appalachian Trail Conference, which maintains the trail. "Everything beyond that is speculation."

Yesterday, a homosexual rights group asked the Justice Department to investigate the possibility that two women were victims of anti-gay violence.

"We are asking for your help to insure that the FBI and the National Park Service are diligent in investigating all aspects of these crimes, including the possibility that the murders were motivated by anti-lesbian bias," Melinda Paras, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno.

Paras said the killer or killers may have believed the two women to be lesbians.

The women, who were described as seasoned campers, worked on outdoor programs for a Minneapolis-based adventure vacation travel organization.

Woodswomen director Denise Mitten, who has organized outdoor trips for 20 years, said women who go camping together often are perceived to be lesbians, even if they are not.

More than 900 people attended Williams' funeral yesterday in St. Cloud. A funeral was held for Winans in Michigan yesterday.

The women may have made one mistake in selecting their camp site. In the Shenandoah National Park, it is required that hikers in the back country make their campsites out of sight of any trail and 250 feet away from the trail. It is always advised that campsites be away from roads to avoid harassment. "They were a lot closer than was advisable on Sky Line Drive," King said.

Officials are releasing few details of the investigation, declining to say whether the women were robbed or sexually assaulted.

"The details of the investigation are confidential," Lewis said. "We hope people will understand the reason for that is we want to apprehend the person or persons who are responsible for the crime."

The lack of information has been vexing to some who were on the trail yesterday, who thought the information might put their minds at ease or cause them to be more vigilant. "Then maybe you could worry about it or be a little more at ease," Ashburn said.

News of the slayings has brought a sense of unease among many hikers. The mood is "more apprehensive, said King of the Appalachian Trail Conference.

"There's a very profound expectation of sanctuary in the woods," King said. "It's been invaded. Any kind of violence is invasive."

The slayings are the first along the trail since 1990, when a man and his fiancee were killed as they slept along the trail in Perry County, Pa. Paul David Crews of LaRue, S.C., was convicted of the murders and is awaiting execution in a Pennsylvania prison. Nine people have been killed along the Appalachian Trail since 1974.

"Before this, all the murderers have been caught," King said. "They're all either dead or in jail."

Although the slayings have made hikers more cautious, most believe any danger is minimal.

"If you worry about it, it's going to ruin your trip," said Todd Lavit, 17, of Bolt Landing, N.Y. "Just eat good food and drink lots of water. Pretty much just take care of yourself. That's all you need to do."

"The trail is safe, and everybody sort of looks out for each other," said Tom Guiney, 50, of Kennett Square, Pa., who is hiking the length of the trail. "The trail is a lot safer than downtown USA."

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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