Unsolved slayings shadow Appalachian Trail Leads few in 1996 killings of 2 hikers in Virginia

April 18, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Long-distance hikers and weekend warriors who share the quiet beauty of the Appalachian Trail as it ambles through Virginia and Maryland are sharing something else this year -- anxiety.

Whoever killed two women camping near the trail last spring has not been caught, and federal authorities say they have no suspects.

"There have been no new developments in quite some time," said FBI spokesman John Donahue. "Most of the leads have been run down, but a few are being reviewed again."

Shenandoah National Park rangers found the bodies of Julianna Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minn., and Lollie Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine, in their tent about a quarter-mile from the Skyline Drive in Virginia on June 1 after a relative reported they were overdue from a five-day camping trip. Their throats had been slashed.

At first, the case was investigated by dozens of FBI agents, rangers and local law enforcement agencies, but that number has dwindled to a handful.

Donahue said the lack of progress can be blamed on "the remoteness of the site and lack of physical evidence that you'd normally find at an urban crime scene."

The investigation has cooled, but not the concerns of the thousands of people who use the 2,100-mile trail that runs from Georgia to Maine.

In Internet chat rooms, backpackers debate carrying guns and pepper spray. A Colorado-based group is organizing a take-back-the-trails campaign. Outdoors publications dispense safety advice.

Hiking experts say that with common-sense precautions, the Appalachian Trail and other national park activities remain very safe.

"I think that the hazards in the back country have more to do with your own preparation and skills than in dealing with strangers," said David Lillard, president of the American Hiking Society, which is based in Silver Spring. "People do let their guard down when they're in the back country. Strangers are still strangers."

The AT, as it is called, can be a wilderness experience and a reminder of East Coast sprawl in those places where the trail is less than a two-hour drive from a major city. On summer weekends, short stretches are packed with day-tripping families, camera-toting tourists who wander a few hundred feet from parking areas, and sinewy hikers hoping to walk from one end of the trail to the other.

It also attracts criminals, mostly nonviolent, who drive to trail heads and parking areas to steal from cars and campsites.

However, nine people have been killed along the Appalachian Trail since 1974. The slayings of Winans and Williams were the first since 1990, when a man and his fiancee were killed as they slept in their tent in Perry County, Pa. Paul David Crews of LaRue, S.C., was convicted of the murders.

"Before this, all the murderers have been caught. They're all either dead or in jail," said Brian King, spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conference, a nonprofit group in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., that maintains part of the trail.

FBI statistics from 1991-1995 show that Shenandoah National Park was the site of one rape and three aggravated assaults. Two bodies were found at the park, but both people had been elsewhere and dumped there.

"We try not to be paranoid about this," King said about last year's killings. "The expectation is the trail isn't part of society that it shouldn't happen here."

But when a horrible crime does occur, "it's counterintuitive to what we expect. It's extra-offensive," said Steve Hendrix, who has written about trail safety in this month's Backpacker magazine.

ZTC He called the back country, in general, "the safest place you can be, a remote place away from people. But the other side of the message is it's clearly possible to be a victim as more and more people are going into the back woods."

A chart that accompanied Hendrix's story put the odds of being slain in a national park at one in 20 million.

The Takoma Park writer said he soon will be taking a backpacking trip with his wife and 7-month-old daughter to a spot within 45 minutes of the murder scene.

"Is it safe to drink the water?" he asked. "I'd drink the whole glass."

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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