Healthy and General

Why most murders in national parks go unsolved

4 min read

On a cross-country bike trip in 1977, college roommates Terri Jentz and Avra Goldman were asleep in their tent in an Oregon park when they were run over by a pickup truck and attacked by its ax-wielding driver. Both women were badly injured, but survived the assault. Their attacker was never found.  

“Far too often, women are prey in our culture.  And there are more guys than we’d like to admit who go out in the wilderness to hunt them,” was Jentz’s guess on what happened, as quoted by Kathryn Miles in her new book, “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” (Algonquin Books).

National Park Service (NPS) statistics reveal 330 deaths per year on the 85,000,000 acres of the country’s 423 sites — about one per million out of 300 million yearly visitors. More than half are accidental — mostly drownings, falls or car accidents, although there are the more gruesome freak occurrences, including accidental decapitations and scalding deaths in thermal pools. The purposeful deaths are more than 95% suicide. 

This leaves a small but disturbing number of murders that have occurred over the years — and they are often unsolved.

Shanandoah National Park
Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images
FBI missing poster.
FBI missing poster for the double homicide of Julianne Williams and Laura Winans.

“Trailed” highlights the unsolved mystery of young couple Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, experienced backpackers who went missing off the little-used Bridle Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park in May 1996. Williams and Winans frequently took female survivors of sexual assault on back-country camping trips as adventure therapy. But that June 1, their bodies were found at their campsite, wrapped in sleeping bags.

These homicides comprised two of the 15 murders reported in national parks that year, a number which remains pretty consistent from year to year. 

“In the past five years, seventy-three people are known to have been murdered [in national parks],” Miles writes. 

Hawksbill Mountain
Hawksbill Mountain
Courtesy of author
Laura Susan "Su Su" Ramsay
Laura Susan “Su Su” Ramsay, murdered while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1981.
Sims Family Cemetery

In 1974, a family of four disappeared near the Rogue River National Forest Campground in Oregon, their bodies discovered a year later in a macabre tableau. In 1986 in eastern Virginia, a young couple was found with their throats slit along the NPS’ Colonial Parkway. In 2005, 44-year-old Arman Johnson was murdered at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. In 2011, 30-year-old Scott Lilly was strangled while heading to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail. 

Neither motives nor suspects were ever established in any of these cases. In other cases, a suspect is located — but the motive remains hauntingly unclear, a random act of shocking violence.

In 1981, 27-year-old social workers Laura Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr. were murdered while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Fingerprints led authorities to Randall Lee Smith, in whose truck a chilling note stated how nice the couple had been and expressed his regret about needing to “get rid of them.” After being apprehended, Smith pleaded guilty to the murders and served just 15 years in prison, to the horror of the hiking community. In 2008, 12 years after his release, Smith shot and wounded two fishermen near the Appalachian Trail before dying in a car crash while fleeing police.

Hiker Meredith Emerson’s killer is on Death Row.
Hiker Meredith Emerson’s killer is on Death Row.
AP/ Pat B. Mitchell
Randall Lee Smith shot Robert Mountford Jr., murdered on Appalachian Trail in 1981.
Randall Lee Smith shot Robert Mountford Jr., murdered on Appalachian Trail in 1981.
Family Photo

In 2008, 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson was kidnapped in Georgia after climbing Blood Mountain. Her assailant, Gary Hilton, later admitted to killing two other female hikers and an elderly couple camping in a national park. He currently sits on Florida’s death row for one of his other wilderness murders.

More than a quarter-century later, the deaths of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans remain unsolved. In a 2002 press conference, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that Darrell David Rice, a 34-year-old computer programmer already in jail for another Shenandoah assault, had been indicted for the crime. Ashcroft labeled the murders a “hate crime” — Rice allegedly despised homosexuals — and even equated it to the recent, hate-based 9/11 attacks. Rice had never killed before and the evidence against him was circumstantial — including inconclusive DNA evidence — and in 2004 the Department of Justice “quietly dismissed their case,” Miles writes. 

Trailed by Kathryn Miles
The unsolved murders suggest that the most terrifying predator one might stumble upon is neither grizzly nor gator — but fellow man.

While solving murders in wilderness areas is notoriously difficult — crime scenes aren’t easily accessible, and weather and wildlife erase evidence quickly — the Williams and Winans murder case was hampered by general ineptitude. Even before the bodies were found, a group of hikers met a solo male who gossiped excitedly about the murders despite the fact that the crimes hadn’t been announced. The hikers even had a photo of the man, but the FBI never seemed interested. NPS investigators dropped the ball, too, ignoring witnesses with evidence that exonerated Rice. 

If the 1996 Shenandoah murders of Williams and Winans reveals anything, it’s the unlikeliness of ever solving a murder committed in the deep woods. Even scarier, it makes clear that in our scenic national parks the most terrifying predator one might stumble upon is neither grizzly nor gator — it’s your fellow man.