Crime: Trail of Fears

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Crime: Trail of Fears

A muddled Park Service murder probe leaves Appalachian hikers on edge

Late last May, a distraught Thomas Williams called Shenandoah National Park to report that his 24-year-old daughter, Julianne, had not returned on time from a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Soothingly, a ranger assured him they would find his daughter.

Sadly--and disturbingly--he was right. Thirty-two hours later, the brutalized bodies of Julianne and her hiking companion, 26-year-old Lollie Winans, were discovered in their tent near Luray, Virginia, setting off a chain of events that caused the Park Service to become embroiled in a bitter controversy over its policing, security procedures, and forthrightness--or lack thereof.

The trouble began on the evening of Saturday, June 1, when rangers located the bodies. For a full day, officials kept mum about the murders. But by Sunday night, rumors were flying that something terrible had happened on the trail. Forced to respond, Park Service investigators began releasing confusing and contradictory statements. In the first, they said that an "apparent" homicide had occurred but that neither woman had been shot or stabbed. The next day, however, the state medical examiner announced that both women had been stabbed and their throats "incised."

With that, panic set in. "I know it's contrary to all we hold dear," wrote "TMonk" on the Appalachian Trail Home Page, a World Wide Web site where news of the tragedy quickly came to dominate, "but I can't help thinking a 'backpacker shotgun' might have helped prevent this tragedy." The Park Service, working with the FBI, scrambled to reassure hikers the trail was basically safe. Implying that the perpetrator either knew the victims or targeted them for a particular reason, one spokesperson announced, "This appears to have been an isolated incident." Not so, another responded a week later. "We've not ruled out any motive."

As of press time, Park Service investigators at least appear to be learning from their early mistakes. They aren't releasing contradictory reports--but then, they aren't releasing any information, period. Unfortunately, this ongoing cone of silence has left many Appalachian Trail hikers on edge. "I'd call the atmosphere somewhere between apprehension and panic," says Brian King, director of public affairs for the Appalachian Trail Conference, a trail advocacy group. "Was the killer a hiker or a random psycho? No one is telling us anything."

Meanwhile, the wilderness, as always, has the final word. A few days after their deaths, a memorial of flowers and written testimonials was erected on the trail to Williams and Winans, who had hoped one day to lead wilderness trips for victims of violence. Within a week, the flowers had faded and the papers, one of which read, "Heading north, minus two," had ripped, browned, and blown off into the woods.

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