When Laura “Lollie” Winans, 26, and Julianne “Julie” Williams, 24, were found sexually assaulted and murdered at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in 1996, it sparked national conversations about safety in the wilderness and homophobic hate crimes.
But what happens when authorities keep an innocent man’s name in the spotlight in the name of closure? Author and journalist Kathryn Miles explores that very possibility. Miles claims that investigators have unjustly implicated Darrell Rice in Julie and Lollie’s slayings for years despite forensic evidence exonerating him. (Federal prosecutors dropped capital murder charges against him on February 6, 2004.) She also suggests that a serial killer hiding in plain sight was responsible for the cold-case murders.
Miles spoke to A&E True Crime about her new book, Trailed One Woman’s Quest to Sole the Shenandoah Murders, which seeks to shine a renewed—and illuminating light on Lollie and Julie’s cold-case murders, and detail how crime-fighting in the wilderness poses a whole slew of unique challenges.
You write about how while interviewing the FBI field office in 2016, they suggested working with the National Park Service was a hindrance because they didn’t have much experience with deep forensic work. Why did their comments strike you as odd?
When I was talking to the FBI on the 20th anniversary of Lollie and Julie’s murders, they seemed really keen on emphasizing that they really thought they had the right guy already. It’s a sort of strange move. Secondly, it really seemed like the FBI was throwing the National Park Service under the bus.
The law enforcement rangers at the National Park Service are trained much like FBI agents are in terms of their ability to solve difficult crimes and investigate different crimes. In a lot of ways, I think they’re better at solving wilderness crimes. So much of the FBI’s work is urban crime work, so it just struck me as sort of an odd kind of tension.
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What are some hurdles that detectives may deal with when investigating a homicide at a national park that they wouldn’t encounter in an urban area?
When you look at how homicide investigators are trained, so much of what their first steps are supposed to be just doesn’t make sense in the backcountry. So if you look at the national law enforcement training center in Georgia, which is where FBI investigators go, their handbook says the first thing you should do is secure the premises, lock the door and be sure to take into account the size and the space of the room. None of that works in the backcountry where you don’t know where the crime scene begins and ends. You don’t know what rocks are just naturally occurring rocks and what rock might have been used to hit someone over the head. Or what animals, wind and precipitation might have moved those rocks.
The challenges in securing, let alone solving, these backcountry cases are really multitudinous.
You’ve researched how many homicides and violent crimes occur at national parks, as the National Park Service does not keep its own statistics. How did you go about doing so?
I went through all of the Department of the Interior reports from each year, which lists incidents in the parks. Then I would go to the local newspapers to find coverage of the crime to flesh out the race, gender identity and age of the person in question because none of that was really kept [by the agency]. I also checked internal reports from watchdogs within the National Park Service who were complaining that they had been the victims of crimes or sexual harassment, or they had witnessed it and it had gone unreported.
I wanted to call attention to what still needs to be done with the Department of the Interior in terms of codifying how crimes are reported, especially violent crimes in the national parks. One of the cases I make is that they’re very underrepresented and underreported, which I think puts Americans at a real disservice in terms of deciding when and how they’re safe.
Why do you believe the National Park Service doesn’t report these numbers to the public?
I talked to a few of the watchdog reporters, some of whom were also law enforcement rangers, and there’s a couple of different things going on here.
First, every national park has its own system—or lack of system — for reporting. The rangers, especially, move around a lot [from park to park], so it’s not really clear what their responsibilities are.
I think the other part of it is some rangers just don’t want to deal with the paperwork for something which is obviously not accessible. Then there’s an interesting phenomenon that happens in the park where rangers can really kind of give themselves a pass and give each other a pass.
There’s this misplaced benevolence that happens, which while somewhat understandable, puts us all at a disadvantage.
In ‘Trailed,’ you posit that it’s odd that men are perceived as the primary crime victims at national parks despite statistics suggesting that women are victimized at a larger rate. Do you think this disconnect affected how Lollie and Julie’s murders were handled by the police and media?
One of the things that was so shocking and hard for the family and friends of Lollie and Julie is they were publicly outed as lesbians—which actually occurred on the day of their funerals. The nature of their sexuality and their relationship instantly became national news.
I think it was really difficult for family members, not so much because they objected or had any problem with their sexual orientation, but rather because they didn’t get the chance to find out first.
I don’t think any of the rangers involved in the investigation treated it any differently because of [Lollie and Julie’s sexuality and gender]. What struck me is how committed and emotionally attached the rangers continue to be to the cases.
What I think remains to be seen is why [Lollie and Julie] were targeted. Certainly, there are other murders that occurred on or near the Appalachian Trail where the victims did appear to be targeted because of their sexuality or gender. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that that was the case here, but until we know who the perpetrator is, we just really won’t know.
According to your book, various DNA evidence exonerates Darrell Rice, but police have not officially eliminated him as a suspect. Could you elaborate as to why that is?
One of the things I talk about in the book is confirmation bias, where once we decide something is true, we filter all of the other information and evidence through our belief that something is true. I think it’s all too common among law enforcement and especially violent crime investigators.
I talked to some of the FBI agents who had worked on the murders in Yosemite National Park that were perpetrated by Cary Stayner. What they told me was they had so fixed on one suspect they just had a quick interview with Cary Stayner—who actually had given them reason to suspect him—and they just blew it off. While pursuing this other innocent guy, Cary Stayner went on to kill more women in and around Yosemite National Park.
I think something like that is happening here. The case had pretty much grown cold. It was 14 months after Julie and Lollie’s murders when Darrell Rice assaulted a woman in the park. I believe [investigators] were so desperate to solve this case and bring some sense of closure to the families. They were also under tremendous pressure from Congress and the Department of the Interior to make it seem like it was okay to go back into the park. Initially, it was a reasonable decision to fixate on Darrell Rice but, especially after the second suspect got thrown into the mix, and his DNA couldn’t be excluded, it should have been really obvious that more resources needed to be directed otherwise.
In 2003, the FBI’s Richmond office tested DNA from hairs at the crime scene which eliminated Rice as a suspect but failed to eliminate serial killer Richard Evonitz. Why was this one of the most shocking aspects of your investigation?
A mitochondrial DNA test came back that the hairs were clearly not Rice’s, but it came back matching Richard Evonitz in 799 out of 800 positions. In the one place it doesn’t match, there’s this phenomenon called heteroplasmy which means that the body misfires the protein.
What the FBI lab said was not only can Richard Evonitz not be excluded but he should be retested to see if he should be included. The agents make the decision to not do what the lab is recommending and instead run additional DNA tests against Rice. What I can surmise based on the records I received through [Freedom of Information Act] requests is they never tested Evonitz’s DNA again.
Why didn’t authorities ever zero in on Richard Evonitz, who was linked to the murders of three teen girls in Virginia before dying by suicide in 2002?
In spring 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft was facing a lot of pressure to show he was going to be tough on hate crimes targeting Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans. When he announced the indictment against Darrell Rice, he did so in a very strange national press conference where he was trying to draw some comparison that by indicting Darrell Rice, we as a country would somehow heal from September 11th. It was to be the nation’s first federal hate crime case. I think part of it was the Justice Department’s unwillingness to back down, maybe from an ego perspective.
The other thing I saw as really strange was investigators immediately assumed that Richard Evonitz was a pedophile because some of his victims were young teens. They made all of these bizarre decisions that made it impossible for them to see that the same predator who goes after a 15 or a 16-year-old girl could also go after a young-looking 24-year-old woman.
In the true crime realm, why do you think cases like Julie and Lollie’s don’t get as much attention?
We really like happy endings and this one doesn’t have one. People who really love to consume true crime tell me they feel safer getting to study the abnormal psychology of, say, a serial killer or knowing that the killer was eventually apprehended and brought to justice. The way I set it up [in my book is that] readers ultimately get to be the detectives. I think there are a few possible suspects—certainly one. Readers can come to their own conclusions about who they think did it.
How did researching for your book encourage you to address your own sexual assault at age 16?
I was Lollie’s age when they were murdered and like them, I was also a teenage sexual assault survivor. After that had happened, I really struggled to make sense of it, and I really blamed myself in some ways. I started to look for any way I could escape my body. It was only when I was taking an environmental studies course that had a mandatory backpacking trip on it that I just fell in love with this idea that you can put 40 pounds of gear on your back and go live in the woods and not only feel safe but feel strong and empowered.
So the idea that two women who were my contemporaries and who were wilderness experts had been brutally murdered backpacking …was really shattering. It made [the woods] a place where I no longer felt safe. I think for an entire generation of people—especially women and non-binary people—this crime took the woods away from them. And it’s absolutely time to give the woods back.
What do you want people to walk away with after reading the book?
I really want to force, in terms of a national conversation, the issue of wrongful conviction and the fallibility of forensic testing. We have thousands of people who have been exonerated after being wrongly convicted, and undoubtedly there are thousands more innocent people in prison.
On the other hand, it’s really important to talk about who really has access to the wilderness and who gets to feel safe in the wilderness. How do we make places like national parks and trails safe and inviting for all Americans? It’s our best national treasure. But for a lot of Americans, it feels like a place that isn’t safe or that it’s off-limits. And that’s not fair.
Murders in the Wild: Cold Cases in U.S. National Parks