Around 9 p.m. on June 25, 1980, a college student noticed two people lying on the ground when he exited his vehicle at the edge of Droop Mountain Park in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. At first, he thought it was a couple having “intimate relations,” but as he walked closer, he realized the gravity of the situation. Someone had shot hitchhikers Vicki Durian, 26, and Nancy Santomero, 19, at close range, and left their bodies in a remote clearing. According to the coroner’s report, neither woman was sexually assaulted.
It’s possible Durian and Santomero had felt the rush of hitting the open road when they left Iowa City, Iowa in mid-June of 1980 destined for Monongahela National Park in rural West Virginia. Their plan was to hitchhike to the Rainbow Gathering, a counter-culture peace festival being held at Monongahela National Forest, but they never arrived at their destination. The still-unresolved “Rainbow Murders” blanketed the local community in suspicion and continue to haunt this part of rural Appalachia America.
“So many people, including locals who were accused or incarcerated for these crimes as well as their families and the families of local investigators, may not have been directly affected by these events but they were definitely traumatized,” Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of The Third Rainbow Girl, tells A&E Real Crime.
The Third Rainbow Girl
Liz Johndrow was a third companion, or third Rainbow Girl, traveling with Durian and Santomero. A day before the murders, she had an uneasy feeling and parted ways with her friends at a Virginia truck stop. “That [uneasy feeling] wasn’t a very logical reason to change course, so I remember making a collect call to my brother in Vermont and him telling me that our dad was getting married that next weekend,” Johndrow tells A&E Real Crime. “I took that as a good reason to change my plans and headed north instead of continuing to the Rainbow Gathering.”
Johndrow, now in her 50s, describes Durian and Santomero as vibrant, fun-loving individuals. “I knew Vicki as ‘Bright Star.’ I took to her warmth immediately,” she says. “I felt we were friends within minutes, and she was like that with so many people. Nancy was more serious, but really curious and wanting to try new things.”
After Going Cold, the Rainbow Murders Case Gains Momentum
The Rainbow Gathering drew in thousands of people from all over, but because the bodies of the two women were found in such an isolated place, law enforcement zeroed in on locals who would have familiarity with the area.
“Through my research and reporting, I learned the investigators, who were [also] local, felt that their home place was somehow… responsible for these acts of violence,” says Eisenberg. “The quest to bring justice in this case morphed at some point into a larger quest to redeem and purify their community through rooting out who they perceived to be its ‘bad apples.'”
The case went cold until July 1982, when 36-year-old Jacob Beard, a local farmer, fell under suspicion after placing several calls to Durian’s parents. He told Eisenberg that after reading an anniversary piece about the case in the local newspaper, he became consumed with thoughts of the murders. When Durian’s father answered the first call, Eisenberg writes, the unidentified man said he was calling from Pocahontas County and that he was sorry Vicki had been killed where he lived. During the second call, which authorities tapped, Beard referred to local investigators as “small-town” and “not the brightest bulbs in the box.” He urged Durian’s father to get the FBI involved.
In an interview with state police, Beard said he had only called Durian’s family to express his sympathy—and didn’t know anything else. Nothing materialized from this initial lead. According to Eisenberg, there had been very little evidence recovered at the scene, and no witnesses or statements had been given until 1983 and 1984.
Almost a decade after the murders, however, investigators finally constructed what they believed to be a solid case after “information just started coming our way,” according to an interview Sheriff Jerry Dale gave The New York Times in 1992. On April 16, 1992, murder charges were brought against Beard and six other men from the Pocahontas County area. Two of those charged implicated Beard as the shooter, but later, at a pre-trial hearing, one of the men claimed a police officer had physically threatened him during questioning. Following the allegation of improper police procedure, authorities voluntarily dropped all charges.
Five of the men, including Beard, were indicted again in January 1993. Prosecutors eventually dismissed all charges, except those against Beard.
A Strange Twist Leads to an Unexpected Outcome
While Beard awaited trial, his lawyers learned that in 1984, Joseph Paul Franklin, a convicted serial killer known for shooting and paralyzing Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, claimed he had murdered Durian and Santomero. Franklin later denied involvement and refused to speak any further about the Rainbow Murders. A trial judge deemed Franklin’s confession unreliable and blocked Beard’s lawyers from presenting it as evidence.
On June 4, 1993, a jury convicted Beard in the killings of Durian and Santomero and sentenced him to life in prison without parole. Beard’s lawyers petitioned the state, presenting both Franklin’s original confession and new eyewitness testimony that placed Beard elsewhere on the day of the murders. In January 1999 the conviction was thrown out and a new trial ordered. The jury acquitted Beard on May 31, 2000. He later filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit and was awarded a $2 million settlement.
Has the Rainbow Faded?
Eisenberg believes investigators did everything they could to help solve the case and find the killer, despite some evidence suggesting that the local sheriff’s department and West Virginia State Police did not always work well together. Even so, neither Johndrow nor Eisenberg believes there will ever be justice for Durian and Santomero. Johndrow calls the case “too muddled,” while Eisenberg says it is likely as “solved” as it’s ever going to get.