It’s a tale of violence, fear and multiple threads leading in different directions. At first, Kathryn Miles did not believe she was right one to tell it. Miles, the author of Trailed, talked about her book in mid-March at a Virginia Festival of the Book’s “preview” session at the Bluebird & Company Annex in downtown Crozet. The preview sessions were a new feature of the 2023 festival, now concluded. Director Kelila Williams said there were dozens of events in six Virginia towns and cities, with more than 60 authors.
“There are a lot of people fascinated with true crime these days,” Miles told her audience. “I’m not one of them.” She said she doesn’t like being steeped, day after day, in evil and murder. She came to writing about the 1996 murders of two women in the Shenandoah National Park from a different angle: she’s a nature writer and covers outdoor adventure for a number of publications. “I also write about the environment, and that’s discouraging enough,” she said.
Life was conspiring to draw Miles into the chronicle of the two young women who were found in their tent with their throats cut on a chilly day in May, not far from Skyland Lodge. Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were highly-skilled outdoorswomen who found the perfect remote campsite just a short distance from Skyline Drive.
“At the time, I didn’t know anything about it,” Miles said. “I was graduating from college and perhaps not keeping up with the news.” But she was offered a teaching job at Unity College in Maine, an institution specializing in environmental education, which included courses in backcountry skills. Once she got there, in the fall of 2001, she heard plenty about the murder: Lollie Winans had graduated from the school years before, but it was as if she were still a presence there. “Her death, despite being her being very knowledgeable about safety in nature, made a huge impact, and the classes coming after her all knew the story.”
However, few knew the real end of the story: “Most people, including me and the Unity College Community, thought the murderer had been found,” Miles said. The FBI Richmond Field Office, the National Park Service, and the Virginia State Police were all involved, and they found the perfect suspect in Darrell Rice, a mentally ill man who was caught after he terrified a woman cyclist in the Park a year after the deaths. So, when the FBI issued an appeal to the public in 2021 for information about the 25-year-old case, Miles was intrigued, and became drawn into doing her own investigation.
It turned out that DNA evidence at the scene exonerated Rice, who did admit to and serve time for the incident with the cyclist. Even so, law enforcement pulled out all the stops to prove his guilt, including planting a trained agent in his cell to pose as a criminal who openly expressed his hatred towards women and his desire to harm them, hoping Rice would commiserate.
The tapes of their conversations would be funny, if not so dark. Rice attempted to counsel his cell mate, suggesting he take up yoga or do a number of other things to calm down and resist his violent urges. After his stint in jail, the charges against Rice were dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning that he could be charged again, if new evidence became available.
After that, Rice was unable to have a life, Miles said. Wherever he tried to live, he was reviled. For a while, he kept in touch with his lawyer, but he moved out West, eventually became homeless and has disappeared except for occasional contact with his attorney.
Anyone who lived in Virginia in the late 1990s will remember that there was more than one reason for women to be fearful. In Spotsylvania County, two young sisters were abducted off their porch and murdered. In the same month as the Park killings, a man known as the Route 29 killer tried to stop at least 20 women driving alone under the ruse of spotting sparks coming from their car, and was successful in stopping and killing Alicia Showalter Reynolds, who was on her way from Baltimore to Charlottesville to meet her mother.
The murderer of the kidnapped sisters was eventually solved, but that perpetrator killed himself as law enforcement closed in on him. Was he responsible for the Shenandoah and Showalter murders, too, or was Rice who responsible for other deaths? Or was it someone else, someone whose DNA, unlike Rice’s, might be match for that found on the gags and under the duct tape used by Lollie and Julie’s killer.
That question can’t be answered, Miles said, but there are plenty of theories. Over and over again, she talked to the families, the friends, law enforcement, and Rice’s attorney. There were so many people with so many conflicting agendas: the Park Service didn’t want to frighten people away from national parks; the FBI, once settling on a suspect, did not want to focus on another; Rice’s attorney strongly believed he was not capable of that level of planning and violence.
Trailed is written with painstaking detail. Nothing is left unexamined, including the motives Miles had in finally deciding to write it. “I wasn’t so comfortable with this part,” she told the crowd at Bluebird & Company. “I’d much rather be the one asking personal questions than answering them.” She explained why she turned to nature, like Lollie and Julie, for healing, and describes her anger that a predator could make other women too fearful to do so. In her research, she explores many tangential issues, like the relative safety of National Parks (safe, but not as safe as they’d like you to think); the fraction of murders that are actually solved (one-third); and notable mis-steps of law enforcement that result from confirmation bias.
Without giving away the theory Miles came to embrace, it’s important to say that the true answers to this crime, and possibly others, could be fairly simple to find. The DNA from the Park murders has been kept in an FBI vault in Richmond. For whatever reasons, law enforcement has refused to test it against the DNA from other potential suspects, including the Spotsylvania murderer.
The story doesn’t end with the publishing of Trailed. One law enforcement officer was so angry with the questions Miles raises that the publisher found him to be a credible threat to her, and the book tour for Trailed was postponed. And a Canadian company intends to make a documentary based on the book, with Miles as the executive producer.
Trailed, including signed copies, is available at Bluebird & Company, at the Crozet Library, and at other booksellers.