Mason Adams Published

A Journalist Reexamines 1996 Murders Near The Appalachian Trail

A book cover.
"Trailed: One Woman's Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders" is a new book by author and journalist Kathryn Miles.

This conversation originally aired in the March 19, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

In the summer of 1996 in Shenandoah National Park, two women, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, were murdered not far from the Appalachian Trail. 

The case remains unsolved today.

Journalist Kathryn Miles recently wrote about the murders in a new book titled, “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders.” The book goes beyond true crime, and wraps in Miles’ personal experiences and the specter of violence in the outdoors.

Inside Appalachia host Mason Adams recently spoke with Miles. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Adams: For people who don’t know about the 1996 homicides, can you tell us what happened?

Miles: It was in Shenandoah National Park, just off of the Appalachian Trail. Lollie and Julie were both wilderness leaders. They had met the summer before at a really revolutionary outdoor program for women and fell head over heels in love. 

I think it’s really important to remember that this was 1996. This was a long time before anyone really kind of felt comfortable coming out in a public way, especially somewhere like the Upper Midwest, which is where they were located. They had some challenges in terms of trying to figure out this relationship, whether or not they wanted to navigate a same-sex relationship, but they did really both commit to it. They spent the next calendar year in a long distance relationship getting to know each other, at the end of what had been Lollie’s last semester of her college experience. This is May of 1996. The two were living about five hours apart: Julie was in Vermont, Lollie was in Maine at Unity, the college that I would go on to teach at. The school year had wrapped up. They were both about to embark upon very busy summers.

They decided that what they really wanted to do was take an easy, breezy backpacking trip that would give them time to recommit, reconnect as a couple. They picked Shenandoah National Park, knowing that, first of all, the weather was a lot more reliable there than it is here in Maine in May, where snow is still a possibility. They also knew that not only did the Appalachian Trail run through the park, but there were also a lot of other trails that would allow them to have an experience where it wasn’t really about endurance. It really wasn’t about skill so much as it was about recreation. 

About a week into their trip — we think five to seven days into their trip — they were brutally assaulted at their back country camp site. They were both murdered. We believe that Julie was sexually assaulted. Then that really led to this impossibly difficult and confusing and convoluted and flawed investigation that continues today.

Adams: Yes, the investigation has yet to conclude, in part, it seems because law enforcement authorities really singled out an individual early on and pursued a case against him. Your book suggests maybe they shouldn’t have been so quick to rush to prosecution. Can you talk a little bit about what you found?

Miles: In July of 1997, about 14 months after Lollie and Julie were murdered, a young man named Darrell David Rice was in Shenandoah National Park. His father lived right outside of the park, and he would regularly spend a lot of time cycling there. He had, by all accounts, including his own, several very severe psychological challenges and issues he was dealing with, most notably bipolar schizophrenia. His life had been completely unraveling. He was not getting treatment for the psychological disorders. He was at his wit’s end. 

On one particular weekend in July, he had been up for two or three days straight, and was driving through the park. He saw a female cyclist. He drove past her several times.

A woman in a black, sleeveless dress with short black hair stands leaning against a brick wall.
Kathryn Miles

He shouted obscenities at her, and at one point ran her off the road. She was understandably terrified about this, and got help, and rangers managed to get hold of him before he left the park. As soon as they apprehended him, the rangers were convinced that he had murdered Lollie and Julie the summer before. When violent crime occurs in national parks, those investigations are the dual purview of both the FBI and the National Park Service police.

Those two law enforcement agencies, which do not have a lot in common with each other and have very different cultural expectations, have to come together during these crimes. I think that’s part of what makes these crimes so difficult to successfully solve and close, are these culture clashes. Both the FBI and the Park Service began to focus on David Rice, and really began to shift their investigation exclusively to him at that point.

Adams: Darrell Rice was indicted in 2001. But ultimately, federal officials couldn’t gather enough of a case to really take him to trial. It was dismissed. And your investigation points in different directions. Can you talk a little bit about what you learned with your research?

Miles: In 2001, Darrell Rice was formally indicted. At that point, the attorney general for the U.S. was John Ashcroft under the George W. Bush administration. He saw in this particular case an opportunity to test out brand new hate crime legislation. It became the first official federal hate crime in the United States. At that point, it also became a hugely political and politically charged case. The FBI had one very small and very sort of strange piece of evidence that they thought might link Darrell David Rice to the crime, but they had no forensic evidence, no hairs, no DNA, nothing else. In fact, the DNA that they had taken from the crime scene had excluded Darrell Rice as a suspect in all of it, but had not excluded another known serial killer who was working in the area. 

Eventually, faced with this mounting DNA evidence that continued to exclude Darrell Rice, they had no choice but to dismiss the case against him. What I should say, and this is very important, is that federal prosecutors used a not-very-well-known legal concept called “without prejudice.” Those are usually used in cases where prosecutors are convinced of the guilt of the defendant. They feel like they do have a strong case that could persuade a jury or a judge, but because of some sort of procedural error that occurred during the trial, they feel like they can’t get the conviction that they need to get. By dismissing a case in this way, the federal government basically reserves the right to bring the case back against a person at any time. In the case of Darrell Rice, they were on the eve of jury selection for his trial. At any point, the federal government can go, basically right back to that spot and continue the trial against him. 

So he lives in the state of double jeopardy, which is how and why the Virginia Innocence Project became involved in the case. They saw this as a miscarriage of justice against an innocent person. And I was very fortunate to work with the Innocence Project reexamining this case and reinvestigating it from the beginning.

Adams: So you’re getting pretty deep into this research. I would imagine that stands in direct conflict with the view of wilderness and nature as a place for escape. It’s a place we go to get away from all of society’s troubles, and our personal troubles. What was that journey like for you?

Miles: Really difficult. I had started my tenure at Unity College in the fall of 2001, literally two days before September 11. I was barely 27. It was my first college teaching job. In the spring of 2002, when the formal announcement of this indictment took place, I saw firsthand how that indictment really impacted the Unity community. Lollie at that point had been dead for five years. But she was still very, very present on that campus. She was just such an extraordinary leader, and an extraordinary human.

My colleagues were her faculty members and professors, and her friends had become my friends. Seeing the residual trauma, not only of her very untimely death, but also how this indictment brought up all of that again, had made the case doubly personal for me. Not only did I really sort of identify with Lollie and Julie in very profound ways, and felt that impact as a secondary trauma as a female sexual assault survivor and backpacker, but then to see firsthand how this was impacting people who I had already grown to love really, really made this very real for me.

When I set out on the 20th anniversary to begin working on this as a magazine article, already the stakes and the emotions were pretty high. It does really feel like a personal story for me in some profound ways.


Hear the entire interview on Inside Appalachia. Or click/tap the “Listen” button at the top of this story.