Six years ago, journalist Kathryn Miles was assigned to do a story for Outside magazine that she thought would be fairly straight-forward, about the unsolved murder of two women killed while hiking in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park in 1996.
The hook for the story was that the FBI had just put out a call for more information. It was looking for leads that would help solve the murders of Laura “Lollie” Winans, 26, a student at Maine’s Unity College, and her girlfriend, Julianne Williams, 24. They had been bound and gagged and their throats were slashed.
Authorities had arrested a suspect, Darrell Rice, and in 2002 Attorney General John Ashcroft made news by announcing that he would seek the death penalty for Rice under new post-9/11 federal hate crime legislation. But two years later, the government suspended its case and it had seemed to go cold.
Miles, who lives in the Belfast area, thought she’d write about 2,500 words on the case with the latest updates and that would be the end of her time on the story. Instead, she found a tale that she connected with deeply and could not let go. She spent more than four years poring over case files and evidence, talking to lawyers, family, friends and anyone she could find to shed light on the mystery.
The result is Miles’ latest book, “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” (Algonquin). It goes on sale May 3. Print: A Bookstore in Portland is planning to host a book talk with Miles, but details are still being worked out.
“It was a story that from the start had shaken me. I was about the same age as them, and I think our stories coalesced,” said Miles, 47.
Miles grew up in Peoria, Illinois, where both her godparents worked for the local newspaper, the Journal Star. By the time she was a junior in high school, she was working as a part-time reporter at the Journal Star, after striking a deal with her high school to let her spend half of her days there.
“I think they were glad to get rid of me,” she said about school officials.
She continued to work summers at the newspaper as she pursued a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Saint Louis University and then a master’s and a doctorate in English from the University of Delaware. She pursued the latter to give her the flexibility to teach, report and write longer-form pieces. She came to Maine in 2001 to teach environmental studies and writing at Unity College, in Unity, near Waterville.
She left Unity in 2015 to write full time, including for magazines. Her four previous books by her include “Adventures with Ari,” about trying to see the world through her dog’s eyes by her; “All Standing,” the story of a “coffin ship” carrying Irish trying to escape their country’s famine in the 1840s; “Superstorm,” about Hurricane Sandy in 2012; and “Quakeland,” which explores earthquake threats in the United States.
Thousands arrived at Unity, a small college focused on the environment, about five years after Winans and Williams were murdered. So she heard about Winans first-hand and saw the pain her unsolved murder de ella caused among faculty and students there.
But as she reported the story, she felt a deeper connection to the two victims. Like them, she had been a victim of sexual assault – what she describes as a “date rape type” assault that happened in her teens and which she talks about in the book. She said both Winans and Williams had been sexually assaulted earlier in their lives and that they both found solace and strength in the outdoors. So too did Miles.
“I assumed I had done something wrong, so I didn’t tell anyone for a long time. One of the ways I dealt with it was by hiking, learning about my body as a place of competence,” Miles said.
Winans and Williams had met as interns at Woodswomen, an outdoor education program run for and by women in Minnesota and both led wilderness trips. Williams was originally from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and studied at Carleton College in that state, while Winans had grown up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and studied at Sterling College in Vermont before transferring to Unity College around 1994 to study outdoor recreation.
Williams and Winans began a backpacking trip in May of 1996, in Shenandoah National Park, and they took along Winans’ golden retriever. At the end of May, after Williams did not come home when expected, her father alerted authorities. The dog was found wandering in the woods and the women’s dead bodies were eventually found at their campsite.
A vibrator and various essential oils were found at the murder site, and Miles and others felt the killer was trying to make a statement about the women and their romantic relationship. Miles feels it’s likely the killer had a gun and that it was used to subdue the women before binding and gagging them, using duct tape.
“It was an incredibly thick scene. Everything done was precise and sophisticated,” said Miles.
A SOLVABLE CRIME
But the suspect investigators focused on, Rice, had a pattern of behavior that was neither precise nor sophisticated, Miles said. He had been spotted in the park a year after the murders throwing bottles at a woman on a bicycle, yelling profanities at her and running her off the road with his truck. Police arrested him for trying to abduct that woman.
During her reporting, Miles became convinced that the case was mishandled and that far too much time was spent focusing on Rice.
Miles pored over evidence and talked extensively with Deirdre Enright, a former attorney for Rice and founder of the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law. Enright said when Miles first called, she ignored her. She felt that most reporters were not interested in doing a deep dive into the facts of the case. But Miles convinced Enright she was ready for it.
“She revealed to me that she had the facts. She had read the whole court file, which was not an easy thing to do. And she was not coming at it with any presumptions, ”said Enright.
During her reporting, Miles came to form a strong opinion of who the prime suspect should be, a theory she shares with Enright. Both point to Richard Evonitz, a serial killer who died by suicide in 2002, as the likely murderer of Williams and Winans.
A couple months after his death, police in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, announced that hairs and other evidence that Evonitz had killed at least three girls, ages 12-15, who were abducted from their homes in 1996 and 1997. But before he died , Evonitz called his sister and said he had committed more crimes than he could remember. Miles said Evonitz was known to have a “murder kit,” he carried with him, including supplies like duct tape, gloves, restraints and lubricants.
Both Miles and Enright say the FBI has not used the full power of DNA testing technologies now available to see if Evonitz could be linked to the murders of Winans and Williams.
“The crime is so solvable,” Miles said.
The FBI put out another call for information on the murders last year, on the 25th anniversary, with posters and online queries. As of now, the investigation is “active and ongoing,” said Dee Rybiski, public affairs specialist and congressional liaison for the FBI in Richmond, Virginia, in an email to the Press Herald. Because the investigation is still open, the FBI will not comment on the specifics of the case.
“Over the years, our office has received and thoroughly investigated leads generated by the FBI’s publicity of this investigation and will continue to do so until the person(s) responsible for these murders is brought to justice,” Rybiski wrote.
Miles hopes the book draws attention to the murders and to wilderness safety, as well as wrongful arrests and convictions. She admits that dealing with the disturbing facts of the murders was not easy.
“The number of people who have told me they have never gone hiking since (Willams’ and Winans’) murders is obscene,” said Miles. “I’ll never be able to rid myself of the images of the crime scene. Reporting this has taken a toll.”