Two Women Were Mysteriously Murdered At This All Too Familiar Place

Every year, millions of people visit national parks to enjoy the beauty of nature. Camping, hiking, fishing, and climbing are just some of the activities available for visitors. The National Park System consists of more than 400 parks, and with a large number of visitors, accidents are expected to happen. According to National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum, per CNN, six deaths occur on an average every week in national parks. The deaths include accidental falls, medical incidents, drowning, and others. However, there have also been a number of murders in national parks throughout the years.

In May 1996, two women — Laura "Lollie" Winans and Julianne "Julie" Williams — went hiking at the Shenandoah National Park located in Virginia. Park rangers found them deceased near a park trail on June 1 (via Blueridge Outdoors). The discovery sparked a thorough investigation but to this day, no one has been held responsible for the murders.

Who were Julie Williams and Lollie Winans?

Julie Williams loved the outdoors and studied geology in college. She was also a tennis player and won a state championship in high school. Williams was scheduled to start her new job in Vermont on June 1 when she was murdered. Lollie Winans shared Williams' love for nature and worked as a wilderness guide. According to Medium, Williams and Winans met at a non-profit organization in Minnesota that they both supported. The two women discovered they had common interests, and they developed a romantic relationship.

Williams and Winans planned a backpacking adventure at Shenandoah National Park together with their dog, a golden retriever named Taj. It was a trip to celebrate Williams' new job. They arrived at the park on May 19, 1996, and set up their tent by a stream, as reported by Blueridge Outdoors. The women planned to stay for a few days, and when they hadn't returned on the day they were expected, Williams' father reported the two women missing.

The discovery of the bodies

Park rangers immediately went to look for Julie Williams and Lollie Winans as soon as they got the report that they were missing. Their vehicle was found parked at the Skyland Lodge, which led rangers to believe that the women were checked in there. However, they were nowhere to be found. The search continued to the nearby trails and that was when rangers found Taj wandering without a leash, as reported by Medium.

On June 1, park rangers continued their search and found the location where Williams and Winans set up camp, which was in a secluded location half a mile away from Skyland Lodge. Winans was found dead inside the tent with a gag over her mouth and her hands and feet were bound with duct tape. She had a gash on her throat as well. Williams, on the other hand, was discovered about 30 to 40 feet away from the tent in an embankment. According to Strange Outdoors, the young woman was also gagged. Both of them were partially clothed, but there was no evidence of a sexual assault.

The investigation into the murders

Investigators found a camera at the scene of the crime. Based on the photos that were acquired from the device, they trekked the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. After a few days, they got a ride from a park ranger and renewed their camping permit. The two women then continued their adventure and climbed Hawksbill mountain, as noted by Blueridge Outdoors. They were then murdered sometime after that.

One of the biggest challenges investigators faced was the number of people who visited Shenandoah National Park at the time of the murders. It was a particularly busy weekend, and it was difficult to pinpoint a suspect. The FBI was called to help investigate the murders, and they interviewed hundreds of people, as reported by The Washington Post. Despite their efforts, they had no suspect. The fact that the crime occurred at a national park also made the case more complex because of the vastness of the crime scene.

A suspect was identified

In 1997, a man named Darrell David Rice was arrested for attempting to abduct a woman who was riding her bike on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Several details that came out during Rice's interrogation led investigators to believe that he was responsible for the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans. As noted by Blueridge Outdoors, Rice was at the park at the time of the murders, and he had a history of attacking women. Furthermore, it was reported by that Rice stated the women deserved what happened to them because they were in a same-sex relationship.

Rice was indicted for the murders of the women in 2001, but there was no forensic evidence that linked him to the crime. All the investigators had was circumstantial evidence against him. In 2003, a strand of hair found at the crime scene was tested for DNA, and the results showed that it didn't belong to Rice. The murder charges against him were dismissed the following year, and no one was held responsible for the murders of Williams and Winans.

The murders remain unsolved

After Darrell David Rice was excluded as the perpetrator through DNA evidence, a serial killer named Richard Evonitz was suspected of the two women's murders. However, as The Washington Post reported, his DNA has never been tested against the sample that was collected from the crime scene. Evonitz died by suicide in 2002, and before his death, he told his sister that he committed so many crimes that he couldn't remember them all. It is unknown why Evonitz's DNA wasn't tested against the profile acquired in the Shenandoah case.

In 2021, the FBI stated that they — together with the Virginia State Police and the National Park Service — continue their investigation into the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans. Their profiles remain listed on the National Park Service's Cold Cases page, which shows all the missing persons and murders that occurred in national parks that have yet to be solved.