The 1981 Appalachian Trail Hike That Ended In Murder

The Appalachian Trail, which is 2,193 miles long and spans 15 states, is not the longest trail in the United States. However, as reported by Treehugger, it is the longest marked hiking trail in the country and the longest hiking trail in the world. Although the Appalachian Trail passes through eight national forests and six national parks and is known for its spectacular views of the Appalachian Mountains, the trail is also known to be specifically challenging. With an estimated 450,000 feet in elevation changes and some peaks exceeding 6,000 feet, the Appalachian Trail is complex and quite strenuous at numerous points.

Every year, an estimated 3 million people hike some portion of the Appalachian Trail. However, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy, just over 3,000 attempt to hike the entire 2,193 miles — with an estimated one in four actually completing the trail from end to end. As reported by Treehugger, the wildlife along the Appalachian Trail, which includes black bears, can be intimidating. But the most dangerous creatures on the trail are actually ticks, which can infect hikers with Lyme disease.

The New York Post reports there is no official record of the number of deaths and injuries that have occurred along the Appalachian Trail. However, officials have stated that there is an average of two or three fatalities each year, which are most often caused by hypothermia or lightning strikes. And although it is rare, murders are not unheard of along the Appalachian Trail.

Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay were killed on the Appalachian Trail in 1981

Greenbelly reports there have been 13 known murders along the trail since 1974, with the most recent occurring in 2019. However, two of the most disturbing murders, which occurred in 1981, were committed by a man named Randall Lee Smith.

As reported by Strange Outdoors, 27-year-old Robert Mountford Jr. and 27-year-old Laura Susan "Su Su" Ramsay, who were both social workers, traveled from their hometown in Maine to Virginia to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail in May 1981. They planned the hike as a way to raise money for a school run by Mountford's mother, which served children with developmental challenges.

On the evening of May 19, 1981, Mountford and Ramsay shared a meal with another hiker, Randall Lee Smith, at the Wapiti Shelter in Giles, Virginia. According to Strange Outdoors, Smith attacked both of his dinner companions as soon as they finished their meal. After shooting Mountford in the head with a .22-caliber pistol, he struck Ramsay with a piece of iron before stabbing her multiple times with a knife and what the publication described as a "long nail."

Randall Lee Smith was captured thanks to a bloody fingerprint

As reported by South Coast Today, Randall Lee Smith dragged the bodies away from the shelter, placed them in their sleeping bags, and buried them in shallow graves. Fewer than two weeks after they were reported missing, authorities found a gruesome scene at the Wapiti Shelter. In addition to blood between the shelter's floorboards, they found a camera with the film removed and a book Ramsay had planned to read during the trip.

South Coast Today reports that a forensic examination of the evidence found at the scene revealed a bloody fingerprint found on the book, which led authorities to Smith. A subsequent search of Smith's home revealed several items — including a blood-soaked pair of blue jeans — that were determined to have belonged to Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay. Although Smith fled the state after committing the murders, he was eventually arrested in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He initially claimed he had amnesia and did not know who he was or why he was in South Carolina. However, after being extradited back to Virginia, he simply said he did not want to discuss the murders. 

He stayed out of trouble following his release

Despite having a great deal of evidence against Randall Lee Smith, prosecutors were unable to establish a motive, and they were concerned that their case was not strong enough to guarantee a conviction. With the agreement of Robert Mountford Jr.'s and Laura Susan Ramsay's families, Smith was ultimately offered a plea agreement. He subsequently pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison (via South Coast Today).

Smith was released from prison in 1996 after serving only 15 years. Tom Lawson, one of the investigators at the time of the murders, said he generally kept to himself while he was incarcerated and "never caused any problems." He also seemed to stay out of trouble once he was released. In an interview with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Mark Skidmore — who was an evidence technician with the Giles County Sheriff's Department — said that between 1996 and 2008, Randall Lee Smith was essentially "invisible." Skidmore said, "Apparently, during this time we never had the first problem out of him. No other crimes. Never failed to signal a right turn ... He lived up there in that little house and pretty much kept to himself."

He seemingly vanished into the woods near the Appalachian Trail

In early 2008, neighbors reported they had not seen Randall Lee Smith for several days and were concerned about his welfare. Mark Skidmore said they searched the house and did not see anything out of place. However, authorities noted that his utilities had been shut off for nonpayment. According to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, those who knew Smith assumed he went into the woods along the Appalachian Trail as he enjoyed the solitude. However, according to Skidmore, they were concerned for his welfare as he never returned home. Skidmore said they arranged a search party and hung missing posters in town and along the trail.

On May 8, 2008, Sean Farmer and Scott Johnston were camping at Walnut Flats on the Appalachian Trail when they were approached by a man who introduced himself as Ricky Williams. As reported by South Coast Today, Farmer and Johnston invited the man to join them for dinner. However, they had no idea they were spending the evening with a convicted killer.

Randall Lee Smith attempted to murder two other hikers on the Appalachian Trail

At some point during the evening, Randall Lee Smith abruptly pulled out a .22 caliber revolver and shot Sean Farmer and Scott Johnston. Although each man had two serious gunshot wounds, they both survived the harrowing ordeal. NBC News reports that the men managed to escape in Smith's vehicle and drive 40 miles to the nearest hospital for treatment.

As reported by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Smith fled the scene in Johnston's Ford Ranger pickup truck. However, he was eventually spotted by a Virginia State Trooper. Amid the ensuing chase, Smith crashed and overturned the truck. While in the hospital, he was arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder.

Smith was subsequently transferred to the New River Regional Jail medical unit. However, he died shortly after of a suspected blood clot related to the injuries sustained in the accident. He was 54 years old.