Happy Pride month everyone!! I hope everyone has been taking advantage of all the extra LGBTIQ+ programming, streaming music, and celebrations Pride month brings with it, as I have. And, if you’re not a television or music connoisseur, then maybe you’re reading books written by or about influential LGBTIQ+ authors, poets, or activists.
For Pride month, I would feel remiss if I didn’t choose to discuss a case, that brought to light a double murder of two women, who loved each other, and were murdered while camping in the great outdoors. By doing so, I want to bring back to the surface their case, which has gone cold over the decades, as their murder took place while camping within the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, 26 years ago, which takes us back to Spring 1996. The two women I am referring to are Julianne Williams, who went by Julie, and Laura Winans, whose nickname was “Lollie”. They both shared a love for the outdoors, and the activities that came along with it. So, it was not unusual when Julie got a new job as a geologist, that they decided to celebrate it by spending a few days hiking & camping along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
For those that have never experienced it, Virginia’s Skyline Drive is a beautiful, scenic route that runs along the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching 105.5 miles long. It is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which is federally governed. Not only can you drive through it, but hundreds of thousands of people annually choose to camp within the Shenandoah National Park. Sadly, it was within this scenic park that Julie & Lollie met their demise. They checked into the park on May 19th, 1996 and had a permit to camp within the park until May 24th. After a couple days of heavy rain, they caught a ride with a park ranger to renew their camping permits, extending their stay until May 27th. This would be the last time anyone would see them at the park alive. And 3 days after their expected leave date, which puts us at May 30th, family and friends still had heard nothing from either of them. And, this was unusual. Especially since Julie’s new job as a geologist was set to begin in June and her best friend’s wedding was set for June 1st. Julie had promised her friend she wouldn’t miss it. And, according to friends & family, this was her dream job, so there’s no way she would have just abandoned it before it even started. Concerned about Julie’s & Lollie’s well-being, Julie’s father contacted the park rangers office, but had to leave a message for someone to get back to him. The following day, he contacted them again, this time speaking to a ranger and gave them the descriptions of both Julie, Lollie, and informed them that they were camping with Julie’s golden retriever, Taj. At approximately 9:20pm on June 1st, 1996 rangers found the bodies of both Julie Williams, 24, and Lollie Winans, 26, at their campsite, near a stream, gagged, their wrists bound with duct tape, and their throats cut. In addition to her wrists, Lollie’s legs were bound together with duct tape and she was found inside their tent. According to the National Park Service’s lead investigator, Tim Alley both women were partially undressed, but neither showed signs of being sexually assaulted. And no semen was found at the scene. Julie’s body, along with her sleeping bag and her sleeping pad, were found “approximately 30-40 feet away, down a little embankment”. Their campsite was approximately a half mile from their car that was found parked near Skyland Lodge. Robbery was not considered a motive, as they had packed light since they would be hiking, and all their gear and essentials seemed to be present at the scene. Prior to rangers discovering their bodies, Julie’s golden retriever, Taj, was found, unharmed, wandering the area without his collar. And, Taj was likely the only witness to the crime. It was determined later that the killer had cut the collar off Taj and let him go. As his leash & collar were found still attached to a tree branch at the scene.
Now as I mentioned earlier, the Shenandoah National Park is under federal jurisdiction, so Virginia State Police worked in conjunction with National Park Service, and the FBI to secure the scene and discover just what happened to Jules and Lollie. This would not prove to be easy, especially because their crime scene was a national park, with an area of 197,411 acres, including mountain streams, more than 500 miles of hiking trails, and nearly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness. Not to mention their pool of suspects, who entered and exited the park over the course of almost a week, including Memorial Day weekend, were literally in the thousands. Additionally, there are multiple entrances and exits spanning the acres of land. So who’s to say which one the killer or killers used to enter or exit the park, or if they had even left after the murders?
Adding to difficulty of the investigation, was the delay of informing the public of the murders. Or, should I say, the purposeful misinformation that was eventually released about the murders. To avoid a public panic or a public relations nightmare during the park’s peak season, there was a 36 hour delay in releasing any information about the murders at all! For a day & a half, the powers that be let people just continue to camp, picnic, hike, and travel through the park without anyone being the wiser. Which also allowed the killer or killers the ability to escape or blend in with the crowds of people within the park for these 36 hours. And, when news of the murders finally broke, the park’s assistant superintendent claimed the deaths were a murder/suicide. Can you believe that?
Their camera was found at the scene by law enforcement with a partially used roll of film inside. The film was developed and became useful in developing a timeline of movements within the park beginning May 19th, when they first entered it. The camera showed photos of their hike along the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. They also climbed Hawksbill, which is the highest mountain of the Shenandoah mountains. This was a few days after they entered the park and just before they made their final campsite near a stream. A stream, which later was speculated to have masked the sounds of their approaching killer or killers. In their photos they appeared happy, and without wear. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.
Now I mentioned earlier that Julie and Lollie were in a relationship with one another. But that was not something that was known to many people, including their families. Only their closest, inner circle of friends knew about their romantic relationship. But, as is often the case, when the media caught wind of the murder and that they were possibly a couple, they became relentless. But the person who ended up outing them to the media, coworkers, and perhaps most importantly, their families, was someone you never would have guessed, even now. Any guesses?
Well, I’m not going to make it THAT easy and just give it away. I’m gonna make you wait a little longer as I want to give you a little background on both Julie and Lollie.
Julie Williams was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota and was described by those who knew her as an overachiever. Before even finishing high school, she volunteered at a women’s shelter, performed community service work, and won the Minnesota state doubles tennis championship. After enrolling at Carleton College, in Northfield MN, Julie discovered a true passion for geology. In 1993, 3 years before her murder, Julie went to study abroad with a handful of her college classmates. More specifically they explored the relationship of the Greek Macedonia people, their culture, and their land. She continued on to study dinosaur extinction in Italy. After her European studies were complete, Julie returned home, but with uncertainty about certain aspects of her life. She questioned whether she could become a successful geologist, whether people noticed her slight speech impediment, but what she began to question most was her sexuality. Although Julie had dated only guys throughout high school and college, after college graduation she decided to take a year to focus on herself, to figure out what she wanted to do careerwise, and who she wanted to be with romantically. And to do that, she moved from Minnesota to Richmond, Vermont, population 4,000. Despite being a small community, it was one that was accepting and lacked hostility towards the LGBT+ community. Julie also struggled with her sexuality because of her belief in Christianity. She joined a liberal church, called Christ Church Presbyterian, which was located on the University of Vermont campus. She shared her fears and anxieties about her sexuality with them and sought out their guidance to understand the feelings she had towards women. She, along with 3 other women, who identified as lesbians, formed a group called “The Church Ladies”. They openly discussed issues involving religion and sexuality. Rev. Rebecca Strader, the leader of Christ Church Presbyterian, said that Julie “knew how to ask the right questions in terms of struggling with what she was going to do with her life, in terms of career, in terms of her sexuality. She seemed very open and searching. She didn’t know how God could hate her, but she didn’t know how to put the two together.” Rev. Strader also said prior to her death, Julie had found a biblical verse that helped her to understand and accept who she was, and that helped her believe she was not hated by God. It comes from the book of Jeremiah, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Lollie Winans was a couple years older than Julie, and came from a wealthy family in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She was described as a “microbrew-drinking, Phish-following, cigarette-smoking, good-time girl”. That’s Phish the band, not the sea creature. Lollie didn’t actually fit into the affluent world her family did. She was much more comfortable being outside in nature, than attending high-class events, yacht clubs, or attending boarding schools. After high school, she also was looking for something different from the world she knew and wanted a change of scenery, much like Julie. So Lollie chose to attend a small college in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, called Sterling College. Sterling wasn’t just classroom learning and lectures. They took their education and classes outdoors. Students would get to experience everything the great outdoors had to offer. This included: camping, hiking, shoveling manure, and building barns. Lollie’s friends also said she had a great sense of humor and would keep them laughing for hours on end. Maybe it was in the name – her nickname Lollie beginning with “LOL” as the first 3 letters. She was a fan of music, attending concerts, especially if it was Phish or the Allman Brothers. But beyond the jovial mask Lollie wore, was a darker, more troubled side. Lollie had been sexually assaulted as a child, by a known adult, though it is not specially mentioned by who. This led to some issues with alcohol and recreational drug use to cope. She dropped out of college to focus on confronting and conquering her demons. And by 1994, she decided to move to Waterville, Maine and attend Unity College. It had a 200 acre campus that used to be a poultry farm. The college was perfect for Lollie, as it offered the ability for her to study nature, the wilderness and the environment. She decided she wanted to pursue a career as a wilderness guide, and doing so meant she would need to complete an internship. And this is where Lollie would cross paths with Julie.
It was called, “Woodwomen”, and both Julie and Lollie were there to lead other adults and some children in outdoor recreational activities. They shared a tent with one other leader, but their connection was unmistakable. They were like teenagers, laughing long into the night and flirting. They both just enjoyed leading the outdoor activities, whether it was teaching canoeing, paddling, hiking, or boating. They found comfort and solace in their new romantic partnership. When they returned home, Julie to Vermont and Lollie to Maine, they took turns making trips back and forth every couple weeks to visit one another. Friends closest to them, who knew about their relationship, noticed a positive change in their demeanor and saw just how happy they were with one another. Being in a same sex relationship was new for both of them, and they were discovering & figuring it out along the way. Julie and Lollie, although deciding to move in with one another (insert u-haul jokes here), and beginning a life together, were still living a more closeted lifestyle. That’s why after their deaths hit the news media, as did the news about their relationship, their families had no idea either of them were lesbian, bisexual, or even in a relationship with another woman at all! And, they were outed by none other than…any guesses??…(drum roll please)…Julie’s confidant and spiritual advisor, the Reverend Rebecca Strader, with Christ Church Presbyterian. Rev. Strader was getting phone calls left & right asking her if the 2 women were in a relationship, dating, friends, lovers, you get the idea. And, not knowing how to answer, she consulted with both gay & straight members of her church, and at least one other minister before deciding to out them in the media. She viewed it as necessary because she wanted to draw more attention to their case, as a possible hate crime, because she believed she was helping the gay community by doing so. In my opinion, it was a double edged sword, and a difficult position to be in. As a Reverend, you don’t want to lie, mislead, or be viewed as untrustworthy. But at the same time, you probably don’t want to speak out, or just out a member of your congregation when they clearly weren’t ready to be out themselves. In any case, both Julie and Lollie were out as lovers, and suddenly the sole focus of their case was about their sexuality, and many began to believe they were victims of a heinous hate crime.
Now, not only did their families have to contend with the tragic nature of their deaths, but they were trying to piece together these parts of their daughter’s lives they never knew existed. Lollie was an only child, and her parents after the news broke, seemed to be accepting of Lollie’s lifestyle. Her dad, a Florida stockbroker, John Winans commented on the outing of his daughter by saying, “To focus on the fact that they were lesbian lovers, I find that distasteful. The press takes a spin, and suddenly, you’re elevating that aspect of the girls’ lives, and you’re taking away from the brutal murder.” Adding, “If, in fact, Lollie and Julie were intimate, and through that means they had achieved a relationship, then Lollie’s my daughter, and I’d be behind anything that made her happy.” Julie had 3 siblings, and her family felt much the same about their daughter as the Winans’ family did about Lollie. They were not as vocal in addressing the media as John Winans, but through a family friend relayed the message that they were upset Julie didn’t feel safe or comfortable enough telling them about her sexuality and her relationship with Lollie. Sue Mackert, the family friend said, “They still feel it was a personal violation. But they are not at all shying from the fact. It didn’t make a difference to them, because Julie was a wonderful person.” The Williams’ family echoed the anger the Winans’ family had against Rev. Strader for her choice to make public information that was said to her in confidence.
Despite the additional media attention in the case, be it for the murders, or the women’s sexuality, the case grew cold. The FBI offered a $25,000 reward, still nothing. There were some similarities to a case in 1986, involving 2 women, Cathleen Thomas and Rebecca Dowski, near Williamsburg, VA who, much like Lollie and Julie, had their throats slashed and wrists bound. Additionally, they were both clothed, had no signs of sexual assault, and there were no indications of robbery as a motive, as a purse and wallet were found inside their car, along with their bodies. Unlike Julie and Lollie though, Cathleen and Rebecca were first strangled with a rope before having their throats slashed. With no apparent signs of a struggle, it was hypothesized that maybe there was more than one murderer that committed the crime. The murders of Cathleen and Rebecca were part of a series of murders that took place along Williamsburg’s Colonial Pkwy, known for it’s lovers’ lane for both gay and hetero couples. These murders have never been solved. And, the FBI, despite the parallels in the cases, does not believe the 2 cases are linked, instead their view of Julie & Lollie’s murders are that they were either committed by someone they knew, or that it was an isolated, random, violent act.
A year after the murders, a man by the name of Darrell David Rice, attempted to run off the road, then run over, a cyclist by the name of Yvonne Malbasha. He encountered her while driving thru Skyline Drive, and began yelling lewd comments and obscenities at her. She pulled over to allow him to pass her by, only he didn’t, instead he stopped, tried to pull her into his truck, but she fought back. She threw something at him, running as fast as she could, and ultimately hid behind a tree in the woods. In the process, he got more angry and tried to run her and her bike off the road a few times before taking off. It was a good thing Yvonne ran too, because what she didn’t know is that Darrell Rice had restraints in the back of his truck, which he intended to use on her. She reported him immediately, and Park Rangers apprehended him near one of the exits. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 135 months in prison. I tell this story not because it parallels the murders of Julie & Lollie, but because of some things Darrell Rice talked about while being interviewed by law enforcement.
Rice was described as sexist and homophobic. Rice believed women were “more vulnerable than men” and said he “hates gays”. He strangely commented on the murders of Julie and Lollie, and said they “deserved to die because they were lesbian whores”. He talked himself right into 4 counts of capital murder, but the state’s case fell apart after mitochondrial DNA evidence found at the crime scene was not a match for Rice in 2004. Also, the timing of the charges did not sit well with some, because it took place post 9-11, with Attorney General, John Ashcroft, allegedly under a lot of pressure to be the first to enforce new hate crimes laws in 2002. There are still those that believe Rice is the killer despite the DNA evidence to the contrary, this includes the Justice Department.
Another speculation made by some who have studied, and even written about Julie & Lollie’s murders believe their deaths may have been committed by serial rapist and killer, Richard Evonitz. At their crime scene, there was a glove, believed to have been left behind by their killer. Inside this glove, and also on the duct tape used to bind them, hairs and male DNA were found and later tested. This was the exculpatory evidence and mitochondrial DNA that exonerated Darrell Rice. But, this same evidence did not exclude Richard Evonitz. In fact, according to an A&E: True Crime Blog interview with Kathryn Miles, who wrote the book, Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders, she believes that Evonitz was in fact their killer. When asked about the mitochondrial DNA tested by the FBI in 2003, she said:
“the hairs were clearly not Rice’s, but it came back matching Richard Evonitz in 799 out of 800 positions. In the one place it doesn’t match, there’s this phenomenon called heteroplasmy which means that the body misfires the protein. What the FBI lab said was not only can Richard Evonitz not be excluded but he should be retested to see if he should be included. The agents make the decision to not do what the lab is recommending and instead run additional DNA tests against Rice. What I can surmise based on the records I received through [Freedom of Information Act] requests is they never tested Evonitz’s DNA again.”
Even if Richard were to be named as the killer of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, justice would be bittersweet, as he shot & killed himself after a high speed police pursuit, when one of his kidnap victim’s managed to escape and reported him to authorities. There are also some discrepancies between Evonitz’s victims and Julie and Lollie. Evonitz murdered underage girls, whereas Lollie was 26 and Julie, 24. Also, they were kidnapped and raped, there were no signs of attempted kidapping or sexual assault of Lollie or Julie.
The FBI, in 2021, the 25th anniversary of Julie and Lollie’s deaths, released a statement saying:
“Over the past 25 years we are cognizant that those who were hiking in the Park at the time of the murders, were visiting local establishments, and even resided in the area may not be local to Virginia any longer—therefore it is crucial that this case continues to be shared throughout the country…It is possible there are people anywhere from Virginia to the west coast that could have information valuable to investigators.”
Sadly, 26 years later, this case has gone ice cold, with no new evidence, or suspects in the murders. And, despite new, more modern DNA testing being available, the FBI has yet to retest the DNA from Julie’s mouth gag, or hairs found on the tape and glove from the scene. WUSA9, a local television station here in Virginia, reached out to the FBI in September of 2021, to determine why additional testing had not been done, but they said they received no response back. For me, I wonder the same thing. Why not retest what you already have, as long as it is not degraded or destroyed? For now, the FBI, National Park Service, and Virginia State Police just say the case is still open and their investigation continues. Just how active that investigation is, I’m not sure. Julie’s and Lollie’s names still remain on the National Park Service’s Cold Cases page, amongst others that are victims of murder, and those that went missing, and were never found. For many families of people on this list, they may never get the answers they want or deserve.
Accessed June, 2022. Lollie Winans and Julie Williams: Couple’s Murder at Shenandoah Remains Unsolved https://www.aetv.com/real-crime/murders-at-shenandoah
Accessed June, 2022. Murders in the Wild: Cold Cases in U.S. National Parks https://www.aetv.com/real-crime/cold-case-murders-in-national-parks
Accessed June, 2022. Double Murder in Shenandoah National Park https://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/features/murder-woods-shenandoah-national-park/
Accessed June, 2022. The FBI should use DNA, not posters, to solve a cold-case murder https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/25/julie-williams-laura-winans-unsolved-murder-test-dna/
Accessed June, 2022. FBI Most Wanted – Seeking Information https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/seeking-info/julianne-williams
Accessed June, 2022. FBI Most Wanted – Seeking Information https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/seeking-info/laura-winans
Accessed June, 2022. Innocence Project says answers to cold case Shenandoah murders may sit buried in FBI evidence locker https://www.wusa9.com/article/features/producers-picks/dna-in-fbi-evidence-locker-might-solve-shenandoah-national-park-murders-julie-williams-lollie-winans/65-d4ecdc98-ed85-4626-b242-c35f5d6d938e
Accessed June, 2022. TWO WOMEN WERE MYSTERIOUSLY MURDERED AT THIS ALL TOO FAMILIAR PLACE https://www.grunge.com/875358/two-women-were-mysteriously-murdered-at-this-all-too-familiar-place/
Accessed June, 2022. The unsolved Williams and Winans camping murders in Shenandoah National Park https://www.strangeoutdoors.com/true-crime-in-the-outdoors/2020/1shenandoah-national-park-murders
Accessed June, 2022. The Unsolved 1996 Murders Still Haunting Women and Queer Communities https://www.outsideonline.com/culture/books-media/shenandoah-murders-trailed-kathryn-miles-queer-women-outdoors/
Accessed June, 2022. New book sheds light on Shenandoah Park murders https://www.wvtf.org/news/2022-04-20/new-book-sheds-light-on-shenandoah-park-murders
Accessed June, 2022. Solving the Shenandoah murders more than 25 years later https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-trailed-shenandoah-murders-book-20220528-r5hyqing7beuvb5htobn6ljxci-story.html
Accessed June, 2022. Pride Month: How It Started and How to Celebrate https://www.etonline.com/pride-month-how-it-started-and-how-to-celebrate-166317
Accessed June, 2022. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) – IMDb https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119229/