Violent Crime and the Great Outdoors
Murder on the Appalachian Trail In 1995, there were over 270 million visitors to America's 369 national parks -- a figure larger than the total US population. Two hundred fifty-seven million of those visitors did not become homicide victims while camping. However,13 people were murdered while visiting national parks in 1995, a grim statistic that has begun to erode the cherished notion that the nation's parks represent a friendly and inviolable refuge for the natural wonders and animal life of the American wilderness as well as for the people who visit to enjoy them. In particular, a series of four double homicides since 1986 involving campers in Virginia's Shenendoah National Park has fueled increased concern regarding the danger of violence directed against outdoor enthusiasts using the national parks -- especially if they are women.And, if those campers happen to be women who want to experience the great outdoors while in the company of other women, they appear to be at even greater risk.The increased apprehension comes in the wake of the discovery of two slain women close to the storied Appalachian Trail that winds through the Shenendoah Mountains, part of America's most popular hiking route, stretching for 2,158 miles through national parklands between Maine and Georgia.June 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the slayings of Julie Williams, 24, and Lollie Winans, 26, who were found in Shenandoah National Park with their hands bound and throats slashed. The women, both athletic, experienced hikers, were discovered by park rangers at an isolated, creekside, backcountry campsite a few hundred yards from the well-traveled Skyline Drive. Winan's dog, Taj, a golden L abrador retriever, emerged from the woods unharmed a week following the discovery of the victims and may be the only witness to the killings.While investigators have released few details surrounding the murders, robbery has been ruled out as a motive. The motive of hatred, however, has not been ruled out.According to a May 16 story by Clint Steib in the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, the slayings of Williams and Winans "rocked the lesbian and women's outdoor communities and reminded many of a hate-motivated attack in May, 1988, when a man fatally shot Rebecca Wright, 28, and wounded her partner, Claudia Brenner, 31, at the couple's campsite along the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. According to court testimony, the man attacked the women because they were lesbians and he ambushed the couple while they were engaged in sex."No one, though, has yet been charged in the slayings of Williams and Winans. Despite the offer of a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual(s) responsible for the killings, the case remains unsolved and appears to be at an impasse. Not even a segment about the murders that aired on America's Most Wanted, has yielded any solid leads.Special agent for the National Park Service, Bob Marriott, says that the NPS, working in concert with the FBI, has pursued thousands of leads and interviewed hundreds of people about the case and continues to expend a great deal of resources investigating the crime."Like any case, you have to get some leads," Marriott explained. "Somebody knows something; they just haven't come forward. Look at the Unabomber -- it took a while, but he made a mistake. We believe mistakes have been made; we just haven't been given the right circumstances to follow up on it. I'm confident that it will eventually be solved."Because of the four other double-homicides that have occurred over the past decade in Virginia's national parks, in addition to the murders of Williams and Winans, investigators are considering the possibility that a serial killer may be working the area. One of these incidents, occurring in 1986, had very tight parallels with the Williams/Winans killings: both involved young lesbian couples found with their wrists bound and throats slashed. Investigators' discounting of robbery as a motive is also common to both cases.While investigators of the most recent murders have refused to disclose if evidence of a struggle or sexual assault had been found, the women victimized in 1986 were discovered fully clothed and without signs of a skirmish or rape. The other three Virginia parks double-murders, in 1987, 1988 and 1989, each involved the killings of a man and woman. All four cases remain unsolved.And they all continue to weigh heavily on the minds of outdoor enthusiasts across the country.Fear and trembling at Heart Lake Before the deaths of Williams and Winans, the last murders to occur on the Appalachian trail took place in 1990, when a drifter shot one hiker in the head and stabbed another as they slept in a camping shelter near Harrisburg, PA. Marriott says the randomness of these killings is actually an anomaly. As is the case outside of the parks, victims usually know or have some acquaintance with their attacker."Although it's increasing, the random attack is not something we see that often," Marriott said.That fact, however, hasn't kept some people from changing their ideas about the relative safety of outdoor life. Having grown up in the region surrounding Olympic National Park in the state of Washington, Sarah (whose last name is being withheld at her request) had explored and grown accustomed to most of the area's numerous hiking trails. Being familiar with her surroundings, she walked the paths confidently and without trepidation. It was during a recent trek through Olympic, however, when Sarah and her hiking companion were forced to face a disturbing reality: Olympic had dangerous potential.Sarah, one of those to respond to EN's internet query about whether national parks are now perceived to be dangerous, recalled the incident that changed her views on the subject."We had headed off-trail from the Heart Lake/Soleduc area, partway towards the catwalk, and had this lone, strange guy on our tails. He was very inquisitive, had little gear and seemed psycho-weird to us."Notwithstanding an uneasiness brought on by the stranger's keen interest in their activities, coupled with an unnerving and persistent feeling that they were being followed, Sarah and her friend continued hiking. After reaching the base of Mount Carrie, the two hid their backpacks among some trees and made an attempt to reach the mountain's summit."I'll never forget when we came back for our stuff," Sarah said. "We were about to set up camp when we saw that this guy was perched on a knoll above us, literally in silhouette against the sunset watching us from his camp! We flipped out and ran for Heart Lake, to 'civilization,' as it were."In another alarming encounter, Sarah and her friend had just come back from hiking Hennegan Pass, North Cascades, when they happened upon a discomforting scene."The parking lot was full of an unsavory group of Rambo types with cammo and ammo," Sarah said. "It was not a hunting area and it was nowhere near hunting season. We vacated abruptly!"In addition to the suffering of the family and friends of Williams, Winans and the other homicide victims throughout the national park system, there has been another casualty. Trail hikers like Sarah feel they can no longer afford to trust other people they encounter in the parks."When I heard about [the Williams/Winans murders], all I could think about was the weirdo on the High Divide," Sarah says. Now, she automatically thinks about how she might escape harm potentially offered by people she and her companion meet on the trail. By the way, the gender of Sarah's partner preferred hiking partner these days is male; her companion during her two previous "scares" was female ."It's a little sad that you consciously have to run scenarios: 'could we take this person?' My [current] partner is a blackbelt and I think he runs that scenario a lot," she says.Back alleys with a view? In fact, the statistics do not support such pessimism. Of course, statistics don't bleed.According the NPS, occurrences of crime in America's national parks is actually fairly minimal when considered in context with the number of visitors the areas receive each year. Nearly 270 million people visited America's 369 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, battlefields and seashores in 1995. With a patron count slightly exceeding the U.S. population, the 1995 violent crime tallies include only 13 homicides, 34 rapes, 29 robberies and 164 assaults.The incidence of violent crime in the parks is declining, reflecting a national trend in crime abatement. Over the last five years, while 1990 stood out as the year most marred by violence in the parks, 1995's attendance was 11 percent greater and the incidence of violent crime was a full 68 percent lower than in 1990."We're more or less a reflection of society," Marriott says of the parks' declining violent crime totals. He attributes the drop in crime to an aging juvenile population, which, before maturing, was responsible for much of the crime being committed in the U.S."What we anticipate, though, is that around the year 2000 we will see an influx of more crime based on population trends. There's a prone age in there where people do these things."According to Marriott, one of the more immediate problems the NPS has to face is an increase in gang activity, particularly in Yosemite National Park."As areas around the parks urbanize, you get gang activity," Marriott says. "They rent the campgrounds and intimidate the other people in there, assault them, drinking, drug use, etc."Comparative statistics notwithstanding, such developments, along with the Shenandoah murders, have led many to wonder whether our nation's park trails are becoming our urban back alleys with a view.Let's go for a ride Because the isolated and wooded areas of national parks can offer a large degree of privacy, national parks have also become popular sites for suicides and the disposal of murder victims. Richard Bolend, a Timbisha Indian and life-long Death Valley National Park resident observes:"There have been times when murderers have buried their victims in Death Valley or have come here to commit suicide. As you can imagine, the name alone attracts quite a few questionable characters." Being close to a major urban city like Las Vegas, rangers at Lake Mead National Park frequently investigate such incidents."We have a tendency to pick up a lot of bodies out here," says Lake Mead's chief park ranger, Dale Antonich. "They just kind of get dropped on us. A lot of times they get killed on-site or killed out here. "They pull 'em out of Vegas, run 'em out on the road, or on the way out or wherever, pop 'em in the head and throw 'em out of the car onto our land. We've had about six so far this year just in one district. Every time we turn around, there's another set of bones found out in the desert by somebody."Frequent felony miles Antonich says that the majority of offenses with which he charges visitors are alcohol related. Nationally, the three most frequent types of crime committed in the parks are violations of liquor laws, larceny and vandalism. The NPS recorded 6,773 liquor law violations, 4,309 acts of larceny (except motor vehicle) and 4,288 vandalism offenses in 1995. The monetary loss associated with larceny and v andalism totaled $1,324,397 and $540,273, respectively.Although Nevada's Lake Mead averages about 300 alcohol related arrests a year, Antonich conceded that the number could be much higher."We could arrest 10 times that if we had the facilities available to us, the transport distance was reduced and if we had more manpower, he said. "By enforcing those laws, it helps us keep down the fatalities. [Through vigorous enforcement] we've reduced our fatality accident numbers on the roads around here probably by 80 percent or more in the last 10 years."MacAuto Theft Automobile break-ins have been a perennial problem throughout the national park system.At Washington's Shi Shi Beach, Neah Bay residents have spray-painted signs warning tourists of auto vandals at the beach. The signs further direct travelers to an unofficial parking area a half-mile away, where Neah Bay residents can be paid to protect tourists' cars.Marriott said most auto break-ins can be traced to between ten and 20 gangs that travel from park to park and loot the cars of unsuspecting tourists. He added that while auto break-ins were up for a while, a 1994 crackdown led to the arrest of several individuals who were responsible for a large proportion of the offenses. With the arrest of these people, the incidence of auto break-ins has been significantly curbed."There were some people that were very very good [at auto break-ins]," Marriott says. "That's all they did and they made very good livings at it. Now they're in prison. When they get out of prison on parole, things'll pick up."One of those arrested in the crackdown was a man responsible for a crime spree involving thousands of auto break-ins in national and state parks over a period of 25 years. At one point, the man had even tried to "franchise" his successful auto break-in techniques.Don't bogart that volcano With only 1,542 rangers charged with overseeing the 83 million acres that make up America's national parks, law enforcement resources are scarce. Since 1979, the nation's park acreage has increased 166 percent, while the number of rangers has decreased 17 percent. This cutback may help explain the parks' declining crime totals: the fewer rangers available to take reports, the fewer statistics will be generated.One solution to the problem of limited law enforcement personnel puts electronic surveillance equipment in problem areas. Video cameras and motion sensors have become ubiquitous in the parks as an effective means of protecting visitors and the area's resources. With high-tech gadgetry, a single ranger has the ability to monitor several areas at a time and dispatch personnel to locations as needed.The remote surveillance system has led to the arrest of offenders such as marijuana growers, who use park lands to skirt drug enforcement mandates. Since federal law allows for the confiscation of property on which the crops are found, marijuana growers stand nothing to lose by using park land for the cultivation of their plants.With the new enforcement equipment, "We've virtually wiped out marijuana growth in Hawaiian volcanoes," Marriott says. "[Growers] used to run visitors off the trails at gunpoint." He added that at Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, "I got a picture of a guy growing a marijuana garden and the guy's looking right into the camera. We prosecuted him and he got two years. Two years in a federal pri son is not fun." All violations occurring on park lands (federal property) carry with them federal charges.The new system is not foolproof, however: Officials at New York's Adirondack Park installed a camera to monitor one of the park's trailheads that had been consistently plagued by auto break-ins. The camera was stolen.Crimes against nature Vandalism in national parks can take many forms. As gangs infiltrate the park system, spray-painting of park resources with gang insignia has become more prevalent. The most damaging acts of vandalism come from those who destroy park resources beyond repair. Crystal Cave, one of the more spectacular sections of Mammoth Cave's extensive underground labyrinth, was recently decimated by three vandals .The men made at least six covert trips to the cave between April and June 1995 to plunder magnificent limestone deposits and other formations. Using a baseball bat and hammers, the trio broke off 800 pounds of rare formations that were older than human civilization and sold them to tourist shops for $1,000. Furthermore, at some point during their work, the men stopped to spray-paint their names on the cave's walls.Irreparably damaged, park officials suggest that Crystal Cave might now be used only to show tourists the effects of vandalism in national parks.Is it safe yet? The recent killings in Shenandoah have thrust the topic of crime and personal safety to the forefront of the hiking community. Despite the panic generated with the discovery of the murder victims, violent crime statistics indicate that America's national parks are actually relatively safe environments in which people can recreate.The NPS -- as well as the organizers of the Take Back the Trails movement (see sidebar) -- points out that simply exercising good judgment and following a few basic hiking tenets can go a long way toward ensuring a trouble-free outing. The agency suggests that visitors hike in groups of two or more, that they be cautious when meeting strangers and also advises that people not share advance details of th eir route or planned camping location with anyone but family and friends.In other words, be careful out there.SIDEBAR: Taking Back the Trails There has been heated reaction to the murders of two women, both experienced campers, whose throats were slashed as they slept near the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah State Park over Memorial Day weekend in 1996. It's not meant to be an insensitive choice of words, but the Women's Professional Group (WPG) of the Association for Experimental Education (AEE) has no intention of taking those murders lying down.A coalition of professional outdoor educators, the WPG has organized a program called Take Back the Trails, in order to memorialize the victims -- as part of "a positive and inspiring crusade towards ending violence against women in general" -- and to urge more women to take part in outdoor activities, but to do so safely and with the appropriate support.A Take Back the Trails website has been established (www.fred.net/kathy/at/tragedy.html), with voluminous information about the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans and other such homicides. The website continues to expand, and also serves as a contact resource for women seeking other women with whom to plan camping trips and swap safety tips.Over this past Memorial Day, Take Back the Trails organizers sponsored outdoor events across the country, including safety workshops, camping trips and letter-writing campaigns to urge elected officials to speak out against violence directed at women. Among the thousands of people taking part in those activities was Patsy Williams, the mother of one of the murdered women, who told the Washington Blade she was looking forward to hiking with a group of friends along trails that her daughter explored shortly before being killed."This whole year I have been looking for some positive way to deal with the grief," Mrs. Williams said. "[Julie] was all her life concerned about injustices in the world and would have been first in line to take part in this."