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Trail to Justice

A new book explores the unsolved murders of hiker couple in Shenandoah National Park.


The story of two unsolved murders in Shenandoah National Park initially captured Kathryn Miles’ interest when she hiked the Appalachian Trail in the late 1990s. The result, after years of investigation and research, is “Trailed: One Woman's Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders,” which takes a deep dive into the murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams.

The couple was spending a romantic week together backpacking through Shenandoah when they were assaulted and killed in their tent near the Appalachian Trail. Miles’ upcoming talk about the book on Thursday, May 11 launches this year’s Carole Weinstein author series at the Library of Virginia. Free and open to the public, the series focuses on Virginia subjects and authors across all genres.

For Miles, investigating the murders became a deeply personal journey on multiple levels. On the 20th anniversary of the double homicide, the FBI’s Richmond field office launched a public relations campaign seeking information about the still unsolved case. The language used in the 2016 bulletins and briefings made it clear they believed they knew who had perpetrated the crime.

“I began working on it as a magazine article for Outside and quickly discovered that the case was far more complex than it seemed,” Miles explains. “A series of missteps and shoddy investigations, along with the deeply engrained confirmation bias on the part of the investigators, had ultimately compelled them to focus on the wrong man.”

Author Kathryn Miles - C. AMY WILTON
  • C. Amy Wilton
  • Author Kathryn Miles

Although years of research didn’t convince Miles that Winans and Williams had been targeted for their sexual orientation, she eventually concluded their sexual orientation was exploited by the Department of Justice, which was looking to employ new hate crime legislation. “I do believe that targeting people because of their gender can be considered a hate crime, even if that doesn’t meet the legal definition,” she says. “And certainly, the ripple effects that this crime has had on generations of women and people who identify as queer is significant.”

Her extended research was not without difficulty. Miles quickly realized how challenging it was to take on a project about two women who lost their lives in such a brutal way. “They were both incredible, big-hearted humans who had already done so much to make the world a better place,” she says. “Lollie and Julie were grappling with how to navigate a big love and a same-sex relationship at a time when there was no easy way to do so.”

Because the impact of their deaths continued to haunt their friends and loved ones, Miles realized that she’d be asking them to relive a lot of that pain when speaking with her. Her primary focus in the book was to pay homage to the women’s lives and to the love they found with each other and with their families and friends. “As a culture, we don’t talk a lot about the trauma that investigators experience having to become so intimate with violent crime and its remnants,” Miles explains, referencing the enduring trauma that Sandy Hook investigators continue to experience. “That kind of difficulty does diminish in time, and studying crime scene or autopsy photos leaves a scar that I don’t think ever really heals.”

One unexpected result of her research that she continues to feel is the erosion of trust she experienced when it comes to the FBI, and to a lesser extent, the National Park Service. “There are many selfless and talented people who work for both organizations, but it’s also true that the systemic problems inherent in both have rendered them ineffectual, especially where crimes against women and minorities are concerned,” Miles says.

Central to the compelling story Miles weaves in “Trailed” is safety for women in the outdoors. Investigation proved not only how underfunded the NPS is but also the lack of reporting where crime is concerned. “I love our national parks dearly, including Shenandoah,” she says. “But they’ve been neglected for too long and now some Americans, particularly those that subscribe to a minority subject position, don’t feel safe there. We owe it to ourselves to fix that.”

If all this sounds like it would make a terrific crime series, just hang in there. Miles continues to partner with Deirdre Enright and the Virginia Innocence Project in investigating the case and “Trailed” has been optioned as a streaming series.

The murders of Winans and Williams are just two of over 250,000 cold case homicides in the U.S., and Miles sees the crime as continuing to strike fear in generations of people.

“I wanted to pay tribute to their legacy, to the huge holes they left in the lives of people who knew and loved them,” the author says. “I also wanted to show the lasting impacts of these crimes, especially when they go unsolved, and to compel readers to demand a better justice system for all of us.”

"Trailed: One Woman's Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders," featuring author Kathryn Miles takes place on Thursday, May 11 at 6 p.m. at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St.,