The FBI wants renewed national attention for the unsolved deaths of two young women killed in the Shenandoah National Park near Skyland Lodge in 1996.
Family and friends of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans are marking a grim anniversary today. It's been 20 years since the women's bodies were found at their campsite along a scenic trail just off Skyline Drive. The women had been bound, their throats slashed.
The couple had been hiking in the park since May 19 but were due to return to summer jobs in Vermont May 28. The 24-year-old Williams' father reported the women missing May 31. Their bodies were discovered the next day.
Adam Lee, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Richmond Division, says even now he does not consider this a cold case.
"This is a pending case, and I bristle at the term cold case," Lee said. "We will stop at nothing to find justice in the case and until we have exhausted every means, we continue to this day to exploit the existing evidence and to try to obtain new evidence. Julie and Lollie are not forgotten in the Richmond Division of the FBI, and we are going to aggressively pursue every lead in this case."
Julie Williams' father said he's pleased to hear the FBI's assessment.
"We're very happy they do [consider it active]. That certainly gives us hope," said Williams.
Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia local news, events and information
The hopes of the victim's families have been dashed more than once as the years have passed. An apparent break in the case came April 10, 2002, when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a man jailed for an attack on another women in the park was being charged with capital murder in connection with the deaths. Ashcroft also revealed that because Williams and Winans were lesbians, the case would be handled as a hate crime.
Darrell Rice had been arrested in July 1997 for attempting to abduct a bicyclist. She fought back and escaped but Rice was stopped by a ranger on his way out of the park.
Authorities said he had cable ties that could have been used as restraints in his pickup truck. Rice pleaded guilty to one count of kidnapping in federal court and was sentenced to 11 years. But the murder case against Rice unraveled when DNA from hairs found at the murder scene matched an unknown man, not Rice. The charges were dropped Feb. 25, 2004.
Rice faced new charges again in June 2004 in connection with a 1996 abduction and attack of a Prince William County woman. Authorities suggested at the time, Rice could be the Route 29 stalker, a man who had tailed more than two dozen women driving on that highway in 1996, often flashing his headlights and trying to get the women to pull over.
One of the women believed to be a victim of the stalker, Alicia Showalter Reynolds, was killed, her decomposed body found on May 7, 1996.
But the Prince William case also fizzled when the defense provided evidence that the victim once identified a different man in a photo lineup. Rice was allowed to enter a no contest plea to unlawful wounding. He was released from federal prison in 2007 but rearrested two times for probation violations. He's been free again since April 2011.
Tom Williams, Julie's father, still believes Rice is the one responsible for his daughter's death.
"I think that certainly on the very remote possibility that it could be anybody else, we would look forward to having justice found for Julie, but I'll admit in a lot of ways it doesn't matter all that much. I think it's the fair thing and the just thing," said Williams in a Skype interview from his St. Cloud, Minnesota, home.
Special Agent in Charge Lee said the case is still considered a hate crime. The lead agent is a woman who has been assigned to the case for years. Lee refused to discuss specifics of the investigation but said advances in DNA technology are important.
"The ability to scrutinize items of evidence down to the molecular level is far advanced now from where we were 20 years ago," Lee said. "It would be irresponsible for me to speak of any link that may or may not have been discovered, but our universe is wide open in terms of making links, aligning the evidence and trying to draw accurate evidence-based conclusions."
John Fishwick, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, echoed Lee's commitment to the case.
"These were two young women in the prime of their lives, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, and we owe it to them and to their families not to rest and we won't until justice is served," Fishwick said.
They hope the posters will be widely distributed on social media, something else that could help provide new tips in the case.