Shenandoah hiker murder case solved after deaths of 2 women in 1996

Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were found killed near Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park. Walter Leo Jackson, a serial rapist who died in prison, is the double murder suspect, the FBI said Thursday

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Nearly three decades after the murders of two women in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, the FBI says they now know who was responsible for the horrific crime.

Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were murdered at their campsite near Skyland Resort in May 1996. Winans was 26 and Williams was 24.

A fellow hiker and convicted serial rapist sexually assaulted and killed them, the FBI said Thursday, after new DNA testing.

Walter Leo Jackson, originally from Cleveland, is the suspect in the double murder, members of the FBI’s Richmond Field Office said at a news conference. Jackson died in prison in 2018 after a criminal history that included rapes, assaults and kidnappings, the FBI said.

The FBI says investigators are still looking into Jackson's past, and whether they can link him to other crimes.

Williams’ father, Tom Williams, told News4 that FBI representatives flew to his family’s home in Minnesota to share the news about the suspect in person. He said it's "immaterial" to him that his daughter’s suspected killer is now dead.

“Knowing that it’s truly the right person involved in the killings and other assaults, that he’s the right person, is good. It would not serve me or anybody having to sit through [a trial], legally saying 'This is the person' and putting him away,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh said he hopes the news can bring the families some closure.

"Lollie and Julie were genuine and authentic and caring people," Kavanaugh said at a press conference. "They volunteered in their communities, worked hard in school and we know they absolutely loved the outdoors. Their murders were a deep loss for their families and friends."

“After 28 years, we are now able to say who committed the brutal murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams in Shenandoah National Park," he said. "I want to again extend my condolences to the Winans and Williams families and hope today’s announcement provides some small measure of solace.”

Silence and then a horrible discovery

A place of tranquility and beauty was transformed into a scene of horror.

Williams and Winans, a couple, began hiking in Shenandoah National Park on May 19. They were due to return to their summer jobs in Vermont on May 28. But no one had heard from them.

Williams’ father reported them missing on May 31 and their bodies were found the next day. They had been bound and their throats were slashed.

The last photo in their camera had been taken a few days earlier, as they happily hiked and camped.

A DNA breakthrough

An accredited private lab recently pulled DNA from several items of evidence and submitted the data to the federal DNA index system, the FBI said. They found a positive match for Jackson.

Jackson went by Leo and was a residential painter and avid hiker who often visited Shenandoah National Park, the FBI said. He was known to use temporary tags and alter the license plates of vehicles, which he frequently swapped out.

Who killed Julie Williams and Lollie Winans? They were found dead in a tent in Shenandoah National Park in 1996. News4’s Paul Wagner reports on a new book on the case.

In 2002, the FBI named a suspect in the killings after he was found guilty of attacking a woman in the park in 1997. Charges against him in the murder case were dropped after DNA failed to link him to the crime.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said in 2002 that because Winans and Williams were lesbians, the case would be handled as a potential hate crime.

Investigators repeatedly said they never gave up on trying to solve 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," John Fishwick, then-U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said in 2016.

Anyone with potentially relevant information is asked to contact the FBI.

Julie Carey contributed reporting.

Stay with NBC Washington for more details on this developing story.

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