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It’s been a quarter century since Unity College student Laura “Lollie” Winans, 26, and her girlfriend, Julianne “Julie” Williams, 24, were brutally slain at their backcountry campsite in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Their murders frightened hikers and wilderness enthusiasts, and caused many to call for authorities to investigate them as a hate crime because the victims were lesbians.
But despite the enormous investigative, media and community response to the crime, the murders remain unsolved. And that is something that has haunted Hauns Bassett of Unity, one of Winans’ good friends and college classmates, for all these years.
“I just want justice for Lollie,” he said. “I just want to know that the person responsible for taking two lives for no reason will pay the consequences for that. Justice needs to be served. It’s never going to bring her back, obviously. But it’s the way it should be.”
The women, accompanied by Winans’ golden retriever, Taj, had begun a backpacking trip in the national park on May 19, 1996. They had planned to explore some of the beautiful parts of the Appalachian mountains, with the trip coming after the end of Winans’ school year and before Williams was set to begin a new job in Vermont, on June 1.
On May 31, after Williams didn’t come home when she was expected, her father reported the young women missing. Rangers set out to look for them, first finding their car parked near Skyland Lodge, a hotel, and then Taj, who was wandering alone through the woods. The next day, rangers found their bodies at their campsite. They had been bound and gagged, with their throats slashed.
Even though it has been 25 years, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation still believe the murders can be solved. They are using the anniversary to share photos of the women and information about the case. They’re hoping that someone who was in the area at the time will remember something, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and let investigators know.
“We don’t give up on our cases,” said Dee Rybiski, public affairs specialist for the FBI’s Richmond, Virginia, office. “Somebody knows something, and they hopefully will do the right thing and call in.”
A music and nature lover
Winans, originally from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, was studying outdoor recreation at Unity, and was on track to graduate that December.
Unity College President Wilson Hess described her as quiet and unassuming in a June 1996 Bangor Daily News story, adding that she’d experienced steady personal growth since her 1994 arrival at Unity as a transfer student.
“It looked like she was really getting ready to take off,” he said.
Williams, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, was a high-achieving student at Carleton College in Minnesota and a budding geologist. Winans and Williams met as interns at Woodswomen, a now-defunct outdoor recreation program in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. There, they learned to run wilderness trips for women and children.
Bassett, who met Winans in the summer of 1994, remembered her love of music and the outdoors, as well as her irrepressible joy.
“She smiled all the time,” he said.
His first adventure with Winans was when they went together to the H.O.R.D.E. Festival that summer in Old Orchard Beach. They didn’t have tickets to the traveling music festival, but decided to head there anyway with some other Unity friends. A “random guy” came up to them and offered backstage passes, Bassett recalled.
“We got to go backstage and hang out with the Allman Brothers,” he said. “The whole way home, we couldn’t believe that had happened to us. That was my intro to Lollie, hanging out with the Allman Brothers backstage.
“She loved music,” Bassett said. “Any type of live music, you could bet that Lollie would be there, dancing and smiling.”
The friends also bonded over their shared passion for the outdoors. They spent hours in the woods, accompanied by Taj, identifying trees and looking for deer scrapes — places where male deer rubbed their forehead and antlers against the base of a tree.
“She was so much fun,” he said. “We were nature people. We loved to just hike up a mountain and bring a sleeping bag, look at the stars.”
Winans had a serious side, too. She volunteered for a rape crisis center in Waterville, and was planning to become a wilderness guide to help women who had suffered trauma.
It was cruelly ironic, Bassett said, that a woman drawn to the wilderness because she found it a place of peace and healing was brutally murdered there.
“These 25 years have been tough,” he said. “It really impacted me and others who love … the outdoors. It was like our one safe place, the woods, was gone. It still bothers me to this day.”
FBI agents on campus
Bassett had just driven across the country to Glacier National Park in Montana and started an internship there when he got a phone call alerting him that Winans and Williams had been killed.
“I remember crying for days,” he said. “I had friends all over the country, also in national parks. I just needed my people. I just felt so hopeless, lost and sad and grieving. I didn’t have any answers.”
When the summer ended, the students returned to Maine, where they had a big gathering to share stories about Winans and grieve together. They weren’t alone there, though. After the killings, federal investigators cast a wide net, following leads all over the country, including at Unity. It seemed that anybody could have been a suspect, so they interviewed Winans’ friends.
“To the FBI’s credit, they were looking for any lead that they could,” Bassett said. “They had nothing, and they were doing due diligence.”
But as the agents spent time with the students, they found that their alibis checked out. No one from the school became a person of interest.
With no quick arrests made, the case drew the attention of national gay rights activists, who believed homophobia was the most plausible reason for the slayings, according to a 1996 article in Out Magazine.
“The first motive is hate,” Rachel Lurie said at a speakout in memory of the two women held in Vermont. “It is the most likely motive. Women are killed for being women, and gay people are killed for being gay.”
An indictment, but no conviction
In 2002, six years after the murders, a Maryland man named Darrell David Rice was indicted for the crimes. He was charged with four counts of capital murder — two of which alleged that he intentionally selected his victims because of his hatred of women and gay people, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Rice had been convicted of the attempted abduction of a female bicyclist in Shenandoah National Park in 1997.
“Rice acted in a hostile and violent manner toward women solely because they were women,” U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference. “In addition … [there is] evidence of Rice’s hatred for homosexuals, including his statement that Julianne Williams and Laura Winans deserved to die because they were homosexuals.”
But prosecutors lacked forensic evidence and dropped their case against Rice in 2004, just a month before he was scheduled to go to trial. A hair found at the crime scene had been DNA-tested, according to Blue Ridge Outdoors, and belonged neither to Rice nor the victims.
As far as the investigation goes, said Rybiski of the FBI, nothing has been taken off the table.
“It could potentially be a hate crime because of them being a young couple,” she said. “Or it could be a crime of opportunity.”
But Bassett, for his part, believes that Rice is the most likely culprit, and that he singled out Winans and Williams because they were a couple.
“Most of us in the Unity community feel that they had him, and it was just on a technicality that they had to let him go,” he said.
He doesn’t want people to forget about what happened 25 years ago in a quiet, beautiful corner of Virginia. He can’t. And to this day, he can’t watch certain horror movies or torture scenes because they are just too close to home.
“I don’t want this story to fade away. I want justice,” Bassett said. “Two young women in the national park were brutally murdered, just because they were thought to be lesbians. … You could be murdered just because of who you loved.”