Murder on the Mountain

by Barry Yeoman on November 1, 1996

The double slaying of lesbian hikers along the Appalachian Trail remains unsolved. Beyond the murder mystery is the tragic story of two women in love. 

Originally published in Out.

THE FOREST TRAIL THAT BEGINS at the highest point on Virginia’s Skyline Drive and drops quickly away from civilization seems an unlikely site for a double murder. As it descends into the backcountry of Shenandoah National Park, the gentle slope grows more pronounced and the rocky surface provides a tenuous foothold. In the distance, a clear creek cuts through an otherwise silent world of thick ferns and red-capped mushrooms. It was here on June 1 that park rangers, alerted by a concerned father’s phone call, stumbled across the bodies of Julianne Williams, 24, and Lollie Winans, 26, at a wooded campsite, their wrists bound and their throats slit. The only witness to the crime appeared to be Winans’ golden retriever, Taj.

Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans

Winans (left) and Williams

The crime shocked the lesbian and gay community when it was revealed that the young hikers were sweethearts. Community activists quickly suggested the duo might be victims of a bias crime. Winans’ and Williams’ murders are the eighth and ninth that have occurred along the Appalachian Trail since 1974; one of the previous victims was a lesbian who bled to death after a man shot her for kissing her lover in the woods. The gunman is now serving a life sentence without parole.

Shortly after the discovery of the bodies, FBI Wanted posters appeared alerting Shenandoah park visitors to the double homicide and offering a $25,000 reward for information. A segment on America’s Most Wanted in July followed, generating more than 50 tips in the first week, many solid. The FBI is also investigating the case in connection with the 1986 murder of a lesbian couple that took place in eastern Virginia, in which the victims were similarly bound and slashed, a double murder that the FBI considers to be the first of a possible series of murders in that state, the others involving heterosexual couples.

By summer’s end, no arrests had been made, and there are still few solid leads. For grief-stricken family members and friends, the lack of any witnesses or suspects only adds to a continuing nightmare. Their families were unaware that Williams and Winans were lesbians, never mind lovers, and were unprepared for the media circus that followed the posthumous public outing. Reporters hounded the victims’ friends for details of their relationship, oblivious to the pain or conflict such disclosure might cause.

Trapped in the spotlight, some friends struggled to protect the image of two women who were private about their sexual identity. Others felt that revealing their lesbianism was not only relevant to the truth and important in solving a murder case but an important facet of their lives that should not remain hidden.

Lost in this news hunt, then, is the real story—not about two deaths but about two lives—a love story involving two strong and spirited women who felt at home in the wilderness. It’s a story that ends tragically, but not before wending its way through a Greek Macedonian river valley, a poultry-farm-turned-college in Maine, the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, an apartment above a small-town Vermont café, and a two-lane highway across New England. It began almost two years ago, on another camping trip, when Julie Williams and Lollie Winans first met and shared a tent.

THERE’S A PHOTO CIRCULATING among Julianne Williams’ friends. It shows the lanky outdoorswoman wearing a yellow thermal pullover, hauling an Alumacraft canoe over her head. Framed by her short brown hair is an Ivory Snow face with an almost impossibly broad smile. She looks directly at the camera.

That unflinching face, say friends, is vintage Julie as she is remembered. It’s the same expression she wore to take Communion, or to chat with friends at the Uncommon Grounds coffeehouse in Burlington, Vermont, a reflective face she often wore while examining her uncertain future. In the months before her death, Williams was trying to figure out how to do meaningful work in a hostile economy, how to reconcile her lesbianism and her Christianity, how to be honest with and supportive of the people she loved.

“Her hands weren’t tied. Her mind wasn’t tied,” says the Rev. Rebecca Strader, Williams’ minister at Christ Church Presbyterian in Burlington, a woman who has come under fire for admitting to the media, after much soul-searching, that Williams and her partner were lesbians. “She knew how to ask the right questions in terms of struggling with what she was going to do with her life, in terms of career, in terms of her sexuality. She seemed very open and searching.”

Born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Williams was an achiever from the start. She lived an entire lifetime in 24 years, says her friend Gina Uzzanti-Roberge. Growing up in St. Cloud, Williams volunteered at a women’s shelter, performed community service work in Colombia, and won the Minnesota state doubles tennis championship all before she finished high school.

But it was at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, that Williams came of age, finding her home in the close-knit geology department. She loved her classmates, loved geology, loved education.

“I have never met anyone who had a clearer sense of herself as a learner,” says her academic adviser, Mary Savina. “She was always questioning. She wanted to see how things fit together. She was a person who had to look carefully at details before she fit them into the larger picture.” The picture that emerges is of a driven, meticulous student, one who was impatient to get out of the classroom, to get into the field.

In 1993, Williams and five other students went to Greek Macedonia to study the relationship between ancient people and their landscape. For six hours a day, in the dry summer heat, she would chart the sediment in an oak-studded river valley, carefully describing the composition of each layer. When the day’s work was done, she would zoom off on a motorcycle with the hotel owner’s son, coming back in time for a dinner of fresh vegetables from the local market.

No sooner did she finish this project than it was on to Italy to study the extinction of the dinosaurs. She was dazzled by the Alpine countryside. “This evening as we neared the mountains, after crossing the broad plain, the radio rasped with cheesy Italian rap music and inspiring operas at the same time,” she wrote in her journal. “After winding up, we reached the pass and were awed by the face of the Dolomites. I tried to keep my eyes on the road as we passed flowing, rushing mountain streams and wooden window boxes filled with pink, green, and red.”

But amidst the splendor of Europe and her academic success back home, Williams still had doubts about where her life was headed. She worried about the quaver in her voice, a speech impediment so slight that some people didn’t notice it. She wondered whether she could find meaning as a geologist. “She wasn’t going to be satisfied doing scientific work that did not apply to the lives of people,” explains Savina. She was also starting to question her sexual identity.

Williams dated men throughout college and began seeing another after graduation. But her interest in women persisted. “I don’t know why I’m dating this guy,” she once confided to her roommate. “I’d rather be with a woman.”

With so many questions, she took a year after college to explore the possibilities, eventually heading for Vermont. She wanted to live outside a big city, but somewhere she could comfortably come out. “It’s not like she wanted to live in a lesbian community,” says Shaun Stephens, a friend from Burlington. “She just wanted to live in a place that was not hostile.” Her choice was Richmond, population 4,000, where Williams settled into an apartment with an old friend above the Bridge Street Café in the downtown area, and landed a job at Waldenbooks in nearby Burlington. She began assembling a circle of close friends, most of whom never met one another.

“She was very, very private, so she had these fragmented friendships all over the place—people who knew pieces of her,” says Uzzanti-Roberge, who worked with Williams at Waldenbooks. An outgoing married woman with a flair for fashion, Uzzanti-Roberge seemed an unlikely friend for a quiet lesbian who wore baggy clothes and preached the virtues of unshaved legs. But as friends testify, Williams was a sensitive woman with a talent for seeing people’s essential self, and she liked being with her friends, playing basketball, watching videos, just hanging out.

Still, she was searching, trying to reconcile her deep Christian faith with her growing sense of identity as a lesbian. She joined Christ Church Presbyterian, a liberal congregation on the University of Vermont campus, and reached out to Strader and the congregation for guidance. “She didn’t know how God could hate her, but she didn’t know how to put the two together,” recalls Strader. Needing support, Williams hooked up with three other lesbians to form a group called the Church Ladies, which explored how gay men and lesbians can feel welcome in a religion that has traditionally excluded them. By last spring, she found a Biblical verse from Jeremiah that helped her understand that God did not hate her: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

WHEN WILLIAMS MET WINANS, it was love at second sight. The setting was Woodswomen, a Minnesota-based outdoor recreation program where the two kicked off the season climbing rocks and canoeing around the Boundary Waters, and learned to run outings for women and children.

The first night the two shared a tent (with a third woman), they laughed the hours away, never realizing they were flirting. Only later did Williams understand what she was feeling, a confession she shared with friends: It was like Lollie was an angel.

That summer proved a life-changing one for Lollie Winans. The 26-year-old daughter of a wealthy family from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, was a microbrew-drinking, Phish-following, cigarette-smoking, good-time girl whose entire adult life had been a struggle against childhood demons. Winans had grown up as a misfit in a world of yacht clubs and boarding schools and left home right after high school, enrolling in tiny Sterling College, halfway across the country in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. She was more comfortable in the out-of-doors than in the world of social graces, says Wilson Hess, former dean of Sterling.

Sterling’s philosophy centers around challenge education. Students not only take classes, they also build barns, wake before sunrise to shovel cow manure, and go on brutal outings. For Winans, the keystone event was a five-day winter trek through Vermont’s Lowell Mountains—a test of survival skills and group bonding. “We were both miserable,” says her friend Kerri Davidson. “We’d always fall to the back of the line after four hours of hiking. We’d be hiking into camp way behind everyone else.”

Trudging into camp, bone-chilled and tired, Winans managed to keep her sense of humor, and in these bitter-cold woods, she discovered her greatest strengths. “One thing that impressed me about Lollie was this outgoing energy that emerged when everyone else was worn down,” says Hess.

That energy and humor followed her everywhere. “The woman would make you laugh hysterically for hours,” says Davidson, a former classmate who recalls that Winans loved to dance, or just sit in a friend’s car jamming out to the tape deck. “Tell her the Allman Brothers were playing in Stowe, tell her Phish were playing 20 miles away, and on a dime, she’d be there. There’d be no talking the woman out of it.”

Mostly what friends remember was how Winans valued friendship above all else, issuing good friend badges to those she loved. “She was one of those people, if something was wrong, no one else could notice, but she’d look at you and she’d know,” says her friend Zoë Maas-Fyfe. “We didn’t have to say anything. It was understood.” Her own pain was something she kept private. According to close friends, Winans had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a trusted adult, and the trauma followed her when she left the Midwest. Even those who didn’t know her well noticed the telltale signs of a troubled young soul: problems with alcohol, meekness around authority figures, the eventual decision to drop out of college.

In the years of struggle that followed, Winans got engaged to a man, worked at various jobs, and, under the aegis of a state agency, took in a teenage sex offender, an arrangement that forced her to address her own history of abuse. And she began therapy. “She could always see the road ahead of it, and getting to a place where she could feel secure and solid,” says Maas-Fyfe.

By 1994, Winans realized that if she was going to pull herself together, it wasn’t going to happen in Vermont. So she moved six hours east to Unity College near Waterville, Maine, a 200-acre campus converted from a poultry farm, dotted with birches and weeping willows, which specializes in environmental studies and wilderness-based outdoor recreation. There she found what she had been missing and threw herself into the challenge of becoming a wilderness guide.

On one trip, Winans climbed three peaks in Maine’s Saddleback Range in one day. “As exhausted as she was, she kept going,” says her friend Ann Labonte. “She didn’t complain. It was such a challenging hike, but Lollie knew that as an outdoor leader, she’d be faced with so many challenges.”

Then came the fateful internship at Woodswomen, where Winans and Williams discovered they were natural soul mates, partners in the wild. In charge of a canoe trip for women and children, Winans would sit in the lead boat, navigating the islands and waterways of the Minneapolis Lakes System. Williams would follow, teaching paddling. Winans decided to commit herself to running outdoors trips for women like herself, women who had been sexually abused. And with both a plan and a partner, she became more and more comfortable with her life.

Winans returned to Unity College transformed. “I finally realize I’m a beautiful woman,” she told her friends. She also seemed to inhabit the outdoors even more securely. “There was a serenity about her when she was in the woods,” says Hess. “It was almost as if she wasn’t trying to overcome what was in the woods. She didn’t say, ‘I’m going to climb that mountain.’ She said, ‘I’m here. I’m on the mountain. Let’s see what’s around the ridge.'”

In her last semester, Winans earned a 4.0 average—a milestone for a former college dropout. She was in love and confident. “It was like a Lollie who was so much more self-assured, at peace with herself,” Hess says. “You talk about people who have a glow or an aura. She just had an aura about her.”

WILLIAMS AND WINANS APPROACHED THEIR RELATIONSHIP with a cautious robustness. Loving women was new to them, and neither was ready to commit her life, but they discovered new happiness together. “Lollie released all the frustration and anxiety that she had had for a long time,” says Kerri Davidson. “She really felt a sense of relief to find something that worked for her not just emotionally but sexually as well.”

Every few weekends, one or the other would drive the width of New England on the narrow, two-lane U.S. 2 to visit one another. Sometimes they’d stay home; other times they’d head off to the backcountry with packs and tents. Camping alone, they could be themselves, competent and affectionate. When they were apart, Winans would stay awake late on her college camping trips, wearing a lamp on her forehead, and writing Julie 16-page letters.

The lovers grappled with how open to be about their lesbianism. Winans seemed to inhabit her newfound identity the way she did the woods—quietly, without much visible conflict. She didn’t tell many people on campus, but she didn’t hide it from her closest friends. Williams, on the other hand, struggled with her spiritual questions and waited for the right time to inform her parents. “She didn’t tell them, because she was concerned about them,” says Strader. “They had their own things going on, and she didn’t want to burden them. ”

As the summer approached, the two women looked forward to living together, and found a house in Huntington, Vermont, where they planned to have barbecues for their friends on land overlooking a ravine. “The summer was just going to be glorious,” says Williams friend Shaun Stephens. “We were going to hang out all summer long.”

In May, Winans packed the essentials and placed the rest of her belongings in storage. She told Zoë Maas-Fyfe about the planned hike through Shenandoah National Park, and she promised to return in time for Maas-Fyfe’s wedding on June 1. “She told me that she believed dreams come true, and said, ‘I’m really at a place where I want to be.'” Sadly, Maas-Fyfe recalls, “Those were her last words to me. ”

THEY PLANNED A METICULOUS ITINERARY that would take them past some of the most spectacular parts of the southern Appalachian ridge. Today, photos in their camera have allowed investigators to retrace the days and the path of a journey that led Williams and Winans, with Winans’ dog Taj in tow, to their sudden violent death sometime after May 24, the last time they were seen. The hike began on May 19, when the two women entered the national park, stopping at Pinnacles Overlook on Skyline Drive. They then set out along the Whiteoak Canyon Trail, passing great boulders and 400-year-old hemlocks, watching small streams gather together until they plunged over a gorge as six separate waterfalls.

Next came two days of rain. The two hitched a ride with a park ranger, renewed their camping permit, and set out again. This time they climbed Hawksbill, the park’s highest peak, where an observation deck offers a wide view of the Virginia mountains: Nakedtop. Buracker Hollow. The towns of Stanley and Ida. Bushytop, Stony Man, Crescent Rock, Old Rag. That night, they made camp a half-mile off Skyline Drive, near the Appalachian Trail. And that’s where the story runs out.

When Julie Williams failed to return home at the expected time, her father, Thomas, a Minnesota funeral-home owner, reported his geologist-daughter and her friend missing. Soon afterward, Taj showed up, unleashed, near the camp site. It didn’t take the rangers long after that to find the bodies, although news of the double homicide was not reported for another 24 hours.

WITHIN DAYS AFTER THE NEWS BROKE, Rebecca Strader’s phone at the church began to ring. Were the victims lesbians? out-of-town reporters asked. Were they lovers? Could she confirm the rumors? Since neither Williams nor Winans had been particularly open publicly about their sexual orientation, the minister was faced with the dilemma of whether to out them. While it’s not uncommon to disclose the sexual identity of a murder victim, that usually happens when the killer is clearly targeting lesbians or gay men, according to Shirley Lesser of Virginians for Justice, the state’s gay lobbying group.

“The decision had to be made so quick, without much reflection,” recalls Strader, who shares the ministry of Christ Church Presbyterian with her husband. For a week, she talked with gay and straight members of her congregation, and with a lesbian minister friend. There was a general consensus that, in theory, drawing attention to two possible anti-lesbian murders was the right thing to do.

“The first thing I was hearing was women feeling unsafe,” Strader says about the case. You can’t believe how many lesbians read that story and automatically assumed [Williams and Winans] were lesbians and it was a hate crime.

But there was also the matter of the two families. Strader had never met them and worried about the real possibility that the parents would learn about their daughter’s alleged lesbianism from the newspapers. “It’s a lame way to find out about this person that you love’s personal life,” says Winan’s friend Kerri Davidson. Others winced at the idea of two women having the most private parts of their identities exposed to the world. “I know some people believe the best policy is to be out,” says Gina Uzzanti-Roberge. “But you have to be ready to do that, and obviously Julie wasn’t ready.”

With reporters pressing her for comment, Strader decided to confirm to the press that the two were indeed sweethearts, adding that she had misgivings about going public. “The issue got bigger than Julie and Lollie real fast,” she says in retrospect. “It felt like the only thing I could have done, besides what I did, was not talking to the press at all.” Weighing all the factors, Strader decided she had an obligation to the gay community, which felt both emotionally vulnerable and physically threatened.

“Once Julie was gone,” she asks, “was it my responsibility to keep her parents comfortable, or was my responsibility to the whole community?”

As soon as the news of the relationship hit, Vermont lesbians adopted Williams and Winans as martyrs. “We have a lot to be angry about,” declared activist Susan Aranoff of the Vermont Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights at a speakout in memory of the women, linking the slayings to the issue of same-sex marriage. “Right now our very lives…are being exploited as cheap political fodder so Bill Clinton can appear to be moderate.” At the same event, organizer Rachel Lurie declared that the two victims were going to be model lesbian Vermonters.

Lesbian and gay activists consider homophobia the most plausible reason for the slayings. “The first motive is hate,” says Lurie. “It is the most likely motive. Women are killed for being women, and gay people are killed for being gay.” When the news first hit, she says, “every queer person read between the lines and saw a picture that was familiar and grieved about it because it could have been us.”

But some feel Williams’ and Winans’ deaths have been co-opted by strangers, and that two women have been ground into political fodder themselves. “We watched the evening news, and I kept seeing people who didn’t even know her, and I thought, ‘God, I know how private she was,'” says Uzzanti-Roberge, upset.

Looking back, Strader still doesn’t regret speaking the truth. The disclosure, she feels, sent a message that some Christian congregations welcome lesbians and gay men. “Churches like ours save lives,” she says. “If even one person says, ‘Oh, maybe there is a healing community somewhere,’ maybe it’s worth it.”

What about the families of the murdered women? Winans was an only child; Williams had three siblings. Both sets of parents were close to their daughters and have had to cope with the discovery of their lesbianism on top of a shattering loss. They are still angry with the media for trumpeting that aspect above others. In a recent interview, John Winans, a Florida stockbroker, admitted, “To focus on the fact that they were lesbian lovers, I find that distasteful. The press takes a spin, and suddenly, you’re elevating that aspect of the girls’ lives, and you’re taking away from the brutal murder.” Adds Winans sincerely, “If, in fact, Lollie and Julie were intimate, and through that means they had achieved a relationship, then Lollie’s my daughter, and I’d be behind anything that made her happy.”

Julie Williams’ parents feel particularly upset that their daughter didn’t feel comfortable telling them about her sexual orientation. Like John Winans, they also believe Strader breached a confidentiality in telling the press. Tired of the media, the Williamses avoided interviews throughout the summer but admitted their anger to a family friend, Sue Mackert, who explains, “They still feel it was a personal violation. But they are not at all shying from the fact. It didn’t make a difference to them, because Julie was a wonderful person.”

FOR WEEKS AFTER the Williams and Winans murders, there was a pall cast over the Shenandoah National Park as the FBI joined local authorities and park rangers to comb for clues. Officials have confirmed that one of the women was found inside the tent, the other, outside. But they refuse to say whether there were any signs of sexual assault, or if the women were found clothed. They have, however, ruled out robbery as a motive; there is no evidence that their personal belongings were missing.

So far, the FBI has not linked the double murder to any of the previous Appalachian Trail crimes, but after conducting a broad data check, it discovered some parallels with a decade-old eastern Virginia case involving two lesbians. In October 1986, Rebecca Dowski and Cathleen Thomas were found dead in a car that had been pushed off an embankment near Williamsburg. Their throats were slashed by a sharp object, their wrists had been bound, and there was no sign of struggle. Both women were fully clothed, and there was no sign of sexual assault. Their wallets and purses were left in their car, ruling out a robbery motive. “There are a striking number of similarities,” FBI agent Bo McFarland told reporters. “We are looking into it to see if they are connected.” In the Dowski-Thomas case, the women had rope burns on their necks; they had first been strangled. Since there were no signs of struggle, investigators also believe the murders might have been committed by more than one person.

In the 1986 case, the murders took place in a part of the Colonial Parkway that was known as a lovers lane, especially for gay couples. Since a number of heterosexual couples have been killed on or near the parkway too, a serial killer may be responsible. Over the years, law enforcement officials have tied various suspects to the crimes, but made no arrests.

Law enforcement sources and relatives speculate that the killer or killers in the Williams-Winans case may be an acquaintance; they already asked Winans’ ex-fiancé to take a polygraph test. Three months after the murders, there is still no concrete evidence that the women were killed for being lesbians, but U.S. Attorney Janet Reno says investigators are pursuing all motives, including the possibility that the crime was motivated by the sexual orientation of the victims.

Experts working in the field of bias crimes contend that it is nearly impossible to legally pin down a bias crime motive in a homicide case short of a suspect’s confession. There can also be an unwillingness on the part of local authorities or relatives to mention a victim’s sexual identity. A recent case involving two lesbians who were murdered in Medford, Oregon, in 1995 illustrates the problem. Despite evidence to the contrary, Medford police refused to believe that anti-lesbian bias was the motivation for the slayings of Michelle Abdill and Roxanne Ellis; both were publicly known to be lesbians. Eight months later, after initially denying any bias motive, their convicted killer said he killed the women solely because they were lesbians. But since he had previously lied, some questioned his new statement.

The reward for information leading to the killer or killers of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans has jumped to $50,000—the additional $25,000 comes from a Minnesota-based company with employees from Williams’ hometown. Williams’ parents held a September 18 press conference at the Skyland Lodge near the site of the murders to ask for media assistance in finding the killer. Regardless of the motive, loved ones and friends of the couple are eager to find the killer, believing it will put some closure on the tragedy. Absent that, they take minor comfort in knowing the two women died together, not alone. Says Williams’ friend Uzzanti-Roberge softly, “The fact that they didn’t have to go through the pain of losing each other, that they’re together now—I think of that.”