Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders (Algonquin Books 2022) by Kathryn Miles details the brutal murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams, who were killed in Virginia’s Shenandoah national park while on a hiking trip in 1996. The case has long since been cold, although the FBI and rangers from the National Park Service insist that Darnell Rice committed the murders. Rice was indicted in 2002 for the murders, and the attorney general revealed during the announcement that Rice would also be “the first person tried under new enhanced sentencing measures that allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty in federal hate crime cases.” Winans and Williams were queer women, and authorities claimed they had reason to believe that their murderer chose them because of their sexuality. However, come 2004, the feds dismissed all charges against Rice, “citing insurmountable challenges that included contradictory evidence.” In other words, they had no physical, or non-circumstantial, evidence tying Rice to the crime. This did not stop the feds from continuing to pursue a case against Rice, despite the lack of evidence that existed condemning him and the wealth of evidence that pointed to another suspect, Marc Evonitz. Miles’ text goes on to argue that it was Evonitz, not Rice, that committed the murders, and makes a compelling case for Evonitz’s guilt.
Miles’ account of the murder’s, the investigation, and her careful detailing of the treacherous politics of the National Park Service are expert. I learned so much from this book about hiking culture, the formation of national parks, the duties involved in the jobs of park rangers, and the many crimes that take place in and around national parks. Most alarmingly, Miles states that the “NPS and other federal land management agencies have a long history of not fully documenting illegal activities, including violent crimes” that occur on federally run park lands. This reluctantly to fully report on crime that happens in national parks means that the statistics about the number of violent crimes that occur in national parks are inaccurate. Miles highlights that many investigators of the case were fearful that people would be afraid to visit the park, stating in the beginning of the investigation that the murders were actually a murder suicide, despite the fact that the pair had been bound, gagged, and strangled. This kind of willful blindness plagued the case from the very beginning, and Miles does more than her fair share of due diligence and evaluates the investigation piece by piece, pointing reader’s away from the conclusions drawn by the botched investigation.
In one moment in the book, Miles calls one of the investigators on the case. Up until this point, this particular investigator had been very forthcoming and fair with her. But when Miles brings up the mounting evidence that suggests Rice had nothing to do with the murders, the detective explodes:
“As soon as I brought up Evonitz, the conversation ran off the tracks and exploded. Tim railed about Evonitz and amateur detectives and what he knew to be true. As I did, I paced my kitchen, sending my dogs scuttling as I tried to envision a way to diffuse whatever warhead had I had just detonated. Twenty minutes into the conversation, we both realized what the real problem was. “You’re saying that all the work I have done for the past twenty-two years has been a total waste of time,” he insisted. I apologized and tried to explain that wasn’t the case. But in a way, it was. And we both knew it. Before that moment, I had never understood how much the case, which is really to say how much Lollie and Julie and their families, had meant to Tim and what it would mean if he was wrong.”
This excerpt is particularly important because it explains, partially, why this case has remained unsolved for so long, and why the wrong man almost went to prison for it. It is not just that investigators like Tim were afraid to be wrong and felt indebted to the victim’s families, Trailed insists, but that they were motivated by the fact that they had zero leads. This was a murder that was committed in the open air of back country. Most of the physical evidence was destroyed by the natural processes of the bush before the bodies were even found. The investigation turned fully in the direction of Rice because he was all they had. Trailed does an excellent job of displaying the confirmation blindness of the investigators, and also their desperate and very human desire to solve this crime for the families.
These details alone make this book worth reading, but what really put it over the top for me were all the personal details that Miles includes. Trailed possesses an I’ll be Gone in the Dark like quality: Miles is very honest about her own experiences as a survivor of sexual assault and her descent into obsession over the case. Miles begins her reporting by feeling wary about taking on the story. She explains that she has seen other writers eaten up by difficult subject matter, and she admits that she is afraid of this happening to her. Despite her fears, she asks for the permission of the families of Winans and Williams to write her book. I really appreciated her thoughtfulness not only to ask for permission from the victims’ families, but also to admit her fears going in. At the end of the book, Miles’ reflection on the process speaks volumes:
“Writing this book has taken every toll I feared it would. For more than four years, the story of Julie and Lollie and women like them has consumed me. It’s depleted my bank account and savings. Along the way, I’ve compensated with alcohol more than I’m sure is healthy. I’ve put demands on a domestic relationship that are impossible to justify. Other relationships have suffered as well, particularly those with my immediate family after I first began writing about my own sexual assault.”
Miles’ frank depiction of the toll the process has taken on her is extremely brave, and it picks up on something Michelle McNamara’s beautiful book and terrible death have brought into the forefront: what is the toll of writing books like I’ll be Gone in the Dark and Trailed? As important as these books are, and as courageous as these women are for going down these deep, dark, rabbit holes, we cannot forget the toll these investigations take on individual lives. I think this is going to continue to be an important conversation in true crime as more and more authors are reflecting upon what it is to consume and investigate such brutal material. Despite the difficulty of bringing this material into the world, the result is a beautiful, sad, brave, expert account of the extinguishing of two women’s lives and the fallout. This book is well worth your time.
A copy of Trailed was generously provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.