FBI identifies serial rapist as person responsible for 1996 Shenandoah National Park killings

RICHMOND, Va. — (AP) — Nearly three decades after two young women were found with their throats slashed in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, federal authorities announced Thursday that they have identified a now-deceased serial rapist from Ohio as the person they believe was responsible for the killings.

The bodies of Julianne “Julie” Williams, 24, and her partner, Laura “Lollie” Winans, 26, were found bound and gagged at their campsite in the park in 1996. The killings sent a wave of fear through the LGBTQ+ community, but the FBI said during a news conference Thursday that there is no evidence that the women were targeted because of their sexual orientation.

The long-unsolved killings were reviewed by a new investigative team starting in 2021, said Stanley Meador, the Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond FBI office. Recently, a private lab pulled DNA from several pieces of evidence from the crime scene and sent the genetic profile to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, a database used by law enforcement agencies to match DNA to a criminal suspect.

They got a positive match to Walter “Leo” Jackson Sr., a convicted rapist originally from the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Meador said the FBI then got DNA from the original swab taken from Jackson when he was charged in another rape in Ohio, which confirmed the match. He said the recent DNA testing found there is only a one in 2.6 trillion chance that the DNA found at the crime scene came from someone other than Jackson.

This week, FBI officials were able to tell the families of the two women who they believe committed the killings, Meador said.

"They’ve been seeking answers far too long.” Meador said.

Jackson, who worked as a house painter, died in prison in 2018 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, at age 70. He had served at least four separate prison terms after being convicted of kidnapping and multiple rapes and assaults.

The recent retesting of crime scene evidence showed that both Williams and Winans were sexually assaulted, said Christopher Kavanaugh, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. Kavanaugh said authorities investigated whether the rapes and killings could be considered hate crimes. But he said they found no evidence that Jackson knew of their sexual orientation or targeted them for that reason.

“Make no mistake, this crime was brutal, this crime was definitely hateful, nevertheless we do not have any evidence” that the crime was motivated by anti-gay bias, Kavanaugh said.

Authorities were vague when asked whether the same DNA testing could have been done years ago and identified the suspect earlier.

In 2001, authorities arrested another man in the killings. Darrell David Rice, a computer programmer from Maryland, was charged with capital murder, and authorities alleged that he selected Williams and Winans because of his hatred of women and gay people.

Rice had pleaded guilty in 1998 in the attempted abduction of a female bicyclist he tried to force into his truck, also in Shenandoah National Park. He was serving an 11-year prison sentence when he was charged with killing WIlliams and Winans. The charges were eventually dropped after forensic testing showed that hairs found at the crime scene ruled him out as a possible suspect.

Williams, who was from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Winans, who grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, were both experienced hikers and were passionate about environmental issues, Kavanaugh said. They were hiking with a golden retriever named Taj when they were last seen by park personnel on May 24, 1996. Their bodies were discovered on June 1, 1996, at their campsite near Skyline Resort.

Meador said the FBI is continuing to work with other law enforcement agencies to determine if Jackson is responsible for other unsolved crimes.

“Our investigation will not stop,” he said.

Comments on this article

mobile apps

Everything you love about and more! Tap on any of the buttons below to download our app.

amazon alexa

Enable our Skill today to listen live at home on your Alexa Devices!