For many outdoor adventurers, exploring national parks is a way to restore mental and physical health. But these natural wonders aren’t without risk.
Although the National Park Service says most deaths in natural parks are unintentional and occur as a result of drownings, heart attacks, motor vehicle crashes, etc., a small percentage of park-goers have been killed by human predators. Below are five disturbing national park murders that will haunt you on your next hike.
1974: The Cowden family massacre
On September 1, 1974, the Cowden family—28-year-old Richard and 22-year-old Belinda Cowden, their five-year-old son David, five-month-old daughter Melissa, and basset hound, Droopy—disappeared in Oregon near the Rogue River National Forest Campground in the Siskiyou Mountains. The Pacific Crest Trail runs along a section of the Siskiyous.
When the family did not arrive for dinner as expected on September 1st, Belinda’s mother went to the campsite and discovered that the family’s area looked as if they had only stepped away for a moment. However, some of Richard’s belongings were found on the ground.
"That camp was spooky,” Officer Erickson, a state trooper who responded to the scene, would later say. “Even the milk was still on the table." The Cowden’s dog, Droopy, was discovered outside a general store the previous day.
The search that September for the Cowdens was one of the most extensive in the state’s history. But the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon National Guard, and countless volunteers uncovered no sign of the four missing family members.
More than a year later, on April 12, 1975, two hikers made a horrific discovery: the decomposing body of Richard, tied to a tree. The remains of Belinda, David, and the baby were found hidden in a nearby cave.
Strangely, after the tragic discovery, a man who had participated in the original search for the family told officials he had searched the same cave in September of 1974, and that their bodies had not been present at that time.
Authorities considered local parolee Dwain Lee Little, who had been in the area at the time of the murders, a suspect in the case. He had previously been convicted of rape and murder of a 15-year-old; and in 1980, he sexually assaulted a pregnant woman. One former cellmate of Little’s has claimed that he confessed to killing the Cowdens. However, Little has never been charged.
1981: The murders of Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay
In May of 1981, Maine-based social workers Laura Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr., both 27, were hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise funds for a youth-focused social services agency.
On May 19, the pair were murdered and their bodies hidden at the Wapiti Shelter in Giles, Virginia.
Fingerprints found on a book of Ramsay’s at the scene directed officials to Randall Lee Smith. Chillingly, a note found in the ashtray of Smith’s truck read, "this boy and girl have been so nice to me ... it is going to be a real shame when the time comes to get rid of them.”
Smith eventually plead guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence.
Smith’s motives remain unclear, but the prosecutor theorized that Smith had begun to stalk Ramsay after seeing her in a store along the trail. A neighbor of Smith’s has also since said that Smith was possessive of the Appalachian Trail, and viewed hikers as invaders.
To the horror of the hiking community, Smith was released on parole in 1996 after just 15 years in prison. Twelve years after his release, Smith struck up a conversation with two men who were fishing near the area where he had murdered Ramsay and Mountford. While eating with the duo, Smith suddenly attacked them, shooting each man twice.
Thankfully, both fishermen survived. Smith died from injuries he sustained while fleeing the scene in one of the men’s trucks.
1996: The murder of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans
On May 19, 1996, 24-year-old Julianne Williams and 26-year-old Lollie Winans visited Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with their golden retriever. The couple were experienced in the outdoors; Lollie worked as a wilderness guide, and the women had met through an organization called Woodswomen, which was designed to bring women together for adventures in nature.
After a day of hiking, Williams and Winans camped near Bridal Trail during a particularly busy weekend at the park. And on May 31st, when the two didn’t return home as expected, Williams’ father reported them missing.
Bridget Bohnet, Deputy Chief Ranger at Shenandoah National Park, said of the search: “We started doing hasty searches to cover all of those trail corridors in that general area to see if we could locate them. At some point during those hasty searches we did locate the dog.”
On June 1st, the bodies of the two women were found.
On April 10, 2001 Darrell David Rice was indicted for the murder of Julie and Lollie. Rice had become a suspect after attempting to abduct cyclist Yvonne Malbasha from a nearby area on July 9, 1997. When Rice’s vehicle was searched following the attack, restraints were found inside.
Due to the proximity to the murder site of Winan and Williams, officials theorized that the attack on Malbasha and the murders were connectors. Prosecutors alleged during the indictment that Rice had admitted he enjoyed assaulting women, and that the alleged murder of Winans and Williams was motivated by homophobia.
However, due to lack of forensic evidence, Rice was never sentenced. And in 2003, when a hair at the crime scene was tested, the DNA did not match either Rice or the deceased.
On February 25, 2004, the charges against Rice were dismissed. The murder of Williams and Winans remains unsolved today.
On the 25th anniversary of the crimes, Wiliams’ friend Hauns Bassett told the Bangor Daily News , “I don’t want this story to fade away. I want justice [...] 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.”
2008: The murder of Meredith Emerson
On New Year’s Day 2008, 24-year-old Meredith Emerson began a hike up Blood Mountain in Georgia with her beloved labrador. When she met a fellow hiker with a dog of his own on the path, it is believed that Emerson and 61-year-old Gary Michael Hilton briefly walked near or beside each other near the Appalachian Trail. Emerson eventually pulled ahead, but when she crossed Hilton’s path again, he pulled a knife on her and demanded her ATM card.
This began a horrific four-day ordeal in which a captive Emerson used her martial arts training to fight back, demonstrating tremendous courage and intelligence. In addition to breaking her kidnapper’s hand, Emerson repeatedly gave him the wrong PIN number for her ATM card, causing him to leave an electronic trail behind for searchers looking for the missing hiker.
“That’s one thing that broke my heart in this case,” said Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Clay Bridges. “She was doing everything she was supposed to do to stay alive, and we didn’t get there in time.”
On the fourth day of her captivity, Hilton killed Emerson, but released her dog. Hilton was arrested the following day when a citizen called in a tip that a man matching the description of the wanted hiker was seen cleaning a van.
In addition to Emerson’s murder, Hilton was found guilty of the 2007 murders of John Bryant, Irene Bryant, and Cheryl Dunlap in the national park. He is also a suspect in four additional murders.
Emerson’s dog was adopted by her parents. Emerson’s roommate went on to found Right to Hike, Inc. in her memory. Emerson is honored through a scholarship foundation, and donations of emergency phone spaces designed to make the outdoors safer for everyone.
2011: The Murder of Scott Lilly
In 2011, 30-year-old Scott A. Lilly began a trip along the Appalachian trail. A history enthusiast, Lilly was excited to hike from Maryland to Springer Mountain, visiting Civil War battlegrounds along the way.
He set off on his adventure on June 15, 2011; and on Aug. 12, 2011, Lilly’s body was found by a group of hikers in George Washington–Jefferson National Forest. His backpack and other gear were not found at the scene.
Officials determined that Lilly had likely been dead for 12 days before his body was found, and that he had died from “asphyxia by suffocation.”
In 2012, US Attorney Tim Heaphy said there was no information yet that linked the death to other murders near the national forest.
Lilly’s death was ruled a homicide, and has yet to be solved.