The unsolved 1996 slayings of Laura Winans and Julie Williams were the subject of the book “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders” by Maine journalist Kathryn Miles. Photo courtesy of the FBI

After nearly three decades, the FBI announced on Thursday that investigators have solved the 1996 killings of Unity College student Laura “Lollie” Winans and her girlfriend, Julianne “Julie” Williams.

The FBI reanalyzed evidence and matched extracted DNA to Walter “Leo” Jackson Sr., a convicted serial rapist who died in an Ohio prison in 2018 at age 70. The FBI alerted Winans’ and Williams’ families this week, said Stanley Meador, a special agent in charge with Richmond FBI office.

“They’ve been seeking answers far too long,” Meador said during a news conference Thursday.

The news has been bittersweet for those who believe that the connection to Jackson could have been discovered sooner.

“It’s a closure that’s not a closure,” said Kathryn Miles, who wrote a 2022 book shedding light on the unsolved case. “The best the FBI can say is ‘We believe this man did it.’ But there will never be a trial. There are all of these unanswered questions that (the families) are never going to have answered. And that’s really hard for them.”

Winans and Williams met as interns for a women’s outdoor education program and shared a passion for hiking and environmental issues. Winans transferred to Unity College in 1994, where she studied outdoor recreation.


Winans, 26, and Williams, 24, were killed on May 24, 1996, while camping at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. They were found bound and gagged with their throats slashed. The FBI also recently discovered that both Williams and Winans were sexually assaulted, said Christopher Kavanaugh, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

A news article published in the Morning Sentinel on June 8, 1996. clipping

In the years that followed, authorities charged Darrell David Rice with murder, alleging that he selected Williams and Winans because of his hatred of women and gay people.

In 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he would seek the death penalty for Rice under new post-9/11 federal hate crime legislation. The charges were dropped after forensic testing showed that hairs found at the crime scene ruled him out as a possible suspect.

Shenandoah National Park Killings

Stanley Meador, special agent in charge of the FBI Richmond (Virginia) Field Office, speaks at a news conference about the 1996 slayings of Laura Winans and Julianne Williams at a campsite in the Shenandoah National Park. Steve Helber/Associated Press

And the FBI put out waves of requests for more information over the years.

In 2021, the long-unsolved killings were reviewed by a new investigative team, Meador said. A private lab also 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 Jackson, who had served at least four separate prison terms after being convicted of kidnapping and multiple rapes and assaults. The FBI reconfirmed the match with additional DNA testing from the original swab taken from Jackson when he was charged in another rape in Ohio. Meador said that there is a one in 2.6 trillion chance that the DNA found at the crime scene came from someone other than Jackson.


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

Miles became an expert of sorts on the murders and the investigations that followed as she wrote “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders.” She spent more than four years poring over case files and evidence, talking to lawyers, family, friends and anyone she could find.

Through that work, Miles firmly believes that more should have been done. But she thinks that investigation was hindered because authorities were attached to the conclusion that Rice was to blame. And she is vexed that the FBI is commending the discovery when she believes it should not have taken this long to retest the DNA found on the evidence and match it to Jackson.

“That should have happened 20 years ago,” she said. “For a lot of people, there’s this profound frustration that this could have been solved while he was alive, this could have been solved when there could have been an arrest and an indictment and a prosecution. That’s a missing piece that will never happen, so this case will never officially be solved.”

Kavanaugh said during the news conference Thursday that investigators could not confirm 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.

The killings sent a wave of fear through the LGBTQ+ community in 1996. And, Miles said, that fear endures.

“This was a hate crime and continues to act as a hate crime in the sense that it had this secondary trauma for an entire generation of people who identify as female and who identify as queer who felt like this crime was proof that they are not safe in the wilderness and they are not safe in national parks,” Miles said.

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