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The Gruesome Truth Behind Those Murders On America’s Famous Appalachian Hiking Trail

Eleven hikers have been murdered on this long distance trail since 1974 - why has it seen so much more violence than other trails in America?

Molly LaRue and Geoff Hood tragically lost their lives on the Appalachian Trail back in 1990. Photo: Outside Online

The appalachian trail murders revealed

Hiking isn’t generally thought of as a dangerous pursuit.

“You are much more at risk by getting caught out by the weather or not having the right kit than you are being attacked by someone,” says Phoebe Smith, an award-winning travel writer who has spent hundreds of nights wild camping alone.

But it turns out, violent crime on hiking trails is more frequent than I initially thought.

Hollywood film A Walk In The Woods was released in cinemas across the world earlier this month. It charts travel writer Bill Bryson’s experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Once more it has brought the 2,160 mile path – that stretches from Georgia to Maine, USA – to the public’s attention. But mystery has long surrounded the trail – from disappearances to murder. We explore the famous Appalachian trail murders.

Since 1974, there has been 11 Appalachian trail murders, two of which were attempted.

It has to be noted that this is very low when compared to the 3 to 4 million people that hike the trail each year.

As Bill Bryson says in his 1997 book, A Walk In The Woods, if you drew a 2,000 mile line across anywhere in America, you are bound to come across a dozen murder victims.

But it’s terrifying, nonetheless.

Here are the list of Appalachian trail murders since 1974:

2011

Scott Lilley, a hiker from Indiana, died on the Applachian Trail on 12 August 2011. It is said the man died from “asphyxia by suffocation”. The murder today still seems to be unsolved. You can read more about the murder here.

2008

Two fisherman were shot on the Appalachian Trail by Randall Lee Smith. Luckily the pair survived, but Smith was charged for attempted murder and murder of two hikers back in 1981. He spent 15 years in prison before his release in 1996.

Paul David Crews was responsible for the double murder of Molly LaRue and Geoff Hood in 1990. Photo: Outside Online

2001

Louise Chaput, a 51 year-old Canadian, was stabbed to death in the White Mountains, New Hampshire. The experienced hiker was found near the Glen Boulder Trailhead, just south of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch HQ.

1996

Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were found both with their throats cut  in the Shenandoah National Park in the Virginia, just a month after Bryson hiked through the area himself.

Darrell David Rice was indicted for the crime six years later, while serving time in prison for another attempted abduction.

1990

Molly LaRue and Geoff Hood, a couple who had met in Kansas, were found murdered in a shelter outside Duncannon, Pennsylvania.

The male hiker had been shot and killed, and the female hiker had been raped, tortured, and killed.

Paul David Crews, a troublesome loner, who continued hiking the trail was tracked down eight days later and arrested.

There is a full article about the tragedy here on Outside Online.

Rebecca Wight (left) and Claudia Brenner (right) were attacked and Wight was killed in 1988. Photo via. Claudia Brenner

1988

Rebecca Wight and Claudia Brenner were having sex in the woods in a Pennsylvania State Park while hiking the trail.

Stephen Roy Carr shot at the women eight times. Brenner was injured but managed to escape. Wright died from the shots.

At trial, Carr claimed he had been enraged by the sight of the two women having sex. He was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.

Brenner now crusades against violence aimed at gay people. You can read the details of the case here.

1981

Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay, 27 year old social workers from Maine, were both also victims of the Appalachian trail murders by Randall Lee Smith. Mountford was shot in the head and Ramsay had been beaten and stabbed.

Smith pleaded guilty to the double homicide and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, due to lack of evidence. He only ended up serving half of his sentence, much to the anger of Ramsay and Mountford’s families.

1975

Paul Bigley murdered Janice Balza with a hatchet. Balza was hoping the hike the whole trail. Bigley was allegedly coveting the backpack Balza was carrying.

1974

Joel Polsom, 26 year old from South Carolina, was killed at a shelter in Georgia by Michigan fugitive Ralph Fox, who continued to walk south and then caught a bus to Atlanta, where he was arrested.

 

There is some discussion over whether the hikers were thru-hikers (aiming to hike the whole trail from Georgia to Maine) or day hikers.

Many more murder victims lost their live on side trails near the Appalachian Trail, including Meredith Emerson in 2008.

You can only imagine the heartbreak the families of the victims had to go through.

By comparison, the Pacific Crest Trail is longer (2,650 miles) although markedly younger trail has never seen a single murder. We can only guess what the reason for this would be.

Despite these Appalachian trail murders, it has to be remembered that violent crime is in fact very rare. It shouldn’t stop you from hiking the trail yourself.

How Should You Stay Safe On The Appalachian Trail?

Violent crime on the Appalachian Trail is very rare

Blogger Mark Kelley suggests bearing in mind that most violence comes from people crossing paths with the Appalachian Trail, not other hikers.

“Take care when you do find a person in the woods that seems completely out of place. I met several people on the trail who clearly were not hikers, and each one of them was quite strange.”

Retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole wrote a book called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us

She gave the Appalachian Trail website these handy hints about spotting a potential attackers on the Trail.

Dangerous people are often impulsive, display explosive bursts of anger, narcissistic, hold grudges and lack empathy.

You’re more likely to encounter troublesome people within a mile of Appalachian Trail crossroads, rather than in the deep, dark forest

As a rule of thumb, you’re more likely to encounter troublesome people within a mile or two of crossroads, rather than in the deep, dark forest.

Be careful when hitchhiking. You never know who might pick you up in their car – even if you are travelling with a partner.

Make sure someone knows where you can. Check in with them regularly.

Don’t be afraid to stomp on the instep of an attacker or slam a knee into a male attacker’s groin. It’s better to scratch someone’s eyes in order to protect your life than it is to be a merciful victim.

If you must, fight for your life.  Avoiding trouble, however, is always your first defence.

 

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