When you think about hiking, camping & spending time outdoors, you think about getting away from it all, clearing your head while getting close to nature. John Muir, who is also known as “John of the Mountains” and “Father of National Parks”, who was an early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the US, has a quote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Today, however, we’ll be talking about the stories of the Appalachian Trail hikers who never made it back from their dream walk.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail or the A.T. is a 2,180-mile footpath along ridge crests and across the major valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. It goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount (Kuh-taa-din) Katahdin in Maine & cuts through 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The tallest peak along the trail is North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell with an elevation of 6.684 feet.
The trail came about in 1921 and was completed in 1937. Between 2-3 million people hike at least part of the trail each year & 800-900 are thru-hikers, the brave & ambitious souls who hike it from start to finish. An article from June of 2021 reports that since 1936, 21,553 people have completed a thru-hike. In 1998 the book by Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods” increased the trail’s popularity & in 2000, there were more hike completions in a single year than in the trail’s first 40 years combined. The oldest to complete the trail was 83 while the youngest was 6.
The AT is a typically safe place to be and there have been less than a dozen cases of foul play since it opened, at least that has been reported. More common causes of death on the AT are health related, such as a heart attack. Falls & drownings, untreated tick-borne illnesses, hypothermia, lightning strikes and falling trees have also killed hikers. The AT Conservancy doesn’t keep a record of the annual deaths or injuries but it’s estimated to be no more than 2-3 fatalities per year.
9 out of 10 hikers start in GA and go north. If you hike the trail completely, turn around and thru-hike the trail the other way, it’s called the “yo-yo.”
Because many areas of the AT are remote, it’s certainly not immune from crime; since 1974 there have been nine murders near or on the AT, 2 attempted murders, some involving serial killers. There’s also another disturbing story of the murders of Julie Williams & Lollie Winans on May 19, 1996 that happened at the Shenandoah National Park in Virgina which is close to the AT, but not on it. I’m actually reading a book about these murders, called Trailed by Kathryn Miles. These murders remain unsolved.
Ronald S Sanchez, Jr: Somewhere in the Jefferson National Forest, in western, Virginia, on the evening of May 10, 2019, four hikers were approached by 30-year-old, James Louis Jordan. For several weeks, Jordan had been hiking the AT with his dog, Felicia. When the four hikers first saw Jordan, he was playing his guitar, singing though acting disturbed & unstable.
Later in the evening, the group decided to set up camp, a few miles from where they saw him; they were on a site in Wythe County, VA, near Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Out of nowhere, Jordan suddenly appeared, threatening the group, telling them he was going to pour gasoline on their tents & burn them to death.
The hikers decided to relocate their tents, to get away from him & that’s when Jordan pulled a knife. Two of the hikers ran north on the trail to escape; they called 911 at 2:30a.m. Eventually, Jordan gave up & returned to the campsite where 43-year–old Ronnie S Sanchez, Jr, of Oklahoma & his female friend had stayed. Sanchez had served 3 tours in Iraq and spent 16 years in the Army. He greatly struggled from PTSD but found peace and clarity on the trail. His trail name was “Stronghold.” Sanchez & Jordan began to argue & Sanchez tried to call 911 though Jordan began stabbing him in the upper torso.
As Sanchez fell to the ground, bleeding, the woman tried to escape. She ran but Jordan eventually caught up & began to repeatedly stab her until she fell to the ground and played dead. Thankfully Jordan left & she managed to find other campers who helped her hike the six miles to the trailhead. They called for help & she was treated at a nearby medical center.
In the meantime, Jordan moved along the trail & came upon another pair of backpackers who were sleeping in their tent. He was screaming that he needed a flashlight but thankfully they stayed in their tent & nothing happened.
Using pings from a nearby cell tower, authorities were able to locate the approximate location of Sanchez and began their four mile hike to the crime scene. At 6:14am the next morning, the team found Sanchez dead from his injuries but a dog at the site. Thankfully, the dog led them to Jordan who found with blood on his clothes & he was arrested.
Scott Lily: On Friday, August 12, 2011, a group of hikers came upon a dead body, lying in a shallow grave off a trail to Cow Camp Gap Shelter in George Washington-Jefferson National Forest. The body was identified by the FBI as Scott A Lilly, age 30, of South Bend, IN. He had likely died 12 days before he was found. Scott loved Civil War history which brought him to Virginia. His trail name was “Stonewall” & he started his hike on June 15, 2011 as a path to self-discovery and to visit the Civil War battlefields.
The last time he was heard from was July 31 after he had climbed The Priest, a 4063 foot mountain in Nelson County, Virginia. He stayed at the Priest shelter about 0.6 miles east of the AT. From there, he likely wanted to camp at Cow Camp Gap Shelter though never made it. In January 2012, it was determined that Scott’s cause of death was asphyxiation by suffocation & ruled a homicide. The purple backpack, new trail shoes, a Nintendo game & and AT handbook were taken by whoever murdered Scott. The murder of Scott Lilly remains unsolved.
Geoffrey Hood & Molly LaRue: 26-year-old Geoffrey Hood was from Signal Mountain, TN & 25-year-old Molly LaRue was from Shaker Heights, OH. The two met in Kansas at a church sponsored program for vulnerable young people. When they were laid off, they decided to take six months & hike the AT, starting at Mount Katahdin in Maine on June 4, 1990. Geoff’s trail name was Clevis & Molly’s was Nalgene.
On September 11, 1990 they hiked to Duncannon, Pennsylvania & stayed at the trailside Doyle Hotel, right around the halfway point of their trip.They were treating themselves since most nights were spent in their tent or a communal trail shelter.
On September 12, the couple headed out & made it as far as the Thelma Marks Shelter near the top of Cove Mountain. The couple slept around 30 feet from the trail, surrounded by trees. In the early morning of September 13, while the couple was asleep in their sleeping bags, they were ambushed. Geoff was shot 3 times in the head, back & abdomen at a distance of about 4 feet with a .22 caliber pistol. Forensic evidence showed that Molly had been tied up with a rope that looped to her neck; she was raped & stabbed to death by slashing her neck, throat & back 8 times with a ¾ inch double edge blade.
They were found later that same day by two hikers that had been looking for shelter that evening. Molly was face down in a pool of blood with her hands tied behind her back & Geoff was partially naked, holding his white shirt in his hand. The couple headed back to Duncannon, the closest town, to report the murders.
A man carrying 2 red Marlborough gym bags, had been seen in the area. He had been wearing jeans and work boots & didn’t look like he belonged on the trail. On September 21, two hikers saw another hiker wearing Geoff’s backpack & boots. He was reported & apprehended in West Virginia. He was carrying the two murder weapons, the pistol & the knife. It was the weekend that Molly & Geoff were going to meet up with the families to celebrate making it halfway. During their phone calls, they had been hinting something & their families suspected an engagement announcement when they met up.
The man detained by police was Daved “Casey” Horn though this was a lie & he was actually Paul David Crews, an ex-marine who had a warrant for arrest in FL. He had been on FL’s most wanted list since 1986 for murdering a woman on July 3, 1986. He was charged for murder on July 7, 1986 but escaped. His DNA was matched to what was found on Molly’s body. During his trial, he blamed cocaine & alcohol for his behavior. He was found guilty of two-counts of first-degree murder & given two death sentences. In 2006, Crews agreed to drop his appeals in exchange for 2 life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Laura Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford: 27-year-old Laura Susan “Su Su” Ramsay and 27-year-old Robert Moutford Jr were hiking the AT in Virginia in 1981. They were social workers from Maine & using their trip to raise money for a school for mentally challenged students, run by Rob’s mother. On May 19, 1981, while staying at the Wapiti Shelter in Giles, VA, Rob was shot in the head with a .22 caliber pistol & Laura was bludgeoned with a piece of iron & then stabbed repeatedly by a knife and a long nail. After they were murdered, their bodies were placed back into their sleeping bags & then they were buried.
Fingerprints were found inside one of Su Su’s paperback novels & were linked to Randall Lee Smith. When his home was searched, they found a note claiming he had been abducted by two people who were planning to kill him. He was eventually found in Myrtle Beach, SC. He was charged with two counts of murder. The day before the trial, Smith accepted a plea bargain in which he would plead guilty to two counts of second-degree murder in exchange for 30 years in prison. He was released after serving 15 years on mandatory parole for good behavior. Rob & Su Su’s families were outraged. He returned home to live with his mom & wear an electronic monitoring device during his ten years of supervision. Remember this name because it will come up again.
The prosecutor against Smith during trial theorized that Smith interacted with Su Su in a store along the trail & she had been friendly with him. He attempted to flirt with her but was interrupted by Rob so he followed them back to their camp where he murdered them. Smith tried to alter log books along Rob & Su Su’s trail in order to conceal evidence of the murders. He had been seen with them along the trail.
Janice Balza: In April of 1975 22-year-old thru-hiker Janice Balza of Madison, WI was attacked with a hatchet at the Vandeventer Shelter in TN by 51-year-old Paul Bigley from Tucson, AZ. He was a former mental patient. He confessed from a nearby house & surrendered to police. The murder weapon was recovered near the shelter. His motive was that he wanted Janice’s backpack.
Joel Polson: 26-year-old Joel Eugene Polson met 17-year-old Margaret McFaddin Harritt while Margaret was waitressing at a popular restaurant, Capri’s Italian. Joel told Margaret about the great adventure he planned, hiking the AT. He tried to convince Margaret to go with him but she just laughed; she had just met him & she hated exercise. Joel kept coming back to the restaurant & before long, Margaret agreed to join him.
Margaret knew her parents would never agree to let her go alone with a man so she lied & said she was going as one of 15 college students that Joel was leading on the trip. He was introduced to her parents in mid-April 1974. On May 9, 1974, the two started their hike at Springer Mountain, GA. Inexperienced & weighed down by their overloaded external-frame packs, the two struggled. After only a mile, Margaret started to get a blister on her left heel so they stopped for lunch. After only covering six miles that day, they stopped in late afternoon, finding the Low Gap shelter & decided to stay the night.
When they entered the shelter, there was another hiker, already settled on the bare plank floor. They introduced themselves & found his name was Ralph. Ralph seemed harmless though it looked like he hadn’t showered in quite a while. They saw a small pile of his belongings beside him, including a blanket, leather jacket & canvas bag. He didn’t at all look like a hiker since he was wearing suede crepe-soled desert boots and had no proper gear.
After a few minutes of chatting, Margaret went to wash up in a stream & Joel followed, saying he didn’t think he trusted Ralph. They started a fire to cook dinner & offered Ralph some, though he declined. As they ate, Ralph left the shelter & headed into the trees before returning with wood for fire. He did this two more times in the following hours.
Feeling uneasy, Margaret & Joel decided they should leave first thing in the morning & have breakfast when they were a mile or two up the trail going north. The night came & went & Joel woke Margaret & told her they should get going. Joel walked to the stream to wash up & he doubled back toward the fire ring as Ralph left the shelter. As Margaret got ready to head out, lacing up her boots, she heard a loud blast & saw Joel had fallen down by the fire ring.
The next thing she knew, Ralph was coming back to the shelter, holding a revolver. He tied Maragret’s hands behind her back with twine, ordered her to her feet & guided her up a path, into the woods. He stopped by a tree, told her to sit down & wrap her legs around the tree & then he tied her feet together. He blindfolded her & walked away.
After about 10-15 minutes, Ralph returned, took off her blindfold, untied her & led Margaret back to the shelter. Joel was gone when they arrived & Ralph replied, “I got rid of him.” As Ralph went through Joel’s pack, he ordered her to eat & drink. He asked if Joel had any money & Margaret responded, “Traveler’s checks.” He then took her back into the woods, about 200 yards from the shelter.
He again forced her to face a tree & wrap her legs around the trunk, binding her feet together, hands tied behind her back. He covered her backpack with leaves, wedged his own rucksack behind her as a backrest & told Margaret he would leave a note at the shelter so someone would find her. He filled Joel’s pith helmet with water, placed it beside her & put a bag of granola in her lap. He balanced Joel’s watch on a log so Maragret could see what time it was & then he walked away.
15 minutes later, Ralph was back saying he was worried that Margaret wouldn’t be found. He told her she could stay where she was or hike out of the mountains together until they found a highway/help. She decided on the second option. They headed off onto the trail, Margaret in the lead, her hands untied at this point. Ralph held his gun behind her & said that if she signaled to anyone they might pass that she needed help, he would kill them all.
As they were resting a short time later, they came across two men with chainsaws; one was a forester that she and Joel had met the day before. She was worried he would notice that she was now hiking with someone different. They noticed but didn’t focus on it because they were in a hurry. Ralph asked them about the next road that would cross to the north. The men told him it would be a long hike & then headed off.
Margaret was now leading Ralph onto a narrow, more difficult path with roots & rocks, on a ridge high above the Chattahoochee River. Ralph told Margaret that he had escaped from prison & was out of his element. He said he wanted to get back west so that’s why he stole Joel’s gear.
They came to the Rocky Knob shelter & rested before making a steep descent. Ralph looked at Joel’s map & saw the next crossing road was only 3 miles away. He announced to Margaret that he wasn’t going to let her go as planned when they reached the road. Instead, they would hitch to the nearest town & get a motel room & then he’d let her go in the morning.
Within a few minutes of arriving to the road, a woman pulled her car over & picked them up. They made it to the Chattahoochee Motel & Ralph registered them as Mr & Mrs Joel Polson. They got food & beer from the restaurant next door & brought it back to the room & watched an Elvis movie on TV. Ralph allowed Margaret to shower & while she slept, he sat in a chair with his gun. They had been cashing Traveler’s checks during this time. Ralph said he changed his mind again & they would part ways after finding a bus station in Cleveland.
They eventually ended up at a Greyhound bus station in Cornelia, GA. Margaret bought a ticket for Columbia & Ralph to Atlanta. They parted ways & when she arrived, she called the police & told them about Joel. On Saturday, May 11, Joel was found with forest debris and his head was wrapped in a plastic bag tied with string. The autopsy showed that a .38 caliber bullet had entered Joel’s skull just behind his left ear.
On May 16, the Atlanta PD got a tip from a woman who met a man matching the description in the paper. Ralph wasn’t home when police arrived but they had a search warrant & found Joel’s gear & a revolver with 1 empty cartridge. They waited for Ralph to arrive & he was quickly arrested. It was 31-year-old Ralph Howard Fox from Detroit. He had a history of violent crime. In October 1975, he pleaded guilty & was sentenced to life at GA State Prison. He was released in 1991. In early 1992, Ralph didn’t show up to a meeting with his parole officer or to his job. March 5, 1992, the strangled, nude body of 29-year-old Diane Good from Detroit was found in a muddy field. They could tell a car had been stuck in the mud & when they checked the local towing companies, Ralph Fox’s name came up. He was arrested 2 days later. He was found guilty & died of lung cancer in July 2003.
Now Margaret is married with 2 children, 3 stepchildren & 2 grandkids. Margaret shared her story in 2015, 40 years later. She said she is amazed by her own behavior; she always assumed if she was ever faced with violence, she would scream & fight. “A person does not know how you’re going to react in that critical moment until you’re in it. I had this calm. Adrenaline – who knows what it was? But I was calm. I am not a passive person. But I was passive then and it probably saved my life.”
Attempted murders of Scott Johnston & Sean Farmer: A frail man with a white beard, wearing camouflage clothing & expensive looking boots stumbled upon 33-year-old Sean Farmer & 38-year-old Scott Johnston’s campsite at around 5pm on May 6, 2008. He had his hungry dog in tow. Sean & Scott had been life-long friends from Bluefield, VA; Sean worked as a coal truck driver & Scott a ceramic tile installer. The two were on a fishing trip. By 1pm that day, Scott had been fishing for trout most of the morning in Dismal Creek, just below the AT. He had driven his Ford Ranger Pickup truck nearly 4 miles to Trent’s Grocery to grab some supplies & along the way, he noticed a dog that looked hungry so he stopped. The dog’s owner walked up, carrying a fishing rod & a bag & said he had recently found the dog.
The stranger told Scott that he hadn’t been lucky fishing that morning & Scott, being a nice guy, reached back into this cooler & gave him five of his own trout. Before driving away, Scott told the man that he was camping just up the road at the Lions Den campground.
Sean Farmer arrived at the campground around 4pm; about an hour later while Sean was setting up his tent, the man & his dog walked in. The man introduced himself as Ricky Williams of Newport. Scott was cleaning his fish by the creek & cooking them on a fire along with a pot of beans. Ricky talked about football & music & said he had a Master’s Degree in engineering from Virginia Tech. He said he had been in the woods for two weeks hunting turkey with his uncle.
Scott & Sean were picking up some vibes that Ricky wasn’t being honest, but chalked it up to him just trying to impress them. They each drank a Bud Light though offered none to Ricky. When it started to get dark around 8:30pm, Scott & Sean wondered why Ricky wasn’t heading back to his own campsite an hour away. Out of the blue Ricky stood up & called the dog, saying they had to go. Before anyone could realize what was happening, Ricky shot Sean in the side of the face as he was sitting down. Scott hadn’t seen what happened but, of course, heard the bang & looked up from his own seat & saw Ricky’s arm stretched out toward Sean.
Sean stood up & touched his face, not knowing what had happened & watched as Ricky now shot at Scott who began to run toward the trees. Suddenly, Ricky turned & shot a .22 caliber revolver toward Sean & shot him in the chest from only a few feet away. Sean seemed oblivious to the fact that he had just been shot twice & turned to run toward his Jeep Cherokee 20 feet away. Ricky came toward the Jeep, pointing his gun but Sean was able to speed away. As he hit the dirt road, Scott emerged & was picked up.
Four miles down the road, they came to a house & eventually an ambulance took them to the local medical center & they were airlifted to Roanoke hospital. While this was happening, Ricky drove off in Scott’s pickup truck, but a police officer was on the lookout after hearing about the shootings. They got into a chase & Ricky ended up crashing the truck, suffering head injuries & was also airlifted to Roanoke hospital. He was released from the hospital 3 days later on May 9 & sent to jail though the next day he was found in his cell unresponsive & pronounced dead the next day.
The man calling himself Ricky Williams was actually found to be 54-year-old Randall Lee Smith, the same man who had also killed the AT hikers we talked about today; SuSu Ramsay & Robert Mountford in 1981, 27 years earlier. He had been released from prison in 1996 after serving 15 years & his probation ended in 2006. His attempted murders of Scott & Sean happened less than 2 miles from where he murdered SuSu & Robert.
Sean had suffered a bullet wound to the skull & chest. A bullet still remains in Scott’s back; he had also been shot in the neck but miraculously, the two survived.
To end on a positive note, in the Spring of 1955, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, age 67, left her home in OH & told her family that she was going for a walk. She was the mother to 11 and the grandmother to 23. She flew to Georgia & proceeded to walk the AT in its entirety. She walked through hurricanes that dumped torrential rains, ate wild huckleberries when she was out of food and slept under leaves to keep warm. In late September, when she arrived at Mt Kaa-tuh-din in Maine, she sang “America the Beautiful” to commemorate her trip. When she was later asked why she attempted to hike by herself, she said, “Because I wanted to.” She wasn’t an experienced hiker & wore Keds during her hike & only packed a shower curtain to serve as her shelter.
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