Murder on the Appalachian Trail

Murder on the Appalachian Trail

Mantilla, Karla

Murder on the Appalachian Trail

Two women who were hiking and camping along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia were found murdered at approximately 8:30 in the morning on Saturday, June 1. The women killed were Julianne Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Lollie Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine. (See sidebar about the women’s lives.) Shenandoah National Park received word from Williams’ father that they were overdue from returning from their trip on May 31.

The two women and their dog, a golden retriever mixed breed named “Taj,” were last seen at a nearby lodge on May 24. According to the National Park Service, they were found to have died from “an incised wound to the neck” — in other words, their throats were slashed. Park spokesman Paul Pfenninger said that “something [investigators] found at the site led them to believe it was an isolated incident.” He did not indicate what it was. Authorities from the National Park Service and the FBI have not said whether there was any indication of sexual assault.

Were they killed because they were lesbians?

According to Williams’ pastor, Rebecca S. Strader, of a Burlington, Vermont, Presbyterian church, the two were in a relationship and were planning to move in together. Friends of both women also said the two were involved in a lesbian relationship, according to The Washington Blade. A spokeswoman for Williams’ family said that though Williams did not discuss her sexuality with family members, the family welcomed a hate crime investigation. Winans’ grandfather, Donald C. Winans, denied that she was a lesbian, saying “That lesbian thing is for the birds. There’s nothing to that at all.”

The NGLTF and the FBI

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has asked the Justice Department to investigate the murders as hate crimes. A Justice Department official who was unwilling to give his name told The Washington Post, “We’re investigating a murder, and the fact they may have been lesbians is not a factor right now.” An FBI spokesperson was quoted in the Burlington Free Press as saying, “There has been no indication that this is a hate crime of any particular type.”

Carol Florman, a Department of Justice spokesperson, told oob on June 19 that “At this point, there is no determination on any motivations. Every avenue is being explored as the investigation continues. But there has been no determination at this point whether it was or was not a hate crime or whether there was some other motivation as to what led to the murders.”

Reno responds

In a June 19 letter from Attorney General Janet Reno to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, however, Ms. Reno wrote, “From the outset, investigators have been exhaustively examining all evidence, following all leads and pursuing all motives, including the possibility that the crime was motivated by the sexual orientation of the victims. Any press reports that have suggested otherwise have misstated the nature of the investigation.”

Hate crime or isolated incident?

Florman said that determining whether a crime is a hate crime involves “the same sort of things that you have in determining premeditation, or determining aggravating circumstances in other kinds of crime…it’s both a matter of statements and of evidence and that you can build a case that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that these factors were part of a crime.” The statute on Hate Crime Motivation or Vulnerable Victim from the Crime Bill says that if the court finds “beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or any property as the object of the offense because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation of any person,” the penalty shall be increased.

In regard to the murders being characterized as “an isolated incident,” Florman said “My understanding from the Park Service is, this is the second incident of murder in the history of Shenandoah National Park, so therefore, by definition, they consider it an isolated incident. Murders do not generally happen there.” She said the characterization of the murders as an isolated incident has no relevance to whether the murders are found to be the result of a hate crime.

The National Park Service, the FBI and the Virginia State police are involved in the investigation. Florman also said they have received over 1000 phone calls from the 800 number. She said that “there have been a number of leads and they are pursuing every one.” But Florman also said the calls have begun to drop off since the time the murders have been committed and stressed the difficulty in finding witnesses due to the fact that people who may have seen something may have traveled elsewhere by now and not be aware of the crime.

The FBI and the National Park Service have offered a $25,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the murders. The FBI toll free number to contact with information about the murders is 1-888-856-2467.

Were the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans a hate crime or an isolated incident? In view of the contradictory statements issued by the FBI and the National Park Service, it seems authorities, and people in general, are more comfortable characterizing incidents such as this as an isolated incident. Clearly, whether Julie and Lollie’s murder was an isolated incident or a hate crime, these murders extinguished the lives of these two young women, and this alone is truly horrible to contemplate. But in terms of the effect of their murder on the rest of us, whether we come to see it in terms of an isolated incident or a hate crime profoundly changes how we proceed with our lives.

The Lessons We Learn

The day after the murders were reported in The Washington Post, a woman camping along the Appalachian Trail was reported as saying that she felt safe hiking with a male companion. She said “But when I think of the women out here hiking alone, it really scares me.” If we see this as the isolated incident, rather than a hate crime with political implications for all members of the targeted group, then statements like this can be made. But how would a statement like that play in the case of the 40 odd African American churches that have been burned (see News pages this issue)? Imagine an African American saying “When I think of African Americans going to all black churches, it scares me. I feel safe going to churches that are predominantly white.”

When we fail to see the political nature of such supposedly random isolated incidents, we may come to terms with the dangers we face by simply ceding whole arenas of life as “too dangerous” for women alone. Many women feel they would be “asking for it” if they went certain places without male escorts. So we simply agree not to go places such as camping, out at night, or into cities without a male escort.

“I miss my husband”

I once talked to a couple of married women about why they missed their husbands when they were gone on business trips. I found this strange, because I loved it when my husband went away (I was married at the time). I loved feeling the freedom to be and do whatever I wanted. When I asked them what it was about their husbands they missed and why they did not relish time alone, they replied that they didn’t feel safe — that they were afraid to be alone. So, in addition to all the activities women may not participate in outside their homes due to the “danger,” many women don’t even feel safe to live alone.

It’s not even that we are not safe in certain locations. We are not safe anywhere we go without a male escort. We feel safe in our own homes (as long as a man is there), we feel safe in the woods (as long as a man is there), and we feel safe to go out at night (as long as it is with a man). I suppose we feel safe to go some places without a man — a shopping mall during the day, the grocery store, the day care center to pick up the kids (coincidentally all things which fit neatly into women’s traditional roles). But major areas of our lives, especially those which defy traditional feminine roles (such as going camping alone or living without men), are circumscribed because of the supposedly random isolated incidents by a few psychos.

How Attacks on Women Are Seen

So it is important how we come to see this incident and all supposedly “random” attacks on women. It is interesting that it is nearly impossible in mainstream thinking to characterize an attack on a woman as a woman-hating attack. Instead, when a man attacks a woman out of women-hating, the perpetrator is instead seen as crazy. His motivations are psychologized. Even in the case of the perpetrator of the Montreal massacre, where the man explicitly stated before he shot the women that feminists had ruined his life, the general consensus was that he was psychologically disturbed. His motivations were individualized. They were not seen as reflecting the climate of woman hating on the larger societal level.

Compare this with how we see racially motivated attacks. Members of the Ku Klux Klan are not characterized as primarily acting out of some psychopathology. We know people can and do act out of racism. And we know that the racism of such people is not an “isolated incident.” It is fueled by the racism in the rest of society. But we don’t acknowledge that battering and rape and random murders of women are fueled by women-hating. Instead we have therapy groups for batterers and rapists. Imagine having therapy groups for Ku Klux Klan members.

How could we tell a hate crime if we were murdered by one?

The “authorities” said that there was no evidence that this was a hate crime. But what would constitute evidence? A written treatise by the perpetrator explaining his motives? If women (in this case, lesbians) are randomly killed — not in the course of a robbery or for some other motive — then what is left as a motive?

Since there is no understandable motive, such attacks are explained away by the psychological state of the murderer. We don’t explain away bank robberies by saying the robber is deranged. We can all see what he wants: money — and we recognize that money is highly valued in this society. We don’t have to have a treatise (or even a note) stating that he did it for the money. We understand that without the perpetrator making it explicit.

But when a man attacks a woman, we pretend we cannot understand his motivations. Because, as a society, we do not admit to the male dominance we live under, most people cannot see what the “deranged” woman killer (or lesbian killer) wants: control over women — something perhaps as highly prized in our society as money — just not admitted to.

Just as a bank robber or thief is motivated by a desire for money (something we can all understand), a woman killer is motivated by hate of seeing women unaccompanied by a man. But why is it that women feel safe when with a male companion? It is not because men are so strong and virile that the “deranged” killer with a gun or knife could not kill them too. But somehow a heterosexual couple does not fuel the ire of the “deranged” killer. He does not feel the “irrational” outrage when a woman is out camping if she is with a man. In his “deranged” worldview, he only feels the desire to attack or kill women who are unescorted. It seems to him that the woman “deserves” it, that she has no “right” to be there.

That this is a society-wide norm can be seen in the more benign case of street harassment. Street harassers never harass women when they are with a man. On some level, other men, and even women like the one who says she feels safer with a man, do not feel women have the right to live their lives unaccompanied by men. The supposedly “deranged” killer is doing no more than responding (more violently) to the cultural imperative. Until more women and men come to believe that women have an inalienable right exist on their own in their homes, the streets, and the woods, these “deranged” killers will somehow keep cropping up. And it is no coincidence that their “deranged” worldview bears a mighty strong resemblance to the ideology of patriarchy.

Why random attacks are more political than other kinds of attacks

Random attacks are in fact a far more effective strategy for controlling all women than targeted attacks, although patriarchy employs both — battering is targeted at specific women while stranger rape is more random in nature. When a woman is battered, it does not strike fear in the hearts of women whose husbands do not batter, because they can still feel that they are safe. But no woman can feel safe from rape.

Random attacks work by affecting a larger group than their immediate target. The Tylenol poisonings of a decade ago were phenomenonally effective in influencing the behavior of all drug manufacturers and consumers for many years hence. Because no one felt safe, the standards for drug packaging were changed in a dramatic way for everyone. Thus only one incident of poisoning, because it was random, effected a change in everyone’s behavior.

This is how terrorist attacks work. When the perceived threat of terrorist attacks in the United States increased several years ago, the primary emphasis was not on the psychological condition of the terrorists. Instead, the government spent a lot of money erecting large cement barricades in front of government buildings in order to prevent the possibility of a terrorist success. No one suggested that government workers should merely “be more careful,” or perhaps stay at home.

However, in the case of random attacks on women, instead of finding ways to make the world safer for women, individual women are advised to “be careful,” and to stay at home. Random attacks on women are not seen for what they really are — political acts of terrorism that serve to scare women into their place.

A Feminist Version

I am furious about these murders. But I am also furious at the thought that some of us won’t see them as political. I hate the thought that our reaction might be, “I guess I’ll circumscribe my life more, I won’t go camping, I won’t go out at night, I won’t live without a man.” What if blacks had a similar reaction to the burnings of all those churches? What if their response was “Well, I guess it’s just too dangerous to have black churches”? It is clear that those burnings are political and the appropriate national response is to show solidarity with the congregations by condemning not just the burnings, but all racism, and by offering material support in rebuilding the churches.

Where is the national outpouring of support for women and lesbians whose lives are so restricted by these kinds of attacks? Where is the solidarity? Where is the sense that we will not give in to the climate of fear they create, but instead go into the woods, go into the city streets, go into our own homes alone at night, and stand together against these acts of hate and terrorism?

Photo (Julie Williams)

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul 1996

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