By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
BRUSHY MOUNTAIN, Giles County, Va.
High on the mountain, the sun has to fight its way down through the thick forest. The light takes on a spectral elegance, as if yellow diamonds are falling to the ground.
The two campers loved so much about the mountain. How it gave to its visitors, how generous it seemed: There's another deer; listen to that owl; the trout are running.
But a murderer was in these woods, too. And he brought darkness to the light.
When Randall Lee Smith rose from a meal with Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer at their campsite along the Appalachian Trail here in southwestern Virginia in May, he politely thanked them for the fried trout and beans. Then he pulled out his .22 pistol and calmly turned from one to the other.
The first bullet hit Sean in the temple.
The second hit Scott in the neck.
The third hit Sean in the chest.
The fourth hit Scott in the back of the neck.
Blood gushed against the moonless night. Scott had bolted into the woods. But the gunman was not finished. Sean had lumbered across the grass to his truck, parked a few yards away. When Randall reached him, he raised his gun again.
* * *
Twenty-seven years earlier and little more than a mile away, Randall Smith had sat for a similar evening meal with two other campers, Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr. He murdered both. Then he buried them with his bare hands.
Those 1981 murders stunned the nation. Calls came into the county sheriff's office from all over the country, everyone wanting to know if the Appalachian Trail was safe. Tom Lawson, one of the investigators at the time, never forgot Smith's eyes: "Cold. Stone cold. And remorseless."
Those killings turned Randall Smith into what we most fear: A killer seemingly without motive. A man who wouldn't explain. A man who emerged from a life of misery to suddenly strike back at the light around him.
When Lawson heard of the Johnston and Farmer shootings, something jumped in his gut. There was blood on the mountain again. "I just knew it was Randall," Lawson says. "Just knew it."'A Habitual Liar'
Loretta Smith raised her only child, Randall, alone in Pearisburg, a town of 2,700 about half an hour from Blacksburg. Townsfolk do not remember anyone else ever living at the house at 190 Virginia St. "She kept to herself," recalls Gerald Smith, 58, who lived near the Smiths and is unrelated. "A nice lady, though she never communicated with the neighbors."
Loretta worked in the laundry room at Giles Memorial Hospital. "She made a living, that's about all," says Carl Vest, 74, who knew relatives of the family. The Smith home was small -- four rooms and a basement.
For the first few years of his life, Loretta Smith dressed her son in girls' clothing. She never explained why.
At Giles High School, Randall made few friends. "He was a loner," says Gerald Smith, who was also a schoolmate.
On weekends, Randall took off alone to walk the Appalachian Trail, which he could see from the windows of his home.
All through junior high and high school, there was never a girlfriend. No one remembers seeing him at a local house party. On those rare occasions when he would try to fit in with other teenagers, Gerald Smith says something stood out quite clearly about Randall: "He was a habitual liar."
He told lies about money he didn't have, about property he claimed to own in other states. "The house he lived in with his mother was worth $10,000 -- max," Gerald Smith says.
That habit gave birth to a harsh nickname: "We called him 'L.R.,' for 'Lyin' Randall,' " Smith says.
The moniker didn't seem to bother him. There were even times when he turned, with a grin on his face, to someone casually using the epithet.
After high school, Randall Smith did odd jobs, including a brief stint in the Norfolk shipyards. The unsteady work left him free to roam, and he often hiked up and down the Appalachian Trail. He had long, dark hair and his body was fleshy, like a football player who had given up training.
Sometimes, Smith vanished for days. Having never played sports, or joined a Scout troop or done any community-oriented things in which he would have become a presence, no one seems to have missed him.'Strange-Looking Man'
The Appalachian Trail stretches more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and draws thousands of hikers every year.
There are accidents on the trail and an occasional vandalized car, but violent crime is rare. "It is extremely safe," says Brian B. King, spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a management group based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. "You have more of a chance getting hurt driving to the trail in your car than you do on the trail."
There is about one assault a year and one rape every three years, on average, according to Conservancy figures. There have been eight murders linked to the trail since the 1970s, King says. The most recent was in January, when Meredith Emerson, 24, was abducted on Blood Mountain in Georgia and killed by Gary Michael Hilton, a 61-year-old drifter. Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty if he would guide them to the body.
In the spring of 1981, Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr., both 27-year-old social workers from Maine, decided to hike the trail to raise funds on behalf of the mentally ill. Mountford left from Georgia. In early May, he met up with Ramsay in Virginia. They had befriended a female hiker on the trail, and all agreed to meet in the area above Pearisburg. When Ramsay and Mountford didn't show, the woman became worried and alerted authorities.
"My father-in-law at the time said, 'Bobby's too good of a woodsman to get lost,' " recalls Robert Mountford Sr. Still, the elder Mountford was worried. He got in his car in Maine and drove to Virginia.
Tom Lawson was a deputy sheriff for Giles County at the time. He and a couple of other investigators went up on the trail to ask hikers about the missing couple. One told them Mountford and Ramsay had been seen with a "strange-looking man" near the Wapiti Shelter, a small log structure that had been built the year before.
Investigators also went to a local country store, Trent's, and asked if anyone had seen the hikers. They had, indeed, been spotted there on May 19, which would prove to be the last sighting of the two. Lawson remembers one peculiar thing about the investigators' visit to Trent's: "Some people told me there was some man going around saying, 'Hey, I know what happened to those hikers.' "
Lawson asked the man's name.
"And someone said, Lyin' Randall."
Some nut case, he thought. And continued moving.
Investigators fanned out farther along the Appalachian Trail in an effort to reach more hikers who had passed through the stretch above Pearisburg and might have seen Mountford and Ramsay. They found two more people who remembered seeing the couple along with a third, male figure near the shelter. "They had said he acted very eerie," Lawson recalls.
Investigators descended upon the Wapiti Shelter. It was now May 30, 11 days after the last sighting of the couple. Lawson noticed nothing unusual, until his eyes dropped to the floor. "It looked like something had run down between the floorboards," he says. "So I run my knife down between the boards. It was a thick and red substance down there. I said, 'We need to tear this floorboard up. I think there's blood here.' "
Analysis later revealed it was Mountford's blood.
The investigators strode 30 yards in all directions, whacking weeds and kicking over logs. They came upon a small open area and noticed a mound of leaves -- as if someone had tried to cover up something. They started digging and discovered a cloth sleeping bag. Inside it was Susan Ramsay.
The next day, extra help arrived on four legs -- a dog trained to search for bodies. The dog stopped several hundred yards from the shelter, poked its nose around and sat near a stump. "I thought maybe he was tired," says Lawson. "One of the other officers didn't think so. So we moved the dog and started digging."
They found Mountford right there, also buried in a sleeping bag.
Lawson says that Ramsay and Mountford had shared an evening meal before they died. "It was heavy food," he says. "So it would have been a last meal for the day. They wouldn't have eaten that type food and continued hiking." They'd each also had a drink of Bacardi rum.
Mountford had been shot in the head. Ramsay had defensive marks on her hands. "She fought him very hard," Lawson says. "He used a piece of iron to hit her in the head. He also stabbed her with a long nail. She had 13 puncture wounds. As well as wounds with a knife."
The bodies had been dragged from the shelter. Investigators found Ramsay's camera but were disappointed to find the film had been ripped out. But then they came across her backpack, which yielded a valuable clue: a paperback novel that Ramsay had been reading, "Mountolive," by Lawrence Durrell, had bloody fingerprints. One of the prints inside the book belonged to Randall Smith, which were on file from his time in the Norfolk shipyards.
Giles County investigators put out a nationwide APB, or All-Points Bulletin. And they closed a Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail to hikers.
Investigators went to Smith's home. In the basement, they discovered some blood-soaked jeans "and some stuff that belonged to the hikers," Lawson says.
There was also pornographic materials and hospital instruments, possibly pilfered during times he had gone to see his mother at the hospital where she worked. "He had fashioned them into sex toys," says Lawson of the instruments.
And finally, there was a note in Randall's handwriting. "The note said he had been kidnapped by two people and he was going to be killed," Lawson recalls.
Investigators didn't believe a word of it.'Bam, We Had Him'
Days passed without a sign of Smith. Some law enforcement officials wondered if he had committed suicide. Lawson needed a break from the manhunt and took his family on vacation to Myrtle Beach in late June of 1981. Shortly after he arrived in South Carolina, however, authorities there called Giles County looking for him. They had arrested a man they thought might be Smith. Giles County deputies said Lawson happened to be in, of all places, Myrtle Beach, and passed along the name of the motel where he was staying.
"This squad car pulls up, lights flashing," Lawson says.
He was hurried to have a look at the suspect. While en route, officers told Lawson that the individual being detained was claiming to have amnesia and could not remember his name or even how he got to Myrtle Beach. Lawson took one look at him -- haggard and with blotchy insect bites all over him -- and knew: It was Randall Smith.
Outside the interview room, investigators hatched a plan.
"We told him those bites were quite serious," Lawson says. "Told him if he didn't get medical attention, they'd get worse."
The detained man nodded furiously. He had scratched some of his bites raw.
But in order to get medical attention, the man was told he'd have to sign a consent form. As soon as the form was placed in front of him, he scrawled out "Randall Lee Smith." "Bam," Lawson says. "We had him."
Smith, then 27, was extradited to Virginia, where authorities explained the evidence they had accumulated in hopes he might discuss what had happened on the mountain. "He'd just say, 'I don't want to talk about it,' " recalls Al Krane, who worked on the investigation as a special agent with the Virginia State Police.'Never Did Have a Life'
Hezekiah Osborne was commonwealth's attorney for Giles County when Smith was returned to Virginia. Smith was charged with two counts of murder and many were clamoring for a tough sentence. There was strong suspicion that Ramsay had been raped, but authorities could not prove it because of the condition of the body.
Then, on the eve of the trial, Osborne accepted a plea bargain from Smith's attorneys. Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. Both the Ramsay and Mountford families agreed to the plea bargain, which would result in a 30-year sentence. "If the Ramsays went along with it, we were going to go along with it," says Mountford Sr., who is an Episcopalian minister now living in Florida. "We didn't want him to get the death penalty. But we also didn't want him to ever get out."
Mountford was struck by Smith's personal background. He had heard about the lifelong fabrications. "I don't want it to sound like I sympathized with him. After all, he was a murderer. But he really never did have a life. And what life he did have, he made up."
The plea bargain, however, caused anger in the community. "Everybody was outraged, particularly police officers," remembers James Hartley, who was a local attorney at the time.
Osborne, now deceased, had told fellow lawyers he didn't want to risk a trial because he had been unable to discover a motive for the killings. "He said he thought the case was weak," Hartley recalls. "I think everybody disagreed with that."
Hartley drove by the courthouse one day and noticed it was being picketed. "And many of them were hikers."
When Osborne came up for reelection, he had an opponent: James Hartley, who trounced him.
After serving 15 years -- accounts differ as to whether his mother visited him once or twice during that period -- Smith was paroled in 1996. "He had been a model inmate," Lawson says. "Never caused any problems."
He returned to the home he was raised in and to doing odd jobs. He also went back to telling tall tales. "He said he now had a girlfriend in Daytona Beach," remembers Gerald Smith, Randall's neighbor. "Said he went down there to see her. It was a lie. Also said he had a house in Daytona Beach and one in Las Vegas."
As the years rolled by, Randall Smith became more and more of a recluse. There were times, however, when he was spotted yakking with hikers up on the Appalachian Trail.
Smith's appearance had changed noticeably. Now 54, he was no longer the beefy young man who had been sent to prison. He was gaunt and walked with a slight stoop. It seemed as if the hard winters on the mountain had settled into him, freezing his emotions. "I would see him on the road and would wave, and he wouldn't wave back," says Gerald Smith. "So I stopped waving."
When his mother died in 2000, Randall lived off the small amount of money she left him. But this March the money ran out. He took all the pictures off the walls of his home. He packed a few belongings. Then he walked up into the woods.
He took his fishing gear. And his dog, Bo.
When six weeks' worth of mail piled up at the Smith home, it drew attention. Some thought he might have become sick on one of his forays into the woods. There were also darker thoughts.
Police put posters of Randall up around town. They taped one up at Trent's, the country store at the bottom of the road that leads to Dismal Creek.
On May 6, Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer went fishing at their usual spot on Brushy Mountain. The weather was beautiful, yellow diamonds falling through the trees. A man with a slight stoop strolled upon their campsite and introduced himself as "Ricky Williams." An unwritten code along the Appalachian Trail calls for camaraderie, sharing. Johnston and Farmer invited the man to have dinner with them.
It was Randall Smith.
And he was carrying a .22.
Tomorrow: More blood on Brushy Mountain.