Trail of a Killer: Second of Two Parts
Lonely, Dark and Deep
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
DISMAL CREEK, Giles County, Va. All manner of animals feast in the deep woods along this lovely stretch of mountains. There are bear and deer. Poisonous snakes and fish shimmering in the creeks. Dreams are hatched beside campfires and the stars seem almost close enough to grasp.
But sometimes, man feasts here as well.
And the killer was hungry.
Randall Smith had been in the woods for weeks. His face had gone slack, and he had lost weight. Yet he was familiar with this area along the Appalachian Trail in southwestern Virginia. It was where he had charmed his way into the company of two hikers back in 1981, only to murder them in the night. He fired a bullet from a .22-caliber handgun into the skull of Robert Mountford Jr. When Mountford's hiking companion, Susan Ramsay, awoke, a vicious scuffle began, ending with Smith plunging a long nail into Ramsay more than a dozen times. It was the first time a double murder had taken place on the Appalachian Trail.
In a plea bargain, he was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. After 15 years behind bars, Smith was paroled in 1996. He scraped by for more than a decade doing a bit of welding here, a bit of mechanical work there. But last March he was running out of money. He packed a few things, slid out of his home in nearby Pearisburg, and headed back up the mountain he had walked since he was a child.
Scott Johnston, now 39, first saw him on the morning of May 6. Actually, he first spotted the dog, mangy with a protruding belly.
"You could see its ribs," Johnston remembers. "The dog was starving."
Johnston stopped his truck, and a gaunt man -- sallow complexion, camouflage jacket -- climbed up off the creek bank. He started jawing to Johnston that he didn't think there were any fish in the creek because he hadn't caught a single one. "I said, 'Hold on,' " Johnston remembers. "I opened up my box and showed him my trout." The man's eyes danced all over the fish. Johnston felt sorry for him and reached into his box. "I gave him a few."
The man, grateful, asked Johnston if he was going to set up camp nearby. Johnston said yes, that he was awaiting the arrival of a friend, and pointed in the direction of his campsite. The man told Johnston his own camp happened to be in the same direction -- only a mile or so beyond where Johnston was pointing. He said he might stop by later, on the way to his own campsite. Johnston simply nodded.
Johnston's campsite sat just 1 1/2 miles from the Appalachian Trail's Wapiti Shelter, the site of the 1981 murders. He had unknowingly just pointed out his campsite to the very man who committed those murders. And once again the murderer was carrying a .22.
Tall Tales Over Dinner
Johnston's friend, Sean Farmer, arrived that afternoon while Scott was out gathering firewood. The two men had been fishing and camping in these woods and along Dismal Creek since they were little boys.
Farmer, 33, pitched his tent and sat down for a minute. And when he did, a man he had never seen before walked over to the campsite. The man introduced himself as "Ricky Williams" and said he had already met Scott. Farmer relaxed: This man knew Scott.