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Trail of a Killer

In 1981, Randall Lee Smith murdered two hikers along the Appalachian Trail in a crime that stunned the nation.

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Wil Haygood
Washington Post Reporter
Wednesday, July 9, 2008; 12:00 PM

In 1981, Randall Smith murdered two hikers on the Appalachian Trail. After spending 15 years in prison -- half his original sentence -- Smith was released on parole and shot two more hikers on the trail.

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Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood was online Wednesday, July 9 to discuss Smith's story.

The transcript follows.

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Wil Haygood: Hi. This is Wil Haygood and looking forward to talking about the two-part-series about the attempted murder on the Appalachian Trail and the case that preceded it.

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Washington, D.C.: Any insight into why Randy committed these murders? Was he interviewed much by police after the first killings?

Wil Haygood: There were various attempts to interview Randall Lee after the murders in 1981 and after the most recent episode. He simply shut down on authorities and offered no insight whatsoever into what motivated him.

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Denver, Colo.: One big question: Where did a convicted murderer get another gun?

Wil Haygood: The authorities have no idea where he may have gotten the gun from. It was an old gun, however, and there was some speculation it may have been the gun from the 1981 shooting. Which meant he may have buried it and retrieved it after prison.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you attend the small, private funeral? I was wondering if any remaining family members are angry at his death in jail? What will happen to his mother's house?

Wil Haygood: No, I did not attend the funeral. Have no idea what will happen to the home, which is vacant now.

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Dallas, Tex.: That is a tremendous story. Did you investigate how someone could do 15 years for two counts of second degree murder? Also why wasn't he tried for first degree? This is an example of how appropriate justice can be a preventer of future crimes.

Wil Haygood: At the time Smith was sentenced, the sentencing guidelines were different. They provided release dates and time off for good behavior. Many sentencing guidelines around the country have been changed since the 1980s.

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Anonymous: OK, gun question asked and answered. How about this - you get out of prison and Virginia and there's no parole officer to report to? This guy just disappears and no one notices for six weeks? Didn't he have to report to a parole officer once a week?

Wil Haygood: He had been on parole but recently released from parole.

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Fairfax, Va.: What are the ages of the victims?

Wil Haygood: The victims in 1981 were both 27 years old. The recent victims, Scott and Sean, are 39 and 33 respectively.

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Burke, Va.: A common sentiment among most readers, as evident in their postings, is that this is all due to miscarriage of justice as the system favored the white man. A man of color in that situation would have had no chance of getting out easily, if you assume that he did not get a death sentence in the first place. Any comments?

Wil Haygood: Virginia authorities were guided by guidelines. It is as simple as that: prisoners got time off for good behavior. Randall had been classified as a model inmate.

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York, Pa.: Did the autopsy results for Randall Smith ever get released? If yes, do you know what they revealed? Very nicely written series!!

Wil Haygood: The autopsy report has not been delivered yet.

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Washington, D.C.: Superb journalism Mr. Haygood. You gave us an enormous amount of intricate details. How many days did it take and how many miles did you cover to unravel this story?

Wil Haygood: Thank you. I spent about a week in the mountains of Virginia and put quite a few miles on the car.

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Towson, Md.: The murder of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans -- also on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia -- remains unsolved. Is there any chance that Randall Smith was involved?

Wil Haygood: All I know is that authorities are continuing to investigate any disappearances through the years on the AT. They also continue to look for Smith's hideaway.

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Baltimore: Wil: Both parts of the story were riveting and the description of how the second two victims kept is together while fleeing was unbelievable. I realize that Smith was a compulsive liar, but he otherwise did not seem to be violent. Did anyone who knew him as a kid or teen describe incidents of violence? Guys like this are usually committing arson and torturing animals at a young age. Thanks.

Wil Haygood: Thank you. Writing the story in two parts was the idea of my savvy editor, Steve Reiss. He saw it before I did: I'm talking about the need to explore the 1981 saga before heading into what happened 27 years later. It gave me a much richer understanding of the trail itself and Randall Lee himself. Smith didn't exhibit outward bullying traits, though after he got out of prison, if pressed, he would remind neighbors of why he had been sent to prison.

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Jackson, Miss.: What does "model inmate" mean, exactly? Did he participate in any counseling while incarcerated?

Wil Haygood: Great question. Model inmate can be a fairly loose term. Mainly it means the inmate did not get in any trouble, did not accumulate an unseemly number of infractions during his incarceration.

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Freising, Germany: The Nobel Prize winning author, William Golding, once wrote in a novel, you can't write about true stories; they're too unbelievable.

What was considered to be Randall Smith's motivation for the original crime and for the repeated attempt? Why does a down and out man attempt to kill someone who shows him kindness?

Wil Haygood: Having no training in psychiatry, I certainly can't answer that. Some felt that Randall had a peculiar affection for the AT and considered others -- depending on his mood -- as interlopers.

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Chantilly, Va.: Could you offer any words of wisdom for someone going camping this weekend? Your article, while amazing to read, has left me more than a little jittery.

Wil Haygood: Those who manage the trail and oversee it say, time and time again, it is VERY VERY safe. Anyone going camping anywhere should follow normal security guidelines of course.

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Lincoln, Neb.: As a fellow narrative journalist, I just want to commend you for this brilliantly constructed series. They way you played with time, set the scene, described the players, etc was fantastic. Can you talk a bit about your process... did you interview Scott and Sean multiple times, or did you manage to craft these articles based on straight forward one-shot interviews?

Wil Haygood: Well, thank you. I spent a lot of time with both Scott and Sean, wonderful individuals, particularly in the sense that they allowed me to take them into this saga again. A writer is blessed if he or she has a brilliant editor. I do. Steve Reiss wanted me to explore certain themes in the piece and that, I think, more than anything, helped with pacing.

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Randall's Dog...: So, his dog has been adopted. By a relative, or a rescue agency? I know, silly question. But as a dog lover, your descriptions of its gaunt frame had me totally despondent until I read this happy footnote.

Wil Haygood: I believe it was a friend of Randall's -- someone who lived in the neighborhood.

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Washington, D.C.: Great job on this story. You can't help but notice the how quickly Smith seems to have aged over just a few years when you compare the photos of him. Any evidence he was under the influence of crystal meth, or any other drugs?

Wil Haygood: No evidence at all. The last weeks of his life were lived in the woods, deep in the woods. And you can imagine how cold it can get up there in April at night.

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Fairfax, Va.: This was an extremely well-written, interesting and tragic story. For Smith's victims, of course, but also for Smith himself. From what little you could find about his young life it sounds like it was bizarre at best (e.g., his mother dressing him up like a girl, not talking to neighbors). It's sad that there was no help available to him early on when it may have made a difference and prevented the loss of the lives of two good people and the scarring (physically and psychologically) of the two other victims, and possibly could have helped Smith lead a productive life.

Wil Haygood: The family, from all accounts, were simply very private people.

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Falls Church, Va.: What did you learn from doing this story?

Wil Haygood: I was talking with one investigator about the amazing survival of Scott and Sean. And he told me: "The human body can do amazing things when it is under extreme stress." So I was genuinely struck by their presence of mind to move, to keep going, to do something -- and not just fall or collaspe. And each remained strong for the other barreling down that dark road.

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Washington, D.C.: Any plans on expanding this to a full book? There will of course be comparisons to Capote, but really, this such a fascinating tale that it can stand on its own and would be fully engrossing.

Wil Haygood: I appreciate your sentiment, but believe me, I am no Truman Capote.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Have either Sean and Scott begin counseling now? How did they feel/act being back at the shooting site?

Wil Haygood: I don't think it was easy being back at the site. Heck, it wasn't easy for ME and I was just a visitor. I think they are heavily leaning toward counseling. They went through something quite painful and quite searing.

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Mechanicville, N.Y.: You said that Johnston and Farmer talked with Smith for a couple of hours before he shot them; I'm curious as to what the nature of the conversation was, beyond what you reported, and whether there was any hint of what was about to happen?

Also, he could not have committed the Shenandoah murders, I believe -- they happened on Memorial Day weekend in 1996 -- and Darrell Rice was, and still remains the prime suspect in that case.

Wil Haygood: They talked about normal things -- sports, fishing, nature. Although Randall Lee veered off quite a bit talking about himself and imaginary exploits.

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Centreville, Va.: Has this case caused any kind of a debate about whether convicted murderers should be eligible for parole? It seems like Smith wasn't someone that could be "reformed."

Wil Haygood: I think many states and jurisdictions have already answered that question by revisiting parole guidelines.

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Washington, D.C.: The photos and maps are great accompaniments to your brilliant story. My favorites: the sun setting over the ridge (part 1) and Scott Johnston visiting Smith's gravesite (part 2). What behind the scenes process yielded these fantastic results -- story, photos, maps?

washingtonpost.com: Interactive Timeline and Photo Gallery

Wil Haygood: And the map and layout design and web teams all weighed in heavily and smartly.

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Centreville, Va.: Do you get the impression that this incident might change how hikers treat each other on the trails? Will they be more suspicious of each other, do you think?

Wil Haygood: I think hikers are a very smart group of people. The AT authorities told me they advise hikers all the time to use a heightened common sense.

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Spring, Tex.: How did you get interested in this story enough to write such an in depth article about it?

Wil Haygood: My editor walked over to me one morning and said, "Hey, can you look into this?" And that's really how it began. I sensed Scott and Sean a little reticent to talk at first but they grew more relaxed as our time together lengthened.

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Nellysford, Va.: Were either Johnston or Farmer aware of the history of the area, the release of Randall and did either suspect this could be him? How did they miss the posters in the area?

Wil Haygood: As children both Scott and Sean had heard of the 1981 case. But as they told me: they were kids and it seemed to go in one ear and out the other.

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Anonymous: I think you misunderstood the question about bullying. The question isn't "was Smith a bully?" The question is "was Smith bullied?" A loner, no one liked him, no one knew much about him, just goes and shoots people after near silence and near total lack of interaction with others. Sounds a whole lot like another recent Virginia tragedy (VT). Bet anything that he was tortured by the kids he grew up with. Not an excuse, but at least an explanation. Dig deeper. Someone will spill the beans. Kids like that are always picked on.

Wil Haygood: That is an interesting insight. I was told that Smith would simply leave a place where he thought there might be trouble -- a teenage tussle of some kind -- because he had no friends or siblings who might help protect him.

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Central Mass.: Great job. Really loved the story -- an old-fashioned serial to keep 'em coming back for more! It wasn't clear to me from the story, when did the more recent attacks take place?

Wil Haygood: On May 6.

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Washington, D.C.: You stated that Robert Mountford had been shot in the head while Susan Ramsey was stabbed with a long nail. Did anyone in law enforcement ever hazard a guess as to why she was not shot as well?

Wil Haygood: Not to my knowledge.

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Boston: Wil, tremendous storytelling. I was compelled to keep reading the first part yesterday during my workday and couldn't wait to finish up with part two this morning.

I do have a question of how the story ended in the second installment. It seemed a strange(?) bump in the narrative flow of the story that the question of psychological counseling came up during Johnston and Farmer's return to the scene of their attack. I assume you raised the question to both men. What prompted it? Was it just a general question to allow the men to talk about their experience more? Or did something occur to you that was a subject to cover at that moment?

Wil Haygood: It just seemed a natural question to pose. Especially so since they had shared stories about visits to the doctor and physical therapy sessions.

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LaGrange, Ga.: This was an excellently written piece. The descriptions are amazing, and the quotes are just right for the mood Smith set himself and you set in words. As a journalist myself who could only pray for something like this, how did you come upon a story of such amazing depth with some caution involved, yet still have seemingly comfortable interviews with everyone involved?

Wil Haygood: Scott's mother and father were just great, and I think their presence during a portion of the interviews helped relax Scott. I say the same about Sean's mother.

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Bethesda, Md.: How much is known about Randall Smith's family relationships? Your article briefly touches upon his mother's reclusiveness, but is more known about Randall's relationship with her? Did he have relationships with siblings, his father or aunts and uncles?

Wil Haygood: He had no relationship at all with his father.

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Bluefield, Va.: Scott here -- just want to thank you for all the effort that Micheal, you, and the rest of the Post staff put into this article.

Wil Haygood: Scott, Sean: We thank YOU for taking the time to tell it.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Wil. Thanks for the series. What is the general feeling related to the shootings in the surrounding towns? Did people see Smith as a lost cause as far back as his school days, or did they see his behavior as a result of a lack of support from the community? One last question...how and why did you decide to pursue this project? Thanks!

Wil Haygood: Smith truly had a very very close circle in his life: Himself and his mother. Then she died.

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Jacksonville, Ark.: How was he able to acquire a firearm?

Wil Haygood: Authorities have no idea how he got firearm.

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Falls Church, Va.: The memory of Bob Mountford lives on for all who knew him. Thanks for your insightful and sensitive writing of a difficult, tragic tale.

Wil Haygood: Bob Mountford and Susan Ramsay both remain beloved figures. They were hiking to raise money for charities.

I also must say that both Scott and Sean have resumed fishing along the AT and continue to express their joy and love of the trail.

I will sign off now and would like to thank everyone who tuned in.

Best, Wil

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