Far Away But Close to Home: The Unsolved Killings of Williams and Winans [VIDEO]
ST. CLOUD - It was a double murder that happened far away, but hit close to home in St. Cloud.
It's been just over 20 years since St. Cloud native Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were found murdered in Shenandoah National Park.
Williams and Winans were last seen alive on May 24th, 1996 hiking with their dog, in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Julie was born and raised in St. Cloud, she graduated from Cathedral High School in 1990. She went on to attend Carleton in Northfield and graduated as a geologist.
Winans was majoring in outdoor recreation at Maine's Unity College. Associated Press reports say the two met while studying to become trip leaders in Minneapolis in 1995.
Julie's father, Tom Williams, says the trip was meant as a getaway for Julie, before she started a new chapter in life.
"She was going to be starting a new job that was a dream job for her."
Tom knew something was wrong when Julie's roommate called to tell him that she didn't arrive to move her things out for the new job. After their dog, Taj, was found alone by hikers wandering the park, he was turned over to Park Rangers and a search ensued. Police found Julie's car shortly after.
The bodies of Julie and Lollie were found next, bound and gagged on June 1st, at their secluded campsite near Skyland Resort. Both of their throats were cut.
"They were randomly targeted, identified and murdered while camping on the trail. It was a horrific crime, a particularly grisly crime," Adam Lee, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Richmond Division, says.
Williams was 24-years-old. Winans was 26. It set off an investigation for the National Park Service and the FBI that continues to be an active to this day.
Earlier this summer, the Richmond Division announced they wanted to bring attention back to the murders in an effort to close the case.
Lee says investigators are looking for closure for the Williams and Winans families.
"We're using this opportunity with the 20 year anniversary to let folks know that the case is still a pending FBI investigation and that we're looking for new leads and we're looking for new evidence."
Despite the ongoing search for answers, Tom Williams doesn't hold back his belief in who he thinks is responsible, a man who's been out of prison since 2011.
"To this day, Darrell David Rice is the primary suspect, he had been indicted at the time."
There seemed to be a case breakthrough when authorities announced charges of capital murder against Rice in 2002. However, the charges were later dropped when hairs at the scene ended up matching a different person.
"He's always the individual that's been the one to be ruled out rather than in. I do believe that had it not been a capital murder case [previously] that he'd be convicted and put away now. That's how strongly I feel that he's her murderer," Tom Williams says.
According to Associated Press reports, the indictment charged Rice with capital murder and with intentionally targeting his victims because of their gender and/or sexual orientation. A recent NBC Washington report says in 2002, Attorney General John Ascroft revealed that because Williams and Winans were lesbians, the case would be handled as a hate crime.
In a phone interview with WJON, the FBI confirmed the case is still being handled as such.
"There's certainly some indication that they were targeted sort of pursuant to a hatred of their lifestyle or choices and I think that's how we certainly still scope the case," Lee says.
In 1998, Rice pleaded guilty to an unrelated abduction charge for trying to grab a bicyclist and then for attempting to run the woman over. Investigators discovered hand and leg restraints in Rice's vehicle. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for that conviction.
Lee says he can't comment on suspects or specific evidence in the case, but says nobody has been ruled out in their ongoing investigation.
"Let me say this: no one has been exonerated in this case. We are looking at anyone that had any relationships to the events on the Shenandoah 20 years ago that took the lives of these two ladies."
What's most chilling to authorities is that the killer could ultimately continue committing crimes.
"It's very unlikely the killer had identified these two and then just stopped their career of crime. So we are looking to actively looking to do what we can to link this case to other cases, we're using new technologies to exploit the physical evidence in the case," Lee says.
Memories of Julie
It was important for Tom to deal with his own grief by being knowledgeable about the case. Over the years, he subscribed to a newspaper clipping service and would get a pack of the latest information on the case every day. After the horrifying news, he and his family visited the site where his daughter was killed. He says it was a beautiful area and that the tragedy tainted a tranquil scene.
Julie was always interested in other people and the environment. She traveled often through her college days, she spent one summer living in Northern Wisconsin helping Native Americans to re-license streams for hydroelectric power. Social justice was important to her. She spoke Spanish fluently and often worked with immigrant workers during her travels.
Tom still gets emotional recalling a particular story of Julie helping a young woman and her baby during a trip to Mexico. Julie had a relationship with the area Police Department, due to her ability to speak Spanish. She ended up staying to support the woman after they were called on a domestic call.
During her time at Cathedral High School, Julie was second in her class and won the state doubles tournament in tennis with her best friend Becky Schaefer during their senior years. In a phone interview with WJON, Schaefer says she thinks about Julie often and that she helped her become the person she is now.
"I still think of Julie or even just things in my life right now: I have a high school daughter myself. Just seeing her relationships with friends, it sometimes makes me reminisce about my high school days and having a super close friend that I could go to for anything."
Julie's former biology teacher (who's still teaching at Cathedral), Fred Rupp, says he still thinks of Julie and the impact she left on the school.
"She was such an empathetic person, it was hard to see this happen."
The murder is something many in St. Cloud will never forget.
"This isn't the St. Cloud world that we all knew. This terrible thing had happened in a distant place and it brought us a dose of the world that we just couldn't relate to," Rupp says.
Over 20 years later: Tom says he hopes answers are found and that the community will continue to talk about the good memories Julie left behind.
"I would encourage everybody to talk to people, to say: 'I remember this story about Julie or Julie would have laughed at that.' I think being in touch with the people who've had a loss is very important: they certainly never forget."
Anyone with information on this case should call the Richmond FBI field office at 804-261-1044. You can also submit a tip online by clicking here.
On June 1st, 2016, the FBI also created updated posters in hopes of finding more tips and leads for the investigation. The posters can be found here.
"These ladies are remembered by my agency and I know they're remembered by you and your listeners. Please rest assured that we are going to stop at nothing until we reach a conclusion in this case that brings justice to Julie and Lollie," Lee says.
-This story was written with information from the Associated Press-