1996 Shenandoah National Park Murders Finally Solved, According to FBI

The 1996 murders of two female backpackers in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park have finally been solved. Federal authorities announced on Thursday that a now-deceased serial rapist from Ohio was responsible for the killings of Julianne “Julie” Williams, 24, and her partner, Laura “Lollie” Winans, 26.

The women’s bodies were found bound and gagged at their campsite in May 1996, but their murders went unsolved for nearly 30 years. In 2021, a new investigative team formed to review the case. That team sent evidence from the crime scene to a private lab, which successfully extracted DNA from it.

Laura Winans (left) and Julianne Williams

The DNA yielded a positive match to Walter “Leo” Jackson Sr., a convicted rapist from Ohio. According to Stanley M. Meador, Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond, Virginia FBI office, there is less than a one in 2.6 trillion chance that the DNA came from someone other than Jackson.

“Even though we had this DNA match, we took additional steps and compared evidence from Lollie and Julie’s murders directly to a buccal swab containing the subject’s DNA. Those results confirmed we had the right man and finally could tell the victim’s families we know who is responsible for this heinous crime,” said Meador.

Photos of Walter Jackson and vehicles he is known to have driven from a recent FBI poster

Jackson had an extensive criminal history, including convictions for kidnapping and multiple rapes and assaults. He died in prison in Cuyahoga County, Ohio in 2018 at age 70. He was reportedly an avid hiker and was known to visit Shenandoah National Park.

Williams and Winans were last seen hiking with a golden retriever on May 24, 1996. Concerned family members called Shenandoah National Park when the women did not return home on time. Meanwhile, someone found the couple’s dog wandering the park alone and turned it over to rangers. Searchers discovered both womens’ bodies at their campsite near Skyland Resort, just off the Appalachian Trail.

The recent retesting showed that both Williams and Winans were sexually assaulted, according to US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Christopher R. Kavanaugh.

Williams and Winans were in a romantic relationship. However, authorities say they found no evidence that Jackson knew of their sexual orientation or targeted them for that reason.

“After 28 years, we are now able to say who committed the brutal murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams in Shenandoah National Park,” Kavanaugh said on Thursday. “I want to again extend my condolences to the Winans and Williams families and hope today’s announcement provides some small measure of solace.”

The FBI will continue to work with law enforcement partners to determine if Jackson is responsible for other unsolved crimes. Anyone with information on Jackson should call 1-800-CALL-FBI or submit online at tips.fbi.gov.

Featured image: Laura Winans (left) and Julianne Williams

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

What Do You Think?