DNA evidence helps solve killings of 2 women in Shenandoah National Park nearly 30 years later

Almost 30 years after the brutal killings of two women in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, the FBI says it now knows who was responsible.

DNA evidence and a methodical case review helped identify a suspect in the killings, the FBI’s Richmond Field Office said in a news release Thursday.

Laura “Lollie” Winans, 26, and Julianne “Julie” Williams, 24, were killed at their campsite near the Skyland Resort on May 24, 1996, according to the release. Family members called the National Park Service when the women did not return home.

Their bodies were found about a week later after “an extensive search” by National Park Service rangers.

After all these years, DNA evidence positively matched Walter “Leo” Jackson Sr., a convicted serial rapist from Cleveland, Ohio, the news release said.

“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 Jackson’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,” FBI Richmond Special Agent in Charge Stanley Meador said in the news release.

The case picked up momentum in 2021 when a new FBI Richmond investigative team conducted a methodical review of the case, taking another look at hundreds of leads and interviews, according to the release. Evidence from the crime scene was sent to a private lab, which successfully pulled DNA from some of the items.

Jackson, the man whose DNA matched, had a criminal history “including kidnapping, rapes, and assaults,” the release said.

He died in prison in March 2018 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, authorities said. Jackson was a residential painter and an avid hiker who was known to visit Shenandoah National Park.

The FBI's Richmond Field Office identified a suspect through DNA that was connected to the murders of Laura “Lollie” Winans and Julianne “Julie” Williams in 1996. - FBI/WWBT
The FBI's Richmond Field Office identified a suspect through DNA that was connected to the murders of Laura “Lollie” Winans and Julianne “Julie” Williams in 1996. - FBI/WWBT

But decades ago, in 2002, a different man was at the center of the case. A federal grand jury in April 2002 indicted Darryl David Rice, a Maryland man incarcerated for other crimes, on charges of capital murder and a hate crime in their slayings.

At that point, it was nearly six years after the women’s bodies were found with their throats slashed.

Rice, who appears to still be alive, was released from prison in 2011 after some probation violations, according to public and court records.

However, the US Attorney’s office made it clear in a public filing 22 years ago that the forensic evidence did not implicate Rice and the DNA materials located on crime scene evidence excluded him, US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Christopher Kavanaugh said Thursday at the news conference.

“It was in a retesting of the crime scene evidence that developed a profile that was uploaded into the national database that led us to Walter Leo Jackson Sr., ultimately resulting in a finding that there was a one out of 2.6 trillion chance that had originated from someone other than Walter Leo Jackson, Sr.,” Kavanaugh said. “I prosecuted many homicides and cold cases and I have never witnessed statistics that high.”

Winans and Williams were members of the LGBTQIA+ community, Kavanaugh said, and although their murders were originally believed to be hate crimes, he has found no evidence of that. The case was eventually dismissed due to the lack of forensic evidence.

“Make no mistake, this crime was brutal. This crime was definitionally hateful,” Kavanaugh said. “Nevertheless, we do not have any evidence that the victims were selected for or that Jackson had any knowledge of or was otherwise motivated by their membership in a protected class. And if the evidence showed otherwise, I would say it,” he said.

Kavanaugh was confident in the strength of the evidence and if the suspect were alive, he’d act on the new information, he said.

The families of the victims were not at the news conference.

“I want to again extend my condolences to the Winans and Williams families and hope today’s announcement provides some small measure of solace,” Kavanaugh said in a news release.

CNN’s Braden Walker and Julie In contributed to this report.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com