There’s nothing quite like being in nature – cooking over a campfire, sleeping under the stars — to remind you of how vulnerable you are. The quiet idyll of the great outdoors can be peaceful and restorative, or, you may learn to think twice about hiking a trail alone or spending a night in a tent.
When Camping Turns Deadly
On June 21, 1972, the bodies of Ann Durrant and Swedish exchange student Leif Carlsson were found in their sleeping bags, where they’d been camping on Vancouver Island. Although their murder was never solved, a man named Joseph Henry Burgess remained the prime suspect until his death in a police shoot-out in 2009. Reportedly, Burgess, who was known as a “Jesus Freak,” had complained to people just before the attack that he was offended, as a Christian, by unwed couples staying on the beach together. The gun he had used in his fatal shoot-out decades later was registered to David Eley, a man reported missing in 2006 while on a camping trip.Burgess’s name would come up again as a suspect in the murders of Christian camp counselors Lindsay Cutshall and Jason Allen, who were shot while sleeping on Jenner Beach on August 15, 2004. His DNA didn’t match that at the scene, however, and their murders remain unsolved.
The 1970s was a bad decade for camping, with serial killer Herbert Mullin killing four teenage boys – Robert Spector, David Oliker, Brian Scott Card, and Mark Dreibelbis – while they were camping in the California woods on February 10, 1973. A schizophrenic, one of Mullins’s justifications for his slaying of 13 people was that he claimed his murders would prevent another earthquake. He was sentenced to life in prison, with possibility of parole in 2025.Later, on June 13, 1977, three girl scouts were raped, bludgeoned, and strangled while on a camping trip at Camp Scott in Mayes County, Oklahoma. Chillingly, a camp counselor had reported a strange incident less than two months prior – doughnuts had been stolen out of a box she’d brought for the scouts, and a handwritten note was left in the empty box, promising to murder three campers. Tragically, that threat was carried out with the murders of Lori Lee Farmer, Doris Denise Milner, and Michelle Heather Guse. The primary suspect – George Leroy Hart – was acquitted at trial but later died while serving time for other crimes.
On August 2, 1982, David William Shearing stalked a family of six camping in British Columbia, shooting the four adults and keeping the two young daughters as sex slaves for days before killing them, too. He looted the family’s camper for valuables, then set the whole thing on fire. Authorities had a description of the camper they believed their suspect was driving and reconstructed it, hoping the effort would trigger memories in anyone who may have seen the driver. Finally, a tip led them to Shearing, who broke down in questioning and revealed details of the crime. He pleaded guilty to six counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
The bodies of campers Julianne “Julie” Williams and Laura “Lollie” Winans were found on June 1, 1996, the same day that Williams was supposed to start a new job that she and Winans were celebrating with their fateful trip in the Shenandoah National Park. They were found naked, bound, and gagged. Although there have been suspects, including Darrell David Rice who’d served time for an attempted abduction of a female bicyclist in the same park, as well as regional serial killer Richard Marc Evonitz, no one has ever been charged with the double homicide.
More recently, on November 14, 2015, six members of the Kamp and Johnson families were shot and killed at a Texas campsite. Thomas Kamp had bought a tract of land in Anderson County, intending to create a rural getaway for he and his fiancée, but William Hudson believed the land rightfully belonged to him. He ingratiated himself with the vacationing families, drinking beers with them around a campfire, and then shot four of them in the woods, returning later to kill the remaining two.
When Cabin in the Woods Is Real
Camping in a cabin instead of a tent or an RV seems safer – and certainly more civilized – but it doesn’t always protect against murder.
On April 11, 1981, the bodies of Glenna “Sue” Sharp, her teenage son John Sharp, and his friend Dana Wingate were found in Cabin No. 28 at a Keddie, California, camping resort. They had been bound with medical tape and electrical wire, stabbed, and beaten with a hammer. Three years later, the remains of Sharp’s younger daughter Tina were also found. Although there have been numerous suspects, including two men staying at a neighboring cabin who both had criminal records, no arrests have been made in the case.
The Tiede family was vacationing for the Christmas holiday when they interrupted two burglars in their remote Utah cabin. It was Christmas Eve, 1990, and Von Lester Taylor and Edward Steven Deli, both parolees from a halfway house, had filmed themselves opening the family’s Christmas gifts while the family was out. When the family returned to the cabin, the men fatally shot two members and wounded another, dousing him with gasoline and leaving him for dead. They set the house on fire and kidnapped the Tiedes’s two daughters, but were caught by authorities after a car chase. Deli was sentenced to life in prison, while Taylor received the death penalty.
On January 31, 2013, two teenage boys, Anthony Zarro and Christopher Allen, escaped from the Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch and fatally beat and stabbed Paul Brian Brooks and Margaret Brooks while they were vacationing in their son’s lake house. The Brookses were high school sweethearts who would’ve celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the year they were killed. Both Zarro and Allen will serve life sentences in prison.
When to Fear the Appalachian Trail
Spanning 14 states, the Appalachian Trail is one of the premier long-distance hiking experiences in North America. Thousands hike the trail each year, and it’s more likely that you would die of dehydration or exposure than from a vicious assault . . . but they do happen.
Although the Appalachian Trail opened in 1937 to hikers, the first recorded murder wasn’t until 1974, when Joel Polson was killed by Ralph Fox at the Low Gap Trail Shelter in the Chattahoochee National Forest. In April of the next year, Janice Balza was murdered by tree surgeon Paul Bigley with a hatchet, reportedly because he coveted her backpack. He was convicted of her murder and died in prison.
Even couples hiking together can be vulnerable if they run into the wrong character. On May 19, 1981, the bodies of Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford, Jr. were found in shallow graves near the trail. Mountford had been shot three times in the head, while Ramsay was beaten and stabbed multiple times. Randall Lee Smith eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case, and was sentenced to two 15-year sentences. He served 14 years total before being released from prison. Astonishingly, he would later shoot two more individuals on the trail, although they survived his attack. He died in police custody in 2008.
In a similar incident, Geoffrey Hood and Molly LaRue were a couple in their mid-twenties when they met Paul David Crews, a fugitive wanted for murder in Florida, on Cove Mountain near the Susquehanna River. Crews shot Hood three times and bound, tortured, and raped LaRue before stabbing her to death. Their bodies were found on September 13, 1990. The next week, Crews was arrested with Hood’s backpack, several of the couples’s other possessions, and the murder weapons. He was sentenced to death, although the sentence was later commuted to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
On May 13, 1988, Rebecca Wight and Claudia Brenner, who met while they were students at Virginia Tech, were hiking the Appalachian Trail when they set up camp in the Michaux State Forest. Wight ran into Stephen Roy Carr at the campsite bathroom, where she’d gone naked, thinking no one else was there. He asked for a cigarette, and she was so unsettled by the encounter that she and Brenner decided to find a more private spot. Carr followed them there, and shot both women multiple times while they were in their tent, later stating that their lesbianism had thrown him into a rage. He left both women for dead, but Brenner survived and wrote a book, Eight Bullets: One Woman’s Story of Surviving Anti-Gay Violence. Carr tried to seek refuge in a Mennonite community, but was turned in by a member who’d secretly watched television and recognized him as the suspect from the local news. Carr was eventually sentenced to life without parole, and Brenner went on to become a vocal spokesperson against anti-gay hate crimes.
And It’s Not Just the Appalachian Trail
As one of the longest trails in the United States, it’s no wonder that the Appalachian Trail has seen its share of crime. But hiking in general can be dangerous, especially if you do it alone.Three of his many victims were found in Mt. Tamalpais Park near San Francisco, all with bullet wounds to the back of the head, except for one victim who died after being stabbed in the chest multiple times. He was later convicted of seven murders, although it is suspected he was responsible for more. He remains on San Quentin’s death row, and is now 86 years old.
On New Year’s Day in 2008, Meredith Emerson was hiking on the aptly named Blood Mountain with her dog, Ella, when she was joined by drifter Gary Michael Hilton. They hiked together for a while before Emerson continued up the trail alone with her dog. When she came back, Hilton was waiting for her. He kept her hostage, demanding the PIN for her ATM card, while she fought him and repeatedly gave him the wrong numbers. After four days, he tied her to a tree and decapitated her, although he couldn’t bring himself to kill her dog. “It was hard,” he later told investigators. “You gotta remember we had spent several good days together.”
He pleaded guilty and received a life sentence instead of the death penalty in exchange for cooperating with authorities and revealing the location of Emerson’s body. He was later convicted in three other murder cases, as well. Emerson’s alma mater, the University of Georgia, offers a study abroad scholarship in her memory, partially funded by a 5k race in which more than 300 individuals and their dogs run every year.
After reading about these chilling crimes, you might ask yourself: What’s so great about the outdoors?
Main photo: Pixabay
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