Ravens Roost: Rock-climbing death deemed accidental
What may be Virginia's most beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway overlook was also the scene of one of its most tragic accidents, the June 15 rock-climbing death of Alabama resident Jonathan "Sully" Sullivan. The 20-year-old's fatal fall, under investigation for nearly three months, has finally been ruled accidental, according to the Park Ranger leading the investigation.
"We do not believe there was any intentional cause of death," says Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett, who oversees the Parkway for the National Park Service. "A mistake was made in the way the equipment was configured."
Perhaps that's not too surprising that foul play was a prime consideration, given the recent spate of homicides along the Parkway.
Barely a mile up the road on a glorious spring evening last year, Christina Floyd and Tim Davis were enjoying the sunset at Rock Point Overlook when Ralph Leon Jackson blasted them with a shotgun, sending Davis over the edge. The 27-year-old WNRN DJ died in the hospital a few days later.
A mile from there, In that same south-of-Humpback Rocks area, UVA grad student Lizzy Hafter had come up to Greenstone Overlook to study in early October 2006, when she crossed paths with Thomas Ashby, a man on a murderous rampage from Tennessee to Florida. He killed Hafter for her 1996 Toyota Corolla, which was found in Florida, where he died in a shootout with police.
Even Ravens Roost itself, as a popular rock climbing spot, has the potential for disaster. In 2008, a 40-year-old Waynesboro man fell 60 feet and was seriously injured, but survived.
Shortly after Sullivan's reported 100-foot fall, park rangers appealed to anyone who might have been at the overlook that day. Could someone have tampered with the equipment?
"Investigators had to consider that," says Stinnett. "You have a climbing system, and it all ends up on the ground."
It was Sullivan's first outdoor rock climb, and he and his friends put plenty of appropriate gear in place, Stinnett says, including one-inch tubular rope. What they didn't have, however, was a proper connection to an anchor point.
"He was climbing, and he put his weight on the system," says Stinnett. "They hadn't put a carbiner on one end, and it failed."
After urging the public to come forward with any possible witnesses, Stinnett says investigators reached their conclusions by examining photographs and talking to those who were present.
Birmingham native Sullivan attended Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, and was planning to attend the University of Alabama, where, according to his obituary, he'd been invited to be a walk-on football player for highly-acclaimed Crimson Tide.