Bombshell: Defense move delays Rice trial
The thick stands of red oak on Shenandoah National Park's Stony Man Mountain open up near the highway to an unmarked and overgrown trail that rangers would like to forget.
It was here in 1996, secluded among the ferns and huckleberry bushes, that Julianne Marie Williams and Laura "Lollie'' S. Winans were tortured and slashed to death in an attack that woke nearby campers with dreams of screams in the night.
The killings on old Bridal Trail sent a seven-year chill through the popular national park, where violence is rare. Rangers warned hikers about the dangers of camping alone. Women's rights groups wondered if it was a hate crime– if Williams and Winans were murdered simply because they were lovers.
The mystery may end soon in Charlottesville federal court. Prosecutors say they've found the killer: Darrell David Rice, a 36-year-old Grateful Dead enthusiast from Columbia, Maryland, with a history of violence toward women, faces capital murder charges in a trial that begins November 3.
The trial was to begin Monday, October 20, but U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon ordered a two-week delay so both the prosecution and defense could have more time to investigate biological evidence.
Investigators began to look at Rice in 1997 when he was caught trying to run a female bicyclist off a road in the park. They've entered into the court record a mountain of circumstantial evidence and interviews with jailhouse informants.
But what may become a central issue at trial is a lack of biological evidence connecting Rice to the slayings.
Defense lawyer Fred T. Heblich says that for such a murder– the women were bound and rebound with duct tape and probably were held captive for hours, according to investigators– the attacker must have left behind some blood, hair, or fingerprints of his own.
"But there's no forensic information that indicates Rice,'' Heblich says.
Heblich says investigators should have removed Rice from suspicion when the FBI found that hair discovered on gloves at the camp site and on duct tape used to bind Winans did not match either of the victims or Rice.
Also, cloth gags used on Williams and Winans had stains from the victims and another person. Heblich says in a motion that testing excluded Rice as that person.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Saturday, October 18, that the stain found on the gag used on Williams came from a man who was not Rice. The paper was quoting a report from an FBI expert that was filed in court on Friday.
Heblich says prosecutors should be looking at another man whose hair samples were not excluded in the FBI analysis: suspected child killer Richard Marc Evonitz.
Evonitz killed three girls in Spotsylvania County near Fredericksburg, in 1996 and 1997, according to police. He committed suicide in June 2002 as police surrounded him.
Prosecutors would not comment on evidence found at the campsite where the women were slain. During the summer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Giorno said in a telephone interview that it's not uncommon to try a murder case without any biological clues, given the nature of the crime.
"There are a lot of things to explain why there might not be any forensic evidence– weather conditions... the amount of time they were out there,'' Giorno said.
Prosecutors argue that Rice was in the park just before the murders on Memorial Day weekend and had a twisted reason to attack Williams and Winans.
Rice, a computer programmer who grew up in Severna Park, Maryland, enjoyed making women uncomfortable, prosecutors said in court documents.
While writing computer disks at MCI Systemhouse Inc. in Columbia, Rice verbally abused women and made lewd gestures behind their backs, prosecutors said. Investigators also interviewed former cellmates of Rice's including Phil Robertson, who said Rice confessed to the murders.
"He tied them up and he said that he hurt the one so that the other one would cooperate,'' Robertson said in court documents. "I said, 'What did you do to them?' He said he slit their throats.''
Rice's sister, Dawn Metcalfe, said she can't explain her younger brother's guilty plea in the 1997 attack on the bicyclist. But she said prosecutors are getting him wrong when they characterize him as a violent homophobe.
"My brother has got tons of friends– some of them happen to be gay,'' said Metcalfe, 38. "He does not hate gay people.''
Metcalfe described her brother as a quiet man extremely loyal to his friends. Rice followed the Grateful Dead for several years, she said, trailing the tour from city to city.
While Metcalfe sympathizes with families of the two women, she wonders if prosecutors are telling them everything.
"Do they know about the other evidence?'' she said.
Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine, knew each other from a Minneapolis women's organization, and later moved in together in Burlington, Vermont.
Both were experienced outdoorswomen, and on May 19, 1996, they began what was to be an eight-day journey through the overlapping trails of Shenandoah National Park. Their bodies were found 14 days later near a creek-side camp site after Williams' family contacted park officials.
Video cameras recorded Rice entering the park at entrance stations on May 25 and 26, 1996. Authorities checked to see if anyone noticed Rice, and Anthony Coyle, of Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, told them he saw a man who looked like Rice on the 25th walking without a backpack about two and a half miles from the murder scene.
Coyle, who was hiking through the national park that weekend, said his girlfriend told him the next morning she'd dreamed about a woman screaming.
"She said she heard people, you know, girls screaming,'' Coyle said in court documents.
Seven years after learning her daughter was dead, Patsy Williams says she plans to drive down from St. Cloud and watch as much of the trial as possible.
Patsy Williams didn't know her daughter was involved romantically with another woman until she read news reports of her death. After the slayings, she tried to learn as much as she could about the final years of Julianne's life.
She hiked the Bridal Trail, tracing her daughter's final footsteps. Years later, during preliminary hearings in the Rice case, Patsy Williams made a point of driving through the park again on her way to Charlottesville.
"It's still hard to talk about this,'' she says. "Something like this changes you as a person. The grief will never go away.''
Rice would be in jail anyway due to his 1997 conviction for attacking a Canadian bicyclist.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
COURTESY SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
COURTESY SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
Patsy Williams in 1998, commemorating the two-year anniversary of her daughter's murder.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
On April 10, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft personally made the announcement that the government intends to seek the death penalty under a previously unused 1994 law mandating harsher penalties for "hate crimes."