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Randall Lee SMITH

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Appalachian Trail hikers
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: May 19, 1981
Date of arrest: June 22, 1981
Date of birth: June 29, 1953
Victims profile: Robert Mountford Jr., 27, and Laura Susan Ramsay, 27
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife - Shooting
Location: Giles County, Virginia, USA
Status: Pleaded guilty. Sentenced to 30 years in prison on March 23, 1982
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Randall Lee Smith (1954 – 10 May 2008) was a convicted murderer from Pearisburg, Virginia. He pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay, who were killed while hiking the Appalachian Trail, in May 1981.

He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was released in 1996 on mandatory parole after serving only 15 years. Both Smith's sentence and his early release were met with anger by the victims' families as well as the hiking community. Hikers protested outside the courtroom the day after his sentencing, and a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conference said Smith is the "first person convicted of murdering a hiker who has had the opportunity to leave prison". His probation ended in 2006.

On May 6, 2008, Smith attempted to kill two fishermen less than two miles from the site of the 1981 murders. He befriended the two fishermen, who shared their dinner with Smith, before opening fire on them without warning. Both men were shot twice, but survived. Smith was arrested that day after attempting to escape in one of the victim's trucks and subsequently crashing. He died in jail four days later as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.

The novel Murder on the Appalachian Trail, published by Jess Carr in 1985, is a fictionalized account of the 1981 murders.

Wikipedia.org

 
 

Double-shooting suspect dies in custody

By Bill Archer

May 11, 2008

PEARISBURG, Va. — A Giles County man who was charged Friday with two counts of attempted capital murder among other charges was found unresponsive Saturday evening at New River Regional Jail in Dublin, Va., and was later pronounced dead.

Randall Lee Smith, 54, of Pearisburg was discovered by regional jail personnel Saturday afternoon at about 5 p.m., lying unresponsive on his side on the floor of the jail, according to a press release issued late Saturday night by Lt. Ron Hamlin of the Giles County Sheriff’s Office.

“The correctional officer radioed for assistance and other staff members responded to the area (where Smith was being held) to assist,” Hamlin stated in a press release. Smith was transported to Pulaski Community Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 6:03 p.m., according to the press release. “Smith was being held in the medical area in a cell by himself,” according to the press release.

Smith was arrested Tuesday evening by Virginia State Police in connection with the double shooting of two Tazewell County men who were on a fishing trip in the Jefferson National Forest. The Tazewell men — Scott Johnson of Bluefield, Va., and Sean Farmer of Tazewell, Va. — were camping near the Walnut Flats picnic site in the Dismal area of Giles County. Johnson and Farmer were both wounded in the incident.

Smith allegedly left the scene in a 2000 Ford Ranger pickup truck that belonged to one of the victims. When a state trooper spotted the stolen vehicle on Sugar Run Road near Eggleston, Va., and pulled onto the road behind Smith, the suspect ran off the road, and flipped the vehicle. Smith was transported to Carilion Hospital in Roanoke, Va., where he was treated for injuries he received in the accident. The trooper recovered a gun at the scene.

“Carilion officers released him to our custody Friday evening,” Hamlin said. “We read him his rights, informed him that he was being charged with two counts of attempted capital murder, two counts of the use of a firearm during the commission of a felony, one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and one count of grand larceny related to the theft of the pickup truck. After that, we transported him to the regional jail.”

Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of second degree murder in 1982 in connection with the May 1981 double homicide of Laura Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford, both 27, and both of Maine. Ramsay and Mountford were both hiking the Appalachian Trail and were discovered in the same vicinity of the site of last week’s double shooting.

Well-known Southwest Virginia author, Jess Carr of Radford, Va., wrote about the 1981 homicides of the two hikers in a book titled “Murder on the Appalachian Trail” (1984). Smith was released from prison on parole in 1996, and has lived in Pearisburg since his release. Giles authorities contacted other area agencies a few days before the recent double-shooting to alert authorities that Smith was missing from his residence.

The condition of the two gunshot victims was not immediately available Sunday afternoon.

  


 

Randall Lee Smith remains a mystery

Questions surround his alleged involvement in two recent shootings.

By Mike Gangloff - Rianoke.com

May 11, 2008

PEARISBURG -- Disturbed loner. Harmless liar. Confused. Cunning. Killer.

Who was Randall Lee Smith?

The decades of mystery surrounding the man who pleaded guilty to a notorious double slaying on a Giles County section of the Appalachian Trail only deepened last week as he was accused of returning to almost the same spot and opening fire on two fishermen.

The unsettling similarities to the 1981 killings had Pearisburg residents -- and observers up and down the 2,160-mile, Georgia-to-Maine length of the Appalachian Trail -- scratching their heads.

"It's such an atypical case," said Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. "It wouldn't be reasonable to say, 'In cases like this, this is what typically happens' -- there are no typical cases like this."

Questions of why

On Friday, Smith, 54, was charged with two counts of attempted capital murder, two counts of using a firearm in commission of a felony, possession of a firearm as a convicted felon and grand larceny in connection with the Tuesday night shootings of Sean Farmer of Tazewell and Scott Johnston of Bluefield, Va.

The men were fishing and camping along Dismal Creek, just off the Appalachian Trail, when a visitor stopped by their campsite, police and Johnston's brother reported last week.

They fed the man a dinner of fresh trout and beans, after which he told them, "Guys, I got to get out of here" -- and pulled out a pistol and opened fire, Brian Johnston said. Both fishermen were wounded but escaped.

The victims identified a man shown on a local missing-person poster as the one who had shot them, according to one of the women who helped the fishermen that night.

Smith, the man whose photo was on the flier, was apprehended later that night when he crashed a pickup truck that belonged to one of the fishermen. By Saturday he would be dead.

The 1981 murders of Robert Mountford Jr. and Laura Susan Ramsay seemed equally senseless. Smith pleaded guilty to two charges of second-degree murder before the case went to trial, so details, including a motive, were never presented publicly.

Smith's neighbors in the Ingram Village subdivision outside Pearisburg last week wondered why he would attack strangers. He'd had plenty of disagreements, although not violent ones, with the people he lived near, said Sherman Smith, who is not related to Randall Smith but has known him since boyhood.

The late Hezekiah Osborne, who prosecuted Smith for the hikers' deaths, theorized that Smith's lack of experience with women -- he was never known to date anyone -- led him to become obsessed with Ramsay because she was friendly when he met her at a store near the trail, said John Spauer, a Pearisburg garage owner who was a friend of both Osborne and Smith. In Osborne's theory, Smith made a pass at Ramsay, Mountford intervened, and Smith returned to their camp later to kill them.

A book written about the 1981 deaths, "Murder on the Appalachian Trail," by Giles County native Jess Carr, hypothesized that Smith retreated into a fantasy life after a hard childhood. Smith is portrayed as a loner who spent much of his time in a sort of fog and who both craved companionship and lashed out at anyone who got too close.

The book is described on the cover as a novel but is based on investigators' records and numerous interviews -- although none with Smith, who declined to talk to Carr. Several people familiar with the 1981 events said last week that although the book might not be exact in every particular, its account is generally accurate.

The way the book lays it out, Ramsay and Mountford, who were both social workers from Maine, incurred Smith's anger because they saw how troubled he was and tried to draw him out.

Neither Cornell nor Joseph Allen, a UVa psychology professor, both of whom have studied issues of violence and adolescence, found the book's theory particularly convincing.

With Smith implicated in another attack in almost the same location 27 years later, Allen wondered if the place, more than factors such as experience with women or fear of intimacy, was significant in some way.

June Tangney, a psychologist at George Mason University who studies issues involving moral decisions and crime, agreed.

"Criminals often do go to places they are most comfortable with," Tangney said, noting that she was speaking generally and not about the specifics of Smith's case. "Crimes don't just happen in random spots."

Mike Eads, who lived a few doors away from Smith, had a similar thought, saying he thought Smith viewed hikers as interlopers, a view stated in "Murder on the Appalachian Trail," and made efforts to clean up litter around Dismal Creek.

"I don't know if he thought he was the keeper of the mountain or what, but he seemed drawn to the place," Eads said.

'Stayed too much to himself'

Records from Smith's 1982 court proceedings indicate his mother and father divorced when he was 6 months old. Except for the 15 years he spent behind bars, he lived with his mother until she died in 2000.

Loretta Smith worked at Giles Memorial Hospital, eventually becoming a nurse's aide. The Smiths lived in several small houses around Ingram Village, settling while Randall Smith was still young in the four-room, single-story home in which he lived until earlier this year, neighbors said.

In a community where children congregated in yards or played games in the nearby forest, Randall Smith stayed apart.

Smith "stayed too much to himself," said Virginia Smith, Sherman Smith's wife. "For a child not to ever have a friend, that's unusual."

He developed a lifelong interest in collecting arrowheads and seemed to most enjoy being out in the woods by himself. Loretta Smith's sister lived next door, and her husband, Randall Smith's uncle, took him camping, neighbors said.

Smith left school after 11th grade and made several trips to Newport News, Va., to work welding jobs in a shipyard.

At least people assumed he'd gone to Newport News. By the mid-1970s, as Smith left his teenage years, his habit of telling wild stories was well known.

"We called him 'L.R.' all the time -- Lying Randall," Spauer said last week.

Smith often spoke about girlfriends and even children he claimed to have, but no one knew him to actually have a romantic relationship of any kind, Spauer said, echoing others who had known Smith for decades.

"Murder on the Appalachian Trail" described Smith's collection of pornographic magazines, many of which he had laminated or put in plastic sleeves -- an accurate account, said Tom Lawson, an investigator in the 1981 case and now assistant superintendant of the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin.

Smith had few if any friends of any sort, said Spauer, describing himself as probably the person who was closest to Smith.

Spauer would offer Smith work when he was between jobs, which was often.

"He was a real good welder," Spauer said.

Smith would drop out of sight for weeks at a time, then stop by Spauer's garage as if he'd never left, joining a group that worked on cars and trucks for drag-racing or four-wheeling. But he rarely accompanied them to races or on four-wheeling expeditions.

"He'd say, 'It's my weekend to have the children,' " Spauer said.

"Murder on the Appalachian Trail" portrays Smith as a drinker and occasional drug user, but he had no criminal record prior to the slayings.

Then came the 1981 murders of Ramsay and Mountford, and the next year, a controversial plea deal that brought Smith a 30-year prison sentence, of which he served about half.

Back from prison

In "Murder on the Appalachian Trail" and in newspaper accounts of Smith's arrest after fleeing to Myrtle Beach, S.C., much was made of how disassociated he appeared and how he claimed to remember almost nothing of his life, even his mother's name.

Psychological testing concluded he was likely feigning amnesia, however, and that "Mr. Smith's reports of hallucinations and delusions are probably fabricated."

Lawson said he always thought Smith's vagueness was an act. "He's a sharp, cunning person ... very precise in what he does," Lawson said last week.

He noted that the possessions of the murdered hikers were buried and hidden in a complex pattern aligned with compass points, as if Smith wanted to be sure he could find them later.

Also, Lawson said, someone had removed log books -- which hikers sign and date -- from shelters for miles down the trail, making it hard for investigators to develop a timetable of Mountford and Ramsay's travel before their deaths.

Smith's solitude remained real, however. After pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, Smith spent nearly 15 years in prison. In all that time, he had only one visit from his mother, according to a Roanoke Times account of his release in 1996 -- and none, apparently, from anyone else, said Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which filed an objection each year as Smith came up for parole.

After he reached his mandatory parole date, Smith returned to live with his mother at the edge of Ingram Village just below the Appalachian Trail, which runs along a nearby ridge.

He didn't work, leading neighbors to believe he drew some sort of disability check, and he wore an electronic monitoring anklet as part of 10 years of supervision by the Giles probation office. He spent nearly all his time at home indoors, neighbors said.

A few neighbors went out of their way to forge some kind of connection with him, especially after Smith's mother died in 2000. Virginia Smith said she baked him a pumpkin roll every Christmas, as she had done for his mother. He always seemed to appreciate it, but Virginia Smith said she never felt comfortable taking the food across the street herself. She sent her husband.

Randall Smith rarely spoke to anyone as he came and went. When he did talk, it was more hard-to-believe stories about having a girlfriend who was a doctor in Florida, and whose family gave him a home there when she died. Other times he talked about having a home in Las Vegas.

Spauer said in the past couple of years, Smith started coming by the garage again.

"His language had changed through prison," Spauer said. "He had got an eastern Virginia accent."

'Things he needed to do'

Robin and Jason Stephen owned the 98 acres of wooded mountainside between Smith's house and the Appalachian Trail.

The couple bought the property in 1999 and quickly learned about their neighbor, who told Jason Stephen, "You may hear some things about me that aren't true, that I killed some people."

Smith asked the Stephens if he could walk their property to hunt arrowheads and to get to the trail. They told him to stay away, Robin Stephen said, but he continued to be friendly. He regaled Jason Stephen with tales of Green Beret service in Vietnam and of having an advanced engineering degree.

Smith would call Jason Stephen if he saw people go onto their property, and he told them he'd once confronted some young people parking there. Smith told them to leave, Robin Stephen said, and when they refused, "he said, 'Why don't you go down to the sheriff's office and ask them who I am and what I did?'

"I don't know if that's a true story, but that's what he told my husband," Stephen said.

She said she never felt comfortable around Smith, who always seemed to ignore her but once told her husband he could see her coming "a mile away -- that jet black hair."

Throughout the years they owned the property, Stephen said, Smith asked if he could buy a parcel at the top of their land so he could put a trailer next to the Appalachian Trail and live there.

The Stephens declined.

Then, after they had sold the entire parcel to someone else, Smith approached Robin Stephen, who is a real estate agent, and asked her to list his house.

It was late last year, Stephen said, and Smith said he was planning to move in a few months. "He said he had things he needed to do," she said.

Stephen said Smith also told her he had been in the hospital "and his days of walking on the mountain were over."

Stephen said she would not be Smith's agent.

Not long after, early this year, Virginia Smith said she was home one afternoon and saw a strange sight from her window.

Randall Smith was making trip after trip from his cellar, which is accessed by an exterior door, carrying yellow plastic grocery-style bags filled with something up into the house.

She didn't think much of it then, but later she and her husband wondered if he was assembling canned goods and supplies for a camping trip.

On April 28, Randall Smith's public water was cut off. On April 30, a missing persons report was filed. Police checked Smith's mailbox and found that his mail appeared not to have been picked up since March 3.

Exactly when Smith left home, or where he went, is just another of the mysteries surrounding him.

Two months later, a pair of fishermen told authorities he was on Dismal Creek, eating their dinner of trout and beans.

  


 

Trail of a Killer: First of Two Parts

Blood on the Mountain

By Wil Haygood - Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

BRUSHY MOUNTAIN, Giles County, Va.

High on the mountain, the sun has to fight its way down through the thick forest. The light takes on a spectral elegance, as if yellow diamonds are falling to the ground.

The two campers loved so much about the mountain. How it gave to its visitors, how generous it seemed: There's another deer; listen to that owl; the trout are running.

But a murderer was in these woods, too. And he brought darkness to the light.

When Randall Lee Smith rose from a meal with Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer at their campsite along the Appalachian Trail here in southwestern Virginia in May, he politely thanked them for the fried trout and beans. Then he pulled out his .22 pistol and calmly turned from one to the other.

The first bullet hit Sean in the temple.

The second hit Scott in the neck.

The third hit Sean in the chest.

The fourth hit Scott in the back of the neck.

Blood gushed against the moonless night. Scott had bolted into the woods. But the gunman was not finished. Sean had lumbered across the grass to his truck, parked a few yards away. When Randall reached him, he raised his gun again.

* * *

Twenty-seven years earlier and little more than a mile away, Randall Smith had sat for a similar evening meal with two other campers, Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr. He murdered both. Then he buried them with his bare hands.

Those 1981 murders stunned the nation. Calls came into the county sheriff's office from all over the country, everyone wanting to know if the Appalachian Trail was safe. Tom Lawson, one of the investigators at the time, never forgot Smith's eyes: "Cold. Stone cold. And remorseless."

Those killings turned Randall Smith into what we most fear: A killer seemingly without motive. A man who wouldn't explain. A man who emerged from a life of misery to suddenly strike back at the light around him.

When Lawson heard of the Johnston and Farmer shootings, something jumped in his gut. There was blood on the mountain again. "I just knew it was Randall," Lawson says. "Just knew it."

'A Habitual Liar'

Loretta Smith raised her only child, Randall, alone in Pearisburg, a town of 2,700 about half an hour from Blacksburg. Townsfolk do not remember anyone else ever living at the house at 190 Virginia St. "She kept to herself," recalls Gerald Smith, 58, who lived near the Smiths and is unrelated. "A nice lady, though she never communicated with the neighbors."

Loretta worked in the laundry room at Giles Memorial Hospital. "She made a living, that's about all," says Carl Vest, 74, who knew relatives of the family. The Smith home was small -- four rooms and a basement.

For the first few years of his life, Loretta Smith dressed her son in girls' clothing. She never explained why.

At Giles High School, Randall made few friends. "He was a loner," says Gerald Smith, who was also a schoolmate.

On weekends, Randall took off alone to walk the Appalachian Trail, which he could see from the windows of his home.

All through junior high and high school, there was never a girlfriend. No one remembers seeing him at a local house party. On those rare occasions when he would try to fit in with other teenagers, Gerald Smith says something stood out quite clearly about Randall: "He was a habitual liar."

He told lies about money he didn't have, about property he claimed to own in other states. "The house he lived in with his mother was worth $10,000 -- max," Gerald Smith says.

That habit gave birth to a harsh nickname: "We called him 'L.R.,' for 'Lyin' Randall,' " Smith says.

The moniker didn't seem to bother him. There were even times when he turned, with a grin on his face, to someone casually using the epithet.

After high school, Randall Smith did odd jobs, including a brief stint in the Norfolk shipyards. The unsteady work left him free to roam, and he often hiked up and down the Appalachian Trail. He had long, dark hair and his body was fleshy, like a football player who had given up training.

Sometimes, Smith vanished for days. Having never played sports, or joined a Scout troop or done any community-oriented things in which he would have become a presence, no one seems to have missed him.

'Strange-Looking Man'

The Appalachian Trail stretches more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and draws thousands of hikers every year.

There are accidents on the trail and an occasional vandalized car, but violent crime is rare. "It is extremely safe," says Brian B. King, spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a management group based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. "You have more of a chance getting hurt driving to the trail in your car than you do on the trail."

There is about one assault a year and one rape every three years, on average, according to Conservancy figures. There have been eight murders linked to the trail since the 1970s, King says. The most recent was in January, when Meredith Emerson, 24, was abducted on Blood Mountain in Georgia and killed by Gary Michael Hilton, a 61-year-old drifter. Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty if he would guide them to the body.

In the spring of 1981, Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr., both 27-year-old social workers from Maine, decided to hike the trail to raise funds on behalf of the mentally ill. Mountford left from Georgia. In early May, he met up with Ramsay in Virginia. They had befriended a female hiker on the trail, and all agreed to meet in the area above Pearisburg. When Ramsay and Mountford didn't show, the woman became worried and alerted authorities.

"My father-in-law at the time said, 'Bobby's too good of a woodsman to get lost,' " recalls Robert Mountford Sr. Still, the elder Mountford was worried. He got in his car in Maine and drove to Virginia.

Tom Lawson was a deputy sheriff for Giles County at the time. He and a couple of other investigators went up on the trail to ask hikers about the missing couple. One told them Mountford and Ramsay had been seen with a "strange-looking man" near the Wapiti Shelter, a small log structure that had been built the year before.

Investigators also went to a local country store, Trent's, and asked if anyone had seen the hikers. They had, indeed, been spotted there on May 19, which would prove to be the last sighting of the two. Lawson remembers one peculiar thing about the investigators' visit to Trent's: "Some people told me there was some man going around saying, 'Hey, I know what happened to those hikers.' "

Lawson asked the man's name.

"And someone said, Lyin' Randall."

Some nut case, he thought. And continued moving.

Investigators fanned out farther along the Appalachian Trail in an effort to reach more hikers who had passed through the stretch above Pearisburg and might have seen Mountford and Ramsay. They found two more people who remembered seeing the couple along with a third, male figure near the shelter. "They had said he acted very eerie," Lawson recalls.

Investigators descended upon the Wapiti Shelter. It was now May 30, 11 days after the last sighting of the couple. Lawson noticed nothing unusual, until his eyes dropped to the floor. "It looked like something had run down between the floorboards," he says. "So I run my knife down between the boards. It was a thick and red substance down there. I said, 'We need to tear this floorboard up. I think there's blood here.' "

Analysis later revealed it was Mountford's blood.

The investigators strode 30 yards in all directions, whacking weeds and kicking over logs. They came upon a small open area and noticed a mound of leaves -- as if someone had tried to cover up something. They started digging and discovered a cloth sleeping bag. Inside it was Susan Ramsay.

The next day, extra help arrived on four legs -- a dog trained to search for bodies. The dog stopped several hundred yards from the shelter, poked its nose around and sat near a stump. "I thought maybe he was tired," says Lawson. "One of the other officers didn't think so. So we moved the dog and started digging."

They found Mountford right there, also buried in a sleeping bag.

Lawson says that Ramsay and Mountford had shared an evening meal before they died. "It was heavy food," he says. "So it would have been a last meal for the day. They wouldn't have eaten that type food and continued hiking." They'd each also had a drink of Bacardi rum.

Mountford had been shot in the head. Ramsay had defensive marks on her hands. "She fought him very hard," Lawson says. "He used a piece of iron to hit her in the head. He also stabbed her with a long nail. She had 13 puncture wounds. As well as wounds with a knife."

The bodies had been dragged from the shelter. Investigators found Ramsay's camera but were disappointed to find the film had been ripped out. But then they came across her backpack, which yielded a valuable clue: a paperback novel that Ramsay had been reading, "Mountolive," by Lawrence Durrell, had bloody fingerprints. One of the prints inside the book belonged to Randall Smith, which were on file from his time in the Norfolk shipyards.

Giles County investigators put out a nationwide APB, or All-Points Bulletin. And they closed a Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail to hikers.

Investigators went to Smith's home. In the basement, they discovered some blood-soaked jeans "and some stuff that belonged to the hikers," Lawson says.

There was also pornographic materials and hospital instruments, possibly pilfered during times he had gone to see his mother at the hospital where she worked. "He had fashioned them into sex toys," says Lawson of the instruments.

And finally, there was a note in Randall's handwriting. "The note said he had been kidnapped by two people and he was going to be killed," Lawson recalls.

Investigators didn't believe a word of it.

'Bam, We Had Him'

Days passed without a sign of Smith. Some law enforcement officials wondered if he had committed suicide. Lawson needed a break from the manhunt and took his family on vacation to Myrtle Beach in late June of 1981. Shortly after he arrived in South Carolina, however, authorities there called Giles County looking for him. They had arrested a man they thought might be Smith. Giles County deputies said Lawson happened to be in, of all places, Myrtle Beach, and passed along the name of the motel where he was staying.

"This squad car pulls up, lights flashing," Lawson says.

He was hurried to have a look at the suspect. While en route, officers told Lawson that the individual being detained was claiming to have amnesia and could not remember his name or even how he got to Myrtle Beach. Lawson took one look at him -- haggard and with blotchy insect bites all over him -- and knew: It was Randall Smith.

Outside the interview room, investigators hatched a plan.

"We told him those bites were quite serious," Lawson says. "Told him if he didn't get medical attention, they'd get worse."

The detained man nodded furiously. He had scratched some of his bites raw.

But in order to get medical attention, the man was told he'd have to sign a consent form. As soon as the form was placed in front of him, he scrawled out "Randall Lee Smith." "Bam," Lawson says. "We had him."

Smith, then 27, was extradited to Virginia, where authorities explained the evidence they had accumulated in hopes he might discuss what had happened on the mountain. "He'd just say, 'I don't want to talk about it,' " recalls Al Krane, who worked on the investigation as a special agent with the Virginia State Police.

'Never Did Have a Life'

Hezekiah Osborne was commonwealth's attorney for Giles County when Smith was returned to Virginia. Smith was charged with two counts of murder and many were clamoring for a tough sentence. There was strong suspicion that Ramsay had been raped, but authorities could not prove it because of the condition of the body.

Then, on the eve of the trial, Osborne accepted a plea bargain from Smith's attorneys. Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. Both the Ramsay and Mountford families agreed to the plea bargain, which would result in a 30-year sentence. "If the Ramsays went along with it, we were going to go along with it," says Mountford Sr., who is an Episcopalian minister now living in Florida. "We didn't want him to get the death penalty. But we also didn't want him to ever get out."

Mountford was struck by Smith's personal background. He had heard about the lifelong fabrications. "I don't want it to sound like I sympathized with him. After all, he was a murderer. But he really never did have a life. And what life he did have, he made up."

The plea bargain, however, caused anger in the community. "Everybody was outraged, particularly police officers," remembers James Hartley, who was a local attorney at the time.

Osborne, now deceased, had told fellow lawyers he didn't want to risk a trial because he had been unable to discover a motive for the killings. "He said he thought the case was weak," Hartley recalls. "I think everybody disagreed with that."

Hartley drove by the courthouse one day and noticed it was being picketed. "And many of them were hikers."

When Osborne came up for reelection, he had an opponent: James Hartley, who trounced him.

After serving 15 years -- accounts differ as to whether his mother visited him once or twice during that period -- Smith was paroled in 1996. "He had been a model inmate," Lawson says. "Never caused any problems."

He returned to the home he was raised in and to doing odd jobs. He also went back to telling tall tales. "He said he now had a girlfriend in Daytona Beach," remembers Gerald Smith, Randall's neighbor. "Said he went down there to see her. It was a lie. Also said he had a house in Daytona Beach and one in Las Vegas."

As the years rolled by, Randall Smith became more and more of a recluse. There were times, however, when he was spotted yakking with hikers up on the Appalachian Trail.

Smith's appearance had changed noticeably. Now 54, he was no longer the beefy young man who had been sent to prison. He was gaunt and walked with a slight stoop. It seemed as if the hard winters on the mountain had settled into him, freezing his emotions. "I would see him on the road and would wave, and he wouldn't wave back," says Gerald Smith. "So I stopped waving."

When his mother died in 2000, Randall lived off the small amount of money she left him. But this March the money ran out. He took all the pictures off the walls of his home. He packed a few belongings. Then he walked up into the woods.

He took his fishing gear. And his dog, Bo.

When six weeks' worth of mail piled up at the Smith home, it drew attention. Some thought he might have become sick on one of his forays into the woods. There were also darker thoughts.

Police put posters of Randall up around town. They taped one up at Trent's, the country store at the bottom of the road that leads to Dismal Creek.

On May 6, Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer went fishing at their usual spot on Brushy Mountain. The weather was beautiful, yellow diamonds falling through the trees. A man with a slight stoop strolled upon their campsite and introduced himself as "Ricky Williams." An unwritten code along the Appalachian Trail calls for camaraderie, sharing. Johnston and Farmer invited the man to have dinner with them.

It was Randall Smith.

And he was carrying a .22.

Trail of a Killer: Second of Two Parts

Lonely, Dark and Deep

By Wil Haygood - Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

DISMAL CREEK, Giles County, Va. All manner of animals feast in the deep woods along this lovely stretch of mountains. There are bear and deer. Poisonous snakes and fish shimmering in the creeks. Dreams are hatched beside campfires and the stars seem almost close enough to grasp.

But sometimes, man feasts here as well.

And the killer was hungry.

Randall Smith had been in the woods for weeks. His face had gone slack, and he had lost weight. Yet he was familiar with this area along the Appalachian Trail in southwestern Virginia. It was where he had charmed his way into the company of two hikers back in 1981, only to murder them in the night. He fired a bullet from a .22-caliber handgun into the skull of Robert Mountford Jr. When Mountford's hiking companion, Susan Ramsay, awoke, a vicious scuffle began, ending with Smith plunging a long nail into Ramsay more than a dozen times. It was the first time a double murder had taken place on the Appalachian Trail.

In a plea bargain, he was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. After 15 years behind bars, Smith was paroled in 1996. He scraped by for more than a decade doing a bit of welding here, a bit of mechanical work there. But last March he was running out of money. He packed a few things, slid out of his home in nearby Pearisburg, and headed back up the mountain he had walked since he was a child.

Scott Johnston, now 39, first saw him on the morning of May 6. Actually, he first spotted the dog, mangy with a protruding belly.

"You could see its ribs," Johnston remembers. "The dog was starving."

Johnston stopped his truck, and a gaunt man -- sallow complexion, camouflage jacket -- climbed up off the creek bank. He started jawing to Johnston that he didn't think there were any fish in the creek because he hadn't caught a single one. "I said, 'Hold on,' " Johnston remembers. "I opened up my box and showed him my trout." The man's eyes danced all over the fish. Johnston felt sorry for him and reached into his box. "I gave him a few."

The man, grateful, asked Johnston if he was going to set up camp nearby. Johnston said yes, that he was awaiting the arrival of a friend, and pointed in the direction of his campsite. The man told Johnston his own camp happened to be in the same direction -- only a mile or so beyond where Johnston was pointing. He said he might stop by later, on the way to his own campsite. Johnston simply nodded.

Johnston's campsite sat just 1 1/2 miles from the Appalachian Trail's Wapiti Shelter, the site of the 1981 murders. He had unknowingly just pointed out his campsite to the very man who committed those murders. And once again the murderer was carrying a .22.

Tall Tales Over Dinner

Johnston's friend, Sean Farmer, arrived that afternoon while Scott was out gathering firewood. The two men had been fishing and camping in these woods and along Dismal Creek since they were little boys.

Farmer, 33, pitched his tent and sat down for a minute. And when he did, a man he had never seen before walked over to the campsite. The man introduced himself as "Ricky Williams" and said he had already met Scott. Farmer relaxed: This man knew Scott.

When Johnston returned, he saw his friend with the man he had given fish to earlier. Soon enough, everyone was chatting amiably.

There was a gentle breeze, like feathers swirling.

"Ricky" seemed in no rush to get to his own campsite. Johnston soon was tossing some trout in a skillet and heating up some beans. He invited the stranger to stay for dinner.

"I even grilled an extra trout for the dog," Johnston says.

Scott and Sean asked "Ricky" if he was often kidded about having the same name as the professional football player Ricky Williams. He scoffed and said he didn't even like Ricky Williams.

Then "Ricky" -- or "Lyin' Randall," as the neighborhood kids dubbed him when he was growing up -- began spooling out a fanciful biography. He said he had attended Virginia Tech and written papers for NASA.

Neither Farmer nor Johnston believed the stories. They actually pitied the stranger before them. "My intuition was the guy was an alcoholic who had been kicked out of his home," Johnston says.

Three hours had passed, and dusk was turning to darkness. Both Farmer and Johnston wondered why the man was not leaving: If he fell in the dark walking to his own campsite, he could easily be injured.

Just as darkness fully descended on this remote mountain like a dark blanket over the eyes, the stranger got up.

"Come on, boy," he said to the dog.

As casually as someone fetching a piece of wood for the fire, he strolled behind Farmer and to his left. Then he put his hand into a pocket of his camouflage coat pocket and pulled out the .22.

"I saw fire coming from his hand," Farmer says.

The bullet slammed into his temple.

The man turned and fired at Johnston, hitting him in the neck.

Then he swung back around and fired another shot point-blank into Farmer's chest. Farmer -- 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds -- staggered but didn't collapse. Still, he felt the woods spinning, and there was blood in his eye.

Johnston ran for cover into the woods, and his dash yanked Smith's attention away from Farmer. Smith fired off another round toward the fleeing silhouette. The bullet hit Johnston in the back, just at the nape of his neck.

The dog was howling.

Johnston crouched among the trees in the dark, trying to catch his breath. "I thought he was coming after me," he says. "I didn't know whether Sean was alive or dead."

Farmer, meanwhile, had lumbered to his truck, parked about five yards away. He climbed inside. For a few seconds, he wondered if the gunman was chasing after his friend.

From the light of the campfire, Farmer saw a shadow in his rearview mirror. Smith stood at the driver's side of the truck and raised his arm. He pulled the trigger.

The gun didn't fire.

Smith had run out of ammunition. As he began reloading, Farmer popped up and floored the gas pedal. A beam of headlight lit the woods as he screeched onto the road, his head thumping. Was Scott already dead? He told himself he had to get help.

Johnston heard the engine, saw the light and bolted into the road.

Farmer flung the truck door open, and Johnston hopped in. He held a finger to the hole in his neck, which was squirting blood. "I was going to bleed to death if I didn't put my finger in there."

A Wild, Bloody Ride for Help

Here is what two campers -- in a state of shock, on a mountaintop with a calculating killer -- had to do to get help: They had to remain conscious amid all the blood. They had to watch the drop-offs on one side of the road -- some drops are 10 feet, some 20 -- as they were curving downhill in the dark in Farmer's truck. They had to get medical attention, with the nearest hospital more than 30 miles away. They had no cellphone reception in the remote woods. And they had to worry that the gunman might be barreling down the mountain after them: Scott's truck, with the keys in the ignition, had been left behind.

Even so, this wasn't 1981, and it wasn't the Wapiti Shelter, which was more remote. The two victims on that night had no access to an automobile. And, though terribly injured, the two men had each other -- Farmer with his strength, Johnston with his exacting will. Half of each man made nearly a whole to get them down the mountain.

Still, Farmer's truck was zigzagging and careering out of control. "I'm screaming 'Stop! Stop!' " says Johnston, who wanted Farmer to slow down.

He also wanted to steer. He took his finger out of his neck. Blood squirted everywhere; Johnston jammed the finger back in.

And then it happened -- bam! -- right into an embankment. "Sean, we've been shot! We are going to die if we don't get help!" Johnston screamed. "You can't go off the road!"

With a bullet in his head, Farmer was drifting, his hands sliding around the steering wheel. But they got back onto the road.

One minute seemed like 30; five like forever. It took a lifetime to cover the five miles before they saw houses on their right. The first house was still under construction. They cursed. The second was dark. Then, finally, lights.

Johnston ran to the door and began banging.

"Call 911! Call 911! Me and my friend have been shot!"

Farmer was still in the truck. The inside of his mouth had swollen; it felt as if golf balls had been stuffed inside of it. He couldn't talk.

Melissa Miller, who at first thought it might be a home invasion, finally came outside.

"I said, 'Oh my God,' " she recalls.

Her son, Randy, 20, joined her on the porch and then dashed back inside on his mother's orders to get some towels. They called 911: An ambulance would be coming from Bland, a town about 20 miles away.

"I was just shocked to think that two people might die right in front of my eyes," Randy says.

At first, Melissa Miller thought that maybe these two strangers had been in a fight and shot one another. But when Randy returned, he recognized Farmer. He had seen him in town, and Farmer had dated a friend of his.

The wounded men sat on the porch, the Millers applying wet towels. Melissa listened for an ambulance climbing the mountain roads. "I called them again and said, 'Where y'all at!' " she says.

Twenty minutes passed. Blood had soaked the towels. Randy went to get more.

Johnston wanted to talk to his parents. "I thought I wouldn't get to talk to them again," he says.

Melissa lit up a smoke and dialed the number; it was now 9:30. Thelma Johnston, Scott's mother, answered.

"They told me Scott had been shot. And an ambulance was on the way," she says. "I could hear Scott talking in the background." He got on the phone and assured her he was going to be okay. He was more worried about Sean.

When the ambulance arrived at the Millers', so did a police officer.

The officer asked Johnston -- Farmer couldn't talk because of the swelling in his mouth -- for a description of the shooter. He was gaunt, Johnston said, and he had some gray hair.

Randy's grandfather, who was also living at the house, knew about Randall Lee Smith. He told his grandson to fetch the picture of Smith down at Trent's grocery store, placed there because he had been missing from his home in Pearisburg for more than six weeks.

Randy Miller dashed for his car and sped the mile to Trent's to get the picture. The store was closed, but Randy knew where the owner lived. Soon he was banging on the door. "I yelled, 'We got an emergency!' " Randy says.

Picture retrieved, he tore back up the road to his house, where Farmer and Johnston were getting medical attention.

The picture was shown to Johnston as he was being helped into the ambulance. "Is this the man who shot you?" the officer asked.

Johnston stared at the photo. Blood was oozing through the gauze on his face and neck. "I'm 100 percent sure that's the man," he said.

The ambulance raced Johnston and Farmer through the mountain dark to Hollybrook Community Center in Bland, where there was a big enough field for two helicopters to land.

When the ambulance arrived, the helicopters were whirring in the dark field. But when medical personnel got a look at Farmer, they immediately knew they had a problem: He was too big to fit inside his helicopter. So they quickly decided to take him about 20 miles by ambulance to the small hospital in Wytheville, where a larger helicopter would pick him up.

Johnston was loaded into one of the copters. And was convinced he was going to die. Why else would they have to rush him into the air? He had thought Sean's injuries -- a bullet to the head and another in the chest -- were more serious than his. Now he thought otherwise.

As the helicopter rose and slanted away from the mountains in the direction of Roanoke, Johnston heard voices inside the helicopter, then others on a radio.

"Blood started to come out of my mouth," he remembers. "And I hear a lady say over the radio, 'I'm not sure he's gonna make it.' And then I'm thinking again, 'I might be dead and just might not know it.' "

But when they landed in Roanoke, a blast of cold air hit him. "And I knew I was alive."

Meanwhile, the Millers called Lena Farmer, Sean's mother, who owns a small hair salon in Bluefield. In the middle of the night, she was on her way to Wytheville, about 30 miles away.

"I can't even tell you how I got there. I mean, I know I drove. I'm a single mother. I'm used to doing things on my own," she recalls. "But I don't remember much about the drive."

When she reached Wytheville, she was told Sean already had been airlifted to Roanoke, an hour's drive away.

Upon reaching the hospital in Roanoke, both Farmer and Johnston were immediately rolled into surgery.

'Coldest Eyes . . . Ever'

Violent crime is rare on the Appalachian Trail, and there have been only eight murders since the 1970s, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a group that helps manage the trail. That May evening, just like 27 years ago, police put out an all-points bulletin for Randall Lee Smith and closed the trail in the area above Pearisburg. But unlike in 1981, when the victims' bodies weren't discovered for weeks, Smith did not have much lead time to get away.

He was still in the woods above Dismal Creek. And he was driving Scott Johnston's truck. A camper would later report that he had heard a man screaming and cursing higher up the mountain that evening. Investigators would later discover a spot in the area where Smith had stashed some of his belongings. "Being dark that night, he just couldn't find the stuff," says Lt. Ron Hamlin of the Giles County Sheriff's Office.

Later that night, a state trooper was driving along Sugar Run Road in Staffordsville, about eight miles from Pearisburg, and spotted the gray truck stolen from Johnston going in the opposite direction. When Smith saw the officer, he sped off. But he soon ran off the road and flipped over.

When Hamlin arrived on the scene, Smith was still inside the upside-down truck. A flashlight revealed a .22-caliber handgun lying just over his shoulder -- and the whites of Randall Smith's eyes. "They're the coldest eyes I've ever looked into in my life," says Hamlin, 58. "And I've been around this business for 30-something years."

Smith was taken to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, the same hospital as Farmer and Johnston. "He was pretty messed up," says Giles.

Smith was released from the hospital after two days -- he had been on round-the-clock police guard -- and taken to the medical wing of the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin on May 9. "He told us it was self-defense," Hamlin says of Smith's explanation for the shootings.

Tom Lawson, who had been part of the investigative team that had discovered the bodies of Ramsay and Mountford in 1981, is now assistant superintendent at the jail where Smith was taken. Lawson had been in Myrtle Beach in 1981 when Smith was arrested there after a nationwide alert. Lawson was not at the jail when Smith arrived -- he'd gone home for the weekend -- but he looked forward to trying to have a discussion with him as soon as he returned to work on Monday.

On the evening of May 10, a jail officer went to give Smith his dinner. He did not come to the cell door to retrieve his meal. The officer called his name, once, then twice. There was no answer. When the door was opened, Smith was unconscious. There was an attempt to revive him, but he was dead at the age of 54.

"Our investigators found no obvious signs of foul play in Smith's death," says Sgt. Mike Conroy, a spokesman for the Virginia State Police.

"Randall had no marks at all," says Lt. Jerry Humphreys of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation for the State Police. "He just died. Quite possibly of natural causes." The Virginia medical examiner's office said the autopsy results could take between 60 and 90 days.

About a dozen family members attended Smith's funeral at the A. Vest & Sons Funeral Home in Pearisburg. Taped music played at the private service, which was announced only after he had been buried. "A lot of people were angry with Randall," says Carl Vest, 74, who works part time at his family's funeral home. "They said they could have helped him if he had money problems. But he never did ask. He just closed up the house and went up into he mountains. And shot those two boys. Sad."

The service lasted 30 minutes. Randall Lee Smith was buried next to his mother at the Fairview Cemetery in Narrows. His dog, Bo, scratched in the dirt at the graveside ceremony. He has since been adopted.

Millimeters From Death

Doctors and family members constantly remind Johnston and Farmer how lucky they are. If any of four bullets had gone a millimeter in this or that direction -- "just a fraction," says Johnston -- the results might well have been far more grim.

They were both out of the hospital within a week, though there have been multiple return visits to doctors, as well as long physical therapy sessions.

They replay the night at Dismal Creek over and over. "If he had've pulled a knife out on us, we'd've crippled him in a heartbeat," says Johnston.

But it was a .22.

"And there's nothing you can do," says Farmer, "with a .22 pointed at you from behind."

Johnston still has a bullet in the back of his neck. Huge scars come together at the front of his neck, forming a red V. His girlfriend has been worrying around the clock -- "about to drive me crazy," he says.

Farmer's gunshot wound to the chest has healed. Doctors are still debating whether to leave the bullet fragments that are lodged in his sinus area.

Farmer used to drive a truck for a coal business but got laid off after the shooting. Johnston lived in Tampa for 14 years and moved back to Bluefield only last January. He lays tile to make ends meet, and even does that on his own terms so he can fish. His favorite Eagle Claw fly rod had been in the truck that flipped when Smith tried to escape. It was found in the wreck, snapped in two.

Johnston and Farmer have agreed to take a reporter up to their campsite on Dismal Creek. The day is beautiful -- the light like yellow diamonds in the air.

"Look," Johnston says, "there's a deer."

It bolts deeper into the woods.

"Been coming here my whole life," he is saying.

"I really believe if I'd've run into the woods," says Farmer, "he'd've hunted both of us down."

The only sound up here is the gurgling waters of the creek. "We might have been the nicest people this guy had ever been around since being released from prison," says Farmer. "And here he tried to take us out."

Neither man has undergone any psychological counseling. "But I might," Johnston says.

It grows quiet. Then: "I mean, it can't hurt anything," he says. "Yes, I just might. I mean, my insurance will cover it."

More quiet. Then: "How about you, Sean? You gonna get some counseling?"

"I don't know," Farmer says. "I just don't know."

On the ride down off the mountain, the humped hills in the distance look almost blue. "Lovely, isn't it?" Johnston says, curving around mountains that once were open and inviting before turning dark and hungry.