July 13th, 2008 12:39 PM
BAD: Two Men Shot By Paroled Killer - Dismal Creek, VA
SouthCoastToday.com: Killer strikes again, at scene of first crime
Scary all the way around. Hard to defend yourself when everyone is sitting around the campfire joking, and then someone walks up behind you and shoots you in the temple.
ISMAL 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.
befriending a killer
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 race for survival
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 OK. 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 their 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.
'The coldest eyes'
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, S.C., 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.
replaying that night
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, Fla., 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.
An interactive timeline of Randall Lee Smith's attacks on the Appalachian Trail is available on washingtonpost.com.
"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground."
- Thomas Jefferson
"I'm the arrow, you're my bow, shoot me forth and I will go"
"Do not let any individual posts put a knot in your Big Boy Under-Roos"
July 13th, 2008 01:05 PM
I haven't camped in a long time due to physical injury but I think most people tend to want to help people in need and after awhile let their guard down,If they would of done their jobs right at the first trial the scumbucket would of been executed
"Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country,"
--Mayor Marion Barry, Washington , DC .
July 13th, 2008 01:15 PM
But hey....we don't NEED gun in national parks and trails...park rangers will protect us. [/sarc]
- know the difference
is a fancy name for crappy fighter
You have never lived until you have almost died. For those that have fought for it, life has a special flavor the protected will never know
July 13th, 2008 03:38 PM
Where's Waste Management when you need them?
Stay armed...always have a plan...stay safe!
The last Blood Moon Tetrad for this millennium starts in April 2014 and ends in September 2015...according to NASA.
Certified Glock Armorer
NRA Life Member[/B]
July 13th, 2008 09:40 PM
I'd rather be fined for having a gun in a national park than be dead or bleeding to death in my campground...I'm sure this wouldn't have happened if Smith had known that he wasn't allowed to have a handgun with him.
The first time you aren't armed and prepared may be the last time you wished you were.
July 13th, 2008 10:34 PM
15 years for double murder?
September 4th, 2008 09:04 PM
it sure was nice of the court to give mr.smith only 15yrs for his first double murder wasn't it....
Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
― Thomas Paine
September 5th, 2008 02:50 PM
That's what I was thinking. How the heck do you not get life in prison (or death) for a double murder?
Originally Posted by stormbringerr
That's right, this sweet baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Retails for about a hundred and nine, ninety five. It's got a walnut stock, cobalt blue steel, and a hair trigger. That's right. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart. You got that?
September 5th, 2008 08:08 PM
Very sad misscarrige of justice, also several months old.
September 5th, 2008 10:21 PM
5 weeks old not that it matters.
Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
― Thomas Paine
September 6th, 2008 12:37 AM
Yikes, must of happened again.
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