review / true crime

Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders by Kathryn Miles

I generally like true crime best when it’s written by a woman, especially if the victim(s) are women.

That is the case in Trailed so I felt like I was predisposed to like the book and for the most part, I did.

Kathryn Miles certainly put a lot of effort and thought into solving the case. Almost too much effort as she describes the rabbit holes she goes down (looking up uniforms from local places in the late 1990s, watching hours of disturbing pornography because of some strange picture of an imprint at the crime scene) and her mental health really seems to suffer. She decides to learn how to shoot a gun and seems to worry people are going to break into her home. She talks a lot about how people can hide their criminal activity and how she wouldn’t know if someone close to her was a serial killer.

My main issue with the book was that it was sort of disjointed. It takes to the 75% mark to get a retelling of the events leading up to the death of Julianne Williams and Laura Winans (aka Julie and Lollie as she referred to them through the book). Why wasn’t this earlier in the book? She sprinkles information about the women throughout the book, the unusual, outdoorsy college they attended, their interest in hiking, and encouraging other women hikers but takes a very long time to get a full picture of the women and what happened at the time they went on their last trip together. I hadn’t even realized they had been separated at some point and apparently using the trip to reconnect in some way.

A lot of the book is about miscarriages of justice and how certain pieces of evidence against the main suspect seemed to have been taken completely out of context. His lawyers truly believed he was innocent. It also tells the background of some hate crime legislation and how it was politically important to have the murder of two blonde, white lesbians not only be solved but considered a hate crime. He ultimately had charges dropped because of other DNA evidence in the scene but the police did not seem to have tested it against who the Innocence Project people feel is a better suspect.

A minor quibble but I don’t think she ever talked about how anyone would know these two women were gay. I would think many people in heteronormative 1990s America would assume they were just two friends hiking together as that is very common. Women often hike in pairs because we are told it is safer. But unless they told people about their sexuality, I would think that most people they randomly encountered wouldn’t think about it at all. They were hiking; not staying in one place or socializing to any great degree. A small point but one that points to how odd their murder was swept up in the “wave” of awareness of anti-gay violence in the late 1990s. When she finally gets to what was going on in their lives and their relationship leading up to the trip it doesn’t even seem clear that they went on the trip as a couple. Yes, hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community happen and are horrible but two women having been in a previous romantic relationship together is not something that is always readily apparent during a brief chance encounter with strangers. These women only had the tiniest contact with strangers on their trip. It seems strange that it was so fixated on as a motive and I would have liked to have seen more reflection on that.

She was very upset by the murder rate in these large parks and maybe it’s the Baltimore in me but the numbers didn’t see that unexpected if you consider the millions of people who visit these parks and how remote many of the areas in these parks are. I honestly think the number must be artificially low. Not that any murder is acceptable but when you have many people in very remote and isolated areas, it does seem prime for crime. She said we wouldn’t accept a similar rate of murder at Disneyland and maybe not but Disneyland has more security and every corner in monitored. You can’t expect that level of surveillance at a rural public park. She also talked about how park numbers were artificially high because if you left a park and came back the same day, you are counted twice. How many people actually do that? Many national parks have caps that wouldn’t allow you to return anyway. In my experience at state and national parks people pack meals/supplies and plan to stay at least the day. Are people really coming and going multiple times a day and driving up the rates? She really focuses on this in a strange way.

There were just a few details and leaps in logic (or lack of logic) along these lines that stood out to me. She spent a lot of time dwelling on things like a possible indent in a sleeping bag but doesn’t think too deeply about other details she includes yet dismisses for what seems like no reason. Early on in the book she shares a story of a park ranger tearfully remembering seeing a “pot” of uneaten couscous filled with rainwater at the scene and dog food–clearly distressed at the idea that these women and their dog were probably getting ready to have a meal when they were attacked. She then says that says their meal wasn’t in the crime scene photos so he must be confused. She makes the point of the fragility of human memory and sort of condescendingly discredits him a bit but later she talks about waterlogged macaroni spilling out of a bag and upturned dog bowls being on the scene. Isn’t it obvious that is what he was talking about? Macaroni and couscous are both small white shapes of pasta that would have been sitting out in the rain for days. Dogs get fed in bowls. It had been decades and I can’t imagine he spent a huge amount of time studying their food to figure out the exact shape of the pasta when the cause of death was readily apparent. How many murder victims could this man have come across as a ranger? It was not a leap in logic to think that if the women had food out and the dog bowls out they were getting ready to eat. The point of sharing the couscous memory was, I would think, to illustrate the distress of the man who saw the crime scene. Why be so dismissive of that by saying he’s misremembering that, throwing the whole firsthand account into doubt only to talk about uneaten pasta and dog bowls being on the scene later?

I don’t think the very jumbled and nonlinear format did the book any favors. It read like the author’s research journal and I had the strong feeling things were written about when they happened or occurred to her rather than in a way that made sense and provided a narrative anyone outside of the case could follow. I ended up having to Google various aspects of the case to connect some pieces and clarify some details. I’ve never had to do that in any book I’ve read before. I truly think she was writing the book as she investigated and didn’t go back to make sure it made sense or was the best way to present the information. It felt like she only knew the broad strokes at the beginning and then finally was able to interview people about their life leading up to their deaths about 3/4 of the way into her investigation. Where are the editors?

She did do a good job of pointing out some of the bizarre missteps of the park service investigator including their odd insistence on a particular death day despite witness testimony that seemed solid. The waitress who said their food came with breakfast meats that the women said they didn’t want but asked if it could be wrapped up for their dog was discredited by an investigator because the women were vegetarian despite the waitress’ clear description of their quirky appearance and apparent discussion of their vegetarianism. He thought she was influenced by posters, which does seem less than likely. The investigator also quibbled over odd details like dark blue vs royal blue for a jacket or the shade of jeans or the weight of their dog. So strange and a good point to how odd the investigation was. All of this was important because of the waitress had seen the women then their suspect couldn’t have done it because he was in Annapolis.

I do think the book gave back some humanity and depth to the women and eventually we do get a picture of who they were. I liked how she showed how broken the justice system is and how people can be accused and imprisoned for crimes that they didn’t commit. I also think a stronger editor was needed to make sure the story was readable. I really had to press through parts and started to be tempted to take notes myself, information was so scattered in the book.

All in all, well worth it if you are interested in the case and failures of the justice system.

It comes out on May 3rd, I read an ARC provided by the publishers.

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