One writer’s quest to solve the Shenandoah Murders.
Konstantin Rega: What drew you to this project, not being from Virginia yourself?
Katheryn Miles: This book has been 25 years in the making. I was a full-time writer at Outside magazine, and it was a feature story for the 20th anniversary of the crime. The FBI field office had widely advertised its interest in closing this case. And I thought it would be straight forward, 5,000 words piece. But after meeting the investigators at Quantico and spending a day at the murder scene, it became obvious that this was not really a simple story after all.
And I definitely wanted to air on the opposite of sensationalism. When I was structuring the book, I started with the crime and pulled back and examined why this one has been so hard to solve. Also to depict the ripple effect in the interim, both with those who had an immediate relationship with Julie and Lollie and those just affected by it. It’s so sobering to me how many people have experiences like this and how many of these stories we still need to tell.
So what kept you going with the story?
Along the way, I began working with VA Innocence Project at UVA. And spent about 4 years unpacking the case. It was a lot of time and emotional strain. However, it was really important to me that I pay homage to their story. I wanted to tell their story in a way that hadn’t been told before.
But I also wanted to show how invasive these problems are. Not only are there 250,000 cold murder cases in this country but we have a National Parks system that’s running a deficit of billions of dollars. The culmination of all these things really spurred me on. I hope this book can kind of force a national reckoning both about how we handle violent crimes and who we are in the woods.
National parks are such a wonderful resource for all of us. And we all should feel safe in them. It’s shocking to me how many people will approach me and say, I remember this crime and have not been since, or don’t hike alone now. Recognizing that there are very different versions of the wilderness for different people is important. When you look at the outdoor feel, it is still a white, masculine world. There’s not a lot reflecting back at people that are not “that.”
Did you always want to be a writer, a journalist?
I literally grew up into it. My godmother was a newspaper editor and so I came of age loving everything about journalism. Then I taught college full-time for about 15 years. But as an environmental writer and thinker, I soon found that scholarship wasn’t the best way to address the issues I was encountering, so I went back to my roots with more popular writing.
This book was my definite foray into True Crime. But all my books look into our relationships with the natural world.
And what did you want to achieve with this project?
I think the ideal is about closing this case. It would be incredibly meaningful to them. And I think it’s about trying to force a national reckoning about the wilderness and what it means. Every time someone hears this story there’s a chance it’ll help a case get closer to being closed, and that’s so important.