EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story is one of 38 featured in the newly released book, “Murder in the Mountains: High-profile cases in the Deep South counties of Southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia,” by the editorial staffs of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and Register-Herald in Beckley.
During a visit to the Giles County Sheriff’s Department’s newly-opened investigations office in what used to be Giles Memorial Hospital in Pearisburg, Va., retired evidence technician Mark Skidmore sat at a computer screen reviewing digital case files he’d worked during his time at the department.
During his time with the Sheriff’s Department, Skidmore painstakingly documented the scenes of more than 150 death investigations, including a dozen homicides and all kinds of unnatural deaths, including many suicides. He remembers all of it. Far too vividly.
“It can weigh on your mind, sometimes,” admitted Skidmore, who’d recently begun his battle with metastatic prostate cancer.
His work included some high-profile investigations but also lots of routine stuff: dusting for fingerprints at burglary scenes, documenting vandalism and things of that ilk. He helped investigate many missing persons cases in Giles County. Most were unexceptional.
One missing persons case eventually turned out to be anything but.
In early spring of 2008, concerned neighbors reported Randall Lee Smith suspiciously missing from his Ingram Street residence in Pearisburg.
Smith, a convicted felon, was also known locally as “Lying Randall.” An even more widely-recognized title was that of “Appalachian Trail Murderer.”
Decades earlier, Smith had pleaded guilty to two counts of second degree murder in connection with the May, 1981 deaths of a pair of backpackers from Maine. The victims, 27-year-old social workers Laura Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr., were slain at the Wapiti Shelter along the Appalachian Trail in Giles County. After having been reported missing, the bodies, which had been buried in their sleeping bags, were eventually discovered by a cadaver dog.
Mountford had been shot in the head with a .22 rimfire. Ramsay showed signs of having struggled mightily for her life. She had defensive injuries on her hands. She’d been struck in the head with a piece of iron. She had 13 puncture wounds, inflicted by a long nail. She also had wounds inflicted by a knife. Investigators suspected Ramsay had also been sexually assaulted, but this could not be proven because of the poor condition of the body.
An extensive narrative of the murder investigation and subsequent arrest, trial and conviction of Smith is contained in the book, “Murder on the Appalachian Trail” by author Jess Carr of Radford, Va. The monograph account was first published in 1984. Smith was released from prison in 1996 and moved into his deceased mother’s house on Ingram Street to begin serving 10 years of home incarceration. By that time, even the book was old news. Pretty much.
“Apparently, during this time we never had the first problem out of him. No other crimes. Never failed to signal a right turn. He was as invisible as invisible could be. He lived up there in that little house and pretty much kept to himself. I heard that some dumbass went and tried to get him to autograph the book that Jess Carr wrote and (Smith) didn’t want to sign it, but that’s about it. So he’s basically invisible until ... 2008,” said Skidmore, who accompanied a group of five Sheriffs Department officers to Smith’s residence after he was reported missing.
“So we went up to the house and broke in, and his house looked just as if he was there right now. Everything was there in place. It looked like he’d just walked out. We started checking and it seemed like his water and stuff had been shut off sometime before for non-payment. We talked to some other people and they said he liked to go up on the cliffs right above the house that were right near the Appalachian Trail. They said he liked to go up there and sit and just watch the world go by,” Skidmore said.
“So we’re thinking, OK, he’s gone up there and broke a leg or had a heart attack or something. So we had a big search up through there and never did find the first sign of him. They put some posters up and down the trail with his drivers license picture on it saying, ‘If you’ve ever seen this guy, let us know. We’re trying to find him.’ We figured that probably some hunter would find him in the fall,’ he said.
On May 8, Smith finally turned up. He wasn’t found by hunters. He was found by two fishermen.
“So, whatever night it was, I got a call dispatch and they said I’d better come out because Randall Smith had shot two more people. And I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But they were serious. So I had to go out there,” said Skidmore, who suited up and headed for the remote crime scene located near the Bland County line.
Scott Johnston of Bluefield, Va. and Sean Farmer of Tazewell, Va. were camping in Walnut Flats in the Dismal area of the Jefferson National Forest on a trout fishing trip when an emaciated Smith arrived from nowhere with a fishing rod and a dog in tow. He claimed to be an engineering graduate from Virginia Tech, but they didn’t believe him. The two anglers, both of whom were in their early 30s, took pity on him and kindly shared a meal with the gaunt stranger. The stranger, in turn, kindly thanked them by inexplicably attempting to kill them both with a .22 caliber revolver.
During the ensuing outburst of unprovoked violence, the two men received two serious gunshot wounds apiece. The pair’s harrowing escape from the remote section of Giles County known locally as “No Business,” during which time both men feared they might bleed out, has been well documented in print by Bill Archer of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. The night of terror was also the subject of a Dateline NBC episode and a segment of the Biography Channel’s “I Survived” cable television series.
Both intended victims lived to later share their riveting account of the ordeal. Smith did not. On the night of the shootings, Smith stole Johnston’s Ford Ranger pickup truck and subsequently overturned and totaled the vehicle while fleeing from a pursuing Virginia State Trooper. Smith was treated at Carilion Hospital in Roanoke, Va. for crash-related injuries. Several days later he was subsequently arrested, charged with two counts of attempted capital murder and moved to the medical unit at New River Regional Jail. Smith died there on May 10 of an apparent blood clot.
That was the end of Randall Lee Smith. But it wasn’t the end of the questions his strange behaviors would raise.
The day following the shootings, Skidmore had received a visitor: AT hiker William Reading, whose trail name was “Moondog.”
“He told us that he had been camping the night of all this over in a thicket and that he’d heard the truck coming by and stopped near the end of an old fire road. He knew it was a Ford Ranger pickup for a couple reasons. He had one and knew what the taillights looked like and he recognized the door chime ... The ‘bong, bong, bong’ when the door was opened,” Skidmore said.
“He saw somebody get out and start walking around this old fire road with a flashlight. He could tell he was looking around for something ... he was rooting through the leaves or stuff and the guy was cussing. This Moondog hollers out ‘Hey!’ A couple more cuss words come out and the guy with the flashlight jumps in the truck and takes off.
“So we went with Moondog back to his campsite — and you could not tell that he’d been there — a couple of us walked down the road and he said. ‘Stop right there! That’s where he was. Look around.’ Sure enough, right in this brush pile we found stuff that was Smith’s.”
It was an astonishing aggregate of items, some obviously useful, some meaningful, some bewildering and some — rather chilling.
“We were sure (it belonged to Smith) because it had things like his GED certificate that he got when he was in prison. His birth certificate was in it. A couple of other things, including a little tape recorder that had a tape of some kind of a ritual. You could hear people moaning and screaming. It sounded like a witchcraft kind of thing,” Skidmore said.
The official investigation narrative referred to the audio cassette’s contents as “some kind of satanic ritual.” There was also some kind of handwritten occult material found among the items.
“We found written incantations that I believe were from the Wiccan religion ... ‘All Hail Guardians of the Watchtower’ and so forth,” Skidmore said.
Among the cached items — some of which seemed very random — was a copy of law enforcement radio 10-codes and a police scanner. There was a small battery-operated television. There were molded plastic contour maps of the area of Giles and Bland counties where the attempted murder occurred. There were several places marked in pencil on the maps.
“We searched those places and didn’t find anything. There was, I don’t know how many ...dozens of knives. Most of them looked like kitchen knives. There were a couple of hunting knives and maybe a butcher knife. But dozens of knives. There were clothes. I’m wanting to say, eight pairs of ladies underwear. There were several pair of eyeglasses that were either ladies or unisex style eyeglasses,” Skidmore said.
What in All Hell was Randall Lee Smith really up to?
On more than one occasion, Farmer and Johnston have claimed the convicted Appalachian Trail Murderer was intent on fulfilling his end of some kind of dark, supernatural bargain on that May night he attempted to take their lives. They believe themselves to have been the intended victims of a lowlife engaged in some form of high strangeness. The creepy allegations make for a good campfire story. But that doesn’t necessarily make the allegations any less true.
Spilling the blood of the two men may very well have been a necessary component to the blackest and possibly most intentional spell the warlock of Ingram Village ever attempted to cast.
Even after having served time for Ramsay and Mountford’s murders, Smith’s presence in the community was barely acknowledged after his return in 1996. Some of his neighbors later said they believed he’d eventually commit another violent crime. But up until his 2008 disappearance there was relatively little indication that Smith was taken any more seriously than he’d ever been.
He’d spent his life lying as compulsively and repetitively as a chain smoker going through a daily carton of cigarettes. And yet he remained so inept at deceit his stories invariably failed to convince anyone. His well-known sobriquet reflected his reputation. People called him “Lying Randall” or “L.R.,” oftentimes, directly to his face.
Pearisburg auto mechanic John Spaur, who operates a garage on Wenonah Avenue, is one of the few people who regularly interacted with Smith before and after the 1981 murders. Toward the end of his life, Smith still randomly dropped in at the garage to say hello from time to time.
When Smith returned to Pearisburg to begin his period of home confinement, Spaur paid Smith a visit. Smith claimed he had amnesia.
“I walked in and he said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘You know who I am.’ He said, ‘I don’t remember nobody.’ I said, ‘Whatever.’
Spaur walked around the house with Smith, carrying on a conversation which, for someone who didn’t previously know the convicted man, might’ve seemed extremely odd. At one point, Smith showed Spaur the page of a word puzzle
“He says, ‘Your name’s on this right here.’ (You’ve seen a word puzzle where you circle words?) ‘I said really?’ He said, “Yeah. The FBI knows everything about you.’ So we just kept that up for a while,” Spaur said.
“He said, ‘I can’t remember nothing about this place. None of this stuff comprehends to me.’ So we stepped out on the porch and looked up on the mountain. I said, ‘That old antique school bus. I didn’t know that was up in there’ ... He said, ‘That’s something that’s been there since I was a kid.’ I knew right then he was lying to me,” Spaur said.
Smith wasn’t particularly feared or dreaded by Spaur. Not even with his murderer’s credentials.
“People were wary of him. Nobody wanted to hire him or be associated with him. But I don’t think you could say anyone was afraid of him,” said Spaur, who noted that while Smith lied about practically every facet of his life, there was one theme that recurred with the greatest frequency.
“The women he had,” Spaur said.
“He would talk about his girlfriends. He’d have one living in Bland. He’d have one living in Blacksburg. We rode over there one day before Christmas because Mama wanted some purple candles from Roses. He rode over (to Blacksburg) with me. He said, ‘My little woman works over at that place.’ So I said, ‘Really? That’s right where we’re going.’ So I pull in and go inside and he just sat outside in the truck and never mentioned that story again. That was it.
“We’d be here on a Friday thinking of somewhere we might go. Maybe have a cold one. Get a bunch of guys together. Maybe watch the home run championship or something. He’d say, ‘I’ve got a little lady and I’ve got to meet her at six o’clock or seven, pick her up and take the kids out tonight.’ I’d say, ‘All right.’ So he’d go home to Ingram Village and we’d drive by real slow and there was his truck sitting right there in the driveway all by itself,” Spaur said.
Unlike the victims of his 2008 rampage, Smith never got to be a reality TV celebrity with multiple story interviews and continual internet incarnations. There was no internet in 1981, only conventional analog broadcast, which was not subject to the endless replication and dissemination of digital social media. Assorted print media had a somewhat longer shelf life back then. But other than taking note of Smith’s eventual release from prison, even those outlets soon lost interest in this strange hermit, who peopled his reality tunnel with adoring women who did not exist.
He was a nobody and he was well on his way to oblivion. The final photos of Smith from 2008 reveal the shell of a man who looked much older than his 54 years. Perhaps he’d apprehended that the end was hurtling toward him. Perhaps he knew it would not be too long before the shadows swallowed him whole.
Fast-forward to June of 2018 and you can hear Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark of the nationally popular “My Favorite Murder” podcast discussing Randall Lee Smith (Ep. 125). Their episode chiefly referenced the “I Survived” episode as well as the July 8, 2008 Washington Post piece by Wil Haygood that helped propel Tazewell County’s two most famous trout fishermen into the national spotlight. Both women are evidently big fans of Farmer and Johnston.
The MFM podcast made reference to Smith’s recovered cache, with particularly foreboding references to the women’s underwear and collection of feminine eyeglasses. Both co-hosts grimly speculated that these items were likely trophies from female victims whose bodies had yet to be discovered and linked to Smith. The implication is that the Big Reveal has yet to come.
Charming and funny as they are, neither of these icons of True Crime “infotainment” have peeked over Mark Skidmore’s shoulder at the astonishing list of items the retired investigator meticulously catalogued on the night of the attempted murder and its aftermath. He documented the camp site, the truck crash site and, finally, Smith’s mysterious cache site. Everything was accounted for. He’s been out of the game for a while now, but Skidmore betrayed a glimmer of belated pride at the thoroughness of his investigative efforts in the field that chaotic night a decade earlier. Two-thirds of his work had been conducted in a pitch-black forest, yet it was top-shelf crime scene investigating.
One elusive fact he’d like to have nailed down is confirmation that the .22 revolver with which Smith shot Johnson and Farmer was the same one he used to put bullets into Mountford as he slept in the Wapiti Shelter in 1981.
“They never found the gun that was used in the first one. They knew it was a .22. The gun we got on the second (crime) was very old. It misfired a lot and wasn’t reliable. We ran a trace on the gun and it shows that it was sold to him in June of 1981,” said Skidmore, who noted that in the early 1980s, it was not uncommon for a gun dealer to wait two or three months after a sale before sending the official paperwork in.
“So it could have been bought in April or May and it had just not been turned in yet. We weren’t able to bring any evidence from the originals. The visible evidence, as far as bullets, they were long since gone,” Skidmore said.
Smith’s creepy cache, including the panties and eyeglasses, motivated law enforcement’s subsequent combing of the Dismal Creek area of the Appalachian Trail in a coordinated search for additional clues. Cadaver dogs were brought in. Ponds were drained to scour the muck for signs of corpses. Nothing of value was found.
Roughly 100 of the collected items were subsequently culled for DNA testing. This included eight pair of ladies panties — Black, Size Large; Bright Pink, Size 7; Pale Pink, Size Large; Light Purple, Size M/6; White Lacy, Size L/7; White Hanes, Size 8; White, Size 7 and White w/ Blue Trim, Size 7. They yielded no leads. Nor did the eyeglasses. They were dead ends, and so are likely to remain.
“We wanted see if there was any blood on any of these knives. We got nothing. We’d sent the underwear down, but where they’d been exposed to the elements there was no DNA on it so we don’t know who any of that belonged to. We passed the word all up and down the trail for any unsolved homicides or anything like that. Nothing. It was just a crazy, crazy case,” said Skidmore, who noted that since it never went to trial, his work was never introduced as evidence.
When Smith was found unresponsive in his jail cell, it was the beginning of the end as far as law enforcement engagement was concerned. He wasn’t going to murder anyone else. Barring the discovery of any further evidence of misdeeds, this was the end of the trail.
“What’s it classified as? We don’t have anyone to prosecute. We don’t have a victim. We don’t have a crime. Other than the fact he shot those two boys that night, there’s nothing illegal about having a stash of stuff hidden in the woods. There’s nothing illegal about a man possessing women’s underwear or women’s eyeglasses. There’s nothing illegal about a person having 30-some knives. Anything that could have been any help to us, any lead had been exhausted,” Skidmore reflected.
“I’m sure it’s just a dead case,” he added.
In the absence of additional evidence, it might be just as reasonable to hypothesize that Randall Lee Smith’s panty-hoard is no more associated with real women — living or dead — than any of his other fantasies. Perhaps he stole them from clotheslines. Perhaps he pilfered them at a laundromat. Perhaps he bought them because he wanted people to believe he had someone to buy them for. All of this would have been in character.
Perhaps Smith, an all-but-forgotten convicted killer, fully anticipated the conclusions to which the public might leap after investigators one day discovered women’s underwear among his belongings, crumpled together in a wadded ball.
Having spent most of his life as small town resident in Giles County, Smith could have no doubt whatsoever as to the popular perception of the occult incantations and drawings that were found among his possessions.
Johnston and Farmer certainly weren’t wrong-headed in attributing The Devil’s Work to Smith’s behavior on the evening he repaid their fellowship with gunfire. The alleged occult materials merely confirmed what they’d experienced first hand.
The Devil, it would appear, works in mysterious ways.
“Hail to the Guardians of the Watchtowers of the East Powers of Air and invention hear me
Hail to the Guardians of the Watchtower of the South Powers of Fire And feelings, hear me
Hail to the Guardians of the Watchtowers of the West Powers of Water and Intowishin (sic) hear me
Hail to the Guardians of the watchtower of the North By the Powers of Mother and Earth Hear Me
Aid me in this magical working on this May’s Eve Guardian of the Bitter Sea show me your glory show me your power I pray thee, I pray to thee I invoke thee, Oh Sacred One hear my calls Ancient wise one. Teach me thy ways. Lend me thy powers. Show me thy glory. In invoke thee — I invoke thee Oh Ancient One.”
Experts from Virginia Tech who were subsequently consulted by investigators attributed the source of Smith’s hand-written rites to “the Wiccan religion.” Skidmore, who’d worked in a prison before, was aware that Wicca was an approved faith for incarcerated inmates to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was entirely possible that Smith had become acquainted with such material while he was in prison.
There are indeed versions of this particular “Watchtower” ritual to be found among practitioners of Wicca, a secretive neo-pagan religion which became public following the repeal of England’s archaic witchcraft laws in 1951. In general, Wiccans venerate nature and strongly enjoin fellow believers to refrain from doing harm to others — including the avoidance of malefic magic. There are, however, numerous variations of this same rite found in other pagan and non-pagan contemporary traditions. Some darker, diabolist sects have adapted some form of the ritual in modern times.
Historically, a slightly different version was likely recited by Irish poet William Butler Yeats during rites held by the Order of the Golden Dawn, a British fraternal lodge which initiated — and later kicked out — an infamous 20th century pop culture icon named Aleister Crowley. Even earlier versions of this invocation were attributed to Dr. John Dee, a devout Anglo-Catholic physician and occultist of the Elizabethan age who served as court astrologer for Good Queen Bess herself. The core structure of the ritual has been considered high-quality work by assorted English-speaking conjurers across the centuries.
The source from which Randall Lee Smith most likely obtained his version of it isn’t particularly esoteric. It is much more recent, readily accessible and much more widely known: the 1996 supernatural horror movie, “The Craft.”
The handwritten version found among Smith’s belongings is almost word-for-word the identical incantation uttered by actors Fairuza Balk, Rachel True, Neve Campbell and Robin Tunney during the stormy scene on the beach which significantly advances the plot. It isn’t a perfect match; there are some places the Smith text diverges from the movie script. But the overlaps in form and cadence are impressive.
The other handwritten incantation (“Now is the time/ now is the hour/ ours is the magic/ ours is the power”) features prominently at the beginning of “The Craft,” as does one of the abstract occult symbols drawn, apparently by Smith, on one of the stashed documents.
Another clue to the likelihood of Smith’s having copied the ritual from “The Craft” — or at least someone having obtained it from an audio recording of the movie’s soundtrack — is the spelling error in the stanza dealing with the Guardian of the Watchtower of the West. Spelled “Intowishin” in the Smith text, the corresponding word in the movie is “Intuition.” Smith’s version is misspelled while being more or less phonetically correct. This indicates that the copy was probably transcribed by ear rather than using a printed text as the original source document.
There is no physical proof that Smith ever owned or rented “The Craft.” The internet was a potential alternative source, but there was no evidence of internet access in the investigation photos taken inside Smith’s home. There was, however, a rather elaborate audio visual rack in the house that included a VHS cassette player and a DVD player. The sound quality would have been excellent.
The spooky audio cassette that Skidmore alluded to earlier failed to turn up during the research conducted for this article. Skidmore and another officer familiar with the case affirmed that the tape existed. After listening to key audio from “The Craft,” both asserted that the missing cassette was more likely a recording of a different as-yet-unidentified supernatural movie or television show.
Both agreed that the audio on the missing cassette featured a man’s voice chanting and women’s voices moaning in the background, augmented by music apparently generated by a theramin — an obscure electronic musical instrument, the eerie tones of which were frequently incorporated into Hollywood horror and science fiction movies after the late 1940s.
The existence of the now-misplaced audio cassette would indicate that Smith had on at least one other occasion recorded audio from another original video source. Perhaps its presence among so many other seemingly random items of evidence is merely coincidental. Or perhaps it was intentional: yet another creepy Easter egg to lend demonic gravitas to Smith’s legacy.
Who is to say that Randall Lee Smith wasn’t a bloodthirsty backwoods devotee of the dark arts? Who is to say he didn’t construct a candle-lit stone circle in some remote, swampy clearing in Dismal? Who is to say that, during the time he went missing, Randall Lee Smith didn’t attempt to call spirits from the vasty deep? Who is to say whether or not they answered him?
Then again, who is to say that all of it, with the exception of his proven intent to commit a double homicide on May 6, 2008, isn’t just another collection of Smith’s big, fat lies? Perhaps he believed all he needed was two fresh dead bodies to obtain the skeptical public’s willing suspension of disbelief.
The occult aspects of this case might very well be the tallest tale Lying Randall ever told. Ironically, such a fantastical prevarication might yet outlive all the doubters who, during his life, knew not to believe a word that he said. Someday, the elaborately constructed lie might be widely recollected as if it were something very close to a supernatural truth.
Scott Johnston and Rob Farmer didn’t deserve to be assaulted by Smith, but they were exactly the kind of victims Smith deserved to encounter on his last murderous foray into the forest. They were physically and mentally tough individuals whose tenacity exposed the Appalachian Trail Murderer’s inadequacies as a killer. He’d surprised them both, caught them flat-footed, and yet their escape and survival denied him two more skulls he’d sought for the imaginative altar built to honor his own his memory. Randall Lee Smith died as he lived: as a failure.
And yet, the dreadful memory of Randall Lee Smith carries on.
A decade after his death, both mainstream and alternative media accounts of his career continue to exaggerate Smith’s reputation as a successful predatory serial killer. The body count does not bear this out. Ramsay and Mountford are his only confirmed murder victims. One, Smith shot in the head as he slept. The other, Smith succeeded in brutally killing only after a considerable struggle. Johnston and Farmer both ultimately eluded him.
Smith was, indeed, some kind of psychopath. His disordered mind was, indeed, far from harmless. But no further corpses attributed to him have been discovered as of this printing. In spite of this, Randall Lee Smith is today more notorious than ever.
His otherwise pointless life casts a sinister, ever-lengthening shadow. His infamy continues to grow. The fact that you are reading this sentence is proof enough of that.
Black magic, indeed.