True Crime from Appalachia: WVU Coeds and the Shenandoah Murders

The podcast Appalachian Mysteria kicked off a few years ago by covering the 1970 murders of West Virginia University coeds Mared Malarik and Karen Ferrell. The two had hitchhiked back to their dorms after seeing Oliver! in the college town of Morgantown, West Virginia, and disappeared. Their headless bodies were found later in a nearby wooded area. The murders have gone unsolved.

Despite the absolute horror of this story, and its lingering effects on the college town-community, this is a surprisingly lesser known case — I never see it covered elsewhere, and only had some additional knowledge about it because I grew up in Cumberland, Maryland, a town about 70 miles from Morgantown (and a place that, as the podcast hosts joke in its most recent season, always pops up in every crime story they cover). It’s not exactly a well known or significant area though, so I’m interested whenever stories from this region get a little bigger.

And Mared and Karen’s is equal parts compelling and confounding: the strangeness poured in after their bodies were found, from potential occult overtones at the crime scene to mysterious letters (postmarked from my hometown!) indicating knowledge about the crime: “You will locate the bodies of the girls covered over with brush–look carefully. The animals are now on the move.”

Two of the writer/journalists who worked on the podcast, Geoffrey C. Fuller and Sarah James McLaughlin, recently collaborated on a book, The WVU Coed Murders: Who Killed Mared and Karen?, which goes into even more detail about the case’s history, investigation, and the culture of the times and place it occurred in.

The murders had a huge number of potential suspects attached, and the authors work through what’s known about these men and why they are or aren’t viable. It’s certainly a weird case in that although there were other violent crimes within the region, none resemble this one too closely, and it seems so odd that one person managed to kill two women at once, so brutally, without ever committing another such crime.

I read some criticism about the authors’ willingness to call out these suspects, but I think enough time has passed that this isn’t so egregious. None of the suspects are still living, and I think it’s worthwhile to look back after time has passed at what fits. Unfortunately, I felt less than convinced about the suspect they focus on after eliminating others.

Fuller believes a serial killer who had some tenuous ties to the area is responsible, but I wasn’t really convinced. At the same time, the crime was so brutal and obviously took someone skilled in control and manipulation and unafraid — controlling two victims at once is tough even with a gun, I would think. It does seem likely it’s someone more experienced in that kind of violence.

The first half of the book is pretty unputdownable, but lagged a bit towards the end as the authors describe more of their research work and discuss suspects. It’s not offensive as other authors who insert themselves into crime investigations and cases though. It’s also packed with photographs and with so much information and history of Morgantown and the wider region at the time woven in, becomes an immersive reading experience. Highly recommended, even if it does ultimately feel unsatisfying to not have a better idea of what happened after so long.

Published October 4, 2021 by The History Press. I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. Buy used or new

Speaking of authors getting involved in a crime, the most recent season of the same podcast covers the so-called Shenandoah Murders, of backpackers Julie Williams and Lollie Winans at their nearly-hidden campsite in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia along the Appalachian Trail in 1996. The two young women were in a relationship, and the prosecution of a man suspected in their murders was the first to use federal hate crime legislation. Except it seems very unlikely that he did it, and charges against him were eventually dropped.

Author Kathryn Miles’ Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Sole the Shenandoah Murders was one I immediately avoided because I tend to dislike most of these true crime slash memoir or author investigation books. But I was curious after the podcast and seeing that this book had very positive reviews emphasizing Miles’ consideration of the victims and their lives.

Miles does include her own feelings about connection to the case, having suffered a sexual assault as a teenager, but she incorporates it into the narrative well and builds a case for the importance of women being allowed to feel safe and how this simple ask is so often denied us, including in public spaces like national parks.

She combs back through the details of the investigation, including faulty memories and potential missteps, and interviews park rangers who were involved, then digs deeply into the case against Darrell Rice, the primary suspect until charges were dropped (he had assaulted another woman in the park and upon being arrested, asked if Julie and Lollie’s murders had ever been solved, which was basically the extent of the evidence against him).

A huge portion of the book is looking at who Julie and Lollie were and were becoming, and this was beautifully done. Miles excerpts from their journals, interviews with friends, and portrays the relationship they were building together in all of its emotional complexity. Both seemed like extraordinary women on the way to doing incredible things with their lives and talents, and it makes the tragedy of this all the more strongly felt.

I appreciated reading both of these in combination with having listened to the podcast because I thought both mediums left something out or approached topics slightly differently, so they paired well. I was surprised that Miles didn’t focus as heavily on Richard Evonitz, a potential suspect identified both here and in the podcast, for instance, but she does a great service to Rice by showing the unlikelihood of his involvement and the work that the Innocence Project has done in trying to exonerate him.

I also thought all of the journalists involved across books and podcast were exceptionally considerate of victims, which thankfully is something that’s seeing a reckoning recently in the true crime boom (by any outlet worth its salt, that is — there are still far too many exploitative podcasts, books, and shows, and victims and families have been speaking openly about the great harm this has done to them).

I’ve been happily off of most true crime in the last few years because it’s felt so exploitative and overindulgent, but I think these two manage to be respectful and worthwhile in telling these stories. The regional aspect played a big part in my interest; if you’re unfamiliar with the area, you may feel less compelled by them, but I think both are especially resonant for their historical significance around the shocking amount of dangers women faced in the 1970s and for the social significance to the LGBTQIA community, respectively.

Published May 3, 2022 by Algonquin Books. Buy used or new

10 thoughts on “True Crime from Appalachia: WVU Coeds and the Shenandoah Murders

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    1. I think you’d like ones like these, that have a bigger social message and really focus on the environment around the crime stories – but I get you, they’re also completely terrifying! Trailed made me never want to go to a national park and the coed murders is flat-out terrifying 😳

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Adding these to my list. I am not proud of my penchant for true crime but it’s such an addictive way to travel to different places and different times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m really excited that you found the WVU book that connects to your hometown! I always love finding books set in smaller places that I’m familiar with.

    Like you, I’m wary of true crime in general and especially the mix with memoir for their potential to make the most tragic story of someone’s life all about the author. In Trailed, you mention that the author connects both her own story and the case to larger social concerns, like where women feel safe. I think that is an approach that makes memoir more likely to work for me, because the focus doesn’t have to be as much on the author personally, but they can share personal experience relevant to the story.

    I’m also glad that you found both of these books to be pretty respectful of the victims. It’s great that people are talking about more and that authors are changing in response.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was so beyond thrilled to find this one too! It really is a different reading experience when it’s a small place that you feel familiar with 🙂

      I completely agree with you, true crime is much more likely to work for me when it can connect bigger social concerns to the crime itself, and the memoir aspect only if it’s relevant. I was surprised by Trailed because the author really doesn’t have any strong connection to this case, but she told the story so respectfully and brought the two victims to life beautifully. I think I’ve only ever read one other true crime (Robert kolker’s Lost Girls) that is so victim- and social issue-centric and leaves you feeling like you really learned something meaningful about them. This was great for that, and I’m also relieved that some of the structure of true crime is changing for the better. It’s a genre that just automatically feels exploitative and taking the extra care to do it right is so crucial.


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