Editor's note: If comparing per capita crime rate of cities to per visitor crime rate in parks accurately reflects the relative crime rate in a park, then the national parks are some of least violent places to be in the United States. But it would be unrealistic to assume crime doesn't occur in them, and irresponsible to ignore it. The following story from the Blue Ridge Parkway reads, unfortunately, like a crime blotter. We run it not for sensationalism, but to acknowledge the realities that exist.
Wayward bears addicted to Kentucky Fried Chicken are the least of a park ranger’s worries. Just ask Bruce Bytnar, who worked at the Blue Ridge Parkway for 27 years before he retired in 2008.
In his book, A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty-Two Years of Protecting Our National Parks, Mr. Bytnar tells the real story behind what it is like to patrol a 469-mile long park through some of the best scenery the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina have to offer.
“Dealing with real-world life and death were not what I considered when I became a national park ranger,” he writes. “Little did I know that I would repeatedly respond to human fatalities, murders, and scenes of child abuse.”
At times Mr. Bytnar’s misadventures with wily fugitives, inept sheriffs, and park managers who make rattlesnakes seem cuddly are hilarious for us to read. Although these events must have seemed less funny at the time Mr. Bytnar was experiencing them. “Living in a national park is not the ideal situation that most people envision,” the veteran park ranger tells us. “You end up living with your job 24 hours a day.”
With his modest and articulate voice, Mr. Bytnar epitomizes what we would like our park rangers to be. Sturdy, good-humored, and fearless, he is a real-life Dudley Do-right who adores his family and pays for the apple coveted by a hungry but penniless boy inside a country store. But even for the likes of Mr. Bytnar something has to give.
Eventually, the heart-breaking tragedies, the ungodly long hours, the unsympathetic taxpayers, and the politics played by clueless park managers eventually take their toll on the park ranger. “At times,” Mr. Bytnar concludes, “it becomes hard for an idealist to learn how things are done in the real world.”
And in the real world people get shot at Rock Point Overlook and a park ranger is 12 times more likely to die on the job than is a Special Agent with the FBI.
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, our national parks are “extremely safe.” Yet an Internet search of the words “Blue Ridge Parkway” with “murder” turns up lots of bodies.
In 1994 a Swedish man was found shot to death near Deep Gap. In June 1997, a 24-year-old woman and her 5-year-old son were brutally stabbed before their bodies were dumped inside the park. Then, in the summer of 1998, a shirtless man seen sitting at a Big Witch Overlook picnic table with a rifle in one hand and a beer in the other shot and killed park Ranger Joe Kolodski. In March 2004, park rangers found the head, arms, and legs of a murdered cattle farmer scattered along the roadside. Two years after that grisly discovery, in April 2006, the body of male homicide victim appeared six months before rangers found the remains of a 22-year-old graduate student murdered by a serial killer who drove the dead woman’s car to Florida before he took his own life during a police standoff.
The park’s 75th anniversary year appears to be off to a particularly violent start. In February 2010 authorities recovered the remains of another murdered man two months before newspapers published reports that a crazed gunman had pointed a shotgun at a couple enjoying the view at the Rock Point Overlook, killing a disc jokey and wounding his 18-year-old female companion.
Of these nine murders, only three of the killings are known to have occurred inside the parkway's boundaries. Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett reports that the amount of violence occurring on the Blue Ridge Parkway is small when you take into consideration the crime rates of local communities. He says the bodies found on the parkway are more often discovered near urban areas like Asheville.
Yet when the locations of the above crime scenes are plotted on a map, it appears that less than half were found in immediate vicinity of towns. Seventeen million people recreate in the park each year and many roads access the parkway along its 469-mile length. Perhaps the easy access to remote locations makes the parkway convenient for murderers looking for a place to dump bodies or take their victims. Perhaps, as Chief Ranger Stinnett believes, a surprising number of bodies are found along the parkway only because more people are hiking in the area.
As if park rangers didn’t already have enough problems, this year a new law loosened gun restrictions along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Today anyone who can legally carry loaded firearms under federal and state law can now possess those firearms while visiting a national park. Mr. Bytnar says this new law makes protecting the public an increasingly tricky and dangerous business for park rangers. Those assigned to the parkway now must enforce the confusing and conflicting gun laws of two states and 29 counties.
Both sides of the right-to-carry debate claimed the recent shooting on the Blue Ridge Parkway as evidence supporting their positions. Meanwhile, park rangers like Mr. Bytnar know that violence is, and always has been, an unfortunate reality in our national parks. And to learn how far back the landscape’s bloody history goes all you have to do is read the signs at the overlooks.
For example, at milepost 264.4 a wooden sign highlights the saga of a brutal murder immortalized by the Kingston Trio’s “Ballad of Tom Dooley.” Behind the sign, you can climb a hill locals call “the Lump.” From the top of the Lump you can peer down into a shady valley where, in 1866, a former Confederate soldier named Tom Dula allegedly resolved a complicated love triangle by stabbing his pregnant girlfriend multiple times with a large knife before burying her body in a shallow grave on a hill above Reedy Branch.
You won’t read what follows in any park service brochure but, 143 years later, history appeared to have repeated itself. On a crisp fall morning in 2009, a hiker found the naked and burned body of a 21-year-old woman near Glenn Gap. An autopsy revealed that the woman was pregnant. Cause of death? Blunt force trauma to the head. Family members told the press the young woman had recently made up with her former boyfriend before she was found dead along the roadside. To date her murder remains unsolved.
Andrea Lankford is a former park ranger and the author of Ranger Confidential: Living, Working and Dying in the National Parks. For the real stories behind the scenery visit www.andrealankford.com.