In the summer of 1980, 19-year-old Nancy Santomero of Huntington, New York, and 26-year-old Vicki Durian of Wellman, Iowa, set off from Durian’s parents’ home to hitchhike to Monongahela National Park in southeast West Virginia for a gathering of the “Rainbow Family.”
The Rainbow Family is a group of individuals committed to principles of non-violence and world peace who hold annual festivals around the country in national parks at the beginning of July.
Their bodies were found about 9 p.m. on June 25, 1980 near Droop Mountain Park in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, by a student who was walking to a lean-to where he lived on Briery Knob. Both had been shot to death and the coroner estimated they had been dead for three hours or less.
Both victims carried no identification and remained unidentified for several days. Santomero’s sister, Kathy, who traveled to the Rainbow gathering from her home in New York, had expected to meet her sister. When Nancy did not show up, Kathy assumed she had decided not to come and on July 5 Nancy drove back to the New York. When she arrived, a friend pointed out a newspaper article with photographs of the victims, one of which appeared to be her sister. She drove back to West Virginia and on July 8 identified her sister’s body and helped police contact the Durian family.
The murders remained unsolved for two years. Rumors abounded, including one that a local had murdered the girls because of residents were angry that the Rainbow group had selected their area for their gathering. Many residents in the rural county were upset at what they believed would be a gathering of drug-indulging hippies. The investigation was complicated by the tight-lipped attitude of residents who lived in an area where everyone knew everyone else.
In July 1982, 36-year-old Jacob Beard came under suspicion because of some telephone calls he placed to Durian’s parents. After the first call, in which the caller refused to identify himself, a tap was placed on the Durian telephone and as a result, Beard was identified as the caller when he made a second call, during which he said the police were not doing their job and that he was not the murderer.
Beard was a larger than life figure—and physically imposing at more than 250 pounds—who was well known by most of the area residents. At the time, he was facing animal cruelty charges for allegedly killing his former girlfriend’s cat and leaving it on her bed. Authorities agreed to dismiss the cruelty charges in return for Beard’s cooperation. They granted Beard him immunity for any “after-the-fact” involvement he may have had, but denied him immunity for involvement as a principal or accessory.
Beard told police said that he worked at Greenbrier Tractor Sales on the day of the murders until 1 p.m. and then went out in the field to work for a customer. He stopped by a grocery store on his way home around 5:15 p.m., and then he and his wife attended a school board meeting at 7 p.m. He said he returned home around 9 p.m.
He said that on his way home, he saw the vehicle of a local resident, Christine Cook, near the entrance to Droop Mountain Park along with Paulmer Adkison and McCoy and two women who may have been the Rainbow women.
Police questioned Cook and she denied being near the park.
Beard then told police that another Rainbow member had been killed in September 1980—three months after Santomero and Durian were murdered. Beard said that Adkison and Arnold Cutlip killed the woman and brought the body to his property where they disposed of it by putting it into Beard’s corn chopper. Police investigated and ultimately determined Beard’s account was a hoax, although Cutlip was arrested and held for two months before being released.
In 1983, Lee Morrison, an area resident, went to the sheriff in neighboring Greenbrier County and said he and a man named Gerald Brown had picked up the women when they were hitch hiking and that after drinking for a while, he passed out. He said that when he awoke, he found himself in the van on Briery Knob. He said he saw Brown kill both women and that he helped move the bodies to the edge of a field on the orders of Brown.
Brown was arrested and charged with the murders, but at a preliminary hearing, Morrison recanted. He said he had been put up to making the statement by Beard. Morrison said that Beard told him something would happen to his family if he didn’t make the statement. The charges against Brown were dismissed and he was released.
In 1985, a Pocahontas County sheriff’s deputy made a note in the file regarding a local resident named Alice Roberts and that she should be interviewed, but the interview never took place.
The investigation then went dormant for the next several years. In 1991, the area’s top law enforcement officials decided to renew the investigation.
In reviewing the case file, they found the note about Alice Roberts and followed it up. Roberts referred officers to her daughter, Pam Wilson, who said that on the day of the murders of Santomero and Durian, she saw two “hippie-type” women get into a van driven by Richard Fowler, a local resident whom she knew. She said she saw McCoy with Winters Walton and Fowler that afternoon.
In November 1991, a man serving a 10-year prison term for forgery and auto theft reached out to police hoping to trade information about the case for better prison conditions. The man, Keith Cohenour, said that on the day the women were murdered, he drove into a tavern parking lot in Hillsboro, West Virginia, and walked past a van owned by Richard Fowler.
Cohenour said he heard Fowler inside the van arguing with McCoy. McCoy, he said, told Fowler, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life behind bars for Jake Beard or no one else.” Fowler replied that if Beard found out he was saying those things, “you’ll wind up in the same place those girls are.”
Cohenour said he and Fowler and McCoy met several hours later at a trailer owned by Gerald Brown lived. Cohenour said that Brown and Jacob Beard were arguing and that Beard was telling Brown to keep his mouth shut. Beard then told McCoy that if he didn’t keep his mouth shut he would “end up on Briery Knob, too.”
Later that night, according to Cohenour, he gave McCoy a ride home and McCoy confessed that he saw Beard shoot the women.
The investigation intensified and other witnesses were located. Steve Good reported seeing Fowler’s van at Brown’s home at about 6 p.m. on the night of the murders. He said the van was backed into the Brown residence and that the van was being hosed out.
William Scott told police he saw Beard driving at a high rate of speed out of Droop Mountain Park about 3:30 or 3:45 p.m. on the date of the crime. Another witness said she saw Beard’s vehicle, but not him, at the entrance to the park between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
Authorities ultimately brought murder charges on April 16, 1992 against Beard, McCoy, Fowler, Brown and three other men, Winters Walton, Arnold Cutlip and Johnnie Lewis.
Police said that Lewis and Walton had implicated Beard as the killer.
At a pre-trial hearing, Walton claimed he was physically threatened by police—that one officer put his foot on the back of Walton’s neck at one point. Following allegations of police misconduct and questions about Lewis’s credibility—he had recanted his identification of Beard five separate times to his lawyer—authorities voluntarily dismissed the charges.
On January 13, 1993, Beard, McCoy, Fowler, Brown and Cutlip were indicted again for the murders. Walton and Lewis were not charged—both had been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony implicating the other five in the murders.
On April 16, 1993, Beard was arrested in Crescent City, Florida, where he had moved and was working as a service manager at a car dealership.
Prior to trial, Beard’s lawyers sought to introduce the confession of Joseph Paul Franklin, a convicted serial killer serving three life sentences at a federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. On March 1, 1984, Franklin told a Wisconsin Department of Justice officer that he had killed two white women in West Virginia and provided a hand-drawn map of the location. He later gave a similar statement to federal agents. When he was interviewed by West Virginia state police, Franklin initially denied involvement in the murders, then took responsibility and then abruptly refused to talk further.
The trial judge barred the evidence as hearsay and unreliable.
Beard went on trial alone—without the codefendants—in the summer of 1993 in Greenbrier County, where the case was moved due to the publicity about the murders.
Pamela Wilson told the jury that that she saw the women walking along Route 219, a two-lane road between a cattle farm and the unincorporated village of Hillsboro. She said she saw Fowler, accompanied by Walton and McCoy, drive up to the victims in his van and both women got in.
Walton testified that they picked them up because they believed they were hippies and probably would engage in sex. Walton said they told the women they had to go to their boss’s house to pick up a paycheck and they drove to Brown’s trailer. There, they all had some drinks and someone brought out some marijuana, he said.
Then they drove to Droop Mountain Park where they stopped amidst other vehicles where people were drinking and hanging out. The men began plotting to get the women alone and someone suggested going to Briery Knob—which was on the way to where the Rainbow gathering was to be held.
Walton said that when the road turned to a dirt road and the area became more remote, the women began arguing with McCoy, saying the men were not taking them to their destination and they threatened to call police. The van stopped halfway up Briery Knob and that’s where the group was joined by Beard, Brown, Lewis and Cutlip, who had a trailer nearby, Walton said.
Walton said the women were upset and that McCoy brandished a pistol. That’s when Beard opened fire, Walton said. Durian was shot first and Santomero was cut down as she tried to run away.
Walton said they loaded the bodies into the van, drove further up the hill and dumped them into a field. Their identification was taken away and destroyed, he said.
Lewis, despite his recantations, testified that he saw Beard kill Santomero and Durian.
Cohenour also testified to the statement he gave more than a decade earlier implicating Beard, Fowler, Brown and McCoy.
Christine Cook, who years earlier had denied being at Droop Mountain Park, now testified that she saw McCoy, Fowler, Cutlip, Lewis, and Brown at the park, possibly as late as 5 p.m. She said it was possible that Beard was among them.
The chief medical examiner, who had originally estimated the time of death as about 7 p.m., based on the condition of the victims’ bodies—rigor mortis had not set in when they were discovered about 9 p.m.—testified that the murder could have been committed as early as 4 p.m.
Beard testified in his own defense and provided his time card from his job at a farm implement business showing he checked in the morning of the crime on the company time clock and that he penciled in his time off work—a common practice at the company—as 5:15 p.m. He conceded that he did not write in the time until a week later.
He said that on his way home, he stopped at a store, and then went home where he picked up his wife and both went to the school board meeting. Other witnesses at the board meeting testified that he was in attendance at the meeting.
On June 4, 1993, a jury convicted Beard of both murders and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The prosecution then dismissed the charges against the remaining defendants and they were never prosecuted again.
In 1995, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions, but remanded the case for a hearing to determine whether any of the prosecution evidence had been developed from leads Beard provided after being granted limited immunity.
In 1996, a judge ruled that the evidence was properly obtained and the ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals in 1998.
Lawyers for Beard then filed a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus. They presented a sworn deposition from Joseph Paul Franklin saying he had killed the women. They also presented testimony from Cutlip, saying that he had been with Lewis on the day of the murders and they did not see Beard.
In January 1999, the writ was granted, the conviction was vacated and a new trial was ordered. Beard was released on bond.
Beard went on trial for a second time in May 2000 in Braxton County—another change of venue due to publicity about the case.
Beard again testified in his own behalf and presented his alibi. The defense presented the deposition of Franklin as well as Cutlip’s testimony that rebutted Lewis’s testimony.
After less than three hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Beard on May 31, 2000.
Beard later filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against Pocahontas County police and in January 2003, agreed to a $2 million settlement.
– Maurice Possley