By Chris Hansen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/15/2009 8:28:13 PM ET 2009-02-16T01:28:13

This report aired on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009 on Dateline NBC.

For fishermen like Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer, days don't start any better than this.

May 6, 2008 dawned a sunshine perfect spring morning, and Scott, a cook, and Sean, a truck driver, grabbed their gear and headed up the Appalachian Trail for a few days of fishing and camping in the lush and tranquil woods of southwestern Virginia.

The Appalachian Trail is a paradise for outdoorsmen: a ribbon of wilderness that runs thousands of miles through mountains and forests, from Maine to Georgia.

Scott Johnston: I love comin' up here. It's easy to get on the trail here.  It's-- it's a good place to meet other hikers. 

Scott and Sean were near the trail on brushy mountain, miles away from civilization, heading for a creek alive with rainbow trout.

Chris Hansen: And how was the fishing that day?

Scott Johnston: Actually awesome.  I hammered them.  (laughter)

Chris Hansen:  How many did you get ?

Scott Johnston: Six

Chris Hansen: So you had six big trout.

Scott Johnston: Yeah, six nice ones.

But just a few hours later, that picture postcard day turned into a night straight out of a horror movie.

Chris Hansen: Did you think you could die on the mountain that night?

The beauty of this wilderness can mask its danger. Nature still holds sway here in the vast national forests of Virginia: black bears, bobcats, timber rattlers and other predators are here, stalking their prey. And on this day, there was something else hunting out there among the towering hardwoods and tangled brush: Another, even more deadly predator.

Scott and Sean say they had the uneasy feeling of being watched that day, and, though they didn't know it, some hikers had told the local sheriff they had seen something very odd on the nearby Appalachian Trail: strange symbols and threatening signs painted on rocks and trees.

Sheriff Morgan Millirons: There were skulls and cross bones painted on rocks, you know, enter at your own risk.

Some of those ominous signs were near the Wapiti Shelter on the Appalachian Trail, just a stone's throw from where Scott and Sean pitched camp. The isolated shelter sits well off the trail in a dark, remote tract of woodland. It's well-known, but mostly avoided by those who know its secrets.

Something evil happened at this lonely campground years ago, a crime so gruesome that its memory seemed to linger in the damp, forest air.  But on a day as glorious as this one, that crime was the furthest thing from the friends' minds.

Scott Johnston: I had fished all morning. And I was coming back up the mountain.  And there was a dog in the road. Well, when I stopped and got out of my truck, you know, someone walked up out of the creek bank.  So, we talked a little while.  Talked about fishing and stuff.  And he told me, he says, "Oh, you know, there's no fish in this creek."

Chris Hansen: No fish?

Scott Johnston: Yeah.  That's what he said. And so I opened up the cooler and I pulled out a bag of trout.  And I said, "Here, you can have these."

Chris Hansen: Now, did he-- strike you as odd in any way?

Scott Johnston: No.  He looked just like a normal camper.

That evening, as Sean was setting up his tent near a place called dismal creek, that same fisherman stopped by.

Sean Farmer: He just, you know, walked up.  And I-- you know, "How 'ya doin'," type thing.  He said he'd spoke to Scott.  And they were fishing together. 

Sean and Scott say an unwritten rule of the trail is to offer aid and friendship to fellow hikers and fishermen. And they did just that before the night spun out of control.

Scott Johnston: My dad was bringin' me up here in my early childhood...

The two friends took us up to the campsite on brushy mountain where they cooked the stranger dinner, and swapped stories around the campfire.

Chris Hansen: This is the spot?

Sean Farmer: This is it, right here. After, you know, a couple hours of conversation, some dinner, this is where we found ourselves, right here. 

The two men demonstrated what happened next.

Scott Johnston: And-- we were sitting around the campfire, talkin' about sports, and fishing.

Sean Farmer: And then it was dark by that time and then, he walked over to get his dog, right in front of Scott's tent.  And, you know, patted his leg. I could hear him say, "Come on, boy.  We need to get back to camp." 

It seemed to be a quiet end to a lazy evening, then suddenly, that friendly fisherman turned on them.

Scott Johnston: And- and the next thing I know, I mean, I just hear, "Pow.  Pow." and I see his arm stuck out towards Sean.

Sean Farmer: I just had this ringing in my head, where he shot me right in the side of the face.  You know,  I hear that boom. I couldn't hear any other gunshots because inside my head was, like, “waaaah,” just as loud as you can possibly imagine. It rings your head unbelievably.  And my mouth swollen immediately.  So, I couldn't really speak after that.  And then my vision in my right side went bad.

Sean Farmer: And I stood up, staggered back. And all I could see were, you know, shots of what's looked like fire, which were bullets discharging towards Scott. 

Now, it was all about survival.

Scott Johnston: And I jumped up.  And I took off.  And I- and I started running this direction, ducking down.

Chris Hansen: And he--

Scott Johnston: And I guess, he turned and shot me in the back, at that time. And then I run up, and I get down behind this clump of trees, to protect myself.

Scott Johnston: And then I realized, then, that I was shot in the neck.  I- I could actually see the blood, like, just squirting, like a foot, every time my heart would beat. I mean, it was just pulsing out of me.  Well, I- I felt around my neck.  And I was, like, "Oh, you know."  And- and I felt the bullet hole.  And I- I just stuck my finger in the bullet hole to plug the wound, to- to keep the blood, you know- from squirting out. 

Sean remembers the next scene unfolding as if in slow motion: the shooter turning back towards him, getting ready to fire again...

Chris Hansen: What was the look in his eyes?

Sean Farmer: Just a blank look.  Like - it's almost like he was looking past me. 

Sean, six-foot five and 380 pounds, decides to charge the man.

Sean Farmer: Once I saw what was happening, I went towards him again.

Chris Hansen: And your intent was?

Sean Farmer: Just to stop him from shooting us.  Just to get him.

Sean is now face-to-face with a gunman who wants to kill him. Can he take him down before he pulls the trigger again?

At a remote mountain campsite, Sean Farmer is in a life-or-death struggle with a gunman intent on killing him. Sean walked us through what happened next. He charged the shooter, and then....

Sean Farmer: He turned back towards me. Shot me in the chest.

Chris Hansen: Shoots you in the chest.

Sean Farmer: At that point, nothing happened. There was no more bullets, no more fire. So it was just, you know, staring each other down, briefly. 

Incredibly, Sean absorbed a point blank gunshot to the chest, but somehow, he is able to turn and run for his Jeep. As he gets in, the gunman runs alongside, and lines him up for the finishing shot.

Sean Farmer: At that time, I just put my hand up.  Hoping just to-- if he was gonna shoot me, shoot me through the hand, just, you know, block it a little bit.  So I start the car. And once the car started, he went past me, and was from behind. So, when I started the car, I ducked down in the passenger seat, and just drove away.

Meanwhile, Scott Johnston has taken refuge in the woods. He's been shot in the back and the neck, and he remembers thinking he could bleed to death right there.

Scott Johnston: Oh, I mean, the blood was just squirting out of my neck.  I mean, it was-- every time my heart beat, it was just, boom, boom.  And, like I say, I mean, I just stuck my finger, ya know, probably a quarter inch down inside the wound.

Chris Hansen: And you know you had to get that wound plugged?

Scott Johnston: Yeah.  I knew that--

Chris Hansen: Otherwise, you weren't gonna have...

Scott Johnston: Yeah.  I woulda died right there.

Chris Hansen: ...much longer to live.

When Sean tore out of the campsite, he says he realized Scott was still back in the woods somewhere, wounded and bLeeding...but Scott saw Sean escape, and was already on the move.

Scott Johnston: I took off and I made it down through the woods. I was going to go down to the road.  And meet Sean down at the road, and I saw his headlights coming and he stops and I jump in. I just screamed I said, "Go.  Go." I said, "We're both shot and we gotta get outta here."  And I mean, he just punched it.

But help is miles away from their Appalachian Trail campsite - a long, dangerous drive down a dark mountain road.

Sean Farmer: The first thing was just to get away from this guy.  As far as away as possible.  My first thing that I thought about was, you know, how far we are away.  We were about five miles from any house.  And at least 40 miles from probably a hospital. 

Chris Hansen: You've both been shot twice.

Scott Johnston: Yeah.

Chris Hansen: Critically wounded.

Sean Farmer: Uh-huh.

Scott Johnston: Yeah.

Chris Hansen: Dark out. You can barely see.

Sean Farmer: Right.

Chris Hansen: How are you gonna get down this mountain?

Sean Farmer: I guess, you know, the saying, "Hammer down.  Put the gas to the floor. That's what I did." 

Scott Johnston: We went down that dirt road doing like 40 miles an hour - 50 miles an hour - on the road that you can normally do like 20. And - and I can look over, and I can see he's shot in the face.  And I - and I'm worried, like, you know, he's shot in the brain, or something that, you know. It's dark.  I mean, we're both shot.  We're both bLeeding.  I mean, we're both in a panic.  There-- there's a small bridge that you have to cross the creek.  We crossed that and then the road veers left.  Well, when we veer left, the next thing I know the jeep just runs up on the side of the embankment. And, I mean, the rocks are flying and there's trees, and I'm screamin', "Sean, Sean!"  And - and we - we come down off the embankment and we stop. He's shot in the face.  And I was sitting there thinking, well, you know, he can't see.  He's blacking out.  I said, "Let me steer."  And I said, "You just listen to me and I'll tell you when to work the pedals." But I mean, all of a sudden we just take off again. And I mean we're flying down the road.  And the road curves in S turns you know turns.  And-- and I, I mean, I'm steering from the passenger side.  I--I'm holding my finger in the bullet hole right here to keep myself from bLeeding to death.

Scott Johnston:  And-- and we drive down about two or three miles.  And it comes to a really sharp curve in the road.  And the next thing I know is-- is we hit it too fast.  And I'm telling him, I'm like, "Slow down.  Slow down."  And-- and we just skid sideways in the road around that curve.

And the wheels probably come within a foot of going over like a - a 20 or 30-foot embankment.  And - and we skid to a stop right there.  Totally sideways in the road.  And – and - and I'm like, you know, "Go, go, go."  And - I whip it back around.  And we take off. 

Scott Johnston: And - and we make it down to the botTom of the mountain.  And when we got down to where there's three or four houses, for some reason, you know, we passed the first or second house.  And I just says - I said, "Stop here."  I said, "These people are going to help us."  And I jump out.  And I run up to the-- the house.  And - and I bang on the door.  And I say, "Call 911.  Call 911."  I said, me and my friend have been shot. And they come to the door and they see me, and I'm soaked in blood - I mean from head to toe.

Meanwhile, Sean got out of the car and tried to stagger to the house.

Sean Farmer: I was - I guess  - so drained.  Because when I got out of the car I was almost - I almost fell down. I was just out of it. 

Melissa Miller answered the door, and couldn't believe what she saw.

Melissa Miller: I thought it was one of my son's friends playing a joke.  Until I actually went to the door and seen him holding his neck, and blood was running down.  I said, "Oh, my goodness, this is not a joke."

Chris Hansen: This is the real thing.

Melissa Miller: This is the real thing.  So I went and run to the phone and called 911.  

But the Miller's home is about forty miles from the nearest hospital. Scott and Sean were still a long way from medical help.

Chris Hansen: How long did it take before the ambulance got here?

Melissa Miller: Forty-five minutes.

Chris Hansen: Forty-five minutes? 

Melissa Miller: Yeah.

Chris Hansen: Did you think there was a chance they wouldn't make it?

Melissa Miller: Yeah, it crossed my mind.  It really did.  You know, I was scared.

Sean Farmer: Scott sat right here on this stoop, and I was over here on this corner.

The two friends sat on Melissa Miller's porch - together - wrapped in blankets, bLeeding, waiting for the ambulance.

Scott Johnston: The - the whole time we were sitting on the porch, my - my main concern was for Sean because I knew he was shot in the face. And, I mean, I was-- I was scared, ya know, that-  that he was gonna die or something. 

Sean says he thought he was going to be okay. He was worried about Scott, he says, and wondering who just shot them, and why?

Sean Farmer: I was beyond the point of thinking I wasn't gonna make it. I was more just pissed off more than anything.  That was - I was just going through pain -

Chris Hansen: Why the hell did this guy do this to me?

Sean Farmer: Right. 

Soon, Scott and Sean would find out that what happened to them had happened before in circumstances that were eerily similar: two campers attacked for no apparent reason, in the same woods, at virtually the same location.

But right now, the two men had one more harrowing, life and death ride to take.

Scott Johnston: By the time I was loaded in the helicopter, I was starting to, like, spit up blood.  And--

Chris Hansen: That's not good.

Scott Johnston: I - I knew then I was sort of in trouble.

Scott Johnson and Sean Farmer had just pulled off something of a miracle: They escaped a gunman, drove down a mountain road while wounded and bLeeding, and found help. But it was too early to celebrate. They both needed immediate medical attention, and were Medavac-ed to a hospital in Roanoke.

Sean Farmer: So, I was-- to me, I was just trying to maintain just-- I guess the pain and-- ya know, just won-- wondering about him. I mean, that's the main thing I was wondering about. 

Scott had lost a lot of blood, and realized he was fading fast.

Scott Johnston: The people in the helicopter told me, they're like, "You're in critical condition." So, they sedate me. My body was, like, paralyzed.  And all I could do was see and hear.

In fact, as the flight went on, Scott himself thought he was not going to make it.

Scott Johnston: I hear the woman say that I don't have a pulse. And then I'm sitting there thinking, well, maybe I am dead right now.

Chris Hansen: This is it.

Scott Johnston: This is what it feels like to be dead. 

Scott Johnston: But then I remembered the helicopter landing.  And when the door opened up, I felt that cold air, like, whish across my body.  I knew then I was still alive and I-- I was happy.  I was, like--

Chris Hansen: I should say so.

Scott Johnston: --well, man.  Ya know, I-- I made it.  Ya know, and-- and I told myself, I'm, like, hang on, hang on. 

While the two friends were fighting for their lives at the Roanoke hospital, 30 miles down the road, a retired sheriff's deputy, Tom Lawson, heard about the shooting. And for him, it was spine tingling, déjà vu moment: He realized the attack on Scott and Sean was eerily similar to a bloody, double murder he had investigated years earlier.

Tom Lawson: It was the most brutal thing I'd ever seen. It devastated people. No one could believe anyone in our community would be so capable of so-- so much damage and so much horror. 

Those murders took place back in 1981, and yet Tom Lawson had a gut feeling that there was a connection between that crime, and the attack on Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer. In both shootings, the victims were attacked without warning -- and for no apparent reason. And both attacks took place at virtually the same location here on the Appalachian Trail.

Tom Lawson took us back the scene of that 1981 crime. For him, it is still sacred ground. 

Tom Lawson: I'm flashing back to 1981. I see the-- the shelter as I did then.  The surroundings are all basically the same. I feel like I'm just re-living it all over again.

In May of 1981, social workers Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford had been hiking the Appalachian Trail. They were reported missing after they didn't show up as scheduled in the nearby town of Pearisburg, Va.

Chris Hansen: Now, is it unusual for you here in these parts to have people reported missing hiking on the Appalachian Trail?

Tom Lawson: Actually, it is.  We-- because the trail is so very well-marked, and most of the people who walk that trail are-- are experienced hikers.

Lawson and his team went to check the Wapiti shelter -- near where Scott and Sean would camp years later --- because it was the closest campsite to Pearisburg. Almost immediately, he saw something suspicious.

Tom Lawson: The flooring, which was brand new, was very black, like someone had rubbed a substance on the floor. I kind of bent over to kind of look down between the boards and I could see a red substance through the cracks. And once the boards came up-- we saw that there was a large puddle of blood.

Lawson now feared the worst. Police began combing the woods surrounding the shelter, and one searcher noticed something peeking through the leaves: a sLeeping bag.

Tom Lawson: The cloth sLeeping bag was lying out this way. And the pieces were up above the leaves. As we uncovered it, that's when we saw the torso.

We just kept staring down at her, and it was almost like we were in denial of what we just found. Because we just trying to convince ourselves this is not going to happen. That they were just going to walk up anytime and say, hey, you all looking for us? But, it just didn't happen.

Susan Ramsay was dead. But police still didn't know what happened to her hiking partner, Robert Mountford. The next day, they brought in search dogs to comb the woods.

Tom Lawson: The dog comes over to this big stump, this big trunk of the tree --and he just sit. All of a sudden we came upon Kevlar bag.

Robert Mountford had been shot in the head, but police couldn't find the gun. Susan Ramsay had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest, and hit in the back of the head with a blunt instrument. Lawson found those murder weapons.

Tom Lawson: We discovered a-- a piece of-- angle iron, wrought iron that was in the fireplace that was used for a poker to stir the ashes up. I did see a large, spiked nail that had-- was used to put the shelter together.

Based on the forensic evidence, Lawson and his colleagues believe the killer attacked after the two hikers went to sLeep. First, he shot Robert Mountford in the head.

Tom Lawson: It does not penetrate the skull. As Mountford turns over and starts to get up, he shoots him in the cheek.  That round goes in, up, and into the brain.  That's the-- that's the round that killed him.

Then the killer turned his attention to Susan Ramsay.

Tom Lawson: She runs, he chases, grabs the-- the wrought iron poker as she's running.  He's taking the spike nail that was on the ground, he's stabbing her. As she went down, he hits her in the back of the head. At that point, she's at his mercy because she's out of it.

Police could not determine if she had been sexually assaulted, because of the condition of the body.

Tom Lawson: I don't know. It's amazing what human beings can do to other human beings.

The murders triggered a wave of horror and outrage, and national headlines.

Chris Hansen: I mean, it had to be massive fear out there that some kind of a killer, perhaps a serial killer, was stalking hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Tom Lawson: That's the first stories that started circulating. We basically felt we needed to shut the trail off.  

Chris Hansen: What did you think you had on your hands in terms of a-- a profile of a killer?

Tom Lawson: We-- we had absolutely no idea. 

A large section of the Appalachian Trail was shut down for weeks, but there were no arrests. The only leads were items the police found near the murder scene...including items belonging to victim Susan Ramsay.

Tom Lawson: We found evidence in tree stumps, in-- in knot holes in trees, under rocks.  We found two paperback books that belonged to her. One of the paperback books, when we were thumbing through the-- the pages, we found a fingerprint-- bloody fingerprint in the book.

Now, the police had some solid evidence, but no suspects.

Tom Lawson: And this went on for several weeks and we kinda got to a point where we basically just were kind of at a stalemate.

Chris Hansen: No hot leads.

Tom Lawson: No hot leads.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, the police got a break.

The Appalachian Trail slices through the rugged mountains of southwestern Virginia, and is a magnet for nature lovers.  Friends Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer say they've hiked the trails and fished the streams here most of their lives.

Scott Johnston: It's just a beautiful, relaxing place to me.

But one hiker they met on the trail here last may turned on them without warning. Both men were shot at point blank range and critically wounded.

Sean Farmer: I'm just lucky.  And it was so close too.  I mean, I had powder burns all like in-- in a circular fashion around the wound.  Because, I mean, he came up from at a angle behind execution style and popped me.

Only later would they discover that this was not the first time two innocent hikers were viciously attacked on this part of the Appalachian Trail.

In the spring of 1981, hikers Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford were murdered at the Wapiti shelter -- then buried in sleeping bags by their killer. The shocking crime drew national attention, and for the first time, a large portion of the trail was closed to the public.

Tom Lawson: When we shut that trail down, we caught holy "you know what."

Chris Hansen: Holy hell.

Tom Lawson: Yes.

Former deputy Tom Lawson says the Giles County sheriff's office closed the trail for safety's sake, while they investigated the murders.

Chris Hansen: How much pressure was on you to solve this case and get that Appalachian Trail back open?

Tom Lawson: Well, we were getting calls from the Department of the Interior--

Chris Hansen: Federal calls.

Tom Lawson: Saying-- yes-- "You all need to make a statement saying that there's no serial killer walkin' the Appalachian Trail.

Chris Hansen: So they were trying to get you to say, 'everything's good."

Tom Lawson: Go on record, give it to the media.

Chris Hansen: Did you do it?

Tom Lawson: No, sir. 

The pressure was on to find the killer, but police had just one solid piece of forensic evidence -- from a book belonging to murder victim Susan Ramsay.

Tom Lawson: We found a fingerprint-- bloody fingerprint in the book.

But that bloody fingerprint was of little use until they could match it to a suspect. And weeks after the murders,  police still didn't have one. But then a bizarre incident drew Tom Lawson's attention to a local man. The man was reported missing, and police discovered a note in his truck saying he had been kidnapped.

Chris Hansen: Did you get a name on this guy?

Tom Lawson: Oh, yeah.  They ran his tag number. Randall Lee Smith.

Lawson was immediately suspicious of Randall Lee Smith. Not only did his disappearance come shortly after the double murders, but police quickly learned the kidnap note was left by Smith himself.

Tom Lawson: So we started interviewing people who knew him, who grew up with him. And basically what we found out about Randall was-- is that-- he was very-- shy.  He basically had no friends to amount to anything. He had-- a nickname:

Sherman Smith: Oh, L.R.  "Lyin' Randall."

Lying Randall. For years, Sherman Smith -- no relation -- lived across the street from Randall Lee Smith in Pearisburg, Va. 

Sherman Smith: The tales he'd tell, and-- they were just kinda outrageous, and-- and I-- I think he-- he expect people to believe him, but-- I don't think anybody believed any of it. 

True to form, that note about being kidnapped was just another lie. No one had kidnapped Smith, he had just left town and had driven to South Carolina. Tom Lawson tracked Smith down, brought him back here to his home in Pearisburg, and noticed something -- you could walk out Smith's back door and be up on the Appalachian Trail in minutes, and it was just a short hike from the murder scene. Lawson had his suspect.

Then the pieces started to fall into place: Lawson found some hikers who saw Randall Lee Smith with Susan Ramsay the day of the murders.

Tom Lawson: We also had a hiker who had hiked with them when she purchased the book. She was with her when she purchased the book.

The book that now was stamped with a bloody fingerprint. Lawson thought Randall Lee Smith was his man -- and he had one sure way to prove it. He compared Smith's prints to that print left in the book.

Tom Lawson: The book belonged to Susan, and the fingerprint belonged to Randall Smith.

Randall Lee Smith was arrested and charged with the 1981 Appalachian Trail murders.

Chris Hansen: What do you think his motive was in this crime?

Tom Lawson: I think his motive with Susan was sexual.  I think his motive with Bob was self-pr-- self-preservation, because he knew Bob would wring his neck.

Whatever the motive, Lawson was confident a Virginia jury would sentence Randall Lee Smith to life in prison...or perhaps...even the death penalty.

Chris Hansen: Now, you thought you had a pretty good case goin'. 

Tom Lawson: From a law enforcement perspective we had a excellent case. 

Chris Hansen: You had physical evidence.

Tom Lawson: I feel like we had probably the best you could probably have.

Chris Hansen: Case closed?

Tom Lawson: We thought. 

But on the day Smith's murder trial was to begin, Tom Lawson got devastating news.

Tom Lawson: The prosecution attorney comes in and says, "I felt like that there was some holes in the case and I have struck a plea agreement with the defense attorneys."

Chris Hansen: And what did he tell you about this agreement?

Tom Lawson: Basically that Randall was gonna serve 15 years.

Chris Hansen: 15 years? How'd you accept that?

Tom Lawson: I haven't accepted it in 27 years. 

Randall Lee Smith was sentenced to 15 years in prison --  just seven and a half years for each of the murders.

Tom Lawson: How-- how in the world could a person's life not be worth but seven and a half years?

Randall Lee Smith did go off to prison, and privately, Tom Lawson hoped he would never come out.  But he did.

Chris Hansen: So, in 1996,he walks outta prison.

Tom Lawson: He walks out. Comes right back to Pearisburg, right back to his mother's house, right back to the community like it-- like-- like he never missed a beat.

And Randall Lee Smith -- now age 42 -- went right back to his old habit of prowling the Appalachian Trail.

Sherman Smith: He would walk in the mountains just about -- just about everyday when it was pretty, but I didn't know how far he went.

Did Randall Smith return to his old haunts, near the Wapiti shelter, and Dismal Creek? His neighbor didn't know. But he did notice that Randall had become obsessive.

Sherman Smith: He's-- it's s-- almost like he's a guardian of the trail, or somethin', I don't know.

In fact, Randall Lee Smith apparently became so obsessed with the trail that sometime in March of 2008, he walked up into the wild and never came back. The police became concerned, and missing persons flyers were posted around the area. Scott Johnston -- criticially wounded by a gunman on the Appalachian Trail -- would see that poster as he was being rolled into surgery.

Scott Johnston: And the state trooper brought the picture up of Randall Smith.  And he says, "Is this the guy that shot you?"

When Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer were shot near the Appalachian Trail last may, former deputy Tom Lawson immediately had a suspect in mind-- Randall Lee Smith.

Tom Lawson: Don't tell me-- don't tell me that he's done it again.

Lawson and virtually every lawman in Virginia knew Randall Lee Smith as a killer -- the man responsible for the 1981 double murder on the Appalachian Trail.

As he was being rolled into surgery the night he was shot, Scott Johnston was shown a picture of Smith.

Scott Johnston:   And he says, "Is this the guy that shot you?"  And I said “yeah."                              

Chris Hansen: No doubt in your mind.

Scott Johnston: No doubt in my mind.

After Scott made the ID, police launched a manhunt for Randall Lee Smith.  A state trooper spotted him just hours after the shooting -- Smith was driving Scott Johnston's pickup truck.

Ron Hamlin: They pulled out behind him and they-- Mr. Smiths-- evidently saw him and he sped up.  And he went about a mile from where they saw him and he wrecked his truck. 

Lt. Ron Hamlin says Smith left the road, drove up an embankment and flipped the truck on its roof. Smith was still trapped in the truck when Hamlin arrived.

Ron Hamlin: And another investigator and I went I've and we pulled him out from under the truck. There was a handgun laying outside the truck, right in the-- within his reach. 

Randall Lee Smith was injured in the crash. He was arrested, and taken to same hospital where Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer were being treated. Lt. Hamlin read Smith his rights.

Lt. Hamlin questioned Smith.

Ron Hamlin: You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court a law, okay? You can decide at anytime to exercise your rights, not make any statements, not make any answers, okay?

Randall Lee Smith: Yeah.

Ron Hamlin: Do you wish to talk to us about this?

Randall Lee Smith: No.

But later, Hamlin said, Smith did talk.

Ron Hamlin: And I said, "Did you shoot him?"  He said, "No, I didn't shoot nobody."  I said, "Randall, you did shoot them guys."  I said, "I know you did."  "Well, if I did, it wasn't my gun, it was theirs," is what he said.

But the police were able to confirm that the gun was his. “Lyin' Randall” was lying again. And Tom Lawson points out that gun was a .22 caliber revolver - the same type of gun Smith used 27 years ago.

Chris Hansen: Do you think that's the same gun he used in 1981?

Tom Lawson: I would be a fool not to.  We never found the weapon. And I believe partially the reason these-- these two fellas here were able to survive is I think he actually used probably s-- some similar ammunition that he had back then. And it was even more corroded and damaged.

In addition to the gun, police found a treasure trove of evidence Randall Lee Smith had hidden deep in the woods: Scott Johnston's sunglasses, more than 20 knives, meat cleavers and other items. And they found some bizarre drawings and notes, including this “prayer:”

"Hail to the guardians of the watchtower of the north. By the powers of mother and earth hear me...show me thy glory...I invoke thee oh, ancient one."

Police say the notes and symbols are consistent with a religion called Wicca -- a pagan group that worships nature, and considers its leading members witches.

Scott Johnston: It was really creepy. I mean, he was out to destroy somebody, or-- or something.  I mean-- and luckily, I mean, he tried it with us. But we were, just, tougher than he was.  And survived it.

Chris Hansen: How did you learn that he had been in prison for killing two other people?

Scott Johnston: Basically, it was, you know, after a day or so of everything bein' in the newspapers.

Chris Hansen: You had to be thinking, "Wait a minute.  This guy kills two people.  Pleads guilty.  And only goes away for 15 years?"

Scott Johnston: Yeah.

Sean Farmer: That was just some added shock.  I mean--

Sean Farmer: I was already in shock for almost bein' killed.  And then, you know, like, you know, the next day, you read that in the newspaper.  I was just amazed. 

Scott Johnston: Back in the original case, where-- where was, back in-- in the original case, where was the judicial system? You know, they-- they just let him roam free.

Though Tom Lawson may have done everything he could to keep Randall Lee Smith from “roaming free,” he says he wouldn't have been able to forgive himself if Smith had killed again.

Tom Lawson: Was I the reason why two other people now are assaulted by this person that I should have put away 27 years ago. By the grace of God, they're not dead.  I could have been living with four murders now instead of two...

Randall Lee Smith was charged with two counts of attempted murder for his assault on Scott and Sean.

And ironically, Smith's jailer would be the same man who put him behind bars 27 years ago -- Tom Lawson.

Chris Hansen: This has come full circle now.  You first cross paths with him as a member of the Sheriff's department in 1981 investigating a double murder. 

Tom Lawson: Déjà vu.  Here, I am.

Chris Hansen: Twenty-seven years later you're assistant superintendent of the jail--

Tom Lawson: That he's comin' to.

Chris Hansen: That he's comin' to for shootin' two other people on the Appalachian Trail.

And with Randall Lee Smith now in his jail, Lawson hoped he finally would get answers to questions he's wanted to ask for 27 years.

Tom Lawson: Why did you do it?  Why were you so brutal?  And what did you think you were gonna gain from this, notoriety?  You weren't gonna gain any girlfriends.  This wasn't gonna make you popular.  This was gonna make people despise you. What were you gaining by this?" 

Sean and Scott wanted to know those very thing about the attack on them.

Well, you know, that's the one question I have, is why?  I mean, you know, we were good to the guy.  We probably were the two nicest people he ran across--

And when Randall Lee Smith went on trial for his latest crimes on the Appalachian Trail...everyone hoped they finally would get some answers.

When Randall Lee Smith came out of the woods and shot Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer, he changed their lives forever.

Scott Johnston: The-- the doctor told that the bullet that went in my neck missed my carotid artery by one millimeter.

Chris Hansen: One millimeter?

Scott Johnston: One millimeter. And I would have been dead.

Chris Hansen: You would have bled out.

Scott Johnston: I would have bled to death within five minutes.

Scott had to have extensive surgery on his neck, and was in the hospital for six days.

Scott Johnston: They weren't sure if I would ever talk or swallow again.  They even came to me, and-- and mentioned putting a feeding tube in.  And I refused.  I said, "Either I'll swallow, or I'll die."  That's what I told 'em.

Chris Hansen: And what was it like when you took that first breath on your own?

Scott Johnston: It was -- felt good. (laughing)

Scott still carries some grim reminders of that shooting.

Chris Hansen: Now, this ... would freak me out.

Scott Johnston: That-- that is a picture of the bullet that's in my back. It's still there.

Chris Hansen: Now, I'm not a radiologist, (laughter) but that looks awfully darn close to the spine.

Scott Johnston: Yeah.  It's-- it's possibly, you know, it's about a quarter inch from my spine or less.

Doctors said it was too dangerous to take that bullet out. And Sean Farmer's doctors told him the same thing about the bullets he took in the head and chest.

Chris Hansen: Where are the bullets now inside your body?

Sean Farmer: One is over by my rib area here, the one that went into my chest.  There's some shrapnel right here that I can feel.

Chris Hansen: Right.

Sean Farmer: And then a pretty-- pretty big scar here.  But as far as this one, I mean, ya know, that-- you can't even really tell that's a bullet-- wound right here.  But it's actually inside my sinus cavity.  I guess behind my nose in-- in here.

Chris Hansen: Are you gonna blow your nose one day and it comes out or--

Sean Farmer: --that is a possibility.  (laughter)

Chris Hansen: Seriously.

Sean Farmer: It is, yes. 

The two friends are also carrying around some new debt because of the shooting. Neither had medical insurance, and Scott's truck was a total loss.

Scott Johnston: Well, it's-- it's cost me a small fortune.  I mean, you know--

Chris Hansen: Gimme a sense for how much.

Scott Johnston: probably $70-80,000.

Chris Hansen: $70-80,000?

Scott Johnston: Yeah.

But they're alive, thanks to good luck, and some outstanding medical care.  Scott wanted to take us back to Carillion Roanoke hospital to meet some of the team that saved his life.

Nurses: Hey, great to see you...

Scott Johnston: Thank you so much. I owe you my life.

Chris Hansen: What's it like to see these gals here today?

Scott Johnston: It's wonderful.  I think about 'em all the time.  You know, I mean 'cause every day I think about the story and I mean it's always on my mind.  Thank y'all so much.

Nurse: Thank you for coming back.

Scott says he developed a special bond with nurse and patient advocate Judy Snipes.

Chris Hansen: Who do you think, at the end of the day, is most responsible for Scott and Sean's survival?

Judy Snipes: To be real honest, the two of them initially.  Their pulling together as a team, how they pulled off two of them trying to drive a truck over a road that's as windy as the road you saw, is to me almost an amazing feat.

Chris Hansen: What do you think saved you guys that night?

Scott Johnston: That's a good question. I mean-- just, you know, us.  Just be--  our friendship saved us.  Knowin' how we were both gonna react.  Just us bein', you know, young, healthy guys.  And-- and luck.

Even now, it seems impossible to the two friends that they survived the shooting, and that wild ride down the mountain.

Sean Farmer: And the thing was, ya know-- we communicated, but, like-- like I said, my mouth was swollen.  I couldn't say anything.

Scott Johnston: Yeah, he couldn't talk.

Sean Farmer: And miraculously, he could, even though had a hole in his neck.  He could talk fine.

Scott Johnston: Yeah.

Sean Farmer: But it just-- we just worked together to get down.

Chris Hansen: So, you got one-- one hand on your neck--

Scott Johnston: Yeah, one hand on my neck--

Chris Hansen: --keeping the blood inside your body.

Scott Johnston: --and one on the steering wheel.

Chris Hansen: And one on the steering wheel.

Scott Johnston: And-- and talk-- and talking him, ya know--

Chris Hansen: Gas, brake, gas, brake--

Scott Johnston: --with the pedals, gas, brake --down the mountain.

Tom Lawson: I was just thinking how useless this murder was, how uncalled for.

Tom Lawson - who is still pained by those 1981 murders - will never get his chance to ask Smith why he killed those two hikers. And Scott and Sean -- who somehow survived Smith's brutal attack -- will never get any answers, either.

Ironically, it was the gunman who did not survive that encounter at the dismal creek campground. Just a day after arriving at Tom Lawson's jail, Randall Lee Smith died...alone in his cell.

Chris Hansen: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Tom Lawson: I can only answer that from a personal perspective.  For seven and a half years for two people's lives, he died where he should a died.

Chris Hansen: In jail.

Tom Lawson: Yes, sir.

An autopsy revealed Smith died of the injuries he suffered when he crashed trying to elude police.

Sean Farmer: It couldn't have turned out any better for us.  I mean, we're both healthy, still here.  And he's not.  So--

Chris Hansen: That's the end of the story?

Sean Farmer: Yeah, pretty much the way it is.

And the two friends say as painful and as frightening as the shooting was, they have learned some life lessons from their brush with death.

Sean Farmer: Well, I'd say the most important part is, you know, just don't give up.  Ever. No matter what. 

Scott Johnston: And live life to the fullest.  And be thankful for all the things you have, because it could be taken from you in a split-second.

Sean Farmer: I'm just thankful that, you know, the beat goes on.  We'll hear some-- some more music.  And do some more fishing. And live life.

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