WASHINGTON, March 19, 2012 — Driving a pickup truck with a bullet in your head is inconceivable. Steering it from the passenger seat, down a narrow mountain road in the dark seems impossible, especially with a bullet hole in the neck.
Scott plugged the bullet hole with his right index finger to prevent blood from squirting out as he steered with his left hand. His 300-pound friend, Sean, sat slumped under the steering wheel. He was barely able to reach the accelerator or brake because of the pain. He struggled to follow Scott’s shouted instructions as he slipped in and out of consciousness.
The pickup intermittently scraped roadside rocks as it rounded the winding turns of the Appalachian road. Their only hope was to make it to the bottom of the mountain for medical assistance, and they had to do it before their shooter caught up with them.
I met Scott Johnston through a mutual friend in November of 2011. During our first conversation, I noticed an object protruding under the skin at the back of his neck. I asked about it, and Scott said it was a long story. I assured him I had all afternoon and knew where there were two comfortable chairs.
Scott Johnston, 38, and Sean Farmer, 35, had been friends from childhood. Through the years, they often hiked the tortuous trails of the Appalachia, often with Scott’s brother, Brian. They fished, camped out and enjoyed roughing it. They appreciated the peace and serenity of the natural surroundings, especially at eventide. Camping out seemed like a good plan for this first day of what would be a wonderful week in May of 2008.
Both men were known to be friendly and, in keeping with the unwritten code of Appalachia, generous. So when a stranger stepped out of the woods as Scott was coming back from fishing, Scott chatted with him and told him where he and his friend would be camping.
A Stranger Drops In
Later, when Scott returned to the campsite from gathering wood, he saw Sean talking with the same man. Introductions and handshakes were had all around. The stranger said his name was Ricky Williams.
The men started a fire and cooked up some of the trout Scott had caught earlier. Scott thought the man looked like he could use a meal.
All seemed cordial enough as they sat down to eat around the campfire. Talk of previous hiking and fishing in the area ensued and, although the stranger could hardly be called gregarious, he obviously shared their familiarity with the area. His answers to questions, however, ricocheted between far-fetched and ridiculous.
His tales seemed taller than the mountain peak that towered over them. No matter. They figured they’d finish up the meal, wish the stranger well, and send him on his way. They might even enjoy a few laughs, rehashing some of the stories the traveler had attempted to spin, such as writing for NASA.
The men stood and brushed off their jeans. Then the stranger strolled behind the two men. The first shot caught Sean in the temple. The next shot hit Scott in the neck. Another bullet hit the charging Sean in the chest. A fourth caught Scott in the back of the neck. Sean lumbered to his nearby truck and pulled himself inside.
The shooter ran to the window of the truck, but the gun didn’t discharge, giving Sean just enough time to start the truck and head toward the mountain road. He spied Scott running toward the road and slammed on the brakes. Scott hopped into the passenger seat. Then the men teamed up trying to navigate their way down in search of help.
The winding, narrow road down on Brushy Mountain, with 10 or 12 foot drop-offs, proved a harrowing and perilous ride.
After the long, arduous descent on the treacherous mountain, the pickup ground to a noisy stop in the driveway of the first lighted house that appeared. Scott struggled onto the porch and pounded on the door. A woman cautiously answered the door, eyeing Scott suspiciously.
When she saw the blood, she walked outside and dialed 9-1-1.
Scott sat down on the front steps and Sean, unable to move, stayed behind the wheel, his mouth bloody and swollen. The woman, Melissa Miller, supplied the men with towels, which quickly became blood soaked. At this lower altitude, Scott’s cell phone worked and he was able to assure his mother that he was all right. He was worried, though, about Sean.
Two emergency vehicles arrived, sirens blaring, and slowed to a stop in front of the Miller house. Paramedics loaded Scott and Sean into ambulances and with sirens wailing, drove toward the hospital in Roanoke, Virginia, about 30 miles away.
After the initial treatment at the hospital, Scott woke to the realization that he was alive. He was enveloped in tubing, but he was alive.
The two families rejoiced at the news that both men would recover.
Without any preliminaries, Detective Tom Lawson thrust a photo in front of Scott. “Is this the man who shot you?” he asked. Without hesitation, Scott shouted, “That’s him. I’m 100 percent sure that’s him.”
Immediately, an All-Points-Bulletin broadcast the description and license number of Scott’s pickup and an alert for Randall Lee Smith, considered to be armed and dangerous.
Smith Was A Convicted Killer
Randall Lee Smith had been paroled 10 years earlier, after serving only half of a 30-year prison sentence for the 1981 murders on the Appalachian Trail. The heinous double-murder of two social workers innocently hiking the mountain trails became national news.
Robert Mountford, Jr. and Susan Ramsay had invited Smith for a campfire dinner. After eating, Smith stood and shot them both with a .22 pistol, killing Mountford. Then he brutally hacked Susan Ramsay to death. The gruesome murders had taken place about a mile from Scott and Sean’s campaite.
The .22 handgun used in the murders of Mountford and Ramsay had never been found.
The two events were very similar. This time, however, the victims had survived. In addition to the immediate APB, key thoroughfares were road-blocked.
Before long, Scott’s truck was spotted by a police officer in the Dismal Creek area. It was traveling in the opposite direction. When the officer U-turned and chased after it, Smith accelerated.
While trying to navigate a sharp curve, the truck spun off the road and flipped upside down. Just out of Smith’s reach lay a .22 handgun.
Smith was taken to the same hospital as Scott. The next day he was transferred to the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin, Virginia.
However, there would be no trial for Randall Smith this time. He would not be sentenced to another prison term, to be paroled, to return to Dismal Creek for another attempt at murder on the Appalachian Trail.
When dinner was carried to his cell on the evening of May 9, Randall didn’t answer the call. He lay dead on his bunk.
A coroner would declare Smith’s death resulted from undetected injuries suffered in the pickup’s crash. Ballistics would show the .22 pistol to be the same one used in the 1981 double-murder of the two social workers.
Tom Lawson, the detective who, in 1981, discovered the gruesome murder scene, currently served as Assistant Superintendent of the very jail where Randall Lee Smith breathed his last breath. Lawson couldn’t help expressing gratitude that the state would be spared the circus of a new trial.
Scott and Sean were discharged from the hospital a week later. There would be many visits to doctors and much physical rehabilitation, but the two men would soon be “good as new,” as Scott put it. To this day, Sean still has a bullet in his sinus cavity. It might come out someday, a doctor said, “with a good sneeze.” The big man also has a bullet in his chest near his left arm.
Scott still carries in the nape of his neck that perfectly formed bullet which first caught my eye and ignited my interest. It sits about one millimeter from his spinal cord, and doctors think that is where it should stay. Scott allowed me to feel the bullet. Except for a thin layer of skin covering it, the .22 bullet could be mistaken for a charm worn on a necklace.
For the three years since their Appalachian ordeal, these two kind and courageous friends have happily gone about their daily lives. Some people may wonder, in light of their experience, why they go back to those Appalachian Mountains.
It’s a simple answer, in a way. Nothing can rob them of their love of the Appalachia.
Much of their lives today involves hiking along Brushy Mountain Trail and fishing in Dismal Creek. As usual, they sometimes share a meal with strangers they encounter, staying true to themselves and the unwritten code of the Appalachia.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.
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