Briery Knob is one of the highest points in West Virginia, once the site of a fire lookout tower and popular hangout for teenagers seeking Appalachian and Allegheny views. Thirty-eight years ago, on June 25th, in the dusk of early night, the still-warm bodies of two females were discovered by a horrified camper. Since the bodies carried no identification, several days elapsed before anyone learned who they were, or why they had been executed with single shots to the head.
The previous day, Vicki Durian (26) and Nancy Santomero (19) had set-off from Wellman, Iowa, hitchhiking to the annual National Rainbow Family Gathering, to be held July 1-7 in Monongahela National Park. They were arriving early for Seed Camp. Held in a different National Forest every year since 1972, the gathering’s primary purpose was holding a prayer for world peace from dawn until noon on the fourth of July.
For decades, the government had harassed this event relentlessly, seeking to prevent tens of thousands of peaceniks from assembling on public land. In 1980, this harassment campaign remained in full swing as every year hope was renewed inside the Forest Service that somehow a loophole could be found around Constitutional guarantees of peaceable assembly.
The first Rainbow Gathering had been held at Strawberry Lake, near Granby, Colorado, and since many attendees came from West Coast hippie communes, the mountain states remained ensconced as preferred destination. In fact, until coming to West Virginia in 1980, the Rainbows had never crossed the Mississippi River, coming closest with a 1975 foray to the Ozarks of Arkansas.
Unfortunately, the scouts picking the site did not realize they had landed 25 miles from the compound of the National Alliance led by William Pierce and Revillo P. Oliver. It was the best financed and organized white supremacist organization in the world, drawing a million dollars a year in donations at peak, no doubt aided by Oliver’s murky background in intelligence and Pierce’s connections to the military-industrial complex.
In 1955, Bonesman William F. Buckley founded the National Review, and his close friend Oliver was named an important contributor. Three years later, Oliver founded the John Birch Society with Robert Welch and Fred C. Koch, and Pierce joined four years later. In 1966, Pierce moved to Washington DC to work for George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. Within a year, Rockwell had been assassinated and Pierce taken command of the schism that resulted.
Both Pierce and Oliver were obviously intelligent and had attained advanced degrees before becoming rightwing propagandists. Oliver wrote essays and op-ed pieces, while Pierce pumped out a pair of influential novels designed as brainwashing tools for inciting paranoia and violence. Few, if any, of their followers had PhD’s. In fact, many never graduated high school and never held anything close to a normal job. Another interesting detail was the dearth of married men in the ranks. And the few who were married had ordered wives from Eastern Europe, a trend Pierce encouraged having been married six times over, three of those to Hungarian mail-order brides.
No doubt as soon as it was revealed in the local media thousands of hippies (a group practicing free love, nudity and race mixing) were about to descend on the community in large numbers, the polemics of hate in the National Alliance compound must have hit fever pitch. Pierce had recently released his first novel, The Turner Diaries, and the speed with which this book traveled around the world inciting terror ops indicates hidden forces may have been in play spreading its message. And I say that because the book is ponderous, childish, and poorly written, obviously dashed out, and mostly known today for predicting the Oklahoma bombing and 9/11, or at least the use of airplanes as bombs flown by kamikazes.
Many years later, however, Pierce published a prequel explaining how the racists in The Turner Diaries managed to seize power. And it all started with an assassination campaign conducted by the protagonist, who began by randomly shooting interracial couples on sight. And this is where things get murky because Hunter was dedicated to Joseph Paul Franklin, a convicted and executed serial killer who committed most of the gruesome acts depicted in the novel, only in real life with real bullets. The message was how noble and inspiring it was for loners to dole out vengeance against Jews, blacks and Muslims, and it was through these noble acts that Zionists running the world might be overthrown.
A day or so after the funeral services, an anonymous call was placed to the mother of one of the victims, expressing sympathy. The police were notified and immediately became suspicious, so when the caller made yet another sympathy call, the phone was being tapped and he was swiftly ID’d and made part of the investigation.
At 250 pounds, Jake Beard was certainly intimidating. He already had a charge pending against him for murdering his ex-girlfriend’s cat. Unfortunately, Beard’s possible connections to the National Alliance were never part of any media coverage that ensued, and when Beard was arrested, he went State’s Evidence, fingered others as the culprits, forged his alibi, and soon claimed a third Rainbow girl had been killed three months later and run through his wood chipper to destroy the evidence in a scene that later appeared in Fargo. Police would later determine this story was cleverly fabricated as a rabbit hole.
Meanwhile, others involved were talking, but telling conflicting stories while seeking immunity. In 1983, Lee Morrison, claimed he and Gerald Brown had picked up the women initially and after drinking for a while, he had passed out. When awakened, he found himself on Briery Knob and said he witnessed Brown shoot both women and that he had helped move the bodies to the edge of a field on orders from Brown.
Brown was arrested, but at a preliminary hearing, Morrison recanted. He said he had been put up to making a false statement by Beard who had told him something might happen to his family if he didn’t make the false statement. Charges against Brown were dismissed and Beard was re-arrested. After a long trial, Beard was found guilty, but by then he’d already implanted an escape hole.
In October 1980, serial killer J.P. Franklin was finally captured in Florida, ending his five-year-long reign of violence, and he eventually confessed to numerous murders and attempted murders, including that of publisher Larry Flynt, who had survived although he remained paralyzed. This campaign of death had begun in 1977 and involved dozens of victims. For years Franklin had drifted around the country robbing banks and donating blood when the bank money ran out. He confessed to the Rainbow murders in 1997 to an Ohio assistant prosecutor who was investigating another case claiming he had picked up the women and decided to kill them after one said she had a black boyfriend.
Because of this confession, Beard was released, and eventually captured a $2 million settlement for his “false” conviction. Before being executed, Franklin recanted his racist past, claiming he’d discovered in prison blacks were actually human just like him.
Beard took his millions and retired to Florida, leaving many to wonder if maybe the Franklin confession had been faked. All someone had to do was familiarize Franklin with Briery Knob so he could draw a crude diagram on where the bodies were found. But if Franklin really did this, why would Morrison finger Brown and then claim it was on orders from Beard? Many still believe to this day Beard committed the crime.
The 2018 National Rainbow Gathering is taking place July 1-7 in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia. From Interstate 75 south east of Chattanooga, Tennessee, take highway 76 east approximately 67 miles towards East Ellijay, Georgia. From East Ellijay, take Highway 52 east towards Dahlonega. About 28 miles from East Ellijay, turn north (left) on Nimblewill Road. Then turn right on Forest Service Road 28-1. Then turn left on Forest Service Road 83 (aka Bull Mountain Road). Continue about 1.5 miles to Welcome Home. Parking for buses is available.