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2 Young Women Were Murdered In 1980, 'Rainbow Girl' Tells Their Story

In the final pages of The Third Rainbow Girl — a new book about the aftermath of the murders of two young women who were hitchhiking in West Virginia in 1980 — author Emma Copley Eisenberg interviews a friend of the victims. Elizabeth Johndrow parted company with her friends a day before they were murdered; she's the "third rainbow girl" of the title.

Eisenberg asks Johndrow, now in her 50s, why she and so many other young women hitchhiked back then. Johndrow says:

The Third Rainbow Girl is a haunting and hard-to-characterize book about restless women and the things that await them on the road. At its simplest, it's a true crime story about the still-unresolved murders of Vicki Durian, 26, and Nancy Santomero, 19.

Durian and Santomero had been hitchhiking from Arizona to the Rainbow Gathering — an counterculture peace festival held in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. On the evening of June 25, 1980, their bodies were found in an isolated clearing in Pocahontas County, south of the festival. They had been shot at close range, and there were no signs of sexual assault.

The conventional wisdom was that the killer or killers had to be local — someone who knew that clearing. Twelve years later, seven local men — farmers, mechanics, timber haulers — were charged. The charges were dropped because of improper police procedure.

In another twist, the investigation focused in on one local farmer, Jacob Beard, reputed to be a mean drunk. Beard was convicted, but then released from prison six years later when a serial killer, Joseph Paul Franklin, confessed to the murders. Franklin was the man who shot and paralyzed Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and, because he was already on death row for other murders, he was never tried for the so-called Rainbow killings. Case closed. Sort of.

Eisenberg dives deep here into the backstories of the victims, investigators and suspects, as well as the cultural "backstory" of Appalachia itself. Because she lived and worked with teenage girls in Pocahontas County on and off for several years but isn't a native, she's suited to the insider-outsider reporter role.

The Pocahontas County that Eisenberg evokes is a singular place; for one thing, it sits within theNational Radio Quiet Zone— a region where cellphone signals and Wi-Fi are severely restricted in order not to interfere with a giant mountaintop telescope that listens for signals from space.

Life in a place like Pocahontas County, Eisenberg writes, "demanded that women and girls be powerful in the ways that more urban places I've lived have not." And, yet, Eisenberg also acknowledges, that it's a place, like the rest of America, where "misogyny is in the groundwater."

Eisenberg is also fascinated by how prefabricated stories, myths, even fairy tales shape what's considered to be truth. She chips away at the "hick monster story" that prevailed at the first trial of the local men, which painted them as backwoods predators hunting down loose hippie chicks from the city.

She's also aware of the enduring lure of what the late Gwen Ifill is credited with calling the "missing white woman syndrome," whereby foul play involving white women — especially if they're pretty — stokes up public interest, while the same fate befalling women of color does not.

Eisenberg ruminates over the press coverage of the crime and how the fact that neither Vicki nor Nancy were considered pretty complicated the "damsels in distress" narrative and, perhaps, explained why the case never rose to a national obsession.

But there's a deeper dimension to The Third Rainbow Girl that gives it its contemplative power. Eisenberg intertwines her own raw story about coming-into-womanhood into the true crime narrative. I said earlier that "the third Rainbow Girl" was the one who lived, Elizabeth Johndrow. But Eisenberg, herself, is also very much "the third Rainbow Girl" here. She, too, felt the call of the wild, living among strangers, drinking too much, taking risks. "The spring I was to graduate college," Eisenberg says, "there rose up in me the desire to drop so hard out of my life that I could hear my life trying to get in touch."

That un-nameable desire to travel a different path led Eisenberg to Pocahontas County and, ultimately, to write this evocative story of two other restless young women — sisters of the road — who passed through decades earlier and, sadly, never left.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.