BLACKSBURG — There is little here now to show the horror that this corner of the Jefferson National Forest witnessed almost a decade ago.
The gravel parking lot of the Caldwell Fields recreation area is where Heidi Lynn Childs and David Lee Metzler, sweethearts and Virginia Tech sophomores from the Lynchburg area, were shot to death on Aug. 26, 2009. The case remains unsolved. On a recent day, as the parking lot sat empty in the afternoon heat, the only reminder of the killings was a tattered flyer stapled to the top of an information board.
“Reward,” the flyer announced above a snapshot of the couple’s smiling faces.
The flyer asks that anyone with information about the deaths of Metzler and Childs call the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. But the phone number on the flyer has been obliterated by dirt and the disintegration of the paper. The investigator named as a contact retired years ago.
Along Craig Creek Road, which winds from U.S. 460 through Montgomery County and into Craig County, residents have not forgotten the killings — though some sounded amazed that nearly 10 years had passed.
“You sort of learn to live with it but something like that never goes off your mind,” said Saford Hughes, who has resided all his life a few miles down the road from Caldwell Fields.
Now 76 and retired from a career operating heavy equipment for the town of Blacksburg — where part of his work involved hauling away college students’ cast-off furniture — Hughes still thinks about the grief felt by the parents of the slain teens. Hughes said he hopes their killer will someday be found.
“It’s something people just don’t forget when you live nearby,” Hughes said. “It’s almost like a dream. You always see it.”
Reviving a cold case
On Wednesday, investigators made their first announcement about the case in seven years. With no new developments, a fresh team of officers led by Virginia State Police special agents will sift through the evidence starting from the beginning.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, which has been the lead agency in a task force looking into the investigation, still will be involved, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
“We’re taking the lead on it but that doesn’t mean it’s not a task force. We’re still united,” Geller said.
A news conference is scheduled for Friday at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office to announce the relaunch of the investigation. Ten agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshal’s Service, and U.S. Attorney’s Office, will take part in the effort, Geller said. The U.S. Forest Service, Tech and Blacksburg police also will be involved, she said.
A reexamination of the evidence, perhaps coupled with technological advances since the case began, could prompt new insights, Geller said. Officers hope that publicizing the 10th anniversary of the killings will bring new public attention and prompt someone to come forward with new information, Geller said.
Hank Partin, who became Montgomery County’s sheriff in 2015, referred recent questions about the investigation to state police.
The last news conference about the case was in 2012, when then-Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt disclosed some of the few details that investigators have released, including that they had found DNA evidence and were comparing it to samples taken from local residents and people who frequented the area.
Initially, investigators “were pretty hot and heavy,” said Steve Webb, who for 20 years has lived in one of the houses closest to Caldwell Fields. He could not recall the last time he encountered someone working on the case, however.
“It’s kind of like one of those cold case things you see on TV,” Webb said.
Members of the Metzler and Childs families will be present at Friday’s event, according to the state police news release.
Attempts to contact the families for this story were not successful.
Nicole Parent, who knew Childs and Metzler as they grew up and who attended Lynchburg’s Heritage Baptist Church with them, this week recalled them as “just absolute lights.”
Metzler, 19 when he died, was from Lynchburg and the son of a doctor. He was the youngest of four children and was majoring in industrial and systems engineering at Tech. Childs, 18, was from Forest and the fourth of eight children. A biochemistry major, she told her family she was switching to a premed curriculum. Her father, Don Childs, was a veteran state police helicopter pilot who has retired since her death.
The Childs and Metzler families attended Heritage Baptist Church, and David Metzler and Heidi Childs began dating about four years before they were killed, friends and relatives said a decade ago.
Parent said that now, she cannot remember them as separate individuals.
Metzler and Childs were smart, athletic and most of all, inspiring, Parent said. Childs “was always able to make anybody she interacted with feel joyful and positive,” Parent said. Metzler “was the same way.”
Parent said that 10 years on, the lesson she takes from her friends’ lives is not to delay in pursuing goals, to make the most of whatever time is available.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” Parent said.
‘Too far … to hear’
On Aug. 26, 2009, having recently returned to Blacksburg for classes, Metzler and Childs went together to Caldwell Fields, a popular hangout for Tech students which is located about 16 miles from campus. They took the guitars they played together during Heritage Baptist services. They left Childs’ apartment in Blacksburg just before 8 p.m., an investigator said in 2009.
Metzler had told friends that he asked Childs to go on a special date with him; Childs had written some songs and wanted to share them with Metzler, relatives said 10 years ago. The couple didn’t plan to be out late because Childs had homework to do.
At about 8 a.m. the next morning, a man walking his dog found the teens’ bodies in the recreation area’s parking lot on Craig Creek Road.
Metzler was in his 1992 Toyota Camry. Childs lay outside it. Both had been shot with a .30-30 rifle, investigators said.
Investigators have not said how many times or where either was shot, or released many other details about the killings.
At the 2012 news conference where the existence of DNA evidence was announced, investigators said they thought the shootings occurred between 8:25 p.m. and 10 p.m. It also was divulged that Childs’ purse was missing from the homicide scene and with it, her silver Motorola Razr phone, silver Sony Cybershot camera, a credit card, an ID card, and a Virginia Tech lanyard.
Randy Weddle, a Craig Creek Road resident since 1995, remembered ambulances rushing by on their way to Caldwell Fields. It wasn’t until later that he learned what had happened.
“It was too far down the road for me to hear the shots,” Weddle said.
Theories of the case
With so many years passed and so few details of the killings made public, theories have proliferated.
A basic Google search quickly turns up speculation about conspiracies, and comparisons to the unsolved Colonial Parkway killings in the 1980s on Virginia’s lower peninsula or to Jesse Matthews’ crimes, which included the murder of Tech student and Roanoke County resident Morgan Harrington in Charlottesville almost two months after the Caldwell Fields shootings.
On Craig Creek Road, Weddle said an investigator once indicated that several suspects were being sought, but added that officers were “always kind of hush-hush” about the case.
Others on the road said their understanding was that it was a man that investigators looked for.
A woman who said she had moved onto the road after the killings — and who declined to give her name, saying she feared she would stir up animosity — said this month that she was warned by a well digger about someone who lived on Craig Creek.
That echoed concerns voiced at a community meeting held in the weeks after Childs’ and Metzler’s deaths . At the meeting, a woman told then-sheriff Whitt that she was looking for reassurance that the killer or killers were not among her neighbors.
A year after the shootings, an investigator said officers had followed up on more than 1,100 leads. A year after that, Whitt put the number of tips at more than 1,300. In 2012, Whitt said that investigators had collected information from people who had traveled Craig Creek Road throughout the night of the killings but still hoped to track down six vehicles.
Now retired, Whitt said recently that he would not discuss details of the evidence. But asked about two particular theories that have received some airing over the years, that the perpetrator was a specific person who lived on Craig Creek Road or a student who had refused to be questioned by investigators, Whitt said both had been examined and neither seemed likely.
Since the first days of the investigation, Whitt has said the killings seemed to be a random act of violence.
That the case remains unsolved “still haunts me, believe me,” Whitt said this month.
“I hope and pray for closure” for the Metzler and Childs families, he added.
Caldwell Fields is named for Addison and Milton Caldwell, brothers who in 1872 walked from their home in the Sinking Creek section of Craig County to Blacksburg, where Addison became Tech’s first student. The recreation area lies at roughly the midpoint of the brothers’ route, and Tech’s Corps of Cadets breaks the two sections of its annual commemoration march near the fields.
Over the past dozen years, the area near Caldwell Fields also has been linked to several catastrophes with connections to the university.
A public firing range in the national forest near Craig Creek Road’s intersection with U.S. 460, about eight miles from Caldwell Fields, was used by both Seung-Hui Cho, who in 2007 killed 32 Tech classmates and faculty members, and Ross Truett Ashley, who in 2011 shot and killed Tech police Officer Deriek Crouse. Cho and Ashley also killed themselves.
In January 2016, 13-year-old Nicole Madison Lovell was taken from her Blacksburg home by Tech freshman David Edmond Eisenhauer and stabbed to death along Craig Creek Road, not far from the firing range. Eisenhauer was convicted last year of Lovell’s murder and another Tech student, Natalie Marie Keepers, was found guilty of helping him.
Roy Glass III, who lives on Craig Creek Road and manages Camp Tuk-A-Way, a summer camp about four miles from Caldwell Fields, recalled that on the morning that Childs and Metzler’s bodies were found, he was in the midst of breakfast with the Salem High School band, which that year was using Tuk-A-Way for its summer camp.
First there was a string of emergency vehicles racing past the camp with lights flashing, Glass said. Soon a friend with a cousin who was a deputy called to say that two people had been shot. Then reporters started flooding into the camp and television crews did their live shots out front. Parents of band members began calling. The camp stepped up security measures.
Then came months of sporadic talks with investigators, including submitting to a mouth swab on the steps to Glass’ front porch so his DNA could be checked.
Things seemed to have settled down until Lovell went missing. Glass said he was driving toward his home and saw officers were again along the road.
“There were police where there shouldn’t be police and I said, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’ ” Glass recalled.
‘We had our garden’
The last person to farm the land that became Caldwell Fields was Luther Caldwell, who insists he is no relation to Addison and Milton.
Now living farther up Craig Creek Road in Craig County, Caldwell said his family’s former home was on land rented from the U.S. Forest Service for $99 per year. Caldwell said he lived there from his birth in 1949 until 1973.
The Caldwells’ earlier home was very close to where Metzler and Childs died.
“We had our garden where the parking lot is,” Caldwell said.
He remembered he and his father keeping about a dozen cows, and hogs and chickens, and his mother tending a large vegetable garden. “She didn’t hardly buy any groceries,” Caldwell said.
It was a good place to grow up, Caldwell said.
On a recent day, the air above the Caldwell Fields recreation area was hot and filled with the buzzing of insects. In the overgrown bottomland, stands of yellow flowers stood out against the dusty, late-summer green. In neatly mowed stretches of grass, picnic tables and fire rings were empty, though residents said that probably would change soon, as Tech students returned for the fall and began coming to the recreation area again.
Side by side
Childs and Metzler are buried side by side in Virginia Memorial Park in Bedford County along Forest Road (U.S. 221). They are near the edge of the rows of flat markers and scattered monuments, with a stand of veterans flags on one side and the cemetery’s large mausoleum across a driveway.
Last week, a crew of workers joked with one another and hurried to wrap up work on the mausoleum’s roof. Rain clouds moved closer.
The metal plates on Metzler and Childs’ markers were freshly shined. They were decorated with matching fabric flower arrangements.
Each also bore a small, painted piece of rock; Metzler’s too faded to make out but with a running medallion atop it, Childs’ colored maroon and orange with a Virginia Tech logo.