Rebecca Wright was a smart young woman, a mixed-race master’s degree student, who loved the outdoors and her girlfriend of two years, Claudia Brenner. The two had met at Virginia Tech, and although Wright lived with a boyfriend at the time the two women were still giddy with young love, albeit a closeted one. Brenner, an architecture student, and Wright decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, camping at Furnace State Park, part of the vast public lands that link the trail. The couple camped in an isolated wilderness area reveling in the privacy and the freedom to express themselves — that meant being nude, making love, and cuddling like young lovers. When Wright ran to deserted public restroom nearby on May 13, 1998, she encountered Stephen Ray Carr, a local mountain man who lived in a nearby cave. He was carrying a small rifle.
Spooked by his presence, the women left the campground to find a more private place to set up camp. They ran into Carr on the trail but finally thought they had ditched him. After setting up camp again and making sure they were alone, the two had sex. Unbeknownst to them, Carr was indeed watching. and moments later, Brenner felt bullets piercing her neck, face, arm, and head. Wright was shot too, in the head and back. As Wright collapsed she told Brenner to run for help, and the wounded woman — bleeding significantly from the five bullet wounds — would hike four miles and flag down two cars in order to get help.
Brenner was rushed to the hospital. She was still there when she learned that the police had found Wright, dead, laying exactly where she had been when she was shot. Carr’s bullet had pierced her liver. Brenner, who had never told police the two women were a couple, was left to grieve in silence.
By the time police found Carr — he had been hiding in a local Mennonite community, where locals didn’t have television and thus couldn’t recognize him — the killer had come up with multiple defenses, first saying his rifle was stolen, then at trial claiming that the women “taunted” him with their sexuality by making love in front of him. His attorney blamed his inexplicable rage on the couple’s lesbianism as well as two rapes he had suffered, as a child and later in a Florida prison.
The judge, though, refused to allow the women’s sexual relationship to be brought up in court — a rare and surprising move at the time when gay panic was still a valid defense — and Carr made a plea deal for life in prison almost exactly a year after Wright was killed. Brenner went on to become a crusader against anti-LGBT violence, and wrote a moving memoir of the events that killed her partner, Eight Bullets: One Woman’s Story of Surviving Anti-Gay Violence.