The Couple

Two Virginia college students set out for a romantic evening together in Jefferson National Forest but are gunned down in cold blood before they can get out of their car. Who pulled the trigger and why would anyone want to kill Heidi Childs and David Metzler? The answer still haunts visitors of Jefferson National Forest and Virginia State Police.

The Episode

Hi park enthusiasts.

I’m your host Delia D’Ambra…

The story I’m going to tell you about today takes place in the heart of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia….at a clearing in a narrow valley between those two monstrous woods, named Caldwell Fields.

*Birds/nature sounds*

Caldwell fields itself is technically inside of Jefferson National Forest property but it overlooks sections of the George Washington Forest too.

The quiet recreation area is split into two separate fields and is bordered by lots of trees and a meandering stream called Craig Creek.

The road that you pull off of to enter the recreation area is actually named after that waterway…Craig Creek Road.

If you’re walking or camping in the fields, you can look up on either side and see you’re flanked by both national forestlands..it really is an amazing spot…and one that attracts thousands of visitors each year…particularly in the summer when the days are long and the night skies are clear.

A lot of people who visit the fields are students attending Virginia Tech…a college about 20 minutes away in Blacksburg.

On the evening of August 26th, 2009 that was the case for David Metzler and Heidi Childs… two Virginia Tech sophomores who pulled their car off of Craig Creek road to enjoy watching the sunset over the forest trees…but had no idea a predator was lurking as they looked on.

This is Park Predators.

*Phone ringing*

On the evening of August 26th, 2009 Laura and Donald Childs picked up their phone. On the other end was their 18-year-old daughter Heidi.

It wasn’t rare for Heidi to call home during the week. Classes had just started back up at her college, Virginia Tech, two days earlier and Laura figured her daughter was just calling to check in and talk about how the beginning of the first semester of her sophomore year was going.

Laura and Donald could barely get a word in on the call as Heidi spouted off exciting news. She told them that she had decided on a major. She was going to pursue a degree in pre-med studies and wanted her mother to know.

Heidi’s mom had homeschooled the family’s eight children and Heidi felt her mom would be proud to know that all those years of science and math she’d taught her were going to be put to good use.

Laura was thrilled for her daughter, but the phone call didn’t last long. Heidi told her parents that she needed to share the news with her boyfriend David because she was a little worried about how it might affect their almost year-long relationship.

Heidi told Laura she and David had plans to spend some time together that night and that would be the perfect time to talk it over. Heidi then said she had to go and hung up.

Laura and Donald had no idea that would be the last time they ever spoke to their daughter. (music plays for a second–transition thematic music)

*Dog sniffing, collar jingling & birds chirping*

The next morning, around 8:00am on August 27th, a man enjoying the cool mountain air on his regular morning walk with his dogs stopped in the parking lot of Caldwell Fields campground.

The spot was off a dirt road in the Jefferson National Forest. He was the only person out there, but he noticed a lone car parked in the lot.

He thought it looked suspicious, so he went to take a look.

As he got closer to the dark navy blue 1992 Toyota Camry, he immediately realized the worst.

He saw two dead bodies. One, was a young man and the other, was a young woman. He immediately drove to where he could get cell service and called the police.

Shortly after placing that 911 call, Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies and troopers with Virginia State Police showed up.

It didn’t take police long before investigators ran the plates on the car and found out that it belonged to 19-year-old Virginia Tech student, David Metzler. The young woman with him was likely 18-year-old Heidi Childs, David’s girlfriend.

Assessing the crime scene, investigators saw it was clear David was dead, slumped over sitting in the driver’s seat of his car.

They found Heidi outside of the car, laying just a few feet in front of the vehicle. Both were dead of apparent gunshot wounds.

Inside the car, police found a guitar in the back seat.

The day-use area where they were killed is a little off the beaten path.

To get to it you have to take a dirt road, but it has clear signage and a designated parking lot. So it’s not super isolated. The grassy parking lot itself is a designated wildlife viewing area that overlooks the fields. A lot of people went there to bird watch and spot deer.

It was and still is a really popular spot for students from Virginia Tech to go and hang out, camp or hike. On the evening of August 26th, the weather was warm and balmy. The perfect time to be enjoying the outdoors.

By all accounts it appeared to police that David and Heidi had gone there to do what a lot of visitors do, enjoy nature but something obviously went terribly wrong.

When Montgomery County deputies notified David and Heidi’s families about the murders, Laura Childs told them about the last phone call she’d had with Heidi just the day before.

She told police that she believed her daughter and David had gone to Caldwell Fields around 8:30 that night likely to discuss Heidi’s decision to pursue pre-med and how that could impact their dating relationship. If she was going to be taking a heavy class load and losing free-time, her and David would have wanted to be on the same page about that.

According to WSET News David’s parents, Susan and Keith, told police that David had actually attended a men’s camping retreat at Caldwell fields a few years earlier and had been telling Heidi he wanted to take her there.

David and Heidi had known one another for four years. The two met in high school while attending a youth group.

Heidi was originally from a small town called Forest, Virginia. In her free time she’d taken up cross- country running and became one of the best athletes on the homeschool team she competed for.

Laura told WDBJ News everyone where they were from called Heidi by her nickname, “Smiley.” Laura said from the moment Heidi was born she always had a grin on her face. She was the fourth of Laura and Donald’s eight children and even though she was sandwiched in the middle of such a large bunch of siblings, Heidi’s parents said that she loved and adored her brothers and sisters. They were all very close because they’d been homeschooled together.

I can personally relate to this because I was homeschooled most of my life with my sisters. There is definitely a close knit sense of unity between homeschoolers and their families.

Laura told reporters that Heidi was a straight-A student who worked hard for high grades and to get into good colleges. When she was in 10th grade, she even started taking college courses early. Her academic life didn’t consume her though. According to her mother, Heidi was incredibly grounded in her Christian faith and was very active in their church.

When the family moved from Forest to Lynchburg, Virginia when Heidi was in late middle school, they joined Heritage Baptist Church and that’s where Heidi met David.

David was one year older than Heidi and was also a devout Christian. He had three older sisters who constantly looked out for him because he was his parents, Susan and Keith’s, only son.

David’s parents described him as quiet, maybe even a little shy but he was a dedicated student who wanted to be an industrial systems engineer. At the time of his death that’s what he was studying at Virginia Tech.

His family said that his usual unassuming a meek composure sort of melted away though when it came to sports. His parents told WDBJ News that David was a competitive athlete. Particularly basketball, soccer and golf.

He also loved to go hunting with his father. In fact, in high school David got really into woodworking and it became such a hobby for him he built his dad a handcrafted gun cabinet for their hunting rifles.

While attending Brookville High School David got really good at golf. Like really good…but just as he was looking at where that could take him in terms of college scholarships his parents said he made the decision to stop dedicating so much time to the sport and spend more time doing youth ministries and outreach for their church.

After that, he and Heidi naturally grew closer. They both served on the praise and worship team at Heritage Baptist and also worked at the same ice cream shop in Lynchburg, called Mountain Frost Creamery.

When they both graduated high school and began attending Virginia Tech in fall 2008 they were still “just friends” and hadn’t officially become boyfriend and girlfriend yet.

A few months into their freshman year though, they realized they wanted to be together as a couple and David asked Heidi’s dad Donald to date his daughter.

It was sort of an intimidating thing though because Donald was actually a sergeant with the Virginia State Police. The Metzlers told reporters that humble and quiet David was really nervous about asking Donald about dating Heidi. But in the end Donald happily told David he blessed his request and he could date Heidi.

The pair spent a lot of time together balancing school work, jobs and serving with Campus Crusade College ministries.

The News Leader interviewed Heidi and David’s pastor, a man named Gerald Kroll, shortly after the murders and he said quote— “They were both godly young people…the cream of the crop. They had a desire to be godly and to serve their Lord.” — end quote.

One heart wrenching detail I keep coming back to with this story is the fact that Heidi’s dad Donald was a Virginia State Police trooper. He had more than 20 years of experience on the force. So, losing his daughter this way must have hit him and the rest of the family super hard.

It was also a little tricky for the state police too because like I mentioned, THEY were assisting the homicide investigation… but one of the victims was sort of like one of their own, so Donald had to really take a back seat to avoid any conflict of interest, which I have to imagine would have been very difficult for him.

The first clue that helped investigators establish more details about the sequence of events leading up to the killings was that guitar they found inside David’s car.

 

David’s family told police that David and Heidi both played guitar and it was common for them to spend time together outdoors discussing their Christian faith and singing worship songs together.

The fact that the guitar wasn’t outside the car on the ground or something told police the scenario likely wasn’t one where David and Heidi were walking back to the vehicle after hanging out for a bit. It was more likely they’d never gotten the chance to even enjoy their time together. The suspicion that the killer struck the moment Heidi and David pulled into the parking spot was the investigator’s strongest theory.

The question everyone had though was… why?

In a press conference on August 27th, the sheriff’s office stated they felt an intruder had come into the parking lot, caught David and Heidi completely off guard and fired at them. It was almost certain they were victims of a random attack. Nothing in the students’ background or their family’s backgrounds led investigators to think they were targeted.

Authorities really looked closely at the position of the victims’ bodies. David still being in the driver’s seat and Heidi outside on the ground told investigators the scenario was likely one where David had been killed first…Heidi reacting to the sudden shot had tried to get out of the car and run but didn’t get far before being gunned down too.

What’s interesting…is that ONE DAY after detectives collected everything they could from the crime scene and walked the surrounding fields and woods for clues…. park authorities reopened the Caldwell Fields parking lot and campground.

Now, me personally, I find that kind of strange…but I guess police at the time just felt that the deaths had occurred in such a contained space they didn’t need to keep the recreation spot shut down for longer.

Police didn’t totally abandon the spot though, they began stepping up patrols in that area of Jefferson National Forest, particularly near Caldwell Fields and along Craig Creek Road. They felt strongly that whoever the killer was could be from that area or was still lurking or perhaps might even return to the scene.

Investigators immediately started the arduous task of trying to find witnesses. They wanted to talk with anyone who drove Craig Creek Road on the evening of August 26th and might have seen David and Heidi in the blue Toyota Camry…maybe even saw it pulling into the Caldwell Fields parking lot.

Authorities knew that the recreation area was highly traveled and people could have been camping not far from the parking lot. So, they asked the public to come forward and report anything that even sounded like gunshots on the evening of August 26th.

In particular police wanted to get the attention of anyone who may have been camping in the area that week.

*Distant gunshots*

A challenge with that though is that a few miles down Craig Creek Road, before you turn off into the Caldwell fields parking lot, there is a shooting range and a wilderness camp. So, the sound of random gunshots was not that rare. Especially for a summer evening when a lot of people want to be outdoors target shooting.

Another setback was when officers with the U-S Forest Service helping on the case informed state police and Montgomery County investigators that the Wednesday night Heidi and David were killed, there were no camping permits active or issued for Caldwell Fields Campground. So, essentially there weren’t any campers in the fields who could have heard or seen anything. Forest Service officers said that if anyone was camping at the spot the night of the crime, they were doing so illegally.

On top of that, the closest home to the spot is several miles away. So finding any eyewitnesses within earshot was going to be slim if not impossible.

*Music & campfire sounds*

One other thing the forest service emphasized to homicide detectives was that despite the natural serene beauty of the fields…they’d had had issues in prior years with students from Virginia Tech coming to the area to party and drink.

That had quieted down a lot though by the August 2009 rolled around. Police had no evidence to support Heidi and David were involved in that kind of activity the night they were there. They also found no sign of that activity going on that night. No beer cans, reports of loud music, nothing.

Realizing that there was likely no one around when Heidi and David were killed dampened investigators hopes but they weren’t giving up just yet.

Montgomery County deputies sent the couple’s bodies to the medical examiner’s office in Roanoke, Virginia, just a town away.

And by Saturday August 29th, three days after the murders, the results from the autopsies were in.

Investigators didn’t release much information to the public. All Montgomery Sheriff Brian Wright would say was that both David and Heidi appeared to have been shot. He emphasized their deaths likely occurred late evening Wednesday August 26th or possibly early Thursday morning.

Police would later confirm to the Collegiate Times that Heidi and David died within two hours of arriving at the parking lot…which would have been between 8:00pm and 10:30pm.

The same weekend the sheriff’s office held their presser, Virginia Tech students and residents from around Blacksburg started leaving flowers and mementos in the parking lot where the couple was killed.

People that didn’t even know Heidi and David showed up to pay respects. Some of the people who were interviewed by The Progress-Index said they just came by because they felt so bad and they had kids the couple’s age.

The timing of David and Heidi’s murders was particularly tragic for the entire Virginia Tech college community and that part of the state. You see, because two years earlier, in February 2007, a student at the school named Seung-Hui-Cho (Sung-He-Cho) committed one of the deadliest mass shootings in U-S history on campus.

It’s a massacre a lot of us in the United States know about because it really was one of the first mass murder shootings that sticks out in American history. Unfortunately we’re all too familiar with this kind of crime now…but back in 2007 there were not nearly as many mass shootings as there are now and this one shocked every American. Cho was a 23-years-old college senior who was battling severe mental health problems. Reporting by CNN states he was evaluated and told to seek care…but did not.

On February 9th, he took a pistol he purchased online, a glock handgun and 50 rounds of ammunition he bought locally and began shooting fellow students on Virginia Tech’s campus. In total he killed 32 students and faculty and then took his own life.

According to reporting by The Daily Press, another tragic death on campus in January 2009, before Heidi and David’s death, also still lingered in the hearts of the campus community. In that incident a doctoral student beheaded a fellow student at a cafe on campus.

So, you get the theme here. The rash of violence streaking through the student community really reached a fever pitch when Heidi and David were murdered.

On September 1st, police again released a media statement asking for the public’s help in the case.

At that point deputies had pretty much solidified the window of time that the murders could have happened. *BUT* they now wanted to know ALL of the coming and goings in the area for the entire previous day.

They wanted to talk with anyone who had been to Caldwell Fields or the nearby shooting range between 8 o’clock in the morning Wednesday, August 26th and 8 o’clock in the morning on Thursday, August 27th. A full 24 hour time frame.

As this announcement is happening, Heidi and David’s families were planning the couple’s separate funeral services. Both were going to be held at their home church, Heritage Baptist.

A few days after the funerals, on September 9th, a task force made up of Montgomery County Sheriff’s detectives, the FBI, the US Forest Service, Virginia State Police and Virginia Tech Police was formed to work jointly to solve the case and drum up any tangible leads.

To entice people to come forward a reward fund was established in the case.

Virginia Tech itself offered up $10,000 and a cardiologist named Chad Hoyt who was good friends with David’s dad raised $50,000 in donations.

Chad had done missionary work with the Metzler family in Vietnam and known David most of his life. He sent out email blasts and completely paused his professional work to dedicate time to fundraising the cash reward. But still—it seemed like no matter how much money the families and police threw at the public for information…nothing came in right away.

Investigators first real lead came sometime in October, because by early November, when a new sheriff had taken office in Montgomery County, authorities made an announcement that they were looking for a vehicle that could be associated with the crime. They announced that detectives were looking for a silver or gray minivan. They got information from witnesses that a van with that description was seen at a campground near Caldwell Fields the night David and Heidi were murdered.

This van became really important mostly because the person who reported seeing it said that it was on Craig Creek Road literally almost at Caldwell Fields pull off the evening of August 26th after 8:00pm. Which was exactly in the window that police knew Heidi and David were there.

Investigators obviously wanted to talk to whoever was driving that van…but not only that…they again emphasized that they needed to talk with ANYONE who was on the road in that area that night. A second more detailed sighting of the van would help them pursue the lead.

But unfortunately no one ever came forward with additional information—even when at that point the reward in the case had grown to more than $60,000.

In late February 2010 investigators held another press conference begging for more leads. They stated at that point more than 1,000 tips had come in but they pursued all of them and nothing panned out.

They still did not have a viable suspect. Not even a description.

A month a half later…the dwindling hope that Heidi and David’s killer would ever face justice was reignited… but in the worst way possible.

When another couple sitting in their car enjoying a romantic sunset view at an overlook in the national forest…was gunned down in cold blood.

On April 5th, 2010 in Augusta County, 27-year-old Timothy Davis and 18-year-old Christina Floyd were parked at Rock Point Overlook off of The Blue Ridge Parkway.

The two friends were enjoying a nice sunset view together looking out over the Shenandoah Valley with their backs to the road when out of nowhere a man driving a car pulled up next to them, rolled down his window and fired off a shotgun.

According to Amanda Codispoti’s reporting for The Roanoke Times, Timothy was hit first in the upper body but was able to get out of his car.

He was so disoriented from his gunshot injuries that he ended up scrambling forward and tumbled 150 feet down the overlook’s edge.

Christina, who was in the passenger seat, was also shot in the upper body.

After firing that second shot, the shooter got out of his car and walked toward her. He put his gun down and began throwing rocks at her.

Those rocks actually caused her skull to fracture in two places and broke one of her fingers… but even with those injuries, Christina turned to face her shooter and fought him.

They struggled with the gun between them and he was able to get one more shot off but then ran away back to his car and took off. Christina was able to drag herself to the main road and flag down someone driving by in a pickup truck. They got her to safety.

And —I just want to take a minute here and remind you that this girl is 18 years old. She fought for her life and because of that she lived.

Authorities who responded to the scene were eventually able to get to Timothy, who was still alive all that way down the overlook. He was bleeding pretty badly and crews immediately transported him to University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville.

For the next two days he remained in critical condition at the hospital and everyone in Central Virginia and particularly people living around or driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway were terrified.

I mean—it was shocking to everyone— to know that a shooter was on the loose and had randomly attacked Christina and Timothy for no reason.

Early Wednesday, April 7th, investigators got a tip from someone who called into Crimestoppers.

Reports are vague as to what exactly this tipster told police, but the information they provided was detailed enough about the crime that it was only something the shooter or someone very close to him could have known.

This lead led Augusta County Sheriff’s deputies to the home of 56-year-old Ralph Leon Jackson. Ralph lived just 10 miles away from Rock Point Overlook in the town of Stuarts Draft.

SWAT teams set up around his house before dawn and waited several hours for the right moment to strike.

When they finally executed a raid on Ralph’s home, detectives found shotgun ammunition and the actual 20 gauge Harrington and Richardson shotgun used in the attack on Timothy and Christina.

Ralph’s car was also a perfect match for the description Christina provided investigators.

During his interrogation, deputies said that Ralph actually came clean and implicated himself in the attack.

He admitted there was no rhyme or reason for his actions. Augusta County Sheriff’s Office charged him with attempted capital murder, attempted murder and two counts of using a firearm in commission of a felony.

Sadly, on April 9th, Timothy Davis died from his injuries…which now upped one of Ralph’s attempted murder charges to first degree murder.

In March 2011, Ralph pleaded guilty to murdering Timothy and trying to kill Christina. He didn’t say much at his sentencing but did admit to the crime and take full responsibility. He never revealed his motive.

A judge sentenced him to life in federal prison plus 35 years.

Ralph’s crime— didn’t go unnoticed by investigators looking at Heidi and David’s case.

In fact, they squared him up as a really good suspect. Authorities told The Daily Press that they planned to compare evidence in Timothy and Christina’s case to Heidi and David’s crime scene.

I mean it made total sense. The two shootings happened just a few months apart and the circumstances and even ages of the victims were so similar. A random gunman firing at a couple out alone in a secluded area presumably on what by all appearances looked like a date. It was just too much deja vu for Montgomery County deputies to ignore.

Another good reason Ralph looked so good as a suspect for Heidi and David’s case was the glaring fact that it was only a two-hour drive between Caldwell Fields and Rock Point Overlook.

Both locations are in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests Areas AND the town where Ralph lived, Stuarts Draft, was in extremely close proximity to both crime scenes.

Unfortunately though, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office never named Ralph as an official suspect and he has never been charged with killing Heidi and David.

I couldn’t find a lot from reports about exactly why, but from everything I’ve gathered it seems like whatever evidence authorities had in David and Heidi’s case just wasn’t a match for Ralph.

In March 2012—nearly three years after Heidi and David were killed— the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office held another press conference to update the public on the case…

…and what they said changed everything about this case.

At the end of March 2012 Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt told reporters that investigators had DNA they believed belonged to Heid and David’s killer.

The Collegiate Times reported the DNA sample came from a fingerprint found on evidence.

Now—In my mind I have to think this fingerprint had to have come from somewhere in or on David’s car or he and Heidi’s bodies…but it could also be from a recovered shell casing or bullet. We just don’t know for sure at this point. Police haven’t said.

In 2012 the sheriff emphasized that investigators were pursuing the DNA sample to the fullest extent possible by taking advantage of new DNA technologies. At the time of the presser they’d not gotten a hit yet but were working on submitting it to as many databases as they could. They went on to say detectives were in the process of obtaining DNA samples from residents who frequented Caldwell Fields in 2009 or were from the surrounding area.

This announcement is when I really think they ruled out Ralph Jackson as a suspect.

After Ralph entered his guilty plea in 2011, his DNA would have gone into the national felon database and clearly investigators didn’t get a hit on it in 2012, so that’s what tells me they ruled him out.

At the press conference, the sheriff also confirmed other important details. He confirmed for the first time that Heidi and David were shot with a .30 caliber rifle, a previously unknown detail.

And probably the biggest update of all was that investigators said they believed the killer stole Heidi’s purse, along with a camera, credit, her Razor cell phone and her Virginia Tech ID card and lanyard.

Those items were not found at the scene and were never accounted for in the initial days of the investigation back in 2009.

For the first few years investigators had kept all of this information close to the chest but with the case growing colder and colder each year, they had to do something to spark up a lead.

In the end though, what they ended up getting from the public was even more rumors swirling around.

The detail about Heidi’s stuff missing or being taken presumably by the killer made a lot of people speculate that perhaps the couple’s death was a result of a serial killer who had taken trophies of his crime.

Others theorized that regardless of whether it was a serial killer or not, the suspect had to be familiar with the Caldwell fields area and therefore a local.

After learning that the detectives had actual suspect DNA evidence, Heidi’s father Donald told reporters for WTVR news that the DNA update was quote — “huge”—and he was optimistic authorities could capture whoever did it.

But to this day, that has not happened. Despite the FBI getting more involved in the case and even pitching in an additional $28,000 to bring the total reward for information in Heidi and David’s case to

$100,000…there is still no suspect.

In a recent interview with WDBJ News Heidi and David’s families reflected on the unsolved murders.

They told the reporter that they have no doubt David and Heidi are in heaven saying quote— “Not because they were great people, but because they trusted in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.” — end quote.

Laura Childs said that any time she thinks about the actual last few moments of her daughter’s life and David’s she is sad but feels blessed to be able to say that Heidi is not on this earth anymore. Quote— “She is in heaven” end quote.

The Metzler family says their faith has allowed them to forgive whoever committed the murders. They would still like answers, but said quote — “We would love to share how they can be forgiven and to extend our forgiveness to them as well.”–end quote.

As of August 2019 a group of brand new special agents with Virginia State Police began re-examining evidence in the case with the hopes of finding somethinganything that can bring Heidi and David’s killer to justice.

If you have any information in this case, please go to V-S-P Unsolved dot com or call the Virginia State Police tip line at 540-375-9589

Park Predators is an Audiochuck Original Podcast.

Research and writing by Delia D’Ambra with writing assistance from executive producer Ashley Flowers. Sound design by David Flowers with production assistance from Alyssa Gosztola.

You can find all of the source material for this episode on our website, Parkpredators.com.

So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve? *howl