A 30-year-old man disappears into the Jefferson National Forest, leaving his beloved dog behind in his car. His body is found at a popular swimming hole and pieces of critical evidence are placed beneath his missing posters months after his murder. Turns out, he isn’t the only 30-year-old man to suffer a fatal fate on this section of the Appalachian Trail. The stories of Scott Lily and Chad Austin point to a predator who’s gone undetected in the mountains of Virginia for decades.
Scott Lilly Sources
- “Local Man’s Body Found” By Joe Dits for The South Bend Tribune
- “FBI IDs Body Found Near Appalachian Trail As Indiana Man” by Staff for Tipton County Tribune
- “Identification of Body Located in George Washington Forest” by Staff for The Progress-Index
- “Trail Hikers Undeterred by ‘Suspicious Death’” by Amy Trent for The Daily Press
- “Scott Lilly Obituary” by staff for The South Bend Tribune
- “Identification of Body Located in George Washington National Forest” by Media Coordinator Dennette Rybiski for The FBI
- “Update on Investigation Into Suspicious Death in the George Washington National Forest” by Media Coordinator Dennette Ryviski for The FBI
- “FBI Seeking Hikers In ‘Suspicious’ Trail Death” by Chris Dumond for The Daily Progress
- “FBI Needs Your Help in App. Trail Death Investigation” by Staff for WSET ABC13 News
- “FBI Stymied by Appalachian Trail Killing” by Courtney Ridenhour for Rockbridge Report
- “Man Found Dead on Appalachian Trail Ruled Strangled” by Staff for The Associated Press
- “Appalachian Trail Hikers’ Death Ruled Homicide” by Chris Dumond for The Richmond Times Dispatch
- “Childhood Pastor Talks About Hiker Found Dead” by Staff for WSET ABC13 News
- “Sister of Murdered Hiker Pleads for Tips” by Rachel Schaerr for ABC13 News
- “Family Offering 10K Reward For Answers In Son’s Death” by Staff for WWBT News
- “Public Safety Reward Offered In Death of Hiker” by staff for The South Bend Tribune
- The Unsolved Podcast Episode 2 “Scott (Stonewall) Lilly”
- “FBI Offers $10,000 Reward for Information leading to the Conviction of the Death of A.T. Hiker Scott Lilly” by The Appalachian Trail Conservancy via The Smoky Mountain Hiker Blog
- “Appalachian Trail: Trials and Tragedy”
- “Who Was Scott Lilly?” by David Rough for Hike It Forward
- “Scott Lilly – Unsolved Murders On the Appalachian Trail” by Strange Outdoors
Chad Austin Sources
- “Buena Vista Police Department Searching For Missing Man” by Colin Schwager for WSET ABC13 News
- “Search Called Off For Missing Man Near Amherst County Area” by Elizabeth Tyree for WSET ABC13 News
- “Family Organizes Search Party For Missing Buena Vista Man” by Lindsay Cayne for WHSV News
- “Crews To Search For Missing Buena Vista Man Around Amherst/Rockbridge County Line” by Thomas Coleman for WSET ABC13 News
- “Massive Search For Missing Buena Vista Man Takes Over Portion of Blue Ridge Parkway” by Taj Simmons for WSLS News
- “One Month Later, Family of Missing Buena Vista Man Not Giving Up Hope” by Staff for WFXRTV News
- “Reward Now Offered For Information Leading to Chad Austin” by Staff for WFXR News
- “Family Continues To Search For Missing Buena Vista Man” By Lindsay Cayne for WDBJ News
- “Wallet Believed To Belong To Missing Man, Found Sunday” by Staff for WDBJ News
- “Family Offers $4,000 Reward to Help Bring HOme Missing Buena Vista Man Last Seen in May” by Laura Taylor for WSET ABC13 News
- “New Tip Leads Crews to Search Panther Falls area for Chad Austin” by staff for WDBJ News
- “Open Case Virginia: “Buena Vista Couple Anxious for Answers, Nine Months After Son’s Disappearance” by Tim Saunders for WDBJ News
- “Remains of Hiker Who Vanished in 2019 Are Found in Va. Woods, as Police Investigate Homicide” by Chris Harris for People.com
- “Remains of Missing Buena Vista Man Found After Nearly A Year of Searching” by Shayne Dwyer and Jeff Williamson for WSLS News
- “State Police: Chad Austin’s Remains Found in Panther Falls Area” by Kathlynn Stone for WFXRTV News
- “‘We Don’t Want Chad Forgotten’ Police, Family Ask for Answers in Buena Vista Man’s Death by Annie Schroeder for WSLS News
- “Mother of Chad Austin Makes Plea For Information in Son’s Death Near Panther Falls” by Parker King and Staff for WFXRTV News
- “Police provide update on death of missing Buena Vista Man” by WSLS 10
- “Chad Austin, 31, of Buena Vista Has Entered His Heavenly Home” by The News Gazette
- Justice For Chad Austin Facebook Page
- Outdoors and Sports Panther Falls by Virginia Is For Lovers
Hi park enthusiasts…
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra.
The case I’m going to tell you about today is actually TWO cases.
Two murders of men the exact same age who died under eerily similar circumstances in the exact same national forestlands. Just eight years apart.
The cases take place in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
These two forestlands are huge and are home to hundreds of miles of trails, including 325 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
They also house a lot of natural waterways. Eight major river basins to be exact.
Many of those bodies of water feed thousands of streams and waterfalls throughout the area and together, the landscape and water systems connect three U.S. states; Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
The murders that happened here in 2011 and 2019 left everyone in these surrounding states terrified and forever connected the three stories of Scott Lilly, Chad Austin, and an elusive murderer or murderers.
This is Park Predators.
On Friday, August 12th, 2011, a group of hikers walking along the Old Hotel Trail in the George Washington National Forest stopped dead in their tracks.
There, lying partially buried off to the side of the beaten path, they saw a man’s decomposing body sticking out of the dirt. It was in rough shape but the hikers believed the corpse was a man who looked to be in his 20’s or 30’s.
*Feet walking a dirt path*
The path where the group found the body was a trail that intersects with the Appalachian Trail. The spot was in a remote area of the George Washington national forest known as Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area.
This location is in northwest Amherst County, Virginia and is encompassed by 7,500 acres of forest. The closest town is about 10 miles away in Buena Vista, Virginia.
Because the man’s body was technically found inside the boundary of the national forest, the case fell into federal jurisdiction. So, the FBI became the lead investigating agency. Agents responded to the scene along with Amherst County Sheriff’s deputies, National Park Service rangers, Virginia State Police troopers, and the US Forest Service workers.
Investigators quickly looked over what was left of the man’s body and realized they were going to need to excavate it and transport it out of the area in order to get an identification. The body was taken to a county medical examiner’s office in the nearby town of Roanoke, Virginia.
The doctor there determined that the remains were in really bad shape and had significant signs of advanced decomposition. It appeared that whoever the man was, he’d been dead for days if not weeks. Because of that, the medical examiner couldn’t actually make a definitive ruling on a cause or manner of death. They were forced to label the death as “suspicious”
A few days later, on August 19th, the FBI released a statement officially identifying the man as 30-year- old Scott Lilly from South Bend, Indiana. There isn’t anything in reports that states exactly how they made this ID but I have to assume it was dental records or something on the body that told them who it was.
Two weeks later, on September 2nd, the FBI told reporters little to no additional information about Scott or how he’d died. Instead, agents asked the press to get the word out to other people hiking in the area to come forward if they had seen Scott at all in the weeks leading up to his death.
They wanted to talk with witnesses who may have hiked with Scott or seen him camping in the weeks before his body was found.
The FBI also released his photo to the public and mentioned that people who may have seen him might not have known him as Scott. He often used the trail name, “Stonewall.”
The release specifically mentioned that agents were trying to locate and identify five people of interest.
The FBI believed that certain individual hikers who used the trail names, Mr. Coffee, White Wolf, Papa Smurf, and a possible husband and wife named Combat Gizmo, and Space Cadet had contact with Scott in early August.
And just a side note, trail names are super common for thru-hikers on a long trek likes the Appalachian Trail. I guess a lot of people just sort of adopt these nicknames and use them when they sign in at shelters or campsites, instead of using their actual names. Maybe it’s a safety precaution or something, I’m not sure, but I really like it.
Anyway, when the FBI released the five trail names they were looking for, right away trail hiking communities went crazy. Investigators didn’t really clarify that they simply just wanted helpful information from these people. The agency sort of left it open-ended.
So, naturally, hikers everywhere started posting and gossiping on forums that the people who went by these trail names were murder suspects or killers. One post even went as far as saying that the person named Papa Smurf straight-up murdered Scott.
The FBI quickly had to clarify their intentions and released a statement saying the five people they were interested in were NOT suspects.
Agents emphasized that they just wanted to see if the thru-hikers that went by those names could help fill in the gaps of Scott’s timeline before his death, but as you can imagine, by that point the damage to these people’s reputations had already been done.
The feds didn’t get any useful information from the blunder or the people behind the trail names and the case went cold.
You have to remember, at this point, the feds still hadn’t released what Scott’s official cause or manner of death was. Nothing from the FBI at this point indicated he’d been murdered. His death was just still listed as “suspicious.”
I mean, it’s safe to say the FBI thought he’d been murdered or at least died under suspicious circumstances, I mean, after all, he’d been partially buried but additional forensic results from a pathologist hadn’t come back yet to know for sure.
In the early weeks of their investigation, the feds took Scott’s death very seriously. Agents issued warnings to other hikers in the area to be on alert for anyone looking or acting strange. Just because they couldn’t prove Scott had been murdered, didn’t mean the FBI wasn’t thinking a killer was still out there on the Appalachian Trail.
The FBI didn’t think Scott himself had been targeted for personal reasons, which meant it was likely a random killing. Agents told the public they didn’t think hikers should feel unsafe or at risk, but it was best to travel in groups and exercise precautions.
Paranoia hit an all-time high though when a few weeks after Scott’s body was found, another man’s body showed up near the Appalachian Trail in the same area. Authorities quickly ruled that death was due to natural causes, but still, the tension and paranoia about death in the popular park was growing.
In early February 2012 people’s fear that Scott really had been murdered and whoever his killer was still on the loose, was confirmed.
That month, the FBI released more information about Scott’s cause of death. The pathologist’s report concluded that Scott had been suffocated. Results from the autopsy indicated that Scott had died of asphyxiation but the feds wouldn’t go as far as clarifying whether or not he’d been strangled or smothered.
They did say quote– “his body had been partially buried not by natural forces, but that someone had tried to conceal it.”–end quote
With the suffocation ruling confirmed though, Scott’s death was now officially being investigated as a homicide.
The lead FBI agent on the case told reporters that most of Scott’s belongings appeared to have been taken from him because only a few items had been found around his body. Just some fruit snacks, dried soups, powdered drink mixes, and sleeping pills were near him.
Most peculiar of all was that whoever had killed him had stripped his size 10, brown and orange colored Ozark trail hiking shoes off of his body before burying him. Agents felt that the fact the shoes were missing was a telling sign about the person who’d killed Scott.
The shoes themselves were cheap and had been purchased at Walmart. They weren’t worth much and by the time Scott was killed, they would have been worn out with little to no tread. So, stealing them wouldn’t have benefitted the killer.
Also missing was Scott’s bluish/purple backpack, extra clothing, a propane camp stove, an Appalachian Trail handbook, and a handheld Nintendo game.
The FBI has never released if a sleeping bag or tent was located with Scott.
If they weren’t then the killer likely took those things too, but that’s just me speculating.
Scott was described as weighing somewhere around 170 pounds and was five foot eight inches tall. So, investigators believed whoever had overpowered him, likely took him by surprise or may even have attacked him while he was sleeping. The killer’s motive could have been robbery but ultimately they didn’t get away with much.
There isn’t a lot of information out there about Scott’s movements before he was killed, but according to the FBI, he likely was dead for at least a week prior to his body being discovered.
How and why Scott was even in Virginia to begin with is really interesting.
According to his childhood pastor, Craig Clapper, who interviewed with ABC13 News in 2012, Scott was an outdoor enthusiast who loved exploring. His pastor described him as a somewhat inexperienced hiker who was a huge Civil War history fanatic.
That’s where Scott got his trail name “Stonewall” from. In honor of one of his favorite American civil war icons Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Clapper told reporters that Scott’s plan was to leave Indiana for a few months and end up in Virginia to visit a bunch of Civil War sites and battlefields.
Now, I used to live in Virginia for a few years and I can tell you that VA is a hot spot for American history buffs. There are landmarks and historical sites everywhere. So, I totally get why Scott wanted to go there.
Clapper told the news station that Scott expressed that once he was done visiting the civil war spots, he planned to hike alone afterward to quote — “find himself”–end quote.
According to the FBI, Scott started his journey in Maryland at the Maryland/Pennsylvania border on June 15th. His goal was to make it to Springer Mountain in Georgia by the end of the summer.
From what his family told reporters, Scott definitely had time on his hands to complete this trek. He wasn’t a guy who had a steady girlfriend or really anything tying him down in life at the time. In fact, he’d talked about maybe moving to the Southern United States after he completed his journey.
Scott wanted to venture out of the midwest the older he got. He was born in Mishawaka, Indiana in May 1981 and had grown up with his brother Josh and sister Alysen in South Bend. According to his obituary, his dad Ted died when Scott and his siblings were growing up. So Susan, his mother, was left to raise the three kids.
Susan would periodically send Walmart gift cards to Scott as he made stops along his hike and she spoke with him several times during the summer of 2011.
According to the FBI, Susan and Scott’s sister Alysen last talked on the phone with Scott a few weeks before his body was found. Scott called his mom and sister sometime in late July. The calls weren’t short or panicked or anything like that. In fact, Susan told their pastor that the conversations with her son were
all good. She was encouraged to hear that Scott was having such a fun time and meeting new people on the trails.
Alysen told WSET-TV that her brother quote— “was living out a dream, trying to make us proud and was really excited about it.”– end quote. The last time she spoke with Scott, Alysen said she told him that she loved him and to be careful.
She said that Scott sounded happy and excited to be living on the trail and doing some soul-searching.
According to investigators, the next known sighting of Scott was on July 28th near the 4,000-foot peak of Priest mountain. A family backpacking there told authorities that they saw him alone camping and struck up a conversation. They noticed that he was hauling a heavy pack.
The FBI estimated that it would have taken Scott at least a day or two of hiking and camping to get from the Priest Mountain site over to the trails in Mount Pleasant Scenic Area.
The next and last time Scott was seen alive was on July 31st. Someone reported seeing him at a shelter near an area known as Cow Camp Gap. This shelter is less than a mile from where his body was eventually found.
According to reports, the weather on July 31st brought in heavy thunderstorms and authorities could not determine if Scott hiked through that downpour, stayed at the shelter, or camped somewhere off the trail by himself.
In the first few days of August, the weather in the forest was clear and warm and if Scott was still alive then he most likely would have started hiking again.
According to the Virginia Wilderness Committee, hikers walking in the area shortly after his body was discovered told reporters with The Daily Times that they’d traversed the area trail systems many times and always felt like it was safe. As far as trails go, the stretch of the Appalachian trail Scott was on was considered an easy day hike and in the summer, a high-traffic area.
That’s why I’m so confused as to how no one saw Scott’s body during the first week of August if, in fact, he was dead for days like the FBI concluded.
The Daily Times also interviewed a volunteer trail club member named Dick Frisbee. This guy told the paper that during the months of July and August he’d been maintaining about 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail checking on vegetation growth. During the two days he spent in the Mount Pleasant Scenic Area in early August, he said he never saw Scott.
He told police that while he was working in the forest though he noticed a lot of the streams and springs were low or dried up. Many of the hikers he did run across and talk with seemed to be struggling to find water sources and stay hydrated.
Dick told the newspaper that the summer of 2011 was one of the driest he’d ever seen and maybe someone desperate for water had confronted Scott.
The FBI, from why I was able to gather, never confirmed or ruled out this theory.
From February 2012 until April, agents conducted 83 interviews with hikers and park workers from the area, those living out of state, and even travelers from two foreign countries who’d been in that part of Virginia, but no good leads came in. The FBI also announced that they’d collected more than 100 pieces of evidence in the case and searched 270 miles of trails, but nothing they’d come up with pushed the case forward.
In April of 2012, the U.S. attorney for Virginia’s west district announced that resolving Scott’s case and making an arrest was his office’s highest priority. At that same news conference, Scott’s family told reporters that they were offering a $10,000 reward for information in the case. The FBI also pleaded with people to come forward if they knew anything.
Fast forward to now, a decade after Scott was killed, and his case still remains unsolved.
But remember, I told you at the beginning of this episode there is another case I think you have to look at when you research Scott’s story.
It’s a totally separate murder, from 2019, that I think has way too many similarities to Scott’s to ignore.
*Waterfall & campfire crackling*
On the evening of Monday, May 27th, Memorial Day, 2019, two campers settling in for a night at Panther Falls in Jefferson National Forest noticed something odd.
Nearby was a man who looked to be in his 30’s sitting at the popular watering hole, by himself. The campers struck up a conversation with the guy and learned that he was from the nearby town of Buena Vista, Virginia.
The pair of campers quickly realized the man seemed sort of impaired but who knows, they thought maybe he’d been drinking or was just there to have a good time. It was the holiday weekend after all and that’s what they were doing out there too. So, no judgment.
The two campers didn’t stay with the man for long before moving on with their evening. After that, they didn’t think about or see him again.
*Boots crunching over gravel*
At 12:30 pm the next day, Tuesday, May 28th, after packing up their campsite and hiking away from the waterfall back towards town, the two campers came across an abandoned car parked on the side of a dirt road about two miles down the turnoff you’d take to get to Panther Falls.
When they tried to open the doors they realized the car was locked. The whole scene just felt off to them, so they called the Buena Vista Police to report it.
When officers arrived, they looked into the car’s windows and saw a mix-breed dog sitting alone inside. Police ran the license plate for the 2006 Hyundai Tiburon and discovered it belonged to a woman named
Ellen Austin. She was a local from nearby Buena Vista. They called Ellen and she told them that her son, 30-year-old Chad Austin, had been driving it.
She told officers that the dog inside had to be Chad’s beloved pet, Gunner. The news that Gunner had been locked inside alone struck Ellen as odd because Gunner was Chad’s best bud. He would never go anywhere for long without him.
Based on that information, investigators believed the reason the car was locked with Gunner inside was because Chad was intending to come back to it at some point.
Just to make sure the dog wouldn’t overheat, troopers and animal control officers got Gunner out. He was completely unharmed. To try and get some answers as to where Chad might have gone, they started searching around for clues and saw that the car was sitting on an empty tank. Other than that they didn’t find anything useful that told them where Chad might be.
By nightfall, Buena Vista Police called Chad’s parents Ellen and David again to let them know Chad had still not returned to the car.
According to ABC 13 News, for some reason, at this point, the Austin family decided NOT to file a missing persons report.
Now, the only reason I can think of as to why that was is because Chad was a grown man. He was 30 years old, often spent time outdoors and they just assumed he went for a hike on his own or decided to camp for some reason without Gunner. Again, it was Memorial Day weekend and there were tons of people in and around Panther Falls, so maybe Chad just didn’t want Gunner to get into it with another dog or something.
By the next day, May 29th, I guess there had been a change of heart because Buena Vista Police and the Austin family agreed they needed to load a report for Chad into their missing persons database.
Soon flyers went up all over the area with his description. They listed Chad as being six foot tall, with brown eyes, and weighing roughly 150 to 170 pounds. He was last seen by the campers at Panther Falls wearing a gray tank top and beige shorts that hung below his knees.
Chad also had a pretty distinctive hairstyle that most people would be able to recognize if they saw it. He had long wavy dark hair that went more than halfway down his back and he usually wore it in a low bun at the base of his neck or below a hat.
On Thursday, May 30th, troopers with Virginia State Police and Amherst County Sheriff’s Office joined Buena Vista officers to search the woods and roadway around Chad’s car. They brought in bloodhounds and aerial support to try and cover as much ground as possible.
About a half-mile down the road from where the abandoned car was parked, troopers walking located Chad’s set of keys, but according to reports, a few keys were missing from the ring, including the key to the Tiburon.
During that same search, police found some of Chad’s other belongings including two knives that were laying on the ground with the blades in the open position. That seemed weird but police weren’t sure what to make of it.
After that, no other evidence was located that gave investigators any idea of where Chad was or what might have happened to him. Officers had even taken Chad’s dog, Gunner, back out to the road where the car was to see if he reacted or perhaps would lead them in a direction that Chad might have gone but that was a bust.
By the end of the week, on May 31st, the state and local police said they’d exhausted all of their resources and were calling off the search.
On June 1st, Chad’s parents, David and Ellen, released their official statement on the situation. They thanked law enforcement for their efforts in trying to find Chad and expressed a lot of gratitude to everyone in their community who was stepping up to help look for him. They said they weren’t being told a lot of information, but believed in their hearts that Chad would be found soon.
Swarms of community volunteers and friends launched their own search efforts throughout the month of June and were even offered help from drone pilots, but the thick tree cover of the area around Panther Falls where Chad disappeared made it too difficult to see anything.
They had to settle with combing the hundreds of acres of woods on foot, without assistance from emergency personnel.
Now, I don’t know if law enforcement was starting to get embarrassed by this or what but by June 15th, authorities from multiple jurisdictions announced their crews were going to renew a formal search for Chad.
For a whole day, more than 80 officers meticulously searched woods and cliffs along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Route 60 near the Amherst and Rockbridge County line for any sign of Chad.
Volunteers were not invited to participate in this search because the terrain police were covering was rugged, jagged, and dangerous. Officers searched from dawn until dusk but didn’t find any trace of Chad. Even the scent dogs couldn’t get a hit.
Buena Vista Police Chief at the time, Keith Hartman, told WSLS News that the fruitless results of the search were disheartening. He believed at that point that foul play was involved. He told the news station quote — “It’s just too many red flags for us to say he just went on a walk and hasn’t come back yet.”–end quote.
Not long after that, in mid-June, the case sort of heated up but not in a good way.
People in Buena Vista started posting photos online of a man they saw getting into a car in the area who looked A LOT like Chad. The guy was built like Chad, stood like Chad, dressed like Chad, and had a long dark ponytail.
The online sleuths didn’t run any of their claims by police, instead, they just blasted the photos on social media saying that the man in pictures was Chad and that Chad was no longer missing.
This quickly got the attention of Chad’s family and police and after looking at the photos it was determined that the dude in the pics wasn’t him.
Chad’s parents obviously got pretty upset by this because someone had gone online and started a firestorm of attention saying their son was found when in fact he was still missing. Their fear was that anyone who saw those pictures and didn’t tune in to the update stating that the guy wasn’t Chad, just stopped thinking about Chad altogether. Which is not what police wanted.
As June came to a close, Chad had officially been missing one month. Ellen, his mother, told reporters with WFXR News that the family was feeling desperate. They updated his missing person posters with photos of Chad fishing and enjoying hobbies outdoors.
Ellen told the reporter that she wanted people to be on the lookout for her son but also be aware that he was an avid fisherman and loved to kayak, hike, and camp. So, if he was still alive somewhere in the woods, he had the skills to survive. Because there hadn’t been any sign of him, that was incredibly concerning to her.
Three more long months passed before any more news reports ran about the case. WFXR News aired a story on September 26th featuring a sit-down interview with Chad’s family and police. It showcased how his parents and siblings were at their wits’ end with not knowing what happened to him. They knew Chad would never walk away from them, he loved his family too much.
They described Chad as being a really kind person who often went out of his way to help hikers and thru-backpackers.
If he was camping in the Jefferson National Forest or anywhere in Amherst County, his parents said he would often cook for fellow campers or help tourists with directions, suggesting they go to the best places to fish or swim.
A detective interviewed for the report said that Chad did have some criminal charges pending against him at the time of his disappearance but those charges were in the process of being dropped by the Virginia commonwealth attorney’s office in Amherst County. So, investigators had no reason to believe in any way that what small rap sheet Chad had, had anything to do with his disappearance.
His family told WDBJ news that in the months before Chad vanished, he’d found a good job working with animals at the Natural Bridge Zoo. He had no reason to walk away from that job.
The family used the news reports to announce that they were offering a $1,700 reward for information. Chad’s 31st birthday on October 22nd came and went with no sign of him or any update from law enforcement.
In December 2019, nearly six months to the day that Chad disappeared, an incredible clue showed up in the woods that gave his family hope but told investigators that something far more sinister could be at play.
Six months after Chad Austin was reported missing, his wallet turned up in the woods at Panther Falls.
A father and daughter hiking on the trail that leads to the waterfall found it on the ground beneath a missing person poster for Chad.
The wallet itself was distinctive. It was a Ducti brand, which meant the entire thing was made out of silver duct tape. Inside of it, police told reporters they found several names and contacts for people who knew Chad.
The wallet didn’t appear to have been damaged by water or weathered in any way. That made police believe that it had been recently left in the spot.
Detectives on the case released a statement as soon as the wallet turned up. They said that they wanted to speak to whoever had placed it in the woods.
Investigators said outright that they believed the wallet had been planted under the poster as recently as a few days before it was found. They maintained that the wallet could not have been overlooked on previous searches of that area.
They felt sure that whoever had placed it there did so intentionally.
They thought one of two things. One, the killer had put it there to taunt police or someone who had critical information but was afraid to talk had planted it to tell police that they needed to keep searching.
Two days before Christmas, the Austins announced that the reward for information had grown to $4,000. They hoped the additional funds would draw out the tipster but they had no luck.
A few months later, on March 25th, 2020, WDBJ News reported that a tip came into authorities about Chad.
Unwilling to give up, police investigators returned to the Panther Falls area for yet another ground search. At the time, they also were deep into the process of searching social media accounts and phone records trying to pin down anyone who may have wanted Chad to no longer be around.
That same month, March 2020, police recovered skeletal remains in the area near Panther Falls.
Authorities didn’t confirm they’d discovered remains or released to the public that they came back as belonging to Chad until May 18th.
Reports on this aren’t very clear, but from what I was able to gather there was so little left of the body that the office of the Chief Medical Examiner had a hard time being able to identify the remains as Chad right away.
Ellen, Chad’s mother was completely devastated by the news. Up until the point, she thought her son was possibly still alive. Maybe just lost or trying to survive in the woods somewhere.
The reality that only parts of his skeleton remained, was heartbreaking for the entire Austin family. Investigators wouldn’t release how they believed Chad had died, but they officially changed the label of his missing person case to a homicide.
They determined that Chad’s body had been dumped roughly a mile and a half away from where his car and Gunner were abandoned.
The jurisdiction of the investigation changed at this point because the location of the remains was technically in Amherst County, outside of the town limits of Buena Vista, so the Virginia State Police assumed lead on the investigation.
Troopers announced that several items they believed belonged to Chad including his clothing were found near his body. They never clarified whether or not they located a cell phone with the remains or if his cell phone was found in his car with Gunner.
Either way, they sent all of the items they’d collected in the case off for forensic testing at the Virginia State Crime Lab.
The big challenge at that point was the fact that Chad’s body had been decomposing in the elements for almost a year. That meant finding forensic evidence that could hopefully point to his killer or killers was going to be tough.
While detectives waited for results, Chad’s 32nd birthday of October 22nd, loomed.
On October 21, 2020, Virginia State Police held a news conference with the Austin family.
Troopers released never before known information about evidence they’d found in the immediate area by Chad’s car from back in May 2019.
Troopers said that forensic evidence they’d collected at that location indicated that a struggle had taken place between Chad and whoever his killer was. They believed that whatever went down there ultimately led to Chad’s death and his murderer stashed his body in the woods.
The police also announced that during the course of the investigation they’d located and gotten into Chad’s cellphone. After forensically examining its records, detectives located text messages sent two and from the device in the days before Chad’s disappearance. Those texts showed he was anticipating being confronted by a person or a group of people in the woods who were determined to settle a disagreement with him.
The state police said quote — “We have no reason whatsoever to believe that Chad was looking for trouble, but we do know that he had a reason to suspect a confrontation was inevitable. We know there are additional people in the Buena Vista community who know certain pieces of information related to Chad’s death but are fearful to come forward for a number of reasons. We want to reassure these individuals that our number one goal is to correctly identify the person who did this to Chad. We know this was the act of one person, but that others were witness to his murder. We need to hear from those persons in order to render an arrest and see justice done for Chad and his family,”–end quote.
And that is the last update I could find on this case. From what I read, the Virginia State Police are still waiting on forensic test results on those items found near Chad’s remains.
As far as whether or not the people Chad was expecting to settle a disagreement with were at all tied to his previous criminal charges in any way, has never been confirmed or denied by law enforcement.
The reason I found both Chad and Scott’s cases so intriguing for this show is that they were both 30 years old when they were killed.
Most outrageous of all is the fact that the locations of the murders are literally 35 minutes away from one another. Both spots are on relatively popular hiking trails.
I know there’s a gap of eight years between the murders and no law enforcement agency has ever officially linked the cases, but you have to admit it begs the question is there a predator picking off men in the George Washington and Jefferson National forests who has gone undetected for a decade?
The answer may never be known.
If you have information about Chad Austin’s case please call the Virginia State Police.
If you want to come forward with information on Scott Lilly’s unsolved murder, call your regional FBI office or contact Central Virginia Crime Stoppers.
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.
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*