The Elkwallow Madman Murder

Southern Macabre

You can listen to this episode by clicking here.

Hey, y’all, and welcome to Southern Macabre! I’m Aeryn and I’m so glad that y’all could join me for True Crime Friday! Today’s case is crazy and it took me a long time to actually find information about it, even though I know this case well. Stick around for the surprise ending!

 

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It was July 2, 2006, which was a Sunday. My husband and I were going to a small Baptist church in Sperryville, Virginia with a couple of our friends who were newlyweds. I worked with them in Shenandoah National Park and my husband and I would spend every evening with them. Anyway, as soon as we parked, we heard murmurs about a murderer on the loose in the area.

 

A man had gone crazy and stabbed his roommate to death at a house in Sperryville that morning and fled into Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah National Park is massive and the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, runs through it. Many people said that he was headed straight for Elkwallow Wayside, off Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive is part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road with beautiful overlooks and waterfalls that stretches for hundreds of miles. Now for those unfamiliar with Elkwallow, it’s a gas station, convenience store, gift shop, and lunch counter heading north on Skyline Drive. It’s not a big building and it’s remote. You will see more deer, bears, and squirrels than people when you take a right instead of heading straight towards Skyland Lodge and Big Meadows Lodge.

 

Seriously, if you dream of seeing black bears, this is the place to go. Just remember that you can’t touch the adorable cubs or Mama Bear will eat you. There’s a trail that starts at the edge of Elkwallow’s parking lot and I remember one day a group of hikers ran in, slamming the door behind them. They were oohing and ahhing over three cubs when they noticed mama on the other side of the trail, putting them in the middle. That is not where you want to be!

 

Getting back to our story, the two friends I mentioned worked with me at Elkwallow at the time so we were on high alert. We pretty much stayed inside unless we needed the restroom, which was on the other side of the parking lot by the gas pumps. Fortunately, that’s where my friend’s husband worked so he kept an eye on things for everyone.

 

We were all wondering if this “kid” would turn out to be a serial killer and who his next victim might be. Should we stop hikers from entering the woods? Or maybe close the Park down until this madman was arrested? It was terrifying!

 

With it almost being Independence Day, there were a lot of hikers and campers in the area. Some knew about the murderer in the woods, but we warned several who didn’t. The crazy thing was, that none of us knew what the guy looked like, we just knew he was like a nineteen-year-old kid who had lost his mind. The four of us were young, basically broke, and preferred to have beer and gas money over TV. All of our information came from others who watched or read the weekly newspaper.

 

Within a few days, we heard about a naked, wild man living off squirrels and road kill off one of the hiking trails near Elkwallow. Several hikers told our manager who would call the ranger’s station, but the man was gone by the time they got there. There were K-9 units, helicopters, FBI agents, U.S. Marshalls, and the Park Rangers all searching for this guy from day one.

 

It seemed like a lot of time passed, but I think it was actually that Wednesday when the manager of Elkwallow, Mike, was making his rounds outside and found a knife on the ground. I had the day off, but my friend said the assistant manager stood guard over the knife while Mike went inside to call the Rangers. The knife was bagged by law enforcement, but the man still wasn’t found.

 

Just down the mountain lay the small town of Luray, known for Luray Caverns. There’s not much there except Walmart, the Luray Zoo, and some antique stores. It’s about two hours from Washington D.C. so a lot of Northern Virginians retired there at the time.

 

Anyway, it was around this time that rumors began spreading that this murderer was seen around Luray and even at Walmart. He always seemed to disappear before law enforcement arrived. This wasn’t too surprising considering the cops made front page news when all of them parked at the 7-11 at the same time. In all fairness, not much happened in Luray so it wasn’t really as big of a deal as the newspaper made it out to be.

 

Elkwallow was closed after 5:30PM and on Sundays. If I remember correctly, that’s when the crazed murderer was arrested near a hiking trail, one week after he had run into the woods.

 

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This story was really hard to research even though I remembered so many details. I asked our friends who worked with me at Elkwallow and they didn’t even remember it! Was there some kind of cover-up? If so, how far had they gone to bury this blemish on a tiny community who thrives on tourism?

 

The answer is far simpler.

 

You see, when things like this happen in small towns (and probably everywhere else, to be honest), people speculate and pass their assumptions off as fact. Then the person who hears their speculations forms their own and tells someone else. It’s like the game “Telephone”.

 

People love to feel like they have some kind of “insider information” and storytellers thrive on embellishing the truth. It’s not lying. It’s taking a decent or good story and making it memorable. I think that’s what a lot of people did in this case and what I’ve seen happen in many others.

 

Plus, let’s be honest, we southerners love a good conspiracy theory.

 

Now I’m going to tell you what really happened according to newspapers and court documents. It’s still a crazy story without all of the fluff, but the fluff did add excitement and intrigue, honestly.

 

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Washington, Virginia, better known as Little Washington, is a small community in Rappahannock County. It’s filled with large Victorian and Colonial houses that wealthy and famous people visited regularly. Honestly, it looks like Main Street in Walt Disney World, but it may be a little prettier. Especially at night when the street lamps are lit.

 

Way back in a holler near Little Washington, early on the morning of July 2, 2006, Ira Wayne Cloniger was drunk in his truck. He had just pulled into his driveway and sent his friend, Edward C. Fletcher into his home to wake his pregnant girlfriend. Then he passed out in his truck. Instead of waking her, Fletcher raped her.

 

After the rape, she ran out to Cloniger’s truck screaming, waking him. She told him what Fletcher had done and in a drunken rage, Cloniger ran inside and stabbed Fletcher to death. Then, while Fletcher lay dying and gasping for air, Cloniger kicked and peed on him.

 

Then he ran into the woods surrounding his house that happened to be Shenandoah National Park. Elkwallow was about ten miles northwest (at the most) from his house. It wouldn’t have been an easy hike, that’s the Appalachian Mountains and there weren’t any trails near his house.

 

Cloniger wasn’t a kid either. He was 46 years old when he stabbed his friend and eluded police for nearly a week.

 

We never learned if the knife was the murder weapon or even if it belonged to Cloniger, but it’s still a crazy story. Am I right?

 

I don’t doubt that hikers saw a man in the woods, but I do doubt that he was naked in a forest filled with thornbushes, venomous snakes, etc. Unless it was that first day and he was washing the blood off of himself. There wasn’t any mention of him being nude in anything I read while researching this case.

 

Also, Luray is a long way down another mountain so I doubt he went down there for any reason and then ended up back at Elkwallow. Cellphone reception was spotty at best in that area back then, so he couldn’t call someone to give him rides.

 

The part about him eating squirrels in the woods is plausible. You’re not going to survive a week without food, especially when you’re constantly moving in the mountains. I’m not sure how he would catch them, but a lot of people in the hollers were skilled at making traps out of almost nothing and he had a knife.

 

He was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for pre-meditated murder. He has been appealing stating that you can’t plan to murder someone when you’re intoxicated. So far, the judges in Virginia have stood by the original ruling. Which is probably a good thing since Cloniger has a history of violence, including multiple charges of assaulting a police officer. Most of them include DUI and drunk in public charges.

 

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I told both parts of this story to demonstrate why I try to stick to facts when I tell y’all about a case. Once rumors get mixed in, they become fact in people’s minds and that can really hurt an investigation. Cloniger may have come into Elkwallow and we would have never known because we were looking for a nineteen-year-old

 

It’s okay to speculate, wonder, and let your imagination run wild. However, it’s best not to spread rumors in an open investigation. I chose this case because it has been solved and Cloniger admitted to stabbing Fletcher, but he denies kicking or urinating on him. Here I’ll speculate that if the Commonwealth’s attorney entered those details into evidence during the trial, they’re probably true.

 

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There’s another case from the area that is heartbreaking, but we’re going to start with the urban legend. Going west on 211/Lee Highway from Sperryville through Luray, you will come to a small parking lot with a sign for the Storybook Trail. It’s about 2,000 feet above sea level and there are round rocks where you can sit and read, listen to music, or listen to the sounds of nature. It’s a serene, majestic place.

 

School children would whisper about the murders there before the 1980s, including a man who killed his children by pushing them off the ledge. Ghost stories centered around the secluded half mile trail abounded. Highwaymen who robbed and killed their victims in the 1800s lurked in the dark forest along with other boogeymen-types.

 

There were also stories of suicides reminiscent of the Japanese Suicide Forest. You know, police going up there to remove victims discovered by hikers regularly. The first time my husband took me up there he was surprised that the Suicide Prevention Hotline signs were gone. I wonder if they were ever really there.

 

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Oddly, the only documented murder occurred on August 2, 1999.

 

Daniel Lee Zirkle, age 31, had just gotten out of jail for assaulting his girlfriend, Barbara Jo Shifflett. He allegedly told another inmate that he was going to kill her and her two daughters, four-year-old Christina M. Zirkle and fourteen-year-old Jessica L. Shifflett.

 

He went to their home in Rockingham County, Virginia, about 21 miles from Storybook Trail, when Ms. Shifflett was at work and the girls were home alone. He stabbed Jessica in the neck and kidnapped his biological daughter, Christina.

 

On his way to Storybook Trail, he called his estranged girlfriend at work to tell her what he was doing. When he and Christina got to Storybook Trail, they walked out to the overlook together and that’s where he killed her. With both girls dead, he cut his own throat. His suicide plans were foiled, however, because he survived and was arrested.

 

Zirkle was executed by lethal injection in Virginia on April 2, 2002. He asked to be executed for what he did and apologized for his actions before he died.

 

I remember my husband taking me up there and telling me this story when we were dating. It was daytime and the trail was still creepy. Don’t get me wrong, I would go back if we still lived in the area, but that doesn’t change the feeling that you’re being watched. Honestly, up there a half mile into the woods, it’s probably deer.

 

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I’m not saying that Zirkle was inspired by an old urban legend to do what he did, but the fact my husband heard a similar story a decade before can’t be overlooked. I personally don’t think he took Christina up there because she loved it, but I could be wrong.

 

I tried to find more information about why he chose that overlook, because there are several that are closer, but I couldn’t find any. My husband’s theory is that he was having second thoughts once he realized what he had actually done and what he was planning to do.

 

Also, if you’re wondering why my husband would take me up there on a date to tell me scary stories, well, we’re both a little weird. Now that we’re farther south he thinks it’s hilarious to drive me out into the swamps at night. We’ve been together eighteen years now so it doesn’t even scare me anymore.

 

If I ever do go missing, though, look into him first.

 

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Thank y’all so much for joining me today! If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or Goodpods so others can find us. If you want to see pictures of Elkwallow Wayside and Storybook Trail, visit the website. Also, be sure to join me again for Missing Person Monday. I hope y’all have a fantastic, safe weekend!

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Southern Macabre

 

713cv00046.pdf (uscourts.gov)

 

CLONIGER v. CLARKE | Civil Action No. 7:13cv00046. | 20130403776 | Leagle.com

 

j._coleman_clips_-_cloniger_murder_trial.pdf (weebly.com)

 

Building the Devil | Worldview Weekend Broadcast Network

 

Daniel Lee Zirkle #766 (clarkprosecutor.org)

 

Man who killed 2 executed in Virginia – Washington Times

Elkwallow Wayside
Storybook Trail Overlook
This is the view from the overlook

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