A Roanoke man whose house caught fire early Friday morning was one of two deceased males whose bodies were found hours later in the McAfee Knob trailhead parking lot, authorities confirmed.
Police also said both victims suffered fatal gunshot wounds, one of which appeared to have been self-inflicted.
Roanoke Fire-EMS Department personnel responded at about 3:30 a.m. Friday to two incendiary structure fires that occurred about a mile apart, one on the 800 block of Rorer Avenue Southwest and one on the 30 block of 14th Street Southwest.
The department said in a press release that the two fires were connected and the person of interest in the incidents was identified Friday afternoon by Roanoke County police as 62-year-old Lewis James Lambert Jr.
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Lambert lived at the Rorer Avenue address, according to city real estate records. Police found his body at about 6 a.m. Friday in the McAfee Knob trailhead parking lot on Catawba Valley Drive (Virginia 311).
Also found deceased in the parking lot was a juvenile male, whom police have not identified.
Both Lambert and the juvenile were found with gunshot wounds, “one of them believed to be self-inflicted,” police said in a press release.
“Police are not looking for suspects and there is no danger to the public,” police added.
Roanoke County Public Information Officer Amy Whittaker said Friday morning that a couple of hikers found the bodies as they were passing through the parking lot and called police.
“It’s going to take a little while, of course, to determine what happened here,” she added.
Whittaker confirmed that the bodies were found “in proximity” to each other.
The parking lot at Catawba Mountain’s crest is a hub for Appalachian Trail day and long-distance hikers. Access to the trail remained open, although access to the parking area was limited while investigators were on scene.
“It looks to be a very beautiful weekend, so we do expect there will be hundreds of hikers,” Whittaker said Friday morning. “Already, this morning, we’ve seen a lot of hikers coming through, passing through, heading to the trailhead, parking in the parking lot.”
Chris Whitfield arrived at the parking lot from Morgantown, West Virginia around 10 a.m. He and two other men had plans to spend the three-day holiday weekend on the Appalachian Trail, hiking the Triple Crown loop, which includes the McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs, according to the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club’s website.
“You definitely hate to see it. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Everybody’s out here trying to have a good time,” he said. “I’m told that there’s two bodies found, so that’s really surprising and definitely not what you want to hear when you’re about to start a fun day of hiking. But we drove four hours to get here. We’re here now. And we’re going to do it.”
Whitfield’s party struggled to find parking spots in the gravel lot.
“The parking is crowded,” he said. “We have two cars here, and we’ve been here for the last 15 minutes looking for a parking spot for my truck.”
Whittaker said the heavily traveled McAfee Knob trail and the protruding rocks of the 3,200-foot summit have been the scene of other recent “unfortunate accidents.”
Last summer, Paul Classen, a 23-year-old from the Netherlands, died after falling about 50 feet off a cliff just north of McAfee Knob’s summit. And in 2018, Gregg Marr Sr., 67, of Florida, died after he slipped and fell 100 feet from the summit.
Anyone with additional information about Friday’s fires or fatal shootings is asked to contact the Roanoke County Emergency Communications Center at 540-562-3265, the Roanoke Fire Marshal’s Office Tip Line at 540-853-2406 or the Roanoke Police Department at 540-344-8500.
Police have encouraged hikers to use the McAfee Knob Trailhead Shuttle, which operates from park-and-ride lot off of Interstate 81’s exit 140.
Visit mcafeeshuttle.com for more information.