%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:XNYR215-040902; AUDIO:168%)

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Law enforcement authorities believe they solved the nearly 6-year-old case of two female hikers slain in a federal park, based in part on statements a man made while serving time on another charge.

Darrell David Rice was indicted Tuesday for the 1996 slayings of Julianne Williams and Laura ``Lollie'' Winans, the Justice Department announced, saying the defendant targeted them because he believed they were gay.

The bodies of Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minn., and Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine, were found bound and gagged near the Appalachian Trail on June 1, 1996, at a secluded creek-side campsite in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park.

Already incarcerated on attempted abduction charges in Petersburg, Va., Rice made statements in prison that he intentionally selected women to assault ``because they are more vulnerable than men,'' according to government court documents filed in Charlottesville, Va.

Prosecutors also charged in the papers that Rice ``hates gays'' and that he said Williams and Winans ``deserved to die because they were lesbian.''

Federal authorities had automatic jurisdiction in the case because the slayings took place on U.S. government land. A federal hate-crimes law covers race and religion, but not sex or sexual orientation; an effort to add those categories failed two years ago.

The Justice Department was able to push for a hate-crimes type of indictment in this case, however, because sentencing guidelines permitted a harsher punishment if a crime was motivated by sexual orientation.

Rice was charged with four counts of capital murder. Ashcroft said that if convicted of any of the charges, Rice could face the death penalty.

``The volatile, poisonous mixture of hatred and violence will not go unchallenged in the American system of justice,'' said Ashcroft, after meeting with the families of the victims.

The indictment charged Rice, a former computer programmer, with capital murder and with intentionally selecting and murdering the victims ``because of the actual or perceived gender or sexual orientation.''

The government is prepared to present evidence that ``the defendant's killing of the two women was part of an ongoing plan, scheme or modus operandi to assault, intimidate, injure and kill women because of their gender,'' according to court filings.

John Brownlee, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said he had evidence of Rice's ``numerous physical and verbal assaults upon randomly selected women, including ... acts of road rage, physical assaults, demeaning sexual comments and threats of injury and death.''

Rice has been held in jail in Charlottesville since July 9, 1997, after he pleaded guilty to an unrelated abduction charge in which he was accused of verbally and physically assaulting a female bicyclist in the Shenandoah National Park. She avoided being forced into his truck, so he ``tried to kill her'' by running her over, authorities charged. Investigators later discovered hand and leg restraints in Rice's vehicle. He was sentenced to 136 months in prison on that conviction, according to court filings.

It was there, as investigators tracked down more than 15,000 leads and contacts in the Williams and Winans murders, that Rice made comments relevant to the case, authorities said.

``Interviews subsequent to his arrest indicated that he may have been involved,'' Brownlee said.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force had pressured the FBI to investigate whether the slayings were a hate crime.

Williams was a graduate of Cathedral High School in St. Cloud and Carleton College in Northfield.

Winans, a Michigan native who was majoring in outdoor recreation leadership at Maine's Unity College, and Williams, who had a degree in geology, were experienced hikers. They had met while studying to become trip leaders at Woodswomen Inc. in Minneapolis in 1995, and had been living in Burlington, Vt.