Visitors to Silver Comet trail more cautious

Jennifer Ewing's murder 3 years ago gives them pause

The specter of Jennifer Ewing's murder still haunts visitors to the Silver Comet Trail three years later, serving as a constant reminder that the path's woodsy beauty and serenity is not without its dangers.

Deborah Gaunt, 55, and her husband, Larry, cycled up to the Florence Road trailhead in Powder Springs around midday Friday. Gaunt said she often thinks of Ewing while riding along the trail, especially when passing the memorial that was built for her.

"It's just tragic that a place like this — a beautiful place to ride bikes — is not as safe as we'd like it to be," Gaunt said.

The Silver Comet Trail, built over an old railroad route, stretches from Smyrna to the Alabama line. When it opened for public use in late 1998, it was an instant hit with walkers, runners, cyclists and roller-bladers.

The highly publicized murder of Ewing in July 2006 made many trail users wary. The 53-year-old Sandy Springs woman was riding her bike through Paulding County, some 17 miles from the trailhead, when she was ambushed, sexually assaulted and beaten to death, police said.

The trial for her accused killer, Michael Ledford, began earlier this month. Last week's testimony, often brutally graphic, brought back concerns about safety.

Many cyclists worry that the path has long stretches of secluded segments, especially the farther one gets from the trailhead on Mavell Road, near Nickajack Elementary School in Cobb County. There have been several incidents since Ewing's death, including robberies of cyclists.

Suva Shrestha, who owns a gas station in Powder Springs, had a scary experience on the trail five months ago. He said a strange man who walked with an exaggerated limp approached him and his 21-year-old daughter when they stopped to pick wild grapes. The man grabbed his daughter from behind and kissed her, Shrestha said.

"She was very scared; she was trembling," Shrestha said.

Police arrested the man when he showed up on the trail the next day, and he was subsequently convicted of simple battery, Shrestha said. Despite the unsettling encounter, Shrestha said he still takes daily walks on the trail. He makes a point of telling women who are unaccompanied to be careful.

"I tell them, don't walk alone," Shrestha said.

Page Smith, 61, of Smyrna, was bicycling with two friends along a 12 1/2-mile segment of the trial on Friday. Asked about the issue of safety on the path, Smith chuckled, "I see cops occasionally, but not very often.

"It's kind of ride at your own risk," Smith said.

She said she is closely following news of Ledford's trial. Some of the recent testimony rattled her, but Smith said she hasn't let it stop her from taking a solitary spin on her bicycle. For many, the lushly forested trail continues to be a welcome respite from sprawling suburbia and the bustling city nearby.

"[Ewing's murder] gives me pause, but you can't live your life afraid of everything," Smith said.

— Staff writer Rhonda Cook contributed to this article.