WILLIAMSBURG, VA — Over Columbus Day weekend on October 12, 1986, the bodies of 27-year-old Cathleen Thomas and her girlfriend, 21-year-old college senior Rebecca Ann Dowski, were found inside Thomas’ white 1980 Honda Civic along the Colonial Parkway in Williamsburg.
An autopsy found that the two women had been strangled with nylon rope. Their throats had been cut — so viciously that Thomas was almost decapitated — and diesel fuel was poured over the bodies and the car, which apparently failed to ignite.
Thomas’ brother Bill Thomas told CrimeFeed that his sister, a Navy lieutenant turned stockbroker, was a “trailblazer” who loved life and excelled at everything she did.
“We knew that Cathy was happy, and we were looking forward to meeting Becky later in the fall,” he said.
But the 1980s in Virginia was a different time: While Cathy’s family was supportive of her same-sex relationship, she kept it a secret from most of the rest of the world.
So she and Dowski would drive along the scenic road that links the states’s historical towns of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown to seek out wooded “lover’s lanes.”
Their purses and money were found inside the car, which led investigators to quickly determine that robbery was not the killer’s motive. Both women were fully clothed, and there was no evidence of sexual assault.
The bodies had been moved — they were found in the back area of the car — and the window was rolled down.
It seemed that Thomas may have struggled with her attacker, as a clump of hair was later discovered between her fingers.But the couple’s murders were just the beginning: Between 1986 and 1989, three more couples would be brutally murdered along the same route. Authorities believe that the murders were the work of a serial killer they nicknamed “The Colonial Parkway Killer.”
On September 22, 1987, the bodies of David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, were found in the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge. Both had been shot in the back of the head.
Knobling’s black Ford Ranger pickup truck was found at the refuge parking area next to the James River Bridge with the wipers and radio on, the keys in the ignition, and some articles of clothing inside. Once again, the window was rolled down, and his wallet was on the seat.On April 9, 1988, Cassandra Lee Hailey, 18, and Richard Keith Call, 20, were reported missing after attending a party in the University Square area in Newport News.
Hailey and Call, who were both students at Christopher Newport University, were on their first date together.
Call’s red 1982 Toyota Celica was found on the Colonial Parkway the next day — with the driver’s side door wide open, but no one inside. The glove compartment was open, and the keys were inside the car. The front seat had been pulled forward, and articles of clothing belonging to Call and Hailey were inside.
No trace of them has ever been found — but both are presumed dead. Park rangers believe that the couple may have gone skinny dipping and drowned. But Call’s family did not buy this theory, saying that the couple would not have stripped off their clothes and then walked over a mile in 40-degree weather for night swimming.
On October 19, 1989, the bodies of Annamaria Phelps, 18, and Daniel Lauer, 21, were found by hunters in the woods near a rest area on Interstate 64 between Williamsburg and Richmond. Lauer and Phelps, who was dating Lauer’s older brother, set off on a trip to Virginia Beach on September 5, 1989.
Investigators found Lauer’s gold 1972 Chevrolet abandoned at a rest stop on the westbound side of the road in New Kent County — which was meant that it would have been heading in the wrong direction. Their clothes and other possessions were inside the car — and a marijuana roach clip was left hanging on the window.
Six weeks later, hunters found Phelps’ and Lauer’s remains. The bodies were covered with an electric blanket that had been taken from his car.
An autopsy revealed that Phelps was stabbed. Lauer’s body was too badly decomposed to determine cause of death.
Investigators found evidence, including weeds on the underside of the car that matched the crime scene, which pointed to the fact that the car was used to transport the bodies to the spot where they were dumped.
Over the years, the FBI and Virginia State police have conducted thousands of interviews, developed various theories and identified around 150 persons of interest — but no one has ever been charged with the killings.
More than three decades later, the cases remain cold.
Were the cases connected?
Circumstances that the couples were found in were disturbingly similar. Also, all of the killings took place during the same six-week period, and three occurred over a holiday weekend.
Windows were rolled down at some of the crime scenes, and wallets were pulled out, which many experts believe could indicate that the victims were approached by a person in a position of authority.
At some of the crime scenes, the driver’s seat had been adjusted — indicating that the killer likely drove the victims to the site where he left them.
But other investigators don’t believe that the murders are connected at all.
In June 2010, the victims’ families requested the assistance of retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective Steve Spingola.
After visiting the crime scenes, Spingola spoke with family members, tipsters, and law-enforcement veterans and released a magazine article that detailed his findings.
Spingola proposed that the murders are the work of different killers — and claimed that the slayings of Thomas and Dowski were linked to the deaths of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams, another lesbian couple who were found with their throats slashed in the Shenandoah National Park in 1996.
Was it a cop, or someone pretending to be a cop?
The rolled-down windows, wallets left out, and the fact that many of the victims did not appear to have resisted — at least initially — led many investigators to conclude that the killer could have been a “person of authority.”
There is also the marijuana roach clip found on Phelp’s car — which some investigators think was deliberately placed there by the killer to send a message.
Larry McCann, who founded the Behavioral Science Unit of the Virginia State Police, told true-crime writers Blaine Pardoe and Victoria Hester, who wrote A Special Kind Of Evil: The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings about the killings, that he believes that the killer moved the clip to toy with police. “Because he’s taunting the police. He’s saying, ‘I’m smarter than you, you will never catch me.’ That’s a taunt,” he said.
In addition to the Virginia State Police and the FBI, there are several military bases nearby. Camp Peary, the CIA’s Farm for training, is nearby as well, and park rangers patrol the area regularly.
Clyde Yee, a park ranger who was one of the first responders in the Thomas Dowski murders, was considered an early person of interest, but later cleared following a polygraph.
In 2009, the case took yet another strange twist when extremely graphic crime-scene photos were leaked — and a Gloucester sheriff’s deputy named Fred Atwell came into the frame.
Atwell was considered something of a hero when he discovered that a number of crime-scene photographs regarding the Colonial Parkway homicides had been inappropriately taken from the FBI’s Norfolk office. The photographs were being used as a training tool for a security company, and a number of the images had been leaked to the media.
While the FBI and the Virginia State Police looked into the Colonial Parkway cases, the families of the victims joined together to support each other.
Atwell’s concern was appreciated at first — but then he began trying to insert himself into the investigation, according to Thomas. “He said that if we gave him money, he would tell us where Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey’s missing bodies could be found,” he added.
The release of the photographs was deeply upsetting to the families, but it did reignite the investigation when the FBI announced it was conducting a top-to-bottom review of the cases.
Other names surfaced in the press over the years. New Zealand native Ronald Little, a former Gloucester private investigator with a criminal record in New Zealand, claimed to be a suspect in the case. Despite his bizarre claims, Little was never arrested, and was later deported.
A private investigator in Florida insists that Michael Nicholaou, who ran over his second wife with his car, and then shot and killed her before killing himself, was the killer. Authorities also suspect that Nicholaou is also responsible for the disappearance of his first wife, Michelle.
The detective noted that when Nicholaou moved, serial killings often followed. During the Colonial Parkway murders, Nicholaou lived in Charlottesville, and possibly Virginia Beach.
The Watermen Theory
The FBI developed an alternative theory, one that focused on the fact that the killer could have traveled via the river. The diesel fuel was a key clue, due to the fact that it does not ignite at low temperatures, and was probably not the type of fuel that most people would happen to have lying around.
This led some experts to believe that the diesel fuel, which is used to power boats, was something the killer happened to have with him.
Could there have been more than one killer?
Some experts believe that the killer’s — or killers’ — ability to overpower so many pairs of victims in excellent physical condition points to the work of a serial-killing team. McCann said that he believes that in this scenario, one suspect would be a more dominant leader, while the other is a follower. He added that he believed that it is possible that one of the killers has passed away.
From the beginning, the investigation was complicated by the fact that two of the incidents were handled by the FBI, while the other two were in different branches of the Virginia State Police.
And while some of the obstacles to finding forensics in the case were due to the bodies being exposed to the elements, sadly, mistakes were made at the crime scenes — and afterward — that likely resulted in evidence being lost forever.
For example: When Keith Call’s father found his son’s car, he claimed that there were no keys in the ignition. But park rangers found Keith’s wallet lying on the seat, several items of clothing strewn around the vehicle, and the keys in the ignition.
Virginia State Police Detective Danny Plott offered Bledsoe and Hester that he believed that the first park rangers on the scene, assuming that the car had been abandoned, gathered the belongings — and later, once they realized their mistake, they attempted to put them back in the same place.
“I’m sure the rangers and the park service don’t want to be painted as the people who were the bad people in this. I can tell you right now, in both Call-Hailey and Dowski-Thomas, their ineptness and ineptitude — I’m not saying we would have caught them if they’d left things away, but it’s almost like you had to start over each time,” he said.
In 1994, rape kits for Thomas and Dowski were mistakenly sent by the FBI Newport News Office to the York-Poquoson County Sheriff’s Department — and the FBI sent a fax to York County ordering them to destroy them. So in 1994, the rape kits were destroyed as medical waste.
Thomas told CrimeFeed that he hopes that the case will help highlight the issue of discarded evidence, which he called “heartbreaking.”
Additionally, Thomas wrote on Facebook:
“To be fair, based on the limits of 1986 (pre DNA) testing, the FBI did not believe that our sister Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski were sexually assaulted. Yet, as a legendary former Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia said, “Mr. Thomas, you never, ever throw away evidence in an unsolved murder case.
Let’s all learn from our mistakes, move forward together, and solve the Colonial Parkway Murders.”
In February of 1989, Friends and Families Against Crime Today (FFACT) was formed after the victims’ families gathered 12,000 signatures to get law enforcement to renew investigations into murders on the Colonial Parkway and in the Tidewater area. There is a $20,000 reward offered for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.
Over the years, the families have continued to speak to the press and authorities and, as the families of the victims continue to search for answers, the case continues to haunt the community.
Main photo: Photo of the Colonial Parkway and surrounding area taken earlier in the 20th century [Wikimedia Commons]