New Book Shines a Light on the Mysterious Colonial Parkway Murders
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America's narrowest national park, the Colonial Parkway, connects the southern edge of Jamestown to Yorktown via a winding 23-mile route that cuts through Williamsburg. Taking a daytime cruise along this scenic thoroughfare—which was originally constructed to simulate the kind of idyllic path traveled by early Americans—can be peaceful, serene, even therapeutic.
But when the sun sets, tree canopies that seemed bucolic and nurturing in the sunlight loom and form ominous tunnels. A visitor can suddenly feel trapped, unable to get out. There are very few exit ramps on this road. For much of the journey, drivers are surrounded by the York River on one side, and forbidding, densely-wooded terrain on the other. "It gets creepy at night" author Blaine Pardoe says. "There's a different crowd, the tourists are gone, we've heard so many stories of partying and peeping Toms and creepy cops ... it's definitely a shady area."
Along with his daughter, fellow true-crime author Victoria Hester, Pardoe has written A Special Kind of Evil: The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings, the first-ever book-length account of four notorious double homicides that were centered in and around the parkway, eight tragic deaths and disappearances that still baffle experts and family members three decades later.
"The murderer carefully picked his victims. And so there were probably many people who came in contact with him and he released them," Pardoe theorizes. "He came across them, flashed his light across them and said, no these aren't the right people. He clearly picked the areas to do these crimes where he knew he could get away with it."
After two-and-a-half years of research and more than 80 hours of interviews, including with former police and FBI officers, Pardoe and Hester present the most comprehensive look yet at the evidence, theories, suspects, victims and shapeless mystery of Virginia's most notorious serial murders. "When the Son of Sam just walks up and shoots somebody, that's a disorganized killer," says Pardoe. "But the person behind the Colonial Parkway Murders spent time with his victims."
It began on Oct. 12, 1986 when two tourists, taking a stroll near a parkway pullover, discovered a white Honda Civic dangling off an embankment in a snarl of brush. Inside were the fully-clothed bodies of Rebecca A. Dowski, a 21-year-old senior at the College of William & Mary, and Cathleen Thomas, 28, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Virginia Beach stockbroker. The two ladies were romantically involved, and one theory is that they came to the Parkway to be alone, away from prying, intolerant eyes. They were strangled to death and their throats cut. Diesel fuel had been poured on the women and vehicle, but it failed to ignite. Thomas' fingers contained a tangle of hair, indicating a struggle with her killer.
Less than one year later, the bodies of David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, were found on Ragged Island refuge, near the James River Bridge in Isle of Wight County. Both were shot execution style in the head, and Knobling was also gunned in the shoulder. His truck had been discovered on Ragged Island three days earlier with its driver's door open, radio playing and keys in the ignition. The couple's clothes and shoes were in the backseat.
Clothes and shoes were also found in the backseat of Richard Keith Call's abandoned Toyota Celica. On April 10, 1988, Call's vehicle was discovered in a pullover along the parkway a little more than a mile from the first crime scene. Call, 20, had been out on a platonic date with fellow Christopher Newport student Cassandra Hailey, 18, and the couple had disappeared around 2 a.m. The driver's door was open, car keys were lying on the seat, and Keith's wallet, with $12, was found along with Cassandra's purse (only her wallet was missing). The young couple have never been found despite an extensive search. Like the Dowski/Thomas murders, the vehicle was on federal property, which put the two cases under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
On Labor Day weekend 1989, Annamaria Phelps, 18, and Daniel Lauer, 21, disappeared on a trip from Amelia to Virginia Beach. Lauer’s Chevy Nova was found abandoned at a rest area near New Kent on the westbound side of I-64—the opposite direction they were traveling—with its door open and with a roach clip affixed to the half-rolled-down driver's side window. Six weeks later, the couple’s remains were discovered less than a mile from the rest area, covered in Lauer's blanket. Phelps had been stabbed, while Lauer's body was so decomposed that no cause of death could be determined.
Then the killings stopped, leaving law enforcement with four separate crime scenes, eight victims, multiple causes of death, and not one bit of physical evidence tying any of them to each other.
"We can't forget them." The victims of the Colonial Parkway murders (clockwise
from upper left) were Rebecca Dowski, Robin Edwards, Keith Call, Annamaria
Phelps, Cathy Thomas, David Knobling, Cassandra Hailey and Daniel Lauer.
Starting with an FBI task force, the Virginia State Police, the National Park Service and numerous local police agencies have investigated these murders over the years. "Having so many hands in this really hasn't helped it at all," says Hester. "And DNA evidence wasn't collected very well back then because DNA evidence testing wasn't around when these crimes occurred. There's definitely been a few characters of interest over the years. But no physical evidence that links anyone."
Hester, like others who have investigated over the years, think two killers were working together, not one. "To me it has to be two people," she says. "You are a serial killer taking on a couple, you run the risk of one of them making a run for it, causing a scene, and that's too big of a risk. You never know what the other is going to do. It only makes sense to have another person there. There's a lot of movement in the middle of the night too—you could do it all by yourself, but there's a lot of driving, moving and staging cars."
Co-author Pardoe doesn't agree. "Larry McCann, the former investigator for the Virginia State Police, really pushed the theory that there was two killers," he says. "And he made a really compelling case for it. Victoria and I have a debate on this. I've talked with several police officers, and I happen to believe that it would be very easy for one person to exert control over two people in a vehicle."
Especially, he says, if the couples were approached by someone posing as an authority figure—a police officer or security guard. "In three of these cases, you've got the glove box of the car open," Pardoe says. "And so you have to leave open the possibility that it was an actual police officer. He may not have had to impersonate one."
"I've always thought that it was law enforcement," says Joyce Call-Canada, the sister of Keith Call. "Or maybe someone posing as [a cop]. In all of these cases, you've got young, healthy teenagers and young adults who aren't just going to stand there and let someone overpower them. So it has to be someone that, at least for a moment, they would feel comfortable with."
The 1988 Parkway disappearances of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey garnered
much news coverage and a range of theories, some highly unlikely. Their bodies
have never been found.
"For the longest time, I was in the skeptical category," says Bill Thomas. "I didn't know if the four double homicides were related at all. I met with the FBI more than a year ago, for nine hours and two days, and they made a pretty compelling case for why parts of the cases are related."
Thomas is the younger brother of Cathleen Thomas. He, Call-Canada, and other surviving family members continue advocating for justice and closure—they've hired private investigators, initiated social media campaigns, consulted psychics and consistently prodded law enforcement organizations associated with the cases to continue the search for their loved ones' killer.
"What else do we do? That's my stock answer," says Call-Canada. "If we don't do anything, it just goes to sleep.”
She's considered every possible theory associated with her younger brother's disappearance. "You know, my mind has been changed so many times over the last 30 years on whether the murders are connected or not. After time has gone on, you hear so many different scenarios. We don't have a lot of information to go on."
"Personally, I'm not sure how many are linked," says Rosanna Phelps, the sister of Annamaria Phelps. "And I think that the focus on these murders being linked has hindered the investigation of my sister's murder. I think there's been too much emphasis on tying them together. You may discount a good suspect just because you can't link them over here, or over there."
The authors of A Special Kind of Evil conclude that the eight murders were caused by the same killer. "First off," Pardoe says, "the victims were all killed in pairs— that's pretty different—you don't see a lot of that. In all of these cases, they were killed in one location and found in another. So you are dealing with someone who is spending time with these victims. And the cars in these murders were staged for theft—with the exception of the very first case, the keys to these vehicles were left in plain sight, with the radio being left on or the door being left open, something being clipped to the window. Something that would attract somebody else to steal that vehicle. Except for the very first one."
That first killing was, Hester believes, "a learning experience for the murderers themselves. Because so many things went wrong that the killer realized that he had to do something different. That's why the last three murders seemed to be similar in the staging of the vehicle, and not having the bodies with the vehicle. If you look at it as being a learning experience, it makes more sense. They got better with time."
The Dowski/Thomas murders were an act of sheer brutality. "Clearly a knife was used," Pardoe says, "and there was obviously a struggle with Cathy Thomas because her hand was cut. We don't know if he was using a gun to intimidate. He did struggle with them, tie them up and choke them with a piece of nylon line. You are dealing with two athletic women, one trained in martial arts. That couldn't have been easy."
"Once he kills them, he cuts their throats. So now you've got an overkill situation. The bodies are taken to the parkway, and we don't know if these killings took place somewhere else on the parkway or someplace completely different, but he brings their vehicle to the parkway, and soaks it with diesel fuel and tries to light it."
Diesel needs a higher temperature to ignite, so there is no fire. "He puts them in the vehicle, which takes some exertion, one in the backseat, one in the back of the hatch, soaks the interior and tries to light that on fire, and that doesn't work. And after all the physical exertion, which makes the theory of it being two killers real strong, pushes the vehicle into the York River, and then that fails. The killer definitely learned from that experience. What he had was so overly complicated that he simplified."
The authors' theories are backed up by behavioral scientists that have looked at the cases. "They all say the murders are connected," says Pardoe. "Virginia State Police, FBI ... the FBI definitely believes that. But you get to the Virginia State Police themselves, they don't even believe their own behavioral specialists. They'll say, 'They are all connected except for Ragged Island, they're all connected except the one in New Kent. ...' If they have compelling information to believe that, OK, so why hasn't an arrest been made? They all seem to have this belief that the cases are connected ... except for the one that they're working on."
"I'm afraid VSP has nothing new to add to our two investigations," says Corinne Geller, public relations officer for the Virginia State Police. "Both remain ongoing and active investigations." She added that the state police "has never definitively stated that the four double-homicides or even the New Kent County and Isle of Wight County double homicides are connected."