New Book Shines a Light on the Mysterious Colonial Parkway Murders
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Pardoe and Hester do solve some mysteries in A Special Kind of Evil, and their findings are not complimentary to police, particularly in the matter of the Call/Hailey disappearance. "The Park service found the vehicle first," says Pardoe, "and they took everything out of the car, contaminating the crime scene."
Keith Call's father, Richard, who traveled the parkway every morning on his way to work, saw his son's vehicle in the early morning of the disappearance and stopped to check it out. What he saw contradicted what the park service reported was in the vehicle.
"My father looked in that car, and there were no clothes, no items piled up like there were later," says Call-Canada. "We find out all these years later that the park service had taken the clothes out and threw them back in there when they realized that it was a crime scene. It's sickening. I know my dad, and he would never have continued to go on to work if he'd seen the clothes like that. He thought Keith had just run off with someone and left his car there."
"Law enforcement knew all about the [restaging] but nobody wanted to throw the park service under the bus," Pardoe says.
"In this day and age, to restage a crime scene just seems ridiculous," Hester says. "But in their mindset, it was, 'We have to put it right back the way we saw it.' And it was a mystery to the families why the dad stopped and saw the car that way. The father thought for so long that he had missed something. He was so obsessed with figuring out why he didn't see those things and went to his grave believing that. So to be able to tell the family, no your dad wasn't crazy; he really did see what he saw ... that was a huge moment in writing the book."
One of the most common misconceptions of the Colonial Parkway Murders is due to a 1992 book of fiction by writer Patricia Cornwell, All That Remains. It takes the bare bones of the four crime scenes—and especially the Lauer/Phelps case—and has protagonist Dr. Kay Scarpetta, track the killer down.
"In the public's mind, that book did a lot of damage," says Pardoe. "It left the impression that the murders had been solved."
The Phelps family unsuccessfully sued Cornwell for invasion of privacy. "It wasn't fiction. She basically used information from autopsy reports she got from the Richmond medical examiner's office and used them to write her book," Rosanna Phelps says. "My parents sued not because they wanted money but to say that this was wrong. And I do think that the book tampered with people's thoughts about the case."
Some of the families joined to form an organization called FFACT (Family and Friends Against Crime Today) to keep the investigations alive, but, as the years went on, according to Call-Canada, "it went cold, and we didn't get a response from police for such a long time." Then, in 2009, news broke that grizzly crime scene photos from the investigations were inexplicably used by a private security firm to teach crime analysis—"they were not for the pubic; they were taken from the files and should never have gotten out," says Pardoe—and it was also discovered that the FBI had earlier ordered the rape kits for the Dowski-Thomas murders to be destroyed.
The FBI, seemingly embarrassed by these revelations, met with the families and told them the bureau was still on the job.
Today, family members are in regular contact with the Virginia State Police and the FBI. "The last time I talked to the agent, I was told that they were using the most up-to-date technology available to them," Call-Canada says. Phelps adds that she regularly talks to police and trusts that they are doing their best, and Thomas retains regular contact with the FBI. "I think they are on the case, but we know that we are kind of low in the pecking order."
It was one of the most investigated cold cases in U.S. history, and yet Joe DeAngelo was never once suspected to be the infamous Golden Gate Killer. That is, until his arrest in April.
DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former policeman, was charged with multiple murders after California law enforcement matched decades-old crime-scene DNA with genetic material from a relative of DeAngelo's, obtained from an ancestry database. The unexpected arrest of one of the most sought-after serial killers in the country not only brought justice to a long-frozen investigation; it brought hope to cold case families across the country.
Call-Canada was ecstatic when she heard the news, which came two weeks after the 30th anniversary of the disappearance of her brother and Cassandra Hailey. "I'm just hoping with new technology that we'll be lucky enough, like the Golden Gate Killer case, to get something. I haven't given up hope after all these years."
After DeAngelo's arrest, the New York Times ran a story that asked, "Do Serial Killers Just Stop"? Apparently they can. After 12 murders and dozens of assaults, the Golden Gate Killer lived the last 25 years without apparent incident.
"For all we know, this person behind the Colonial Parkway Murders could have died long ago or left the country or never been tested for anything," says Hester. "Or he could've had a life change, gotten married, had kids."
"I think they are on the case, but we know that we are kind of low in the pecking
order." The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Virginia State Police maintain
that the eight murders that comprise the Colonial Parkway killings are still being
investigated, even after 30 years. Clip: The Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star. Clip above
left: The Daily Press.
Other than tapping into ancestry databases for possible matches—which presents its own set of problems regarding privacy issues—there is also hope in new technology. Thomas is impressed with the M-Vac system, which is 200 percent better in collecting "lost" DNA material than previous procedures. Last year, the Thomas family formally requested that the hairs found in Cathleen’s fingers be re-tested using new, advanced techniques.
That's only the first step, Hester says. "For DNA to be effective, you have to have someone of interest, someone to test against. The way DNA was collected in the '80s was different than now. There's protocol now in the way it is preserved and collected, and if it was collected sloppily, it may be contaminated."
"It depends on how much of the root is there and condition of the sample," Pardoe adds. "Hair is traditionally hard to test for DNA, and you really need to have the root—but the techniques that are available now would make that worth testing," says Pardoe, adding that there's physical evidence in not only that case but also two of the other cases.
"All you can do is hope something will break," says Phelps, who still mourns the sister, and best friend, she lost nearly 30 years ago. "You have to have hope."
A Special Kind of Evil: The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings by Blaine Pardoe and Victoria Hester is available through WildBlue Press. For more information, visit WildBluePress.com. For more information on the case, and to share tips, visit Bill Thomas' page for families at Facebook.com/ColonialParkwayCase.
The "Other" Murder
Several investigators, including Private Detective Steve Spingola, who was hired by the Thomas family to look into the slayings, think the first Colonial Parkway Murder isn't tied to the rest but to another killing in Virginia that occurred 10 years later. Laura ‘Lollie’ Winans, 26 and Julianne ‘Julie’ Williams, 24 were murdered in the Shenandoah National Park, 180 miles away, in 1996. The circumstances were similar to the Dowski-Thomas murder in that the incident involved a lesbian couple strangled with their throats violently cut.
Pardoe isn't so sure of the connection. "With the murders in Shenandoah, there was no staging of [crime scene]; they were killed in their tent and found there. Plus, the FBI clearly had a suspect in that case and good evidence for it, but their DNA evidence was thrown out and they dropped the charges. I think they have a very solid person in that case and know exactly what happened."