New Book Shines a Light on the Mysterious Colonial Parkway Murders
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."
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."