The Colonial Parkway is a beautiful stretch of highway which cuts through the Colonial National Historical Park in South-East Virginia. The Parkway is surrounded by woods and has far fewer entries and exits than a typical highway. A typically tranquil area, no one expected the Parkway to be the setting for a gruesome string of murders.
Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski
On October 12, 1986, a pedestrian saw a car down an embankment on the Colonial Parkway where it was obscured from the view of the road. They called a highway patrolman who arrived on scene to make the gruesome discovery of the bodies of two young women in the car. The two women in the car were identified as Cathleen “Cathy” Thomas, a 27-year-old graduate of the Naval Academy, and Rebecca Ann Dowski, a 21-year-old student at the College of William and Mary. The couple had been missing since the evening of October 9th after they had been seen leaving a computer lab. The two women had been bound with rope and strangled, and the killer had slit their throats so deeply that they were nearly decapitated. Rebecca’s body was found in the backseat of the car, while Cathy’s was found stuffed into the hatchback. There was no evidence of sexual assault. The police believed that the murders had happened elsewhere, and the bodies had been dumped in the car since there was not much blood in the car itself. They also ruled out robbery as a motive, since both women’s purses were still there, and no money or jewelry had been taken. The killer had tried to burn the car with gasoline but had failed to do so. The police investigated exhaustively, but eventually the case went cold.
David Knobling and Robin Edward
Things seemed to return to normal until September 22, 1987, when the bodies of another young couple were found along the bank of the James River in Virginia. The two bodies were David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, who had been missing since September 19th. They had met at an arcade earlier that day, and Robin had snuck out later that night to meet up with David. David’s car had been discovered in a parking lot by the James River Bridge. There were two pairs of underwear, shoes, and David’s wallet found in the car, which ruled robbery out as a probable motive. The driver’s side window was partially rolled down causing police to believe that the perpetrator had possibly been posing as or was some sort of uniformed officer. Both victims had been shot, Robin in the back of the head execution style, and David twice, once in the head and once in the shoulder like he had been running from the killer. Robin’s pants were partially rolled down, but police were unsure if there had been sexual assault since it was presumed that Robin and David had had some sort of sexual relationship. The murders had not happened on the Colonial Parkway, but police linked the cases due to the fact that both sets of victims were couples who had been killed at or around lover’s lane areas, and the two locations were only about a 30-minute drive apart. Once again, despite the best investigative efforts of the police, the case went cold.
Cassandra Hailey and Richard Call
Less than a year later another young couple went missing. On April 10, 1988, two Christopher Newport University students, Cassandra Lee Hailey, 18, and Richard Keith Call, 20, went missing after attending a party together in Newport News. It was the young couple’s very first date. A day later, Richard’s car was found at the York River Outlook off the Colonial Parkway, about 2 miles from where Cathy and Rebecca had been discovered. Almost all of the clothing Cassandra and Richard had been wearing was found inside the car, along with Richard’s wallet and Cassandra’s purse, again ruling out robbery as a motive. Despite extensive searches, their bodies were never found, and the couple was presumed dead.
Daniel Lauer and Annamaria Phelps
About a year and a half later, two more young people went missing near the Colonial Parkway. On Memorial Day weekend 1989, Daniel Lauer, 21, was driving to his brother’s house in Virginia Beach with his brother’s girlfriend, Annamaria Phelps, 18. On September 5th they were reported missing when their car was found abandoned at the New Kent rest stop on I-64. The car was found on the westbound side of the highway, the opposite direction of their destination, which confused police. It is unclear whether Annamaria and David pulled over and were killed at the rest stop or if they were killed elsewhere and the killer moved their car. Annamaria’s purse was found inside the car, once more ruling our robbery as a motive. Their bodies were found over a month later on October 19th by hunters on a logging road about a mile away from the rest stop. The bodies were covered in a blanket from Daniel’s car and were badly decomposed, which made it impossible to determine either the cause of death or whether there had been sexual assault. Even though the cause of death could not be determined, there were what appeared to be stab marks on Annamaria’s bones, suggesting she had been stabbed to death. Just like the other three cases, the case eventually went cold, and the killer was never brought to justice.
The police attribute these eight murders to the same killer because of similarities in each case. All of the victims were killed at or near their car, the first three being found at known lover’s lane areas. None of the victims were robbed, and sexual assault did not appear to be a motive in any of the cases. The first and third murders were mere miles apart, and the second and fourth were committed about a half hour away from the Parkway. However, some do not think these murders were the work of a serial killer, but rather by at least two or more separate killers. The differences in killing methods is something that is often pointed at, as Cathy and Rebecca were strangled and then had their throats slit, David and Robin were shot, and Annamaria and Daniel were presumably stabbed.
Detective Steve Spingola was asked to investigate the Colonial Parkway Murders as a private investigator. Spingola believes that the murders of Cathy and Rebecca are not related to the other murders at all and are, in fact, connected to another double homicide that occurred in Shenandoah National Park in 1996. Young couple Julie Williams, 24, and Lollie Winans, 26, were camping in the park over Memorial Day weekend. When they did not return home, they were reported missing. Their bodies were found on June 1st. They had been bound and gagged, similarly to Cathy and Rebecca, and their throats had also been slit. Spingola believes that the two sets of murders were hate crimes committed by the same perpetrator.
Despite theories that the crimes may not be connected, many still believe that the Colonial Parkway murders were the work of a serial killer. Over the years, police have questioned 150 suspects in connection to these four cases, but all have been cleared. In 2018, the Facebook page Colonial Parkway Murders, which is run by Cathy’s brother Bill Thomas, revealed that DNA had been found at 3 of the 4 crime scenes which could potentially conclusively link the cases and lead to an arrest. Hair that had been found in Cathy’s hand and a biological sample found on Robin have never been tested, but with advances in DNA technology and resources like GEDmatch, the families of the victims are hopeful they will finally get answers.