Colonial Parkway Killer

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Colonial Parkway Killer
Victims 8
Span of killings
Country United States
State(s) Virginia
Date apprehended

The Colonial Parkway Killer was an apparent serial killer believed to have murdered at least eight people along the Colonial Parkway of the U.S. Commonwealth of Virginia (or nearby) between 1986 and 1989. During that time, three couples were murdered and one couple is missing and presumed to be dead.

The book All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell is loosely based on the killings.


First couple[edit]

The first two known victims were United States Naval Academy Class of 1981 graduate Cathleen Thomas, 27, and College of William & Mary senior Rebecca Ann Dowski, 21. On October 12, 1986, their bodies were found inside Thomas' white 1980 Honda Civic along the Colonial Parkway.[1] An autopsy found rope burns on their necks and wrists, signs of strangulation, and their throats had been slashed, and diesel fuel was poured over the bodies and the car but apparently failed to ignite. Their purses and money were found inside the car. It appears that Thomas may have struggled with her attacker. A clump of the hair was later captured by her fingers. Both women were fully clothed and there was no evidence of sexual assault.

Second couple[edit]

On September 22, 1987, David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, were found shot to death in the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge, on the south shore of the James River in Isle of Wight County, near Smithfield, Virginia. Knobling's black Ford Ranger pickup truck was found at the refuge parking area with the wipers and radio on and some articles of clothing inside. Three days later, the two bodies were discovered by his father and a search party along the water's edge.

Third couple[edit]

On April 9, 1988, Christopher Newport University students Cassandra Lee Hailey and Richard Keith Call were reported missing after attending a party in the University Square area in Newport News during their first date together. Call's red 1982 Toyota Celica was found, unoccupied, on the Colonial Parkway the next day with some articles of clothing inside. Neither body has been found, but both are presumed dead.

Fourth couple[edit]

On October 19, 1989, the bodies of Annamaria Phelps, 18, and Daniel Lauer, 21, were found in New Kent County by hunters in the woods near a rest area on Interstate 64 between Williamsburg and Richmond. Phelps had been dating Lauer's brother at the time they went missing on September 5 when they vanished on route to Virginia Beach. The hunters discovered the bodies on a logging road about a quarter-of-a-mile from Courthouse Road, a location about a mile from the I-64 New Kent rest stop where Lauer's gold 1972 Chevrolet Nova had been found heading in the wrong direction, away from their intended Virginia Beach destination. At least one of the badly decomposed bodies appears to have suffered knife wounds.

Television broadcasts[edit]

In 1996, the unsolved case of the Colonial Parkway Killer was presented on national television on the program Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, a series that aired from 1993-1999. Actor Steve Altes portrayed the killer.

In 2007, the disappearance and presumed murder of Cassandra Hailey and Keith Call were featured in the Investigation Discovery program "Sensing Murder," whereby investigators brought in psychics Pam Coronado and Laurie Campbell to gain new insights into the crimes. The show mentioned that this disappearance may be part of the Colonial Parkway killings. Psychic Pam Coronado felt that the killings were all related but that the location of the cars were not where the actual violence occurred.

In 2013, the Colonial Parkway Murders were profiled in the Investigation Discovery television series "Dark Minds" with host and true crime author M. William Phelps.

Assistance of Spingola[edit]

In June 2010, the victims' families requested the assistance of a retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective,[2] Steven Spingola,[3] an investigator with a national reputation for excellence.

After visiting the crime scenes, Spingola spoke with a handful of family members, tipsters, and law enforcement veterans. In August 2010, Spingola released Predators on the Parkway: a Former Homicide Detective Explores the Colonial Parkway Murders, a 29-page magazine article that detailed his findings.[4]


Spingola ascertained that the murders are the work of different killers, especially the slayings of Cathleen Thomas and Rebecca Dowski. The former homicide detective believes the Thomas-Dowski crimes are directly linked to the deaths of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams who were found with their throats slashed in the Shenandoah National Park, 180 miles west of the Colonial Parkway, in 1996.[citation needed]

After Spingola's team of investigative journalists, known as the Spingola Files (SF), after their Web site's online moniker,[5] visited Yorktown, Virginia, a family member of one of the victims searched the belongings of her deceased relative. A note was discovered that may identify a possible person of interest in one of the couple-homicides.[6] While the Virginia State Police claim the information in this note was previously examined, one of the lead investigators at the time of 1989 murders told a television reporter from WAVY that he could not recall such a note.[7]


Spingola's lengthy magazine article has its critics. A family member of one of the victims claimed the former detective sought to profit from his writings. In Predators on the Parkway, Spingola also described the vehicle of the possible person of interest mentioned in the recovered note, which a family member of a victim dubbed "irrelevant" to the overall investigation.[8] But Spingola and his SF staff insist that the note found in a victim's belongings is "very significant"[9] and that the proceeds from Predators on the Parkway are used to off-set costs associated with records requests and travel to explore other unsolved homicides.[10]

2015 Fiction Book based in the Colonial Parkway Case[edit]

In June 2015, author Renee MacKenzie released "23 Miles" a fictional account based the Thomas/Dowski murder, the first of the Colonial Parkway Murders.[1]

Investigation status[edit]

In September 2009, after the story broke on CBS News affiliate WTKR that graphic crime scene photographs of Colonial Parkway murder victims were used inappropriately to instruct a class by a retired and now deceased former FBI photographer, the FBI reopened its investigation of the Colonial Parkway murders.[11] WTKR Reporter Mike Mather and investigators soon found that much of the evidence, stowed for over two-decades, had yet to be tested for DNA and other trace evidence. Responding to the resulting media and family member criticism, a team from FBI Norfolk and FBI Headquarters met with the victims' families in January 2010.[12] Dozens of pieces of evidence were then submitted to the FBI Quantico crime lab for DNA and other trace analysis. The FBI reportedly told the victims' families that the results of some of the DNA testing should be available in the latter part of 2010. Testing of crime scene evidence and interviews of suspects have continued through the fall of 2015.

As of fall 2015, the killer or killers have not yet been identified. Investigators have speculated that the suspect might be a law enforcement officer, a National Park Service Ranger or someone impersonating one, or perhaps a rogue operative from the Central Intelligence Agency, which has a training facility nearby at Camp Peary in York County. Other investigators believe the killings were committed by more than one person working as a team.


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