Colonial Parkway murders
Colonial Parkway Murders
Span of crimes
The Colonial Parkway Murders were committed by an apparent serial killer believed to have murdered four people along the Colonial Parkway in the U.S. Commonwealth of Virginia between 1986 and 1988. Two other double homicides that occurred nearby in 1987 and 1989 are believed to be work of the same serial killer. During that time, three couples were murdered and one couple is missing and presumed to be dead. All of the victims were found or disappeared along or within 40 miles of the Colonial Parkway. The historic highway that winds 23-miles (37 km) through the woods connecting Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown with its scenic vistas and sand beaches along the James and York Rivers and College Creek has long been known locally as a Lovers' lane.  All of the victims were in their teens and 20s at the time of their deaths and disappearances. The killer has never been identified, and his or her whereabouts remain unknown.
Suspects investigated over the years included a National Park Service ranger who was known to patrol the Colonial Parkway late at night, members of state and local law enforcement, an unemployed heavy equipment operator who was later convicted of rape and murder and sent to prison, a local waterman who had strange sexual fetishes, and Michael Nicholaou, a decorated U.S. Army veteran known to have been living in Virginia at the time of the Colonial Parkway murders. Nicholaou, a former helicopter pilot who was also a suspect in the Connecticut River Valley Killings, had in 1970 admitted to and been charged along with several comrades for strafing and killing 30 civilians during the Vietnam War but the case was later dropped. He received treatment from the Veterans Administration for post traumatic stress disorder for the remainder of his life and was known to abuse cocaine and alcohol, and later murdered his wife and step-daughter in Tampa, Florida. None of the suspects were ever charged and several, including Nicholaou, have since died.
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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, Columbus Day weekend, their bodies were found inside Thomas' white 1980 Honda Civic at the Cheatham Annex Overlook along the Colonial Parkway in Williamsburg, Virginia. An autopsy found rope burns on their necks and wrists, signs of strangulation, 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 as a clump of hair was later found between her fingers. Both women were fully clothed and there was no evidence of robbery or sexual assault. It was considered a murder.
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, approximately 30 miles south of the Colonial Parkway near Smithfield, Virginia. Knobling's black Ford Ranger pickup truck was found at the refuge parking area next to the James River Bridge with the wipers and radio on and some articles of clothing inside. Three days later, the two bodies were discovered by Knobling's father and a search party along the water's edge of the James River.
On April 10, 1988, Christopher Newport University students Cassandra Lee Hailey, 18, and Richard Keith Call, 20, were reported missing after seeing a movie and attending a party in the University Square area in Newport News during their first date together. Hailey had a 2:30 AM curfew and the couple was last seen at the party around 1:30 AM, giving them more an hour to drive the 8 miles from the party near the CNU Campus to her home in Grafton but they never arrived. Call's red 1982 Toyota Celica was found, unoccupied, at the York River Overlook on the Colonial Parkway around 7:00 AM. Nothing seemed out of place with most of their clothing including their underwear, shoes, Call's wallet and Hailey's purse inside. Call's eyeglasses and a watch were on the dashboard and the car keys were in the driver's seat. Several empty beers were also found in the vehicle. The Park Rangers who examined the abandoned vehicle believed the couple had parked at the overlook and removed their clothes to go skinny dipping in the river and drowned. Search dogs followed a trail that indicated that the couple left the car and headed towards the York River. Despite an extensive search of the York River and the area around the Colonial Parkway that resulted in the discovery of another body in the river, neither Call or Hailey have ever been found. Both are presumed dead.
On October 19, 1989, the bodies of Annamaria Phelps, 18, and Daniel Lauer, 21, were found approximately 30 miles west of the Colonial Parkway in New Kent County by hunters in the woods near a rest area along Interstate 64 between Williamsburg and Richmond. Phelps had been dating Lauer's brother at the time they went missing on September 5, 1989, Labor Day weekend, when they vanished en 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 earlier been found abandoned. To have entered the rest stop the car had to have been heading westbound on the Interstate, away from their intended destination. At least one of the badly decomposed bodies appears to have suffered knife wounds.
In 1996, the unsolved case of the Colonial Parkway Murders 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 Murders. 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 2008, E! Entertainment Television presented a full-length documentary, "THS Investigates Serial Killers on the Loose," which features a segment on the Colonial Parkway Murders.
In February to May, 2016, the Unsolved Podcast in Baltimore, MD did a four-part podcast series, each episode focused on one of the double homicides in the Colonial Parkway Murders.
In October 2016, there was extensive coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Colonial Parkway Murders, including an 8 part multimedia presentation by the Daily Press Newspaper.
In June 2010, the victims' families requested the assistance of a retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective and featured investigator on Cold Justice Steve Spingola, a detective with a national reputation for excellence. After visiting the crime scenes, Spingola spoke with 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.
Spingola proposed 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.
After Spingola's team of investigative journalists (known as the Spingola Files (SF), after their Web site's online moniker) 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. 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.
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 a possible person of interest mentioned in the recovered note, which a family member of a victim dubbed "irrelevant" to the overall investigation. But Spingola and his SF staff insist that the note found in a victim's belongings is "very significant" 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.
In September 2009, after the story broke on CBS News affiliate WTKR that nearly 80 highly graphic crime scene photographs of Colonial Parkway Murders 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. Former WTKR Investigative 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. FBI agents were reassigned to what had been a cold case, and dozens of pieces of evidence were then submitted to the FBI Quantico crime lab for DNA and other trace analysis. The FBI told the victims' families that the results of some of the DNA testing should be available initially the latter part of 2010. Testing of additional crime scene evidence and interviews of suspects have continued through 2017, and the Colonial Parkway Murders families have requested new forensic techniques be utilized.
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- Pardoe, Blaine Lee; Hester, Victoria (2017). A Special Kind of Evil: The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings. ISBN 9781942266990.