The Colonial Parkway Murders

A Virginia cold case from the 1980s gets some clarity with a fresh look at victimology and criminal profiling.

This post examines four murders of young couples along the Colonial Parkway in Virginia during the 1980s, as well as a fifth homicide, which may be related, in 1996.

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Timeline and Victims

  1. Cathleen ‘Cathy’ Thomas, 27 & Rebecca ‘Becky’ Ann Dowski, 21: October 12, 1986
  2. David Knobling, 20 & Robin Edwards, 14: September 22, 1987
  3. Richard ‘Keith’ Call, 20 & Cassandra ‘Sandy’ Lee Hailey, 18: April 9, 1988 
  4. Daniel Lauer, 21 & Annamaria Phelps, 18: October 19, 1989
  5. Laura ‘Lollie’ Winans, 26 & Julianne ‘Julie’ Williams, 24: May 24, 1996

Victim & Homicide Narratives

Cathy & Becky

The first victims, Cathy and Becky, were in a same-sex relationship long before it was socially-acceptable. Cathy, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, was known to be athletic and possess the inner strength to be amongst the first female graduates of the US Naval Academy at a time when this would have been very discouraged. Becky was a senior at the College of William and Mary. Cathy’s family was due to meet Becky for the first time over Thanksgiving. Cathy and Becky were last seen on Thursday evening, October 9, 1986.57f9ced98149d.image

Two-and-a-half days later, on October 12, 1986, Cathy’s car was found perched down an embankment on the Colonial Parkway in Virginia, facing toward the river, and obscured from the road. The first person who happened upon the scene was on foot and able to see the vehicle whereas cars driving on the road above would not have been able to. The passerby assumed a vehicular accident and alerted highway patrol who investigated. The highway patrolman assumed the same and broke the rear windshield of the car to gain access to the victims inside. He found a horrible scene.

Cathy’s body was crumpled in the hatchback section of her 1980 Honda Civic; Becky’s body was in the back seat with her legs draped diagonally toward the front seats. Both women were fully clothed. They had been bound at the hands and strangled with rope. The rope had subsequently been removed and taken from the scene by the killer but rope burns had been left on their wrists and necks. Their throats had been slit ‘beyond ear to ear’ — Cathy’s so severely that when her body was removed from the car, her head tilted back exposing her windpipe; she was nearly decapitated. Embedded in the back of her neck was a severed piece of the rope used to strangle her. The webbed area between Cathy’s right-hand thumb and pointer finger was ripped and there was bruising, as if she had put up a great struggle or been clawing at the rope around her neck. She had a clump of hair in her hand and there were orange carpet fibers found on her body. Cathy’s pocketbook was open, as if she had been preparing to get something from it. Nothing was stolen from the vehicle, both women’s pocketbooks had money in them, and an expensive gold ring remained on Cathy’s finger. The women showed no signs of sexual assault.

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Cathy Thomas, 27

Cathy’s car had been doused in diesel fuel (some earlier reports state it was kerosene), both inside and out, and it appeared that there was an ineffective attempt to light the car on fire. The women had post-mortem chemical burns on their skin from the diesel fuel. Cigarette butts and matches were found at the top of the embankment. Neither woman smoked. The car had been placed in neutral with the emergency brake released. It was then pushed down the hill toward the river where it became lodged in brush. The car was found less than 35 feet from the road.

David & Robin

It is presumed David and Robin were involved in some kind of sexual relationship, which would have been illegal at the time given the significant age difference between them (David was 20, Robin was 14). They had met earlier in the day at an arcade and then met again late that night when Robin snuck out of her house. They were found shot to death in the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge on September 22, 1987. David’s Ford Ranger pickup truck was found in the parking lot with the windshield wipers on, the doors open, the driver’s window halfway down, and the radio playing. There were a
few articles of clothing (2 pairs of underwear, shoes, and David’s wallet) inside the truck. Their bodies were found some distance from the truck.

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David’s car

 

 

David had been shot in the shoulder and then in the head. It appeared as if he had been running away from someone when he was shot. They were either shot while in the water or their bodies were put in the water and began to float toward the Atlantic Ocean. Robin’s clothing was disturbed and it is unclear whether this was the result of the water’s current, by the killer, or by David. However, given that her jeans were undone and her bra was pushed up around her neck, it is
unlikely the cause was the current. David was found only wearing his pants, no shirt.

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David Knobling, 20

David and Robin were not, technically, murdered on the parkway. They

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Robin Edwards, 14

were found closer to Smithfield, Virginia on the opposite side of the James River. They were the only couple who we know had been shot. They were not bound or gagged and they had not been stabbed with a knife. It is possible this is the same killer as with Cathy & Becky but that the killer lost control of this, the second, crime scene; David fled and was shot in the shoulder, followed by a kill shot to the head. Robin was shot in the head. Perhaps the killer was unable to follow through on his original plan when David and/or Robin fought back and fled his grasp.

Keith & Sandy

Technically, this is still considered a missing persons case, however, Keith & Sandy are

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Keith Call, 20

presumed dead. They were on a first date and were reported missing after leaving a party in the University Square area. Both were Christopher Newport University students. Richard’s red 1982 Toyota Celica was found along the parkway, unoccupied, on April 9, 1988, about 1-2 miles from the location of Cathy & Becky. There were some articles of clothing inside and Keith’s wallet was visible on the seat. Neither body has been found. It is possible that the killer learned from his mistakes with Cathy & Becky and David & Robin and perfected his method of control/killing and disposal of the bodies.

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Sandy Hailey, 18

Daniel & Annamaria

Annamaria was dating Daniel’s brother Clint. It is believed she may have also been intimate with Daniel. They went missing on October 5, 1989 and their bodies were found on October 19, 1989 by hunters in the woods near a New Kent County rest area on Interstate 64 (a major highway with 65 mph speed limit) between Richmond and Williamsburg. The couple had originally been en route to Virginia Beach. Their bodies were found on a logging road; 1 mile away, Daniel’s gold 1972 Chevrolet Nova was found headed in the wrong direction, facing northbound and away from their Virginia Beach destination. They would have been heading eastbound to get to Virginia Beach and had left in the evening to make their trip. The car was found in the westbound rest area, as if they had looped back and were heading back from where they came. It is unclear if the killer moved the car or if Daniel and Annamaria pulled over at the rest stop and were murdered there. However, it would have been possible for the killer to park his car at the eastbound rest area, drive their car to the westbound rest area, and then walk back to his car using the courthouse overpass which was less than a mile away — and where their bodies were found. It is unclear what purpose moving the car would have served for the killer, however, it did significantly delay finding their bodies. Annamaria’s purse and clothing were found in the car. Their bodies were laid side-by-side and covered with a blanket taken from Daniel’s car which was wet and covered with leaves. Some time had passed between when they went missing and when they were found. The bodies were so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine cause of death. However, Annamaria’s body appeared to show knife nicks on the bones.

Lollie & Julie

Lollie & Julie were in a same-sex relationship, which they kept private from the public as well as most of those close to them. The women had originally met on a camping trip and their love of the outdoors was one of the things that brought them together. Both were avid hikers, fit, and comfortable in the outdoors. The young women went hiking in the Shenandoah National Park on May 19, 1996. They were supposed to return to their summer jobs in Burlington, Vermont on May 28, 1996. Lollie’s golden retriever, Taj, was found wandering around the park alone, prompting a search for the women. Their bodies were found on June 1, 1996, at their campsite near Skyland Resort, one day after Julie’s father filed a missing persons report, and eight days after they were last seen on May 24, 1996.

Both women had been gagged and their wrists were bound with duct tape. Some of the duct tape used to bind them had previously been placed over Julie’s mouth. Julie’s ankles were bound with duct tape; Lollie’s with long johns. Both women’s throats had been cut with such force that they were nearly decapitated. Both women were partially-undressed. Lollie’s body was found inside their tent, her mouth still sealed with duct tape. Julie’s body was in a sleeping bag that appeared as if it had been hurtled face-down toward a nearby creek. There was no apparent evidence of sexual assault and no semen was found at the scene or on the women’s bodies. Rain had fallen since the women were last seen. As a result, the crime scene was sorely degraded.

Locations 

The Colonial Parkway

The Colonial Parkway is a scenic road that cuts through the Colonial National Historical Park of Virginia. Built between 1930 and 1957, it links the Virginian communities of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown — known as the Historic Triangle. The parkway is toll-free and only allows passenger vehicles and buses; commercial trucks and semis are prohibited. The speed limit is 35-45 mph. There are several pull-offs on the parkway, scenic areas where cars can pull over and admire the view.

All four places that the victims were found have a history of being a ‘lovers lane’ for couples to find a quiet and intimate spot. One picnic area, in particular, became so popular for cruising and intimate encounters that it is now closed to the public. It was open at the time of Cathy and Becky’s murder and is a far more secluded spot than the one where their car and bodies were found, less than a mile away. Some of these secluded pull-off areas might also have been used for low-level drug deals or for kids to party or use substances in private. They were not frequently patrolled by cops and would have ensured that the people parking there could be alone. There is visibility in both directions up and down the parkway so one could see vehicles coming toward them from either direction.

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Photo Credit: The Virginian Pilot

The parkway was described by Cathy Thomas’ brother, Bill, as “you’d have to know your way around, there is something odd about the Colonial Parkway. It’s very limited access, even more so than a highway. In a highway in the US, you get on and you get off and there are these exits. With the Colonial Parkway, it’s often quite narrow and it’s hemmed in by the river and there are these fences for these military installations that are quite close by. It’s kind of this narrow shoot and there’s a very limited number of ways to get on and off the parkway unless you have a key to these gates, which park rangers and folks like that would have. But, everybody else. It’s kind of odd. You get into the chute and you have a very limited number of ways out. I don’t want to get overly-dramatic but I did have the thought: it’s a little bit like a killing ground. You’re kind of fenced in, trapped. There will be a fence — 6 feet tall — somewhere back in the woods and then the river or a marsh on the other and it occurred to me that once you’re in you can’t get out until you go 3 or 4 miles further down to an exit.” This points to local knowledge. It also would mean that, while the victims had limited options for fleeing, their killer/s chose a quite high-risk area to commit the murders, one with limited means of escape should he or she be caught in the act. There is only one way out of the parkway. This may be part of what the offender enjoys — the thrill of the mousetrap.

Shenandoah Park

Skyland Resort at Shenandoah National Park is about 175 miles northwest of the Colonial Parkway. It is approximately a 3.5 hour drive between the two locations. The camping area where Lollie and Julie were found was isolated, near a creek, and had ranger access roads nearby.

Commonalities

  • All double-homicides of couples
  • All murdered in a National park area in Virginia
  • Most couples had a significant age difference and all involved a younger female
  • Two lesbian couples, three heterosexual couples
  • Cases #1 and #5: both athletic, young, lesbian couples, killed in a National Park, near a body of water, on a 3-day holiday weekend (Columbus Day and Memorial Day, respectively). Manner of death was similar aside from the victims in #5 being gagged and the car/diesel fuel in #1.
  • Slitting of the throat is actually a rather rare method of murder.

Differences

  • Cases #1 and #3 occurred on Virginia’s Colonial Parkway. Cases #2 and #4 did not technically occur on the parkway but nearby (one at Ragged Island and one on Rte. 64 in New Kent County). While these four cases are not in the exact same location, they are actually not very far apart either. Perhaps a half hour drive in either direction and if you consider that they were likely perpetrated at night, the traffic on the roads would have been light. Repeat offenders have been known to expand their preferred geographic location. Case #5 took place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
  • No forensics actually link any of the cases to date — only commonalities and profiling
  • Only in the first case are the bodies found with the cars. After that, the bodies and cars are found separately (or not found at all, as with Case #3). It appears the cars were moved in each case.
  • Two of the couples were same-sex (lesbian) and three were heterosexual
  • Cathy & Becky and Lollie & Julie were in committed relationships; the other couples were new to each other and had not been dating for long, if at all.
  • The murders of Lollie & Julie were 10 years after the murders of Cathy & Becky and 175 miles apart. It should be noted, however, that geographic distance and time separation are not terribly significant in criminal profiling if the behavior is near-identical.

Crime Scene Analyses

  • Cathy’s body was found in the tight, enclosed space of her hatchback. This indicates that the actual killings did not take place in the car. There simply wouldn’t be enough room for the killer to maneuver. This was a small, 2-door Honda Civic hatchback. It is highly unlikely the women were killed in the car and it is possible where they were found was the dump site and not the actual scene of the crime. Investigators believe there was too little blood in the car itself to indicate that the actual crime took place in the car in which they were found.
  • The killer may not have known that Cathy and Becky were brain dead after the strangulation, although their hearts were still beating, which caused him to then cut their throats. The cutting of their throats may have also been a ritualistic behavior — that the killer enjoyed ‘wet work’ and relished getting up close to his victims. Either way, cutting their throats was not necessary to kill them.
  • There was a clumsy attempt to light Cathy’s car on fire, which may demonstrate a lack of criminal sophistication. Diesel fuel requires a certain amount of heat to ignite which indicates that the killer either did not know this or believed he had grabbed a gasoline can but took a can of diesel fuel by accident.
  • There was some planning and organization to the crime: the killer brought all or most of what he would need to perpetrate the crime — a gun, knife, rope, fuel, matches, his own car or means of escape (boat is not outside the realm of possibility but unlikely).
  • Orange carpet fibers are often industrial in nature. The orange fibers found on Cathy’s body may have been from the killer’s car. They were not from her car, her apartment, or her family’s home. 150 partial prints were found on Cathy’s car, some of which may have been from the offender. The hair in Cathy’s hand may yield DNA evidence if it is tested.
  • The way Cathy’s throat was cut indicates that the killer was trying to ‘silence her forever’ — especially given that she had already been strangled and was likely unconscious. This may indicate hatred, rage, and punishment. It has also been suggested that placing Cathy’s body in the trunk of the hatchback may have been perceived as a further gesture of disrespect by the killer. It would have required some time and effort to put Cathy’s body in that small space. On the other hand, placing Cathy’s body in the trunk may have been logistical in that the killer had to get both women in the car and move the car. Either way, this was not a quick crime where the offender killed the women and left the scene quickly. Whoever committed this crime spent a great deal of time with the women in at least two locations. The savagery of Lollie and Julie’s murders may indicate a similar rage-filled hatred and symbolic punishing of the young women.
  • Cathy’s car was found at the second pull-off area with access to the river. The first pull-off also has access to the river but the ground is level with the water at the first pull-off which would have made it difficult to push their car toward the river as gravity would not have helped. It is possible the offender drove Cathy’s car to the second pull-off and then walked back to the first pull-off to get to his vehicle or boat.
  • All of the crime scenes indicate a very high degree of control. These were 10 young, healthy, fit people and, for the most part, it appears they complied with their killer’s perceived authority over them (except for David). Whether this is because the killer had a gun or was posing as law enforcement or both is unknown.
  • It is highly unlikely case #3 occurred in the location the car was found — it was too close to the road, too exposed. Case #2, on Ragged Island, it is secluded because the shadow of the nearby bridge which afforded some privacy. Case #4, in New Kent Country, is quite isolated and private and, while there is a road nearby, the area is very quiet and it is entirely possible the crime was perpetrated at the location the car and bodies were found.
  • In at least two of the cases, the driver’s window was rolled partially down. It is unclear which cases involve this detail but likely Case #2 at a minimum. It has been suggested that this is further evidence of a person posing as an authority figure or law enforcement may have been the perpetrator.

Offender Profile

  • Used a gun to control the victims and gain compliance — in order to control two people, the offender would need to have a gun with him. The lack of other injuries on the victims (head wounds, significant bruising, etc) also indicates this.
  • Most likely a single perpetrator given that there is no evidence of sexual assault. Some possibility of multiple offenders but this is less likely. If there was sexual assault, this would increase the likelihood of there being more than one perpetrator — to control the victims. The fact that each victim in each couple were killed in the same method indicates that both were killed by the same person. If there was more than one perpetrator, one would expect that one victim in the couple might be killed in one manner while the other victim would be killed in a different by the second killer.
  • Would be quite familiar with the Colonial Parkway area. None of these places are areas that someone would likely just “happen upon.”
  • The offender was very goal-directed and had deep rage either toward some of the victims or toward someone who the victims represented
  • The offender may have been stalking some of the victims, profiling their routines (especially Cathy/Becky and Lollie/Julie). However, this is less likely — if so, why not kill Cathy at her apartment or somewhere else more convenient (perhaps because the parkway was more isolated than Cathy’s apartment building or Becky’s college dorm)? It is more likely this is an offender who was stalking the GEOGRAPHIC AREA of the Colonial Parkway for victims that represented his intended target rather than stalking SPECIFIC PEOPLE .
  • Possible connection to law enforcement or National park service — this would tie the Colonial Parkway and Shenandoah National Park murders together. If involved in LE, the perp would also have inside knowledge of law enforcement practices as well as indications of patrols in the area. The offender also may have had access to exit routes off the parkway that civilians did not — with keys through the fences, etc.
  • May have posed as law enforcement to gain compliance. May have approached vehicles in the dark with a flashlight or their headlights on which would explain why Cathy’s pocketbook was open, as if she was preparing to retrieve her license. There is some suggestion that other crime scenes had similar indications that some of the victims appeared prepared to show ID to someone.
  • May have engaged in precursor activity in which he approached cars or couples but did not harm them. There were some reports at the time of precursor activity in which people were pulled over on the parkway by someone purporting to be law enforcement (it is unknown if these are urban legend or actual, verifiable accounts).
  • The killer was likely bold and felt ‘untouchable.’ The perpetrator moved at least some some of the cars from the actual kill-sites to the locations in which the cars and bodies were left. The killer also fired at least 4 shots at the second murder scene. The fact that the killer chose the parkway for two of the murders also suggests a certain confidence in what he was going to execute and where, given how high-risk the location was. The other murders were also high-risk in that they were done in public places, albeit with more means of escape for the offender. The fact that the killer chose couples and, in at least some of the cases, slit their throats also indicates a predilection for a certain ‘rareness’ to the type of crime and a certain confidence or criminal sophistication in order to overtake and control two people at once.
  • May have a seasonal aspect to the crimes (all of the murders took place between September and May; perhaps the killer was not in the area from June to August. If so, why?) — Virginia Beach vacation destination or hunting (three of the murders were in Sept/Oct)?
  • Likely had their own vehicle to get away. Perhaps a boat, but this is less likely. However, it should be noted that a boat would not have aroused suspicion as there are many fishing boats and other water vehicles on the river at all times. A boat would have also afforded the offender more avenues of escape and prevented visibility (no headlights, no engine running, etc, as with a car).
  • Mission Killings. From Laura: “They are all doing something in the offender’s eyes that is perceived to be a wrongdoing. This is more of a motivation related to payback, grudge behavior, revenge that would likely involve some kind of preparatory stalking.”
  • It is possible that the series of murders began as a hate crime against Cathy & Becky (for the perceived transgression of being lesbians) and that the subsequent murders were an attempt to relive the original crime. Other profilers have suggested that the offender was stalking for victims along the parkway and would have been satisfied with anyone committing a moral transgression such as public affection and it just so happened that his first victims were a same-sex couple.
  • The fact that the killer did not bury any of the bodies may indicate that there was no actual personal connection between the killer and the victims because it would be pretty high risk to spend the time necessary bury a body so the payoff would have to be fairly high in order to engage in that behavior.
  • Water burials are quick and may have been attempted in the cases of Cathy & Becky and Daniel & Robin. It may have been successful in the case of Keith & Sandy, after learning from his previous mistakes. It is possible he was interrupted — heard a noise or became spooked — in the subsequent two murders, thus preventing a water burial.
  • The offender may have been forced to change his preferred kill site because couples were no longer stopping at the pull-off Cathy & Becky used after their murder was made public. It might be important to place geographic significance on this first kill site (perhaps the picnic area or somewhere nearby) or the disposal site where they were found.
  • May have been male or female (no evidence of sexual assault or semen at the scenes). Most likely male.
  • Mixed presentation: may have been relatively organized — brought materials to the crime scene (especially for Cathy & Becky — the rope, knife, diesel fuel, etc) and took them away with him. The fact that he left some rope embedded in Cathy’s neck may indicate some disorganization or that he had difficulty controlling the crime scene, especially with two victims, and overlooked some details.
  • The rage directed at Cathy and Lollie/Julie may have been personal — Cathy may have known her killer. It may have been symbolic — about a woman that the killer was enraged at with the violence focused on these women. It may have also been a rage-induced overkill resulting in near-decapitation because the women struggled and this angered the killer. There are certainly indications that Cathy struggled.
  • While far-fetched, it bears mentioning that there were elements of ‘sin’ or ‘immorality’ with many of the couples killed — homosexuality (Cathy/Becky, Lollie/Julie), hebephilia (David/Robin), infidelity (Daniel/Annamaria). How the killer may have known this is questionable but it bears mentioning if these were in any way ‘mission killings.’ Because double-homicides are rare, it lends itself more to the possibility of a mission-oriented motive.
  • Motive is essential in these cases. When you consider the case of Cathy & Becky, the offender went to a great deal of trouble to commit this crime — to abduct them, subdue them, bind them, strangle them, kill them, place them in the car, move the car, attempt to light the car on fire, and push the car down an embankment. For there to not be a sexual or financial motive, we must consider other motives. This is not a robbery, sexual assault, or drug deal gone bad. This murder was about control, rage, and with an ultimate goal of killing the women in a very brutal manner. Was there a geographic motive? Was there a personal motive (someone who knew Cathy or Becky even tangentially or who used Cathy & Becky as surrogates for what they represented symbolically to them)? This leaves a motive of a potential hate crime or a grudge — either way, with a significant amount of intimate, personal rage visited upon the women.
  • Motive may have been more about the location and geography than about the actual victims. This killer may have relished setting a trap and preying on his victims as they fell into his web. He also may have enjoyed the thrill of some elements of the murders being high-risk (public locations, the narrow trap-like chute of the parkway, shooting a gun 4 times in Case #2, spending a great deal of time with his victims in various locations, etc).

Theory

  • Raped and killed woman with William and Mary ties, put to death two months prior to Cathy. Killed bc she was sun-bathing. Sin. retribution for his death? family of 12. owns land the parkway runs through. followed in his footsteps, completed his actions? cut from same cloth, same mentality, same genes, same childhood factors. abuse? cult? conservative.
  • Moral enforcer. sexual activity in a public place. articles of clothing. skinny-dipping perhaps? prob not, rainy misty april night in the 40s.
  • It is highly likely these crimes were committed by the same person. The chances that there would be two killers in this close geographic proximity who would target couples (which is exceedingly rare) and not rob or rape them is incredibly remote.
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