COLONIAL PARKWAY — Shortly before sunset on Oct. 12, 1986, a jogger spotted a small white car hung up in brush at the edge of the York River, hidden from nearby traffic.
Authorities responding to the presumed accident instead discovered a slaughter: The bodies of Cathleen M. Thomas, 27, and Rebecca A. Dowski, 21, their throats cut, were inside the 1980 Honda Civic that had been pushed down the embankment by a killer or killers.
During the next three years, three more young pairs would be slain or disappear in the region — unsolved crimes that may or may not be related but that nevertheless have come to be known as the “Parkway Murders.”
Thirty years later, the victims’ families still hunger for answers.
On a sunny day in August, Bill Thomas, one of Thomas’ brothers, stood at the river where his sister’s car was found and said he was hopeful the murders will be solved.
He is determined that his sister, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, will not be forgotten.
“I left flowers here the other day for her,” Thomas said. The wooded far shore was visible over his shoulders. Day sailers and crabbers drifted on the water.
“It’s really kind of heartbreaking that this beautiful place, this ribbon of parkland along these two rivers with these great views, also has a dark side,” he said.
Attention on the cold cases grew white-hot seven years ago, when it was learned that 78 photos of the crime scenes had leaked out of the hands of law enforcement and into the public.
The surfacing of the photos, many of them graphic, first was reported by WTKR, a Hampton Roads television station. The black-and-white and color images include depictions of bullet holes and stab wounds, bloody clothing and vehicle interiors.
The renewed media attention was leveraged by Thomas, a labor executive in Hollywood, Calif., and other upset relatives of the victims into fresh attention from the FBI and Virginia State Police.
It also led to new and ongoing DNA testing of evidence in the cases, a forensic technique largely unavailable 30 years ago.
But if the new lab work thus far has been productive, no one is saying — and if there is a forensic link between any of the crimes, authorities have not revealed it.
The crimes all happened on three-day holiday weekends. Some theorize that a person in law enforcement or someone posing as a law enforcement officer was involved in some if not all of the attacks.
Experts who have looked at the cases disagree on whether the same killer or killers are responsible for all of the deaths — presumed deaths in two cases — of the eight young people.
Thomas and Dowski were the first to die.
- A year later, the bodies of David Knobling, 20, of Hampton and Robin Edwards, 14, of Newport News washed ashore on the James River at the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge in Isle of Wight County, on Sept. 23, 1987.
Each had been shot in the back of the head. Knobling’s pickup truck was found nearby at the foot of the James River Bridge.
- Then at daybreak on April 9, 1988, a national park ranger found an unoccupied car at an overlook along the Colonial Parkway a few miles east of where Thomas’ car was found.
The 1982 Toyota Celica was owned by Keith Call, 20, who left Gloucester County the previous night to pick up his date, Cassandra Hailey, 19, of York County.
It still is not known what happened to Call and Hailey, who attended what now is Christopher Newport University in Newport News.
- Finally, on Sept. 5, 1989, police found a car abandoned at the westbound Interstate 64 rest stop in New Kent County, the keys still in the ignition.
A month and a half later, hunters found the remains of Daniel Lauer, 21, and Annamaria Phelps, 18, both of Amelia County, along a logging road in nearby woods. They had been on their way to Virginia Beach.
With three of the victims teenagers and the rest in their 20s, the crimes now have gone unsolved for a longer period than any of the victims lived.
The FBI is investigating the four slayings along the 23-mile parkway — Thomas and Dowski, and Call and Hailey (missing and presumed slain) — which is federal property. State police and local agencies are investigating the other four — Knobling and Edwards, and Lauer and Phelps.
Bill Thomas’ trip to Williamsburg in August from his home in Los Angeles was his first to the parkway.
While in Virginia, he spent a total of nine hours in two meetings with the FBI, visited all four crime scenes, and was interviewed by a dozen media outlets in anticipation of the 30th anniversary.
He said questions that need to be asked of investigators include: “Where are you on this investigation? What’s the status of the new tests? Do you have any suspects in mind? Are you actually putting resources into the case?”
Answers from spokespeople for the FBI and state police to the news media have not changed a great deal over the decades.
Corrine Geller, with Virginia State Police, said her agency is working with the FBI and local law enforcement on the double homicides in New Kent and Isle of Wight counties.
“We still get leads from time to time and pursue those,” she said, but she could not comment further because they are ongoing investigations.
Christina Pullen, with the FBI in Norfolk, said, “We are continuing to look at the evidence and the information in the file and just applying new science to old evidence.”
“I think the bottom line is, it is an active investigation,” Pullen said.
Neither agency is willing to say more.
Larry E. McCann, a retired profiler for the state police, believes that is a mistake. If the state and federal investigators were more forthcoming about the killings, they might shake something loose, he said.
“Yeah, it’s still an open case, but 30 years old? Come on, if we haven’t got the offender by now, let’s just go ahead and give it another push. ... Go ahead and talk to the media,” McCann urged investigators.
McCann, who now works for The Academy Group Inc., a Manassas-based forensic behavioral science company, said his philosophy is that the window of opportunity to solve a case may come close to closing.
“But after five years, that window springs wide open again,” he said. “So I tell guys, ‘Work it real hard. After a year, if you don’t have any ideas, just set it on the shelf and five years later unwrap it and redo the whole thing, because the bad guy may be in prison and now people are not afraid to talk. Or he’s dead and they’ll talk.”
McCann explained, “Alliances and allegiances change. (There is) nothing like a scorned wife, and second best is a scorned girlfriend. You go talk to wives and girlfriends years later and they’re not the wives and girlfriends anymore, and they don’t mind talking to you. So the window of opportunity never closes.”
Are the crimes linked? McCann said: “I’m still in the same place I was 25 years ago. I’m still seeing them as related.”
Others disagree. Some inside and outside law enforcement — including the FBI, initially at least — see strong similarities between the Thomas-Dowski killings and the unsolved May 1996 slayings of two young women camping in Shenandoah National Park. Both couples were lesbian and had their throats cut.
Relatives of the Parkway victims contacted for this story unanimously hope the crimes will be solved, but not all of them are sure it will happen.
Joyce Call Canada, Keith Call’s sister, said, “Keith was really a pretty darn good kid. He was loving, cared for family.”
“Our family would love to have a resolution,” she said.
Jennifer Phelps, sister-in-law to Annamaria Phelps, said, “We actually talked to the state police a couple of weeks ago. They’re actively working some leads, so we’re very optimistic that we’ll have answers.”
“I feel like for my husband and my sister-in-law’s sake — well, really the whole family just wants to know what happened to their loved one,” she said.
Phelps said, “There’s only so much closure you can have because they are gone. But to put the right person behind bars so they can’t hurt anybody else I think would be our ultimate goal.”
Michael Knobling, brother of David Knobling, also wants the killer or killers caught but is not optimistic it will happen.
“We lost hope years ago. In my opinion, about the only way it’s going to be solved is somebody’s on their deathbed and knows something and wants a clear conscience,” Knobling said.
Knobling said his older brother “kept up with a bunch of friends from the old neighborhood and their parents. He was just a really nice guy. He would do anything to help anybody out — a loan-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy.”
Robert Dowski, brother of Rebecca Dowski, said, “Well, after 30 years, it’s hard to be hopeful but, yeah, sure, you’d like them to be solved.”
“I’ve stayed in touch with the authorities through Bill Thomas,” Dowski said. “The FBI reached out to all the families (seven) years ago, giving us an update but recently has not said much.”
Dowski was 11 years older than Rebecca, who was the youngest of five siblings and a student at the College of William & Mary at the time she was killed.
He visited her when she was attending high school in Paris. “She was very much into sports. She was very athletic, very outgoing. Great kid,” he said.
“I left home when I was 18 to go to college and never went back and really hadn’t seen her a lot. She was supposed to come to my house in Atlanta that year for Thanksgiving and obviously never made it,” said Dowski, who now lives in Colorado.
Thomas is upbeat about law enforcement prospects.
“We’re feeling more optimistic about the case than we ever have before. The FBI is still sending samples in for testing. We’re excited about the new tests,” he said.
He conceded that the pace is sometimes frustrating. Violent crime investigations, for instance, are of less priority with the FBI than combating terrorism, Thomas said.
The bottom line, he said, is that the FBI needs more resources.
Cathleen Thomas graduated from the Naval Academy in 1981 in just the second class with women to graduate.
She had to hide her sexual orientation, Bill Thomas said. At the time, gays were not permitted in the Navy.
By 1986, she had left the service and was working as a stockbroker in Virginia Beach.
She and Dowski last were seen on Thursday night, Oct. 9, 1986, when they went out to get something to eat. The car was not found until that Sunday, 2½ days later.
In August, standing near the spot where Cathleen’s car was found, Thomas said, “I’ve never been here at night. I’m told that it’s extremely dark, there are no streetlights. So I get the idea if you were a young person and wanted to be alone, this might be a great place to go.”
Authorities believe they were killed outside the car and then placed back inside.
Thomas was in the small hatchback area, and Dowski in the rear seat. There were indications the women had been tied up.
In addition to cut throats, the two also had been strangled, and diesel fuel or kerosene had been poured on their bodies, apparently in an attempt to set the car on fire.
Thomas said, “The not knowing is really troubling. We’d like to know what happened and why. I’m not saying I’m going to be satisfied with the explanation when the family gets it, but we’d still like to know what happened that night and the why.”
Asked if he would like to see justice meted out for the killer or killers, Thomas said, “I reserve the right to change my mind if we ever had someone to focus our attention on, but that doesn’t resonate with me now.
“People have asked me about closure, and I don’t think there is such a thing because you’ve still lost your loved one — whether they’ve died from natural causes or they’ve died in this terrible way,” he said.
“I think you kind of incorporate it into your life a little bit,” Thomas said. Nevertheless, “I believe in my heart of hearts this case can be solved.”