The Colonial Parkway is American’s narrowest national park, a thin ribbon of road snaking through the dense woods, swamps and coastlines of the James and York Rivers, linking Jamestown to Williamsburg and Yorktown. To the normal tourist the road is serene – it was designed so that signs of modern life were blocked, as if to simulate a road during the Colonial period. The handful of overpasses are red brick covered in moss in vines, harkening back in time. We had driven it a half-dozen times before undertaking the book on the Colonial Parkway Murders. After this book, we would never look at that stretch of road the same way again.
When you are true crime author like Victoria and I, you come to the scenes and drink in everything they can tell you. Sometimes it is not much, sometimes it is a great deal.
Cathy Thomas’s car was discovered nose down at this site, pushed off of the parking area in a vain attempt to get it into the York River. The undergrowth and angle of the car merely lodged it upright. The victims had been strangled with a nylon line and their throats had been cut, in Thomas’s case, a near decapitation. Additionally, Cathy Thomas suffered a knife wound on her hand – so there had been a struggle with their killer. Their bodies had been placed in the rear areas of Cathy’s Honda Civic and had been doused with diesel fuel. At the site there were matches found near the parking area where their murderer had tried to ignite the fuel but had failed.
When you pull off on the site where Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski’s bodies were found, a few things strike you. One, the space is relatively small. There are a number of these half-moon shaped pull-offs on the parkway. They can accommodate less than ten vehicles. This one overlooks the York River. When you push through the brush, there is a sheer drop of over ten feet to the water below. Back when their murders happened in October of 1986, there was no curb in the pull-off, nothing to prevent a car from drive off right into the river.
Victoria Hester – my co-author and daughter, joined me at the site where their car was found at twilight. To us, it was strange and creepy. The moment the sun started to set, the parkway seemed to transform. It became eerie, with long shadows stretching across the road. The trees lining the roads that had seemed so quaint in the daylight, now formed dark tunnels. We interviewed a number of people that told us that the visitors on the parkway at night were not the tourists. The parkway becomes seedier at night. Rumors bordering on legends abound of drug sales sites, wild drinking parties, homosexual sex spots, and lover’s lane activities abound with the locals, combined with rumors of stalker park rangers. Any such location was bound to have some local folklore tied to it.
Standing at the pull-off, you’re struck by the noise too. The Colonial Parkway is paved with a gravel to simulate a dirt road of the period. As cars drive by they make a low rumbling, almost a growling sound. You can hear a car coming for almost a half a mile. There are no lines on the road. When the darkness comes headlights angle on the gentle curves, exposing the parking areas, casting even more shadows.
I remember saying out loud to Victoria, “This isn’t where the murders took place.” She was not so sure. So I made my case there, where their bodies were found.
There would have been a lot of blood soaked into the rich Virginia clay, but there wasn’t any present at the pull off where the Honda was found. There were signs that Thomas’s car had been pulled off a few yards up the road, before the killer’s tried to set it ablaze, and failing that pushed it over the river embankment. Killing Cathy and Rebecca took time, there had been a life-and-death struggle with their killer. Time and risk of being seen are key factors on the parkway. Murder in this simple pull-off would have placed the killer under the glare of headlights of passing cars. Someone would have noticed two women tied up, with someone holding a weapon on them.
We tried to engage the first responders, the Park Rangers, who were called in when a jogger spotted the car. I wrote them letters, but heard nothing. After several months I called one of them. He wouldn’t get on the phone with me, but put his wife on. Sshe bluntly told me he was never going to speak with me and I should never contact him again. The second ranger I reached out to, told me that I was to, “stop harassing me.” A letter and single phone call hardly qualifies as harassment. One ranger I tracked down, who had given press conferences about the murders, said he didn’t have any memories of the events. Let’s be clear, murders in National Parks are rare – and on the Colonial Parkway, even rarer. Giving a press conference about a pair of murders would be one of those things you remember in your career because you may only get to do it once or twice. Convenient amnesia? We came to the conclusion that either they were being told to not talk to us or they didn’t want their own mishandling of the cases to be exposed.
As it turns out, both were right. That is a subject for another blog post.
The Colonial Parkway is a narrow tube – a funnel. If either victim tried to flee, where could they go? Up or down the parkway were the best options. Get off the road and you are in a mire of swamps, creeks, the York River, forest, and confusion. At night some of the gates are closed and locked, limiting access even more. If the victims were alive there, they were trapped.
Butting up to the Colonial Parkway is the Cheatham Annex, a Navy base that, in 1986, was storage for nuclear warheads. We reviewed the Navy security logs for the night of the murder, nothing was out of the ordinary. Also adjoining the Parkway is Camp Peary, better known as the CIA’s “Farm.” In other words and intelligence training facility where our spies and those of our allies learn their tradecraft. Of course the CIA denies the facility or its purpose.
Stepping away from the emotions that the crime site generates, we pondered the obvious. If the killer murdered them, how did he get away? He clearly had driven Cathy’s Honda. With the Honda pushed down the embankment, did their killer walk several miles along the parkway to get away. Clearly there had been another vehicle at some point, one carrying diesel fuel, but had the fuel been poured into the interior before it had been brought to the parkway. That seems unlikely out of fear that the fuel might ignite – the killer clearly didn’t know that diesel fuel has a higher ignition point than gasoline. Did the killer have a partner that drove him away? If he did walk out of the parkway at one of the exits, why hasn’t someone come forward who would have seen him? There’s no appreciable shoulder in many spots of the route. There are subdivisions and roads that come close to the parkway, but are obscured from sight. Walking cross-country at night would have been a risky, possibly treacherous undertaking in the dark, covered in blood.
The fact that their bodies were in the rear of the vehicle points to them having been killed somewhere else and Thomas’s car driven there. There is a larger, more secluded spot that could have been used, the Ringfield Picnic Area, less than a mile north. It has been abandoned and closed off for years, though recently some clearing was done in that area. On another visit to the parkway, Bill Thomas, Cathy’s brother, and I waded through the waist deep grass dotted with the remains of picnic tables and garbage cans. It was surreal, almost post-apocalyptic. Here, from the road, was a spot of complete seclusion. This was where lovers could park and do what young people do in cars. At the same time, here was the kind of place where such a heinous crime could take place and be done out of line of sight with the road. There were several such places on the parkway. Then again, we don’t know if Cathy and Rebecca were even alive at any point on the Parkway. They could have been killed almost anywhere. This was simply where their mortal remains were found. As much as you tell yourself that over and over, it is still an eerie place at twilight.
Victoria and I walked the pull-off end to end then wandered up the road for a distance in both directions, taking it all in, hoping that the ground might tell us something that the investigators overlooked. As the cars rumbled on by and their headlights hit us, we became convinced that, in this case, with these tragic deaths, the parkway didn’t hold the answers. The trees still there were gnarled mute witnesses to the disposal of the bodies and the bumbled attempt to burn the Civic, but not of the murders.
The answers we were looking for were not on the parkway. Not that night.
For more on the Colonial Parkway Murders, check out our upcoming book A Special Kind of Evil