This is my second in a string of blog posts designed to take readers to the crime scenes related to the Colonial Parkway Murders (1986-1989). Our book, A Special Kind of Evil, comes out on July 12. This material augments what is in the book with my personal observations and experiences in visiting these sites…a glimpse into the journey a true crime author goes on.
Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge is adjacent the James River Bridge on Route 17. On a map is seems benign enough. As researchers/authors, we had already started to form an opinion of the locale though. There was a seedy side to the site. There were rumors supported by newspaper accounts and our discussions with law enforcement seemed to confirm that the wildlife refuge was not a place that we should find ourselves visiting in the night.
My first visit there I went by myself during one of my many research visits to the area. My journey started in Newport News, the town of my birth, cruising on Route 17. Newport News is an eclectic mix of neighborhoods, some pristine, others much less so. Sometimes the line between these neighborhoods is little more than a street or a plaza built in the 1970’s.
As you cruise towards the James River, you hang a hard right on Route 17 to begin your trek across the James River Bridge. The bridge is 4.5 miles long. Most of it is just above the water, flat and long. Then in the middle of the river is the huge hump of the bridge, complete with small control house structures over the far tops. As you continue the drive your vehicle drops back down to just above the water level again to reach Isle of Wight County. Mentally you picture this journey in bad weather and cringe. There is a feeling of exposure on the bridge.
Arriving in Isle of Wight County I noticed an immediate change. Gone are the sea of plazas, apartments, and neighborhoods of Newport News. You are in the middle of brine water wetlands. The air had a river smell to it, that kind of humid aroma of plants and growth, not at all beach-like. On my solo trip I felt like I should be right at the refuge entrance but didn’t see it. I pulled over at a small war memorial to check my phone’s GPS. A road patrol person pulled in next to me, possibly thinking I might have a car problem. I greeted him warmly and thanked him. “I’m looking for Ragged Island.”
“You here for a blow job or to score some weed?” He said it seriously for a moment, then chuckled.
“Um no, but thanks. I’m looking into a pair of murders that took place there.”
He nodded. “That place has had a reputation for a while. Been that way since I was a kid.” He showed me that I was only 40 yards from the entrance. He departed with the words, “Take care.”
I pulled in and it was a trip through time. My only impressions of the area were through newspaper accounts and crime scene photos, and the site didn’t look very different at all. The parking area was where David Knobling’s black Ford Ranger truck had been discovered. The trees and growth were thicker, but the site looked almost the same as the crime scene photographs.
David Knobling had driven his brother and cousin and fourteen year old Robin Edwards out for a night of kid-based fun the night of September 19, 1987. David had been nineteen at the time. On their way back home it had started to rain. David’s brother and cousin rode in the back of the truck allowing Robin to ride up front. They spent only a few minutes together before David dropped her off.
Apparently they made plans to connect later on. Robin snuck out of her house and the pair met up. From that point on – the facts are subject more to speculation than detail. What is known is that on the following Monday, David’s truck was found in the parking area of the Ragged Island Refuge. Two more days later a jogger running along the beach at Ragged Island found Robin’s body. David’s was discovered a few minutes later. Both had been shot in the head. David had an additional wound in the shoulder. They had been found a mile from David’s truck, testimony to the failure of the police search.
When you stand in the parking lot, there’s not a lot of options as to how to get to the river. One is a direct roadway, parallel to the road that takes you right to the base of the bridge at the James River. The other is a raised wooden and gravel walkway that snakes through the bogs and tall grass of the refuge, twisting and turning to the river’s edge about a mile away.
My research told me that the walkway had been replaced at least once since 1987. My study of the shore maps showed me that erosion had taken away the exact spots where David and Robin had been found. From the photos I had obtained from the era the walkway was twisting and turning, just as it is now. There are no lights. To reach the beach in the dark would have been precarious. On top of that, it was raining heavily. If you stepped off the path more than a few feet you could be mired up to your knees in mud. I went out on the walkway and I have to admit, it creeped me out. It was a turning and twisting trail. You can’t see if someone is only 30 feet ahead of you at any point in time.
The Virginia State Police theorized that they were killed on the sandy banks of the James River, a beach area popular with the kids. Their bodies were shot at or close to where they were discovered. How did they get there? No flashlight was found. That trek in the dark would have been frightening, even if they were there to do what young people do in such isolated spots. It was raining that night, so there was no way they were down on the beach area for anything romantic. David had a girlfriend at home, one that had recently announced her pregnancy with his child. If David and Robin had gone down to that beach, it had been coerced with the barrel of a gun.
My focus shifted away from the beach to the other path, the roadway leading directly to the James River from the parking area. I walked down the roadway that led directly to the river, a few hundred feet. It is lined with trees on both sides. Along the road is a chain-link fence that is covered with a web of vines. At the end you can stand a few yards from the footing of the bridge. Vehicles passing you would not be able to see you. The lights from the bridge and roadway would have provided some degree of lighting in the middle of the night. I’m no criminologist, but this seemed to a more logical spot for a killer to perform his grizzly deed.
While I’m not expert, I looked for similarities in the between the first set of murders. Both paths where the victims were found or killed share one thing in common with the Colonial Parkway…they were channels, a funnel lined with trees. Did the killer choose this location because it mimicked the feeling of the Parkway? Nature provided the murderer control of the victims. This killer was about control. Whichever pathway David and Robin were taken, there was nowhere for them to go. They were hemmed in by nature, the swamp, the darkness, and a killer with a gun on them.
One theory that law enforcement had floated in the press was that someone could have killed the pair somewhere else, stopped on the bridge, and deposited their bodies over the side. They then would have washed up ashore. I don’t think so. There is no stopping lane on that long flat stretch of bridge, and the killer would have been exposed for a few minutes performing his gruesome task, under the lights of the bridge. Not only that, the people manning the structure atop the bridge would have possibly seen the car and assumed that it had broken down. The bridge is a magnet for accidents at night or during foggy periods, and it was raining hard the night that David and Robin were killed. No. No one stopped threw the bodies off of the bridge. This was one of those police theories that didn’t go anywhere.
When we went to interview the families of David and Robin, I took my coauthor/daughter Victoria to Ragged Island. The moment we arrived she noticed that the small visitor map had been blasted by a shotgun. We walked along the roadway/path along the bridge and at the end there were several bikers set up doing some fishing. Standing behind them, I told Victoria that this is where I think the killer would have done his horrible deed. “Going out on the walkway was too risky, too long, too much of a chance of losing control. This murderer is all about controlling his victims. Also I think murderers take the path of least resistance. This is a place you can get to easiest from the parking area, shoot your victims, push them in the water, and leave.”
Victoria nodded towards the fishermen. They could hear everything I was saying, casually talking about murders only a few feet behind them. None turned around and even gave us a glance. It was as if this was to be expected at Ragged Island.
We went back to the parking lot where David’s truck had been discovered. We didn’t know at the time that the vehicle had been staged, laid out as bait for someone to steal. That would come later that night when we met with some of the members of the Knobling family. We also didn’t realize that this was to be a signature of the killer going forward.
Victoria and I only explored a short distance down the wooden walkway to the waterfront. Night time was coming and we had people to meet with and interview. “The answers to this crime are not down there anyway,” I told her. We turned around and headed back to the parking area.
“This place is beyond creepy,” she replied.
It was hard to deny that.
If you missed my visit to the first crime scene, here’s the link: The First Crime Scene of the Colonial Parkway Murders
Other posts on the Colonial Parkway Murders The Anniversary of the Disappearance of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey
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