This is my third 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.
As a bit of preface, my co-author and I were able to interview seven of the eight families of the Colonial Parkway Serial Killings. Each and every one of them suffers a unique agony over the loss of their loved ones. Almost every person said the same thing (or a variant of this). “At least we know what happened with our loved ones. The Call’s and the Hailey’s don’t have that.” Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey have never been found. After nearly three decades, the assumption exists that they are dead. We tried to avoid saying that in the book or out loud to the family members. To us, we prefer to think of them as missing though we humbly acknowledge the reality.
Keith and Cassandra went out for their first and only date on April 9, 1988. Keith had been in a serious relationship for years and he and his special woman were taking a short break apart. This was not a romantic, head-over-heels-in-love date between Keith and Cassandra. They knew each other from Christopher Newport University where they both attended. The two went to an off-campus party until around 1:45am. They left together in Keith’s car. Most of the evening they didn’t even hang out with each other according to attendees at the kegger.
The next morning Keith’s car was found on the Colonial Parkway just north of Yorktown, Virginia. The vehicle appeared abandoned. In the back seat was most of their clothing, two empty beer cans, and the keys were left in plain view in the car. There was no sign of Keith or Cassandra. There was no clue as to where they went. Just an empty red Toyota Celica.
We visited the crime scene with that in mind. When you come onto the Colonial Parkway at Yorktown, you drive a short distance to arrive at the first half-moon shaped turnoff where Keith’s car was found. It is along a gentle curve, so that headlights would bath any vehicle parked there. It has been a few decades since I parked with a young woman in a car, but this was not the place for it. For that kind of activity, you want some degree of privacy. The headlights would have made that impossible. My co-author daughter and I shared awkward mutual experiences as we stood there in the darkness of early evening. The FBI’s early view that they had been there for romance didn’t make sense, on many levels.
When you look out over the York River, you can see the Navy dock jutting out in the distance to the north. Trees surround the sight today, as they did then. The low rumble of the Colonial Parkway announces the presences of any approaching vehicle. Anyone committing this crime would have been best to walk to mile or so south and exit the park. Like every other area of the drive, it is confined space – it limits where you can get in or out. This similarity with the other two crime scenes is difficult to ignore. From the murderer’s perspective, this place offered a physical degree of control. The Colonial Parkway killer is all about control.
The comparisons of the location to the first pair of Colonial Parkway Murders are hard to ignore. In fact, if you weren’t familiar with the locale, you could be standing in either spot and not know which one you were at.
This crime scene was different though. There were no bodies, only clothing. The National Park Rangers actually put forth that the pair may have gone skinny dipping. Victoria (my co-author and daughter) and I walked to the edge of the parking area and looked down to where they would have had to go. If you could, in the dark, make your way through the tangle of growth, it was a 10-15 foot decent to the icy waters of the York River. I doubt I could have done it in broad daylight. The weather the night of their disappearance had been in the low 40’s. Keith and Cassandra had not even held hands at the party, let alone demonstrated amorous behavior to where they might go skinny dipping together. It was a preposterous claim that defined common sense.
The NPS (National Park Service) had a lot of reasons to offer distractions. They had ruined the crime scene – something we spend some time on in the book. The FBI found out about the incident on the radio news the next day. The news media and rangers had tromped around the crime scene so much that it was difficult to obtain good evidence. Footprints and tire prints were corrupted or utterly destroyed. It was a mess.
The crime scene itself should have been a clue. It was two years and one mile from where Cathy Thomas and Becky Dowski had been found. Common sense should have come into play. Of course it is easy for us to look back at this in hindsight and armchair quarterback the series of mistakes that took place. Was the NPS trying to downplay the finding of the car, and as a result, corrupting the crime scene?
On a separate trip I walked from the crime scene north to Indian Field Creek. Search dogs had allegedly tracked Cassandra Hailey’s scent north along the parkway to the creek – then the trial ended. Keith’s scent ended before the creek. I tried to picture them, afraid, a weapon held on them, naked, being marched into the night.
I found that image hard to believe during my visit and I do still. You are on a parkway, with no cover, and you walk a half a mile with a naked couple, supposedly to kill them? Any vehicle coming on the parkway would have seen the killer and his victims in their headlights. Perhaps the murderer took their clothing with them driving north and threw it in the creek. Why north though? The shortest exit was to the south. It didn’t make sense. My co-author agreed. “The parkway always has traffic. Even Keith’s brother (Chris) was driving it that morning. Someone would have seen them.”
The search dogs detected a dead body in the York River and one was found, but it was neither of the missing youth. It was merely a disturbing circumstance. The river was thoroughly searched and no sign of either victim was found.
One my first interviews was with Major Ron Montgomery of the York County Sheriff’s Department. He said something that burned in my head. “They were never on the parkway.” He said the car was dumped there. I think Ron was right. Whatever happened to Keith and Cassandra, at least in my mind, didn’t happen there on the parkway. Ron had encouraged me to walk the area and with good reason – I quickly came to his thinking.
Keith had left the party to try and get Cassandra home around her curfew at 2:00am. He was only a few minutes from her house, well short of the parkway. Whatever happened to the two of them happened between Christopher Newport and Cassandra’s house. There is another crime scene out there, one that has not been found yet.
Law enforcement kept its focus on the parkway though, harboring the illusion that these were kids that had gone there to do what kids in their early 20’s do. It doesn’t add up though. Both Keith and Cassandra didn’t like going to the parkway after dark.
The FBI and NPS conducted searches for Keith and Cassandra along the parkway. The lack of information as to the actual crime scene leaves them with little alternative. The families also have tried to organize their own searches of the parkway. These have been met with a cold shoulder from the NPS. The Park Service is worried that teams out with cadaver searching dogs might disturb the park’s plants and animals. It is appalling that they have treated the families as disruptions to the wildlife rather than victims.
Keith and Cassandra’s disappearance did one positive thing – it drew a connection to the Dowski/Thomas murders. The press arrived at that connection long before law enforcement. It drew attention to the cases; not as isolated murders but a pattern. Soon the experts in criminal behavior saw the connection between these two cases and that of Knobling/Edwards at Ragged Island. Like at Ragged Island, the killer had left Keith Call’s vehicle staged for theft. This was possibly done to further throw-off the authorities chasing car thieves rather than the true killers.
There was one thing that the crime scene did give us both, a sense that in this case, the murderer left the least amount of evidence. With no mortal remains, there was no way to determine the cause of death or other vital information that could have helped the case. The killer was learning, evolving. He was not making it easy for authorities. It was not the perfect crime, some evidence was left behind. In some respects the murderer was aided and abetted by the bumbling of the NPS.
When the twilight came and Victoria and I surveyed the road, letting the headlights of cars douse us, we understood the significance of this crime scene. It was after the disappearance of Keith and Cassandra that these crimes became known as the Colonial Parkway Murders. This would spurn media attention and with that, police attention. A task force was formed between the Virginia State Police and the FBI. Information was shared. The people of the Tidewater region understood they had a serial murderer stalking the killing in their midst.
It was small solace to the Call and Hailey families. Each passing day was another in an unending vigil for closure.