This is my fourth in a series 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, covers these serial killings in detail. 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. I ask your indulgence as you join us as authors on these trips.
I made three visits to New Kent County to explore the crime scene where Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer met their untimely fates. Out of all of the crime scenes, this was one that I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding of. Some of it was personal. Some was that so many newspaper accounts seem to think of this pair of murders as separate from the others.
For background: On Labor Day weekend, 1989, the pair were on their way back from a short visit to Amelia County. Daniel and Annamaria were not a couple – they were friends connected by Daniel’s brother. Daniel was moving in with his brother Clinton and Annamaria was Clinton’s girlfriend. She had come back with Daniel to visit her family while he hastily packed. They set off back to Virginia Beach where Clinton and Annamaria lived, heading eastbound on I-64.
The next day Daniel’s Chevy Nova was found in the westbound rest area, parked with the driver’s side window half-down, keys easily accessible and a roach clip with feathers dangling from the window. There was no sign of the couple.
A search was made of the area by the Virginia State Police (VSP) and New Kent County Sheriff’s office, but no trace was found of the pair. The families held out hope that the couple would be found but it would be six weeks later before a group of turkey hunters came across their remains in the woods under an electric blanket that Daniel had packed in the car. They were just over a mile from where the car had been found, a testimony as to how badly the search had been conducted.
Once the bodies had been found the VSP did an outstanding job of processing the crime scene, but a long time had passed. Several clues were found that were important. One was a knife wound on one of Annamaria’s finger bones, proof that this fireball of a young woman put up a fight with her killer. Sadly it was a losing battle. In my mind I always hoped that she inflicted some pain on her assailant before she died. The second important clue, some 50 feet or so from the bodies, Annamaria’s locket with photos of her nephews was found.
While the crime scene was the farthest from the Colonial Parkway, it was a relatively short drive to reach the other crime scenes. Because of the distance from that Parkway, people always question whether it is tied to the others. I don’t. The criminal behavioral specialists from the FBI and the Virginia State Police didn’t either. This killing easily fit the pattern of the others, well, as easily as any of them fit together.
My first visit to the area, I explored the grounds between the rest area (which has been dramatically upgraded since 1989) and where the logging trail still exists where the couple had been found. Even looking at photos of the time, it was pretty evident that they had not been marched out to this spot in the middle of the night. Whoever murdered these two drove them from the eastbound rest area to the first exit, hung a left, drove them to the logging trail and back into the woods. Walking in the darkness that distance through that terrain would have represented a loss of control the killer needed over his victims.
My second visit was after I had stopped in at the West Point, VA, Tidewater newspaper. Their editors kindly allowed me access to their bound archives. I asked the editor there about the sheriff at that time of the murders. Her comment was, “If you want to contact him, swing by the New Kent Sheriff’s office and ask them.” Always trust your small town newspaper editors.
I arrived there and met with the Sheriff in the lobby. It was an awkward meeting, me popping in out of the blue. I told him I was writing a book on the Colonial Parkway Murders. He told me he had been a deputy at the time and had been a first responder at the crime scene. He also declined commenting on the case but agreed to pass on my contact information to the previous Sheriff. I was a little surprised. It’s been 30 years. I know the case is still open, but my questions were not about suspects, but about the crime scene itself. He was very professional, but to the point. I had to remind myself I dropped in on him unannounced.
The sheriff asked if I had been out the crime scene. “No, I was going to swing by there, after I leave here.” He gave me appropriate warning. “Well, that’s private property.” I told him I understood.
When I arrived at the logging road (fully intending to trespass) there was a deputy’s car parked some 50 yards further up the road, lights on. The deputy was standing outside the car and nodded in my direction as I parked along the road. The message was pretty clear to me. One, any venturing in the woods was not happening today. Two, this was a sheriff that knew this county and was pretty protective of his turf. Welcome to small town Virginia. I had been put in my place and I knew it. Message received kemo-sabe.
Then again, it could have been just a coincidence…
I went back with Victoria (my daughter and co-author) a few weeks later, two weeks off from Labor Day, so we could see the trail as it was at that time of the year. We went back into the woods (trespassing – for which we are sorry). We got back about 100 feet or so and Victoria let out of a “whoop!” The sound disappeared into the woods. “This place just absorbs the noise. Even if they called for help, no one would have heard them,” she said. She’s brilliant that way, using all of her senses to take in a crime scene. I like to think I raised her well, despite the fact we were technically breaking the law.
Chief Danny Plott, formerly of the Virginia State Police (now Chief of Police at Colonial Beach) gave me directions to follow during my interview with him. We passed two trail cameras and waved, what else could we do? We reached the spot where the crime scene was. Danny’s and Larry McCann’s interviews with us were incredible helpful since both had been there during the investigation. It was eerie being back this far on unfamiliar ground, surrounded by woods.
Very little had changed here over time. The logging road was a muddy trail leading back into the woods. Turning around would have been very difficult, you had to know where the wide spots were to attempt it and you risked getting stuck if you didn’t have four-wheel drive. When you stand on the logging trail and look back it is striking how similar it is to the Colonial Parkway. Isolated – a tunnel through the trees. Nature blocks avenues of escape. I cannot help but wonder, did the killer(s) pick this spot because it psychologically reminded them of the Parkway? Maybe he or they were trying to recreate their previous experiences.
We stood there a long few minutes and it became pretty clear that the killer knew the ground. This site had been chosen for a reason, not at random. It was isolated and provided natural control. This meant that whoever killed them knew the terrain, knew the area, and had scouted out this particular piece of ground or knew it from experience.
We walked out and at the entrance to the logging trail – on the correct side of the no trespassing signs, we pondered how this crime had unfolded. Testing of Daniel’s car tires didn’t show the dirt that he would have picked up on the logging trail, so the Nova was never out there. That meant that murderer drove them in his vehicle to the scene. The electric blanket was Daniels…so he either brought it with the victims, or as the VSP surmised, he went back for it to cover the bodies. At some point, the killer drove Daniel’s car from the east bound rest area, exiting and re-entering I-64 to abandon it in the west bound area. Then the killer had to get back his own vehicle in order to leave the area.
He left Daniel’s car staged for theft – just like he had with David Knobling’s truck and Keith Call’s Celica. The hanging of the roach clip on the window…the founder of the VSP’s Behavioral Science unit Larry McCann told us that was a taunt to authorities. He was rubbing the VSP’s nose in virtual poo.
This was Labor Day weekend and the highway would have been busy, even late night, between Richmond and Virginia Beach. How is it that no one saw all of this activity? Someone did. They just didn’t realize what they were witnessing at the time…that is the only logical answer.
I wondered about Annamaria’s locket. Danny Plott had told me they surmised that it had been cut off when she had been attacked, but the necklace itself had not been found. Danny’s theory made sense. At the same time I wondered…did the killer leave it there on the trail, perhaps out of guilt? Or did Annamaria deliberately leave it as a breadcrumb so that someone might find them? That locket bothers me to this day. It was separate from the bodies by some 50 feet or so. How it got there and why has awaken me several times from a deep sleep. What does it mean – if anything?
“You know,” Victoria said as we stood there looking back into the forest, “If the police had found those bodies that day, they would have had a lot of evidence. They would have known for sure what killed the pair, they would have had trace evidence – fibers, etc. I mean it was only a mile away. What kind of search did they do?”
“Not a good one,” was all I could reply. I thought back to Rosanna Phelps Martin Sedivy, Annamaria’s sister, one of the first family members I interviewed for the book. She told me how it had rained so hard during that six weeks while her sister’s fate was unknown and how the rain still depressed her to this day. All the while her sister’s remains were a mere mile or so from where Daniel’s car had been found. Rosanna really got to me that day.
Her anguish and pain pushed me through that moment at the foot of the logging trail in New Kent. “The bastard that did this needs to be brought down.”
“And hard,” she added, unconsciously patting the holster of her own CCP (conceal carry permit) sidearm.
She’s definitely daddy’s little girl…