October 9, 2017, marks the 31st anniversary of murders of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski. This was the first of the Colonial Parkway Murders and that makes it significant on several fronts. In a recent WAVY poll, over 90% of the people believe that this string of murders are the act of a serial killer. If that is the case, that killer attempted to recreate events that led to the deaths of Cathy and Becky over three decades ago; duplicate that experience. It makes their murders more important to fully understand since it is the lighting of this fuse that led to six additional murders.
Cathy Thomas was a dynamic individual from what we have been able to ascertain. She graduated from the US Naval Academy in the second class that allowed women…making her one of the true trailblazers in the service. By almost all accounts she brought a vibrancy and vitality to those around her. Cathy wanted to be a surface warfare officer in a Navy that barely accepted females to begin with. She was a homosexual in the Navy at a time when that was considered a security risk. The Naval Investigative Services (today known as NCIS) probed her lifestyle and it was one of the factors that caused her to eventually leave the Navy. She became a stockbroker in civilian life and was already very successful in her new career.
Rebecca Dowski was a transfer student to the College of William and Mary. Intelligent and energetic, she had completed her high school years in France. She attended Dickenson for a short time and became a standout athlete there. During her summers she taught at a summer camp where the kids and the parents thought highly of Becky’s enthusiasm and leadership. Her parents divorced and that hit her hard but she never lost focus or her drive. She transferred to William and Mary to pursue a career in international business.
Cathy and Becky were introduced by Cathy’s former girlfriend and were in the early stages of a relationship. On October 9, 1986, they were last seen on-campus, assisting another friend on a computer homework project. Becky’s car was packed to go home over the fall break (Columbus Day). They left campus in Cathy’s car, presumably to get something to eat and to spend some time together before Becky left.
Their car was found by a jogger near the 9.5 kilometer mark on the Colonial Parkway along the York River on October 12. It had been pushed over the edge of the river embankment and was nose-down.
The Park Rangers presumed the white Honda Civic was a crashed vehicle and smashed the back window out to get to the occupants and rescue them. The interior had been soaked in diesel fuel. Cathy was in the hatch portion of the car, Becky in the back seat. There was blood everywhere. It became almost instantly clear that this was no drunken driven accident. Because the bodies were found on Federal land, the FBI was called in.
The murderer or murderers came with several implements of death. The victims had been strangled with a nylon line commonly used by boaters. Their throats had been cut by a very sharp knife, nearly decapitating Cathy Thomas. The killer had removed the rope with his knife, leaving a small piece of it in Cathy’s red hair. The murderer put the bodies in the back of the Honda and had driven it to the spot on the Parkway where it was found. Dousing the vehicle interior with diesel fuel, he had tried to light it…spent matches on the ground told that part of the story that night. Diesel’s higher ignition point negated that. Finally he had tried to push the Honda into the York River in hopes that it would wash out to sea. Instead it had been stuck there on the embankment.
It was overkill. Why cut their throats if you had them tied up around the neck? What had triggered this kind of brutality? Was it someone offended at seeing two women together, perhaps intimately? Or was it something else that caused this level of violence in the killer?
There had been a struggle – Cathy Thomas had put up a fight. She had a knife cut at the base of one of her thumbs. The killer had spent considerable time with his victims. He had presumably struggled with Cathy, regained control, tied the two of them up – strangling them. Then he had cut their throats, put them in the car, and drove them to where they were found. This was not a small portion of time he spent with his victims; which begs the question – why? If his intent was to kill his victims, why not just shoot them as they sat in the car? No. This killer spent time with them as they struggled and suffered.
I could write pages of why the investigation went nowhere, attempt to lay blame and point fingers but that does not help at all and is likely a misguided effort. None of that changes the reality that this pair of murders became cold – frigid cold. There are questions I’d like to know, beyond the obvious “who was the killer?” These include:
- Where did Cathy and Becky go after they left campus? There is a presumption they were killed either late on October 9 or the early morning hours of October 10. Where did they go after leaving William and Mary? There was meat in their stomachs, so they must have gone somewhere for dinner – where?
- Where did these crimes take place? There was not enough blood to indicate they were killed where the car was found. So where did these murders happen? Was it on the Parkway at another pull-off, or somewhere entirely different?
- When did the murders transpire? There is a long span of time from when the pair were last seen and when their bodies were found. How much time did the killer spend with them? The timeline often answers other questions for investigators.
- Why leave their bodies on the Colonial Parkway – a heavily traveled roadway?
- Why were they targeted? This is two bright (if not brilliant) young women. What triggered such a scene of carnage? What drew the killer to these two women?
Bill Thomas has remained a stalwart champion of his sister Cathy. He has established a Colonial Parkway Facebook page. If you have theories, suggestions, memories, or tips – it is a great place for you to go to offer your thoughts. I encourage you to go there and join that group.