As a cold case true crime author you become emotionally invested in your work. If you are going to do your job right, you have it. Sometimes that connection is with investigators, other times it is with family members of the victims. You have no control over where those connections are going to come from, in many respects, you are along for the ride.
The first interview we did for the book was with Larry McCann, the Virginia State Police profiler who worked the case. Victoria and I needed the big picture, a strategic perspective. Larry was the guy to do that for us. Larry taught me more about criminal profiling in four hours than I got from three textbooks on the subject.
Next came my interview with the brother and sister of Annamaria Phelps. It was deeply moving, though I did my best to keep my poker face on. The love and frustrations they had been forced to endure and lose was incredible. They felt that the system had failed them…and it had. The killer of their beloved sister has not been brought to justice yet. Over the years they have been emotionally jerked around by investigators who flip-flopped on whether their sister’s case was tied to the Colonial Parkway Murders or not. Despite tantalizing leads, there has not been an arrest. For them, it tore them apart internally and brought them together spiritually.
If you think I didn’t get in the car after our interview and break down…you would be wrong.
The case is baffling and more complicated than it appears on the surface. Labor Day weekend, 1989, Daniel Lauer went to visit his brother Clinton and Clinton’s girlfriend, Annamaria Phelps, at Virginia Beach. He brought along three passengers, Joe Godsey, his wife, and their young daughter. It promised to be a weekend of partying. Unfortunately, it got out of hand – resulting in a large scale riot.
At the end of the weekend, Daniel had decided to move in with his brother and Annamaria. The plan on that Sunday night was to drive back to their home in Amelia County, Virginia. He would drop off the Godsey’s, grab his stuff, get paid by his father, then drive back. Annamaria decided to come along. Daniel would drop her off with her parents while he packed, then would pick her up and together they would drive back to join Clinton.
Everything seemed to go as planned. Annamaria saw her folks and Daniel picked her up for the drive back. The last place they were seen by witnesses was in the east-bound rest area on I-64 in New Kent County.
The next morning, Daniel’s car was found in the west-bound rest area on the merge ramp, abandoned. The glove box was opened and a roach clip hung from the driver’s side window which was partially lowered. The keys were in the vehicle, as if someone was staging the car for theft.
Authorities mounted a search but found nothing. It would be six weeks later when their bodies were found by turkey hunters just a mile from where Daniel’s car had been found. It would take experts from the Smithsonian to help the Virginia State Police to try and piece together what happened. All they could say for sure is that Annamaria had been cut by a knife on one of her fingers. There was no way to ascertain the cause of death. All we know for sure is that Annamaria fought with her killer that night.
I’ve been to the site a few times and it remains pretty much as it looked back then. Visiting the Crime Scene In talking with investigators that were on the scene at the time, we are convinced of one thing – the killer had stalked the site out in advance, or at least had familiarity with it. Otherwise getting back there and out again would have been a challenge.
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of their deaths. When you write true crime, the key dates stick with you. I cringe in August because it marks the bombing/murder in Marshall I wrote about and the murder of Maggie Hume in Battle Creek, MI. January always makes me think of Daisy Zick and her death. Labor Day, that is reserved for Annamaria and Daniel. In my mind I replay everything. How did their car end up on the other side of the highway? Why did the killer target them? What happened in those dark woods? What clues were lost because the police did not do an effective search? Why did the killer stop after this pair of victims? How did the killer get control of them? Why didn’t someone see something on that holiday weekend?
We have new techniques and technologies that can help crack the cases…but is time running out? No. I don’t believe that, not for an instant. The moment you go down that road, you only find despair.
Even today, when I drive to Williamsburg I make myself stop at the refurbished rest area – the last place they were seen. I take a minute or two and look around and think of what happened thirty years ago at that site. A great deal has changed, but not the mystery, and not the sense that more could and should have been done at the time.