My 2017 Gen Con Survival Tips

gen con
Game on! 

Yes, it is that time of the year again – time for my unsolicited updated list of GenCon tips survival.  These are to be treated as tongue and cheek – intended with a hint of a sense of humor.  If you’re offended, well, suck it up…this was intended to be useful and hopefully funny.

#1:  Plan in advance.  Go online, figure out what you want to do.  DO NOT try and figure all of this out while you are at the counter buying tickets.  This is like that person standing at line at Starbucks for 15 minutes, getting up there and going, “Hmm…I’m not sure what I want…”  Don’t be that guy.  Everybody hates that guy.

#2:  Pack as if you are going to be at the convention center for 16 hours straight…because you are.  Slip in some snacks because let’s face it, convention food is expensive and sucks.  Bring pencils, pack your lucky dice (you know the ones!) graph paper, phone charger, a small tape measure (for miniatures games), aspirin, you know – typical geek gamer survival gear.  Think over seriously if you need to bring all of your rules books and game manuals.  Chances are the guys running the game are going to have a copy there.  Don’t over pack.  You don’t need to bring your PC with you, I’m almost positive.  Keep it simple, keep it light.  Pack what you need but remember, you’re not setting out to climb Mt. Everest (or Mt .Doom, your choice.)

#3:  Be prepared for the rush to the main hall when it opens.  Yes, when the balloon goes up and they open the doors to the sales floor, it is a geek equivalent to the running of the bulls in Spain (albeit a little safer).  Don’t fight the masses, ride it in.  To answer your question now:  Yes, it’s that crowded every year.  You can’t get in without a badge, have it out and visible.  The Stormtrooper Door Guards will stop you dead in your tracks, meaning you are subject to being trampled by the crowd surge.  Also, nothing sucks more than being in a crowd of 2000 only to find out you have turn around and run back to the hotel room through a sea of angry and exited geeks.

#4:  Cosplay is part of the experience and is encouraged.  If you are going to do it, don’t design a costume that is going to injure passersby.  Think it over.  No one is more of a douche-bag than a guy that has designed a costume that is hard to get around or trips/blinds people when you pass.

#5:  If you’re going to be one of those people who stop in the middle of a crowd to take a picture of the booth-babe wearing a chain mail bikini, do it quickly and don’t clog up the corridor.  She’s not going to go back to your hotel room with her because you’re taking her photo and you don’t need a photo to prove to your buddies back at the office that there were indeed females at the convention.  Okay, that last point – I may be wrong.

#6:  Bathe and use deodorant.  This shouldn’t have to be a tip, it should be common sense.  Based on my own experience moving through the crowd, I had to include it.  Look, you paid for a hotel room right?  Go back at some point and at least use the shower.  Foot powder, toothpaste, and clean clothing (a fresh set for every day) shouldn’t require mentioning – yet here I am doing it.  Why?  Because people don’t do it!

#7:  While you have no adult supervision and can do what you want, be respectful of others.  In other words, bringing your leftover Taco Bell burrito from dinner to that 8am gaming session and eating it during the set-up is just wrong.  You do know that their meat isn’t real meat, right?

#8:  For your meals eat outside of the convention center.  First, convention food sucks and is expensive.  My memory is that a single, room-temperature, piece of convention cardboard pizza runs around $425.  I don’t blame the folks in Indianapolis for this, it sucked when the convention was in Milwaukee too.  It is something of a tradition to stand in line at the nearby Steak N Shake for 20 minutes at least once during the con for me, but that’s just me.  I also like the brisk walk to the attached mall.  They have a food court, variety, better prices, and it’s a hoot watching the locals interact with the convention attendees.

Go only five blocks away and there are a lot of eating places.  Gamers hate leaving the convention site, even for an hour for food, so if you are willing to walk, downtown has a LOT of eating options and the further you walk, the smaller the crowds.  I recommend taking the stroll.  Ten minutes of walking gives you a few minutes of peace and quiet.

The Food Trucks are your best friends.   I only discovered where these vendors parked four years ago and found their offers to be a much better alternative to eating on-site at the con.  Let’s face it, everything is better than the food in the convention center.  While we’re on it…

#9:  Don’t frighten the locals.  Look, Indianapolis really seems to like having Gen Con in town – well, at least they like our money.  Don’t try and frighten that family on the sidewalk with your Orc costume waving a sword and cursing in Orkish.  A lot of locals come down town to look at the cosplay folks – don’t add to their stereotype images of us.  Not cool dude.

#10:  While I totally appreciate Cosplayers, sometimes the costumes are confusing as all hell.  Don’t be insulted if people ask you, “who are you trying to be?”  Corollary:  Taking any other costume and tossing on a Deadpool mask is not as innovative as you like to think it is.  (We call these folks “Douce-pools”)

#11:  There is always someone that knows the rules better than you.  He’s arrogant, overweight, and wearing a black tee-shirt (then again, who isn’t?)  Nothing kills a game faster than two guys trying to prove who is smarter about the rules regarding the splatter effect of a Mark IV plasma rifle in zero-G.  We get it, you read and memorized the rule book.  Stop ruining game play for everyone just to demonstrate your incredible powers of memorization…please.   We refer to these individuals as Rules Douches, or the more French- La Rules Douchebag.

#12:  Don’t just sit around.  Go and check out the miniatures games, or some of the big events like the Live Dungeon.  You didn’t shell out all of that money to sit and read a catalog you picked up did you?  The convention won’t come to you – you need to move.

#13:  Do some prep work if you are planning on buying some specific products.  Some companies are bringing limited quantities of games to the con for each day, or a certain day.  If you aren’t in line at the right time, you’re hosed.  The short version of this:  Make up your mind on what you are going to purchase and do it.  If you wait too long that newly released product can/will sell out.  Check the web sites and Twitter feeds of your favorite companies to see if that new product will be available and when.

#14:  Wear comfortable shoes.  Preferably shoes that do not have a predetermined aroma (see Tip Six.)

#15:  Go back to your hotel at night and get some sleep.  The convention is not designed as an endurance test.  You’ll need the energy.  All night gaming is great, if you’re young, but even then you need some sleep.

#16:  Attend the auction.  You’ll be able to tell your wife/mother/cat/significant other than that shelves and containers of games you have ARE of value.  You’ll be surprised at what games people collect and what they will pay for one.  It’s also kind of fun to see last year’s hot products being sold for a pittance of what people paid for them a year ago.

#17:  Play the demo games.  Look, games cost money – a LOT of money.  I sit in on demos, watch tournaments, etc. to figure out where I’m going to spend my cash.  I recommend you do the same.  Try some things you’ve never played before.  Think of this as a chance to test-drive new games and systems.

#18:  Don’t insult your favorite writer or game designer intentionally.  These guys work hard to produce your fun.  Don’t be “that guy” that shows up to tell someone how horrible a product they wrote in 1992 was, or how they made a mistake in an out-of-print 1989 book.  We get it, you can read.  If you’ve traveled all of this way to show off your knowledge, you’re a decade or two off.  If you meet writers, authors, artists, designers – be cool and respectful.  As a writer in the industry, I welcome comments from fans…but there is a limit to critique that I will endure, and I am not alone.  As a corollary – there is a limit to the number of things you want autographed.

#19:  Go early to the con.  Get out of bed and get to the convention early.  There’s a lot going on and the lines are significantly shorter.  I hit the MechWarrior pods usually at 8-9am when the convention hall is empty-ish.  They are a tradition I am addicted to.

#20:  WIN.  Savor your victories.  Cherish the lament of your foes as they are crushed under the weight of your killer die rolls and strategy!  Don’t rub it in, but enjoy it.  Serious dude, don’t rub it in when you win.  You didn’t travel all of this way to lose did you?  Hell no!  In other words, have fun!

#21:  Don’t wear costumes that are designed to deliberately upset people, unless those people are politicians.  You can abuse them all you want – they deserve it.

#22:  Wear something other than a black tee shirt.  At GenCon, black tee shirts are like camouflaged ghillie suit for snipers.  Everyone is wearing a black tee shirt.  Someone someday will earn a PhD studying why gamers are drawn to black tee shirts.  In the meantime, I recommend wearing something else (something clean), in a color other than black.  Corollary:  Reading the hilarious tee shirts is one of the more phone things about the Con.

#23:  Don’t abuse your demo time in any booth.  Okay, in the main showroom, the vendors often offer short demos on their products.  These are a major part of the experience.  Don’t abuse the privilege.  I saw one guy camped out a table last year for four hours.  There were a lot of people wanting to sit in, but this guy had decided to turn a demo into a full-fledged campaign.

#24:  Remember the GenCon food groups.  Caffeine, Chocolate, Salty Snacks, Caffeine, Pointless Carbs.  Beef Jerky, while not a formal food group, is also permissible but please be discreet when eating it – no one looks cool tearing into a piece of jerky.  Yes, Caffeine is listed twice because it is that important.

#25:  If you want to do free events plan on a wait or get there early.  A good example of this is the Paint and Take event Reaper puts on.  It’s cool to get a free mini you paint there, but everyone wants to do it and there’s usually a line.  See #30 below.

#26:  If you want the Convention giveaways – go to those booths first thing when the doors open.  A lot of these vendors run out in the first 20 minutes.

#27:  Con-Crud – prepare for it.  Con Crud is not a new module release of Pandemic – it’s the social plague that hits thousands when they return from GenCon on the following Monday.  Use hand sanitizer (you have to bring your own on this).  Load up on vitamins and other legal medications aimed at reducing colds, flu, or whatever it is that morphs into Con-Crud.

#28:  Meet the celebrities.  I’m not just talking about the “name” celebrities.  This is a chance for you to track down that favorite author or artist and shake their hand.  I make a point at every GenCon to network and meet people (and re-meet people I met years before).  Mingle and be social.

#29:  “Language” I’m noticing more and more kids at the Con which is great.  If you feel the need to curse, make sure only the adults are around.

#30:  Take advantage of the crowds to do things you want to do.  Look, at 10am, everyone is lined up to get into the main hall.  That’s the perfect time to do things that otherwise have long lines.  Understand the masses, don’t always be part of the masses.

#31:  If you are in a wheelchair, it is not a weapon to clear the crowds.  I got hit by someone in a wheelchair last year just standing still.  He just plowed into my ankle because he wanted to get through.  I’m understanding, but not that understanding.

#32:  You will get a book of freebie coupons.  If you plan on redeeming them, you need to do it first thing in the main hall.  Some of that stuff disappears in a matter of minutes.

#33:  Play some things you never have before.

There you have it guys – GAME ON!

#GenCon

The Chronicling of our D&D Campaign: To the Gellesian Fields Part 15

Diplomacy

Welcome to the novelization of my current D&D campaign, told through the perspective of the characters.  Links to the previous posts are at the bottom of this one.  Enjoy!

Theren…

Just before open court convened, we went back to the keep.  When we arrived at the guard post, we were told to surrender our weapons.  Galinndan made a comment at the table where we lay our weapons along the lines of, “I know, I can use my disguise skills and join you and Bor at court.”  I looked at him – then at the guards only four feet away who had clearly heard everything he said.  “Why don’t you just let Bor and I handle this?”  The city of Karn had not been kind to our rogue.  He had crossed his guild’s wishes, tried to arrange the theft of his own comrades, had been kicked out of court by the Vizir, and now this.  Fate was not favoring him these past few days.

We went to open court and were greeted by an older gentlemen in formal garb, armed with a menacing sword.  The Master of the Court – Uthar Danielson.  “You must be the friends of Matthias.”

“We are.”  I introduced ourselves to him.

“Alright.  I will usher you in.  You must be respectful of Lord Sklaver and wary of his Vizir.”

I nodded and straightened my robes.  I had never spoken to a true lord before.  My palms were sweaty.  Bor looked bored by the formality and that almost made me chuckle.

Danielson opened the doors and announced, “Coming before the court of Lord Andrew Sklaver, Tenth of his Line, Lord of Karn, Master of the Rolling Plains – I present Bor Boskin and Theren Meliamne of WhiteRock.”

The walls of the long vast chamber were adorned with massive banners, most bearing the icon of a snake stabbed with a down thrust sword, bleeding red on a field a green – the Sklaver signet.  Some of the tapestries showed battles, one shows a dragon being slain by a knight standing on the beast’s head, running it through the eye.  The light penetrating the room showed the dust hanging in the air.

Lord Sklaver sat at the far end of the court room, on a gnarled wood throne of twisted tree roots.  Next to him sits Krof Lorraine in a smaller seat who was clearly flush with anger at our arrival.  Off to the right, at a table flanking the stairs before the throne, sit his loyal advisors and son.  Four members of the Royal Guard were present, armed with halberds and swords.  It made me wonder, had there been attempts on his life in the past?

Lord Sklaver himself was at least sixty years old, if not older.  His right eye has a milky cast to it.  The Lord’s wrinkles are long and deep and his skin almost looks like worn leather.  His bony fingers held a silver wine goblet in his hand that had clearly drooped enough to spill on his flowing purple robe.  Against the gnarled throne was propped a massive mace, the symbol of his power.  It is encrusted with jewels, silver, and gold interwoven in the wood – a true piece of beauty. As we stood before the throne, I caught a whiff of urine, old sweat, and wine in the air around the old man.

We both bowed deeply.  Uther Danielson cleared his throat.  “State your business before this court.” Slowly we stood upright.

Before I could speak I saw Krolf Lorraine lean over to Lord Sklaver, speaking just loud enough for us to hear.  “These are some of the farmers I told you about sire, the ones that claim they carry a message for your ears – one stolen from a Gray Rider.”

Sklaver glared at us.  “No one would dare slay a Gray Rider.  I find your presence here suspicious.”

Lorraine had clearly planned on us getting to Sklaver, and had attempted to poison that well.  “He was attacked in the Gellesian Fields my Lord.  We traveled there and recovered his message at great personal risk.  We brought it here for your ears and yours alone.”  I shot my own stern look at Krolf Lorraine who was clearly not moved.”

“Go ahead – relay your message then.”

I pulled out my copy of the message and read it to him.

To Lord Andrew Sklaver of Karn

My lord – two months ago the Order of the Fang marched to the north east in pursuit of a dark force that emerged from the Fangs of Kraylor.  The force numbered most of our garrison, 400 men and horse, almost our entire legion.  They road into the mountain pass at Sever and never emerged.

We have sent parties in search of them but no trace has been found.  The Order is down to a mere 30 noble knights, nowhere near enough to protect the realms of men from what lies at the bottom of the gash.

I beseech you to send us reinforcements – holy warriors that can help us defend this keep or can assist with finding what has become of the missing legion.  I ask you keep this information private.  If word were to get out of our plight, it might cause panic.

This is our most desperate hour.  Any and all assistance is honored at our gates.

Sir Karrick of the Silver Blade

Acting First Shield, Order of the Fang

Lord Sklaver said nothing for a long moment as he took in the words.  It hit me then, that we had fulfilled our quest.  We had completed the ride of The Gray Rider.  Weeks of journey and peril all came down to this moment.  Great satisfaction swelled for a moment in my heart.  It was dashed quickly as Sklaver spoke.

“”How do I know that this is not some sort of ploy – a plot to lure off my Royal Guard to the Gash and leave Karn open to some sort of attack?  One of the other lords of the realm no doubt his eyes on my realm.  Besides, the paladins guarding the Gash have done so for decades and have protected the lands from the blackness imprisoned there.  You men could be instruments of a coup…”

Bor responded.  “We honored the request of the Rider.  We are not tools to overthrow you.  We were simple men from WhiteRock. You are our liege lord and we are loyal to you.”

That answer seemed to satisfy Sklaver, at least for a moment.  “How did you recover this message?”

I replied.  “We went to the Gellesian Fields and found the person that had taken the message – Lexa Lyoncroft.  We fought with her, then struck a bargain to obtain the contents of what she had taken.”

Lord Sklaver winced for a moment.  “Lexa Lyoncroft?  She is a myth, a story to frighten travelers to take safer roads or stay at home.  The Sisterhood of the Sword was absolved years ago.  I have heard her name ever since then, always spoken by questionable men of shady character who claim they have seen her.  I doubt she exists.  The Church has assured me that all but a handful of the Sisterhood have been accounted for.  If she did live, the Church would pursue her to the ends of the world to kill her.  Your mentioning her only makes your story more difficult to believe.”

“That may be, but we have spoken truly.  Lyoncroft is quite real, I have faced her both in battle and parlay. The Church may pursue her, but she lives.  We met her, we prevailed – eventually – not without some loss on our part I might add.  We traveled long and hard to come here to provide you with these words my Lord,” Bor chimed in.

For a half minute, Lord Sklaver said nothing.  “Your story may be true – but these are dangerous times.  Caution is always prudent.  Wouldn’t your agree Krolf?”

The Vizir shot us an icy glance.  “If you believe them my Lord, then I must as well.  Perhaps, Lord Sklaver, the solution is simple.  We will send only a dozen men to the Gash…a gesture of our resolve.  We can impress these messengers to accompany them as guardsmen.  If their message is false, I can order one of our Lieutenants to met out the Lord’s justice and kill them.  If they speak the truth, they would be free to go.  If they are liars, it will send a powerful message to those that would attempt to deceive the throne.”

Sklaver nodded and grinned, his yellowed teeth showed.  “Excellent idea.”  He looked at me squarely.  “You and your comrades are now impressed as members of my guards, troops loyal to me and the realm.  You will go to the Gash.  If your words were a lie – you will die.  If you spoke the truth, you shall be released from duty.  You will depart on the morrow.  You will report to Lieutenant Rygar here at dawn.”

“Thank you my Lord,” I said, bowing and backing towards the door.

We exited and saw Danielson close the massive doors to the throne room behind us.  Bor put his hand on my shoulder.  “What just happened in there?”

“Krolf Lorraine got some revenge for us going around him and appearing in open court.  In short; we were just drafted,” I replied.  “It’s not so bad.  We go to the Gash and we’re free of service.  I mean how hard can that be?”

Bor flashed a wry grin.  “You get to tell the others.

I hope you have enjoyed the saga thus far.  Here are the previous parts if you have missed any installments.  Enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Part 14

Character Background Material

My New Campaign

#dungeonsanddragons

#DandD

The Triangle of Apathy

Triangle

I’m no expert in the workplace – I’m more of a victim.  That’s a lie – I am an expert, if only in my own mind.  I’ve even written books on it (Cubicle Warfare and Business Rules) I’ve noticed lately in speaking with people in a fairly wide range of organizations that they are growing apathetic towards their jobs and careers.

We all feel a twinge of apathy at work at one point or another.  It drains your productivity, but oddly enough, you don’t care.  You are demotivated to work harder, put in extra hours, to try and go above and beyond.  Everyone gets this feeling now and then – but it seems more prevalent lately.

I would offer you solutions, but tonight I prefer to whine about apathy rather than solve it (a symptom of my own malaise at work.)  Over the years I have learned that people digest business concepts best if they have a stupid, yet simple, graphic tied to them.  Thus I present the Triangle of Apathy (™ pending)!

So what makes people indifferent about their job or their alleged contribution at work?  Three things make up the triangle:

  • Managers that don’t or cannot lead
  • Inability to navigate your career
  • Uninspiring or no vision

Managers that don’t or cannot lead.  Let’s face it, many organizations don’t promote well.  People rise to management levels not based on their ability to lead or motivate a team, but on some technical skill.   The assumption that everyone can simply “pickup” a core management competency on-the-fly is a drunken fallacy.  Some managers couldn’t organize a good bowel movement, let alone lead a team.  We’ve all seen it.  This drives apathy because part of a suite of managerial acumen is being able to guide employees through change.  When that doesn’t exist, it provides a firm foundation for employee apathy.  “I turned to my manager for help and all she said was that she didn’t know what was going on either…’welcome to the club.'”  Spineless, uninspired, demotivated, or outright incompetent leaders disenfranchise their staff and spread apathy like a plague during the Renaissance.  (On top of a nifty graphic, you are going to get lots of pointless metaphors in this post as well – no extra charge.)

Inability to navigate your career.  I don’t really subscribe to the idea that you have a career – only a job…but that’s a different blog post. https://blainepardoe.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/a-critique-about-careers/  Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument you believe you do have a career, you delusional bastard.  Your organization probably feeds you this line, “You own your own career.”  Do you?  Really?  You see inconsistent promotions – where people are advanced because of favoritism rather than competency.  Your own job is threatened constantly with reorganizations and outsourcing to the point where all you do is worry if your head is going to be on the chopping block next.  Nepotism or cronyism are the drugs of choice when new exciting roles are created in your organization.  You see no path forward other than to do what you are doing to the best of your ability and pray that is enough.  These factors blend into a toxic, debilitating slushie of indifference, sluggish motivation, and organizational lethargy.

Uninspiring or no vision.  Tip for leaders here.  Just because you think you have a vision and articulated it; that doesn’t mean it actually IS inspiring or understood.  Even if you have communicated it, chance are your team has not personalized it.  People want to know what is in it for them.  They want to know what they will be doing or doing differently.  They want to know how success of the vision will be measured.  Generally, people want to be excited, but that means understanding them.  Many managers lack that connection and are blissfully unaware they lack a clue about their people’s motivations.

In some cases there is a vision – but it is so dull that it fails to shake the apathy of the staff.  Of course the worse scenario is when there simply is no vision for an organization.  Instinctively people have a need to comprehend that their contributions matter to something larger. If you deny them this, apathy sets up like concrete on a summer day.

So how do you overcome all of this?  Simply put, don’t rely on your organization to be the source of your personal motivation.  This is all on you.  Let’s face it, you are the one person you can actually rely on most of the time.  If that isn’t enough, build a network of your blasé co-workers and try to come up with ways to encourage each other.  Don’t rely on the leadership that got you into this dull mood to correct it, take matters in your own hands.  Whining does feel good, but only for a few minutes.  After that it is just draining.  Be supportive of your close co-workers, the ones that are not contemplating workplace shootings. Get together once a week to share news of what work you’re doing, where the obstacles are, and how you can assist each other.

Crap – I guess you do own this part of your career. Go figure.   I’d go correct it above but I would have to scroll all of the way up, and I’m still pretty unmotivated.

Review of Killing Rasputin – The Murder That Ended The Russian Empire – by Margarita Nelipa

Rasputin

When I was just a kid (about nine years old) my mother took me to see the film Nicholas and Alexandra.  Mom was the person that got me into true crime.  She tried to cover my eyes when they executed the royal family.  She failed.  It was not anywhere near as shocking as the stuff we see on TV now, but at the time, it was pretty violent.  In that respect, I miss the 1970’s.

That film was my first introduction to the story of Rasputin, the “Mad Monk.”  I’ve read about the fate of the Czar and his family and Rasputin is hopelessly intertwined into their saga.  We’ve all heard the legend.  Rasputin was stabbed, poisoned, shot, choked, and drowned – all on the same night – and seemed to defy death at each attempt.

Margarita Nelipa has tackled the Rasputin murder with the keen eyes of both a historian and a true crime author.  This is not your typical true crime fare, nor could it be.  To unravel what happened to Rasputin you have to understand the inner court politics and the myriad of figures and gadflies that ensnared the royal family.

Having written a historical true crime myself, (Sawney Bean) I understand the daunting challenge she had to face as a historian.  This book is more like an academic study of the murder of the monk, rather than a standard true crime story.  In that respect I liked it.  It is the kind of book you might expect from a university press, burrowing deep in the details necessary to set the stage for the events that led to Rasputin’s demise.

My only struggle with the prose was navigating the often confusing names of the characters.  There were a few times I confused some characters because their names were so similar.  This is not a complaint but more of a warning for readers.  If you are looking for a simplified account of Rasputin’s death, this is not the book for you.  This books bridges the gap between the rigor of a historian’s keen eye and the tantalizing lure of a sordid murder.

Ms. Nelipa’s research seems three-steps beyond solid.  I found a swelling pang of envy in the depth of her digging.  She has most likely broken new ground in the murder of Rasputin, though I confess this is not my field of study.  I will say this, she has given me a as a reader, a much more in-depth understanding of the man as both a historical figure and the victim of a heinous murder.

Overall, I found it a nice break from the usual menu choices for true crime.  If you enjoy in-depth historical research intertwined with a murderous saga that had a mark on history, then this is a book for you.

You can get the book here, on Amazon.  Killing Rasputin

#truecrime

Visiting the Crime Scene at of the Fourth and Final of the Colonial Parkway Murders – New Kent County

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The start of the logging trail where Annamaria and Daniel’s remains were found some distance back. 

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.

Annamaria Phelps
Annamaria Phelps
Daniel Lauer
Daniel Lauer

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.

Lauer Roach Clip
Daniel’s car interior.  Note the roach clip on the window.  

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.

Exit on I 64
The rest areas as they appeared in 1989.  Both have been upgraded.  
The Logging Trail
Crime scene photo taken when the bodies were found in October of 1989 of the logging trail.  Much of the search for their remains had been done from the air, which, in such a wooded area, was pointless.  

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.

The Locket
Crime scene photograph of the locket found on the logging trail.  This is one of the images from these cases that haunts me still.  I feel like it is there for a reason…but I don’t know why for sure.

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.

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The Tidewater image showing the trail in 1989.  Hunters found another body in New Kent at the same time – not far away on I-64

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.

Danny Plott
Crime scene photo.  Danny Plott is standing in the middle, holding the medical examiner’s purse.

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.

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Just beyond the clearing in this picture is where the remains of the victims were found, six weeks after they disappeared.

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.

Daniel's Car
Crime scene photo of Daniel’s car on the exit ramp.  Did you see this vehicle or its occupants in 1989?  You may hold the key to solving his case if you did. 

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…

#Truecrime

#Colonialparkwaymurders

Game of Thrones Wish List and Predictions For Seasons 7 and 8

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As an author/historian, I tend to view Game of Thrones with a different lens.  After all, Time Magazine listed one of my books as good source material on the Wildlings.  http://time.com/4347517/game-of-thrones-history-books/ .  That doesn’t really mean much, but I felt the plug was well-earned.

There are things we all want to see in this series, having invested 60+ hours into it. As an author, there are twists I would put in.  I doubt any of mine are actually in the coming two seasons, but this helps kill the time while I wait.

Also, the authors have given us hints already, buried in previous seasons.  So, here’s my list of things I would like to see – some predictions, some merely wish list items:

Things that should happen:

Daenerys Targaryen lands in Westros.  Her family’s hereditary home is Dragonestone, where Stannis Baratheon led his attempt at the throne.  This makes sense for her to go there first.  It is the kind of thing that Tyrion would recommend. She still has to contend with a rogue Greyjoy uncle, but after that, the squeeze play on the Lannisters can begin.

Jon Snow and Daenerys meet.  You may be wondering why would Jon waste time meeting her?  Simple.  The writers put in the previous seasons that Dragonestone is a source of dragon-glass, (obsidian) which kills the army of the dead.  Jon’s going to need a source of that stuff if he hoped to hold out.  Don’t count on their first meeting to be all hugs and kisses.  The writers are good, they won’t make this a smooth first meeting but one where the characters gain respect for each other.  Jon’s focus is on the army of the dead, Dany’s out to rid the world of pesky Lannisters.  I imagine Jon being sent north to hold the line while Daenerys takes care of cleaning up the rest of Westros. No wedding in season seven.

The return of Gendry.  An heir to House Baratheon, he disappeared seasons ago.  I can see him playing some sort of role once Dany returns. The writers create characters to bring them back.

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I have daddy issues…

The return of Jorah Mormont.  As a writer, I would have him arrive with reinforcements at the hour of Daenerys’s greatest need, right before she is about to lose a battle. I don’t want him to die in the attempt, but given the penchant for the writer’s to kill him – I can see that happening.

The return of Daario Naharis.  Do you really think that mercenary will remain across the Narrow Sea?  I don’t.  I want him and the Second Sons to come and open a can of whoop-ass in Westros.

Cersei goes mad.  I will grant you, it’s not a far trip for her.  She is going to continue her spiral into madness I think.  She will slaughter thousands to hold onto the power she had seized.  I almost pity Jamie – well, almost.

Arya will meet up with Melisandre again.  One thing about GoT is that it is a buddy show. The brilliant writers combine characters and hilarity (and death) ensues.  Arya and Melisandre met and the Red Witch said, “We will meet again.”  Ayra is riding north, Melisandre is riding south.  They are bound to connect and I don’t think it will result in death.

Sam learns the secrets of making Valyrian steel.  Look, I could care less about him and Gilly, but Sam’s research has helped out Jon in the past, and that is destined to continue (otherwise why follow his character at all).  Jon has learned that Valyrian steel unleashes a shitstorm of pain on white walkers.  Sam must learn this and possibly about the Horn of Winter.  What is the Horn?  Remember when Sam found the dragon glass at the Fist of the First Men.  Go back to that – there was a horn found as well.  It has to be the Horn of Winter.  In the books, the Horn of Winter awoke the giants and had the power to shatter the wall.  Sam innocently left it at Castle Black, the worst possible place for something that powerful.

Dragonglass
Dragon glass and the mysterious horn…

The Brothers Without Banners will play a role in fighting the white walkers.

More Lyanna Mormont.  She has more balls than most of the male characters, especially Theon.  Shame on the writers if we don’t see her kicking some ass in the remaining seasons.  She’s my favorite character of them all.

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Let’s face it, we all like her.  

Reunions:

Pod and Bronn reunite with Tyrion.  We all want to see this.  It would be heartbreaking if they kill Bronn in the war.  He’s my favorite mercenary.

Jamie and Tyrion.  Talk about an uncomfortable family reunion.

Sam and Jon. It’s going to happen.

Cersei and the Queen of Thornes.  You cannot get too much of Diana Rigg.  Her scenes with Tyrion were priceless too, so perhaps we will get a good dose of that as well.

Melisandre and the Brothers Without Banners.  Enough said here.

Brienne of Tarth and Tormund.  Some of the best acting in Game of Thrones was the facial expressions between the wildling and the lady knight.  We want more of this.

brienne-tormund
“I think she likes me…”  

Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister.   The last they saw of each other was when Brienne left Riverrun and Jamie let her go.  We need a counterpart to that scene, something to balance it out.  Perhaps she will repay the favor in an upcoming battle?

Shagga, son of Dolf, is the leader of the Stone Crows, of the Hill Tribes that fought for Tyrion in Season One and Tyrion. They introduced this faction with Tyrion and I bet our favorite dwarf enlists their aid for Daenerys.

Shagga
It would be cool to see the Hill Tribes again.  

Arya and the Hound. She took the Hound off of her list (not an easy thing to do mind you).  Both characters have changed since they last met.  It would be a shame if we didn’t see them together again.  Perhaps Arya will join the Brothers…?

Fates:

Arya’s Stark.  Let’s face it, this is one damaged character.  She’s an assassin.  I can’t picture her fitting in with the surviving family members because, well, she’s a murderess.  I think her fate will be determined by Jaqen H’ghar.  The Faceless God will take his toll here I believe.

Littlefinger.  Let’s face it, Littlefinger set all of this crap in motion.  He framed Tyron Lannister for attempting to kill Bran Stark, driving the two houses to war.  Varys summed him up best, “He would burn the world to rule the ashes.”  You would expect Sansa to be there at his downfall.  I am a writer.  I picture young Robin Arryn pushing Littlefinger through the Moon Door when he learns that he was responsible for the death of his mother.  That would be awesome and fitting.

Jamie Lannister.  The Kingslayer will have to die.  Two options as a writer here.  One, Tyrion must order it (hard to do, his brother saved him).  The other, is at the hand of Brienne of Tarth.  Those two have a love thing going.  It’s very Shakespearian to have her deliver his death with the sword he gave her. (see my Cersei entry below for an alternate end to Jamie.)

Sansa Stark.  Who cares?  She’s starting to get interesting, but seriously, I just don’t like her. I could see her surviving everything that goes down.  If Jon does marry Daenerys, which we’d all eventually like, she could take the helm at Winterfell as the head of House Stark.

Cersei Lannister.  I picture the Mountain killing Cersei for some dark and forbidding reason.  We all anticipate that the Mountain will face his downfall at the hands of the Hound.  Too predictable.  There is a real twist of fate there.  We all want Tyrion to be the one to determine his sister’s fate, but I doubt we will get something that simple.  My alternate ending:  The ultimate irony would be that Jamie has to kill her, adding Queenslayer to his resume’.  Frankly, Jamie would have to kill himself afterwards.

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Cersei managed to top the Red Wedding in terms of body count.  

 

Tyrion Lannister.  The authors have already told you the perfect end-cap for him.  He wanted to retire to his own vineyards and pictures himself surrounded by his friends.  Wouldn’t that be an awesome way to end the series?  Ten years later…we see him with Grey Worm, Dany, and the other survivors, drinking wine with their old friend.  Perfect ending.

Bran Stark.  Bran’s role I think is bigger than what we know or understand.  I think he could even be the old man in the tree that he meets later.  A popular theory is that he is actually Bran the Builder – travelling back in time to build the wall.  I think the key to Bran is that he can travel in time and can influence it.  He may end up getting lost in time as well.  Ultimately I cannot help but wonder if Bran is the Lord of Light?

Davos Seaworth. I see him as being an emissary to the Brothers Without Banners to enlist their aide.

Daenerys Targaryen.  Remember when those wizards captured her dragons back in Season Two?  Remember how she wandered in that tower from scene to scene.  She found the Iron Throne in a destroyed throne room, snow falling, empty and alone.  The writers are good and I believe that scene was deliberate. I think this is exactly how she will find the Iron Throne after her dragons unleash hell on the city.

#GameofThrones

Visiting the Crime Scene of the Third of the Colonial Parkway Murders – Back to the Parkway

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The parking area where Keith Call’s car was discovered
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Keith Call
Cassandra Haily
Cassandra Hailey

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.

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The precarious climb down to the river.

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?

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FBI crime scene photo of the Call Hailey 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.

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Keith’s car

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.

#TrueCrime

#ColonialParkwayMurders