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.
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.
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 thefirst pair of Colonial Parkway Murdersare 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.
This is my second 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.
Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge is adjacent the James River Bridge on Route 17. On a map is seems benign enough. As researchers/authors, we had already started to form an opinion of the locale though. There was a seedy side to the site. There were rumors supported by newspaper accounts and our discussions with law enforcement seemed to confirm that the wildlife refuge was not a place that we should find ourselves visiting in the night.
My first visit there I went by myself during one of my many research visits to the area. My journey started in Newport News, the town of my birth, cruising on Route 17. Newport News is an eclectic mix of neighborhoods, some pristine, others much less so. Sometimes the line between these neighborhoods is little more than a street or a plaza built in the 1970’s.
As you cruise towards the James River, you hang a hard right on Route 17 to begin your trek across the James River Bridge. The bridge is 4.5 miles long. Most of it is just above the water, flat and long. Then in the middle of the river is the huge hump of the bridge, complete with small control house structures over the far tops. As you continue the drive your vehicle drops back down to just above the water level again to reach Isle of Wight County. Mentally you picture this journey in bad weather and cringe. There is a feeling of exposure on the bridge.
Arriving in Isle of Wight County I noticed an immediate change. Gone are the sea of plazas, apartments, and neighborhoods of Newport News. You are in the middle of brine water wetlands. The air had a river smell to it, that kind of humid aroma of plants and growth, not at all beach-like. On my solo trip I felt like I should be right at the refuge entrance but didn’t see it. I pulled over at a small war memorial to check my phone’s GPS. A road patrol person pulled in next to me, possibly thinking I might have a car problem. I greeted him warmly and thanked him. “I’m looking for Ragged Island.”
“You here for a blow job or to score some weed?” He said it seriously for a moment, then chuckled.
“Um no, but thanks. I’m looking into a pair of murders that took place there.”
He nodded. “That place has had a reputation for a while. Been that way since I was a kid.” He showed me that I was only 40 yards from the entrance. He departed with the words, “Take care.”
I pulled in and it was a trip through time. My only impressions of the area were through newspaper accounts and crime scene photos, and the site didn’t look very different at all. The parking area was where David Knobling’s black Ford Ranger truck had been discovered. The trees and growth were thicker, but the site looked almost the same as the crime scene photographs.
David Knobling had driven his brother and cousin and fourteen year old Robin Edwards out for a night of kid-based fun the night of September 19, 1987. David had been nineteen at the time. On their way back home it had started to rain. David’s brother and cousin rode in the back of the truck allowing Robin to ride up front. They spent only a few minutes together before David dropped her off.
Apparently they made plans to connect later on. Robin snuck out of her house and the pair met up. From that point on – the facts are subject more to speculation than detail. What is known is that on the following Monday, David’s truck was found in the parking area of the Ragged Island Refuge. Two more days later a jogger running along the beach at Ragged Island found Robin’s body. David’s was discovered a few minutes later. Both had been shot in the head. David had an additional wound in the shoulder. They had been found a mile from David’s truck, testimony to the failure of the police search.
When you stand in the parking lot, there’s not a lot of options as to how to get to the river. One is a direct roadway, parallel to the road that takes you right to the base of the bridge at the James River. The other is a raised wooden and gravel walkway that snakes through the bogs and tall grass of the refuge, twisting and turning to the river’s edge about a mile away.
My research told me that the walkway had been replaced at least once since 1987. My study of the shore maps showed me that erosion had taken away the exact spots where David and Robin had been found. From the photos I had obtained from the era the walkway was twisting and turning, just as it is now. There are no lights. To reach the beach in the dark would have been precarious. On top of that, it was raining heavily. If you stepped off the path more than a few feet you could be mired up to your knees in mud. I went out on the walkway and I have to admit, it creeped me out. It was a turning and twisting trail. You can’t see if someone is only 30 feet ahead of you at any point in time.
The Virginia State Police theorized that they were killed on the sandy banks of the James River, a beach area popular with the kids. Their bodies were shot at or close to where they were discovered. How did they get there? No flashlight was found. That trek in the dark would have been frightening, even if they were there to do what young people do in such isolated spots. It was raining that night, so there was no way they were down on the beach area for anything romantic. David had a girlfriend at home, one that had recently announced her pregnancy with his child. If David and Robin had gone down to that beach, it had been coerced with the barrel of a gun.
My focus shifted away from the beach to the other path, the roadway leading directly to the James River from the parking area. I walked down the roadway that led directly to the river, a few hundred feet. It is lined with trees on both sides. Along the road is a chain-link fence that is covered with a web of vines. At the end you can stand a few yards from the footing of the bridge. Vehicles passing you would not be able to see you. The lights from the bridge and roadway would have provided some degree of lighting in the middle of the night. I’m no criminologist, but this seemed to a more logical spot for a killer to perform his grizzly deed.
While I’m not expert, I looked for similarities in the between the first set of murders. Both paths where the victims were found or killed share one thing in common with the Colonial Parkway…they were channels, a funnel lined with trees. Did the killer choose this location because it mimicked the feeling of the Parkway? Nature provided the murderer control of the victims. This killer was about control. Whichever pathway David and Robin were taken, there was nowhere for them to go. They were hemmed in by nature, the swamp, the darkness, and a killer with a gun on them.
One theory that law enforcement had floated in the press was that someone could have killed the pair somewhere else, stopped on the bridge, and deposited their bodies over the side. They then would have washed up ashore. I don’t think so. There is no stopping lane on that long flat stretch of bridge, and the killer would have been exposed for a few minutes performing his gruesome task, under the lights of the bridge. Not only that, the people manning the structure atop the bridge would have possibly seen the car and assumed that it had broken down. The bridge is a magnet for accidents at night or during foggy periods, and it was raining hard the night that David and Robin were killed. No. No one stopped threw the bodies off of the bridge. This was one of those police theories that didn’t go anywhere.
When we went to interview the families of David and Robin, I took my coauthor/daughter Victoria to Ragged Island. The moment we arrived she noticed that the small visitor map had been blasted by a shotgun. We walked along the roadway/path along the bridge and at the end there were several bikers set up doing some fishing. Standing behind them, I told Victoria that this is where I think the killer would have done his horrible deed. “Going out on the walkway was too risky, too long, too much of a chance of losing control. This murderer is all about controlling his victims. Also I think murderers take the path of least resistance. This is a place you can get to easiest from the parking area, shoot your victims, push them in the water, and leave.”
Victoria nodded towards the fishermen. They could hear everything I was saying, casually talking about murders only a few feet behind them. None turned around and even gave us a glance. It was as if this was to be expected at Ragged Island.
We went back to the parking lot where David’s truck had been discovered. We didn’t know at the time that the vehicle had been staged, laid out as bait for someone to steal. That would come later that night when we met with some of the members of the Knobling family. We also didn’t realize that this was to be a signature of the killer going forward.
Victoria and I only explored a short distance down the wooden walkway to the waterfront. Night time was coming and we had people to meet with and interview. “The answers to this crime are not down there anyway,” I told her. We turned around and headed back to the parking area.
The Colonial Parkway is American’s narrowest national park, a thin ribbon of road snaking through the dense woods, swamps and coastlines of the James and York Rivers, linking Jamestown to Williamsburg and Yorktown. To the normal tourist the road is serene – it was designed so that signs of modern life were blocked, as if to simulate a road during the Colonial period. The handful of overpasses are red brick covered in moss in vines, harkening back in time. We had driven it a half-dozen times before undertaking the book on the Colonial Parkway Murders. After this book, we would never look at that stretch of road the same way again.
When you are true crime author like Victoria and I, you come to the scenes and drink in everything they can tell you. Sometimes it is not much, sometimes it is a great deal.
Cathy Thomas’s car was discovered nose down at this site, pushed off of the parking area in a vain attempt to get it into the York River. The undergrowth and angle of the car merely lodged it upright. The victims had been strangled with a nylon line and their throats had been cut, in Thomas’s case, a near decapitation. Additionally, Cathy Thomas suffered a knife wound on her hand – so there had been a struggle with their killer. Their bodies had been placed in the rear areas of Cathy’s Honda Civic and had been doused with diesel fuel. At the site there were matches found near the parking area where their murderer had tried to ignite the fuel but had failed.
When you pull off on the site where Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski’s bodies were found, a few things strike you. One, the space is relatively small. There are a number of these half-moon shaped pull-offs on the parkway. They can accommodate less than ten vehicles. This one overlooks the York River. When you push through the brush, there is a sheer drop of over ten feet to the water below. Back when their murders happened in October of 1986, there was no curb in the pull-off, nothing to prevent a car from drive off right into the river.
Victoria Hester – my co-author and daughter, joined me at the site where their car was found at twilight. To us, it was strange and creepy. The moment the sun started to set, the parkway seemed to transform. It became eerie, with long shadows stretching across the road. The trees lining the roads that had seemed so quaint in the daylight, now formed dark tunnels. We interviewed a number of people that told us that the visitors on the parkway at night were not the tourists. The parkway becomes seedier at night. Rumors bordering on legends abound of drug sales sites, wild drinking parties, homosexual sex spots, and lover’s lane activities abound with the locals, combined with rumors of stalker park rangers. Any such location was bound to have some local folklore tied to it.
Standing at the pull-off, you’re struck by the noise too. The Colonial Parkway is paved with a gravel to simulate a dirt road of the period. As cars drive by they make a low rumbling, almost a growling sound. You can hear a car coming for almost a half a mile. There are no lines on the road. When the darkness comes headlights angle on the gentle curves, exposing the parking areas, casting even more shadows.
I remember saying out loud to Victoria, “This isn’t where the murders took place.” She was not so sure. So I made my case there, where their bodies were found.
There would have been a lot of blood soaked into the rich Virginia clay, but there wasn’t any present at the pull off where the Honda was found. There were signs that Thomas’s car had been pulled off a few yards up the road, before the killer’s tried to set it ablaze, and failing that pushed it over the river embankment. Killing Cathy and Rebecca took time, there had been a life-and-death struggle with their killer. Time and risk of being seen are key factors on the parkway. Murder in this simple pull-off would have placed the killer under the glare of headlights of passing cars. Someone would have noticed two women tied up, with someone holding a weapon on them.
We tried to engage the first responders, the Park Rangers, who were called in when a jogger spotted the car. I wrote them letters, but heard nothing. After several months I called one of them. He wouldn’t get on the phone with me, but put his wife on. Sshe bluntly told me he was never going to speak with me and I should never contact him again. The second ranger I reached out to, told me that I was to, “stop harassing me.” A letter and single phone call hardly qualifies as harassment. One ranger I tracked down, who had given press conferences about the murders, said he didn’t have any memories of the events. Let’s be clear, murders in National Parks are rare – and on the Colonial Parkway, even rarer. Giving a press conference about a pair of murders would be one of those things you remember in your career because you may only get to do it once or twice. Convenient amnesia? We came to the conclusion that either they were being told to not talk to us or they didn’t want their own mishandling of the cases to be exposed.
As it turns out, both were right. That is a subject for another blog post.
The Colonial Parkway is a narrow tube – a funnel. If either victim tried to flee, where could they go? Up or down the parkway were the best options. Get off the road and you are in a mire of swamps, creeks, the York River, forest, and confusion. At night some of the gates are closed and locked, limiting access even more. If the victims were alive there, they were trapped.
Butting up to the Colonial Parkway is the Cheatham Annex, a Navy base that, in 1986, was storage for nuclear warheads. We reviewed the Navy security logs for the night of the murder, nothing was out of the ordinary. Also adjoining the Parkway is Camp Peary, better known as the CIA’s “Farm.” In other words and intelligence training facility where our spies and those of our allies learn their tradecraft. Of course the CIA denies the facility or its purpose.
Stepping away from the emotions that the crime site generates, we pondered the obvious. If the killer murdered them, how did he get away? He clearly had driven Cathy’s Honda. With the Honda pushed down the embankment, did their killer walk several miles along the parkway to get away. Clearly there had been another vehicle at some point, one carrying diesel fuel, but had the fuel been poured into the interior before it had been brought to the parkway. That seems unlikely out of fear that the fuel might ignite – the killer clearly didn’t know that diesel fuel has a higher ignition point than gasoline. Did the killer have a partner that drove him away? If he did walk out of the parkway at one of the exits, why hasn’t someone come forward who would have seen him? There’s no appreciable shoulder in many spots of the route. There are subdivisions and roads that come close to the parkway, but are obscured from sight. Walking cross-country at night would have been a risky, possibly treacherous undertaking in the dark, covered in blood.
The fact that their bodies were in the rear of the vehicle points to them having been killed somewhere else and Thomas’s car driven there. There is a larger, more secluded spot that could have been used, the Ringfield Picnic Area, less than a mile north. It has been abandoned and closed off for years, though recently some clearing was done in that area. On another visit to the parkway, Bill Thomas, Cathy’s brother, and I waded through the waist deep grass dotted with the remains of picnic tables and garbage cans. It was surreal, almost post-apocalyptic. Here, from the road, was a spot of complete seclusion. This was where lovers could park and do what young people do in cars. At the same time, here was the kind of place where such a heinous crime could take place and be done out of line of sight with the road. There were several such places on the parkway. Then again, we don’t know if Cathy and Rebecca were even alive at any point on the Parkway. They could have been killed almost anywhere. This was simply where their mortal remains were found. As much as you tell yourself that over and over, it is still an eerie place at twilight.
Victoria and I walked the pull-off end to end then wandered up the road for a distance in both directions, taking it all in, hoping that the ground might tell us something that the investigators overlooked. As the cars rumbled on by and their headlights hit us, we became convinced that, in this case, with these tragic deaths, the parkway didn’t hold the answers. The trees still there were gnarled mute witnesses to the disposal of the bodies and the bumbled attempt to burn the Civic, but not of the murders.
The answers we were looking for were not on the parkway. Not that night.
Fair play disclaimer. I write for WildBlue Press and was provided a digital copy of this book to review at my option. I chose to write this review because, well, I liked the book.
I recently wrote a blog post on people who visit crime scenes. I was behind the curve – Ron Francell recognized this a long time ago. His “Outlaw” series of books explore a city or region, unearthing long lost true crime treasures. These books are a gentle mix of history, true crime, and travel guide – a unique if not compelling combination. I’ve read two of his books in this series and the new one, Outlaw Los Angeles, was a rollercoaster ride through the sordid and violent history of LA. As with all of the books in the series, Ron provides GPS coordinates of crime scenes and grave sites for those that want to experience the locale themselves.
I have long maintained that if you want to know the history of a city or its people, look to the crimes that defined them. Franscell has done an outstanding job of taking us through the eerie and sometimes bizarre past of the City of Angels. I went in looking for the crimes I knew about, the Black Dahlia, for example. What stunned me were the number of crimes I knew nothing about. Even with Discovery ID covering so many historical crimes, Franscell has dug up a myriad of intriguing and captivating true crime yarns.
The coverage of cold cases in the book was good, balancing storytelling with facts. Franscell provides a good overview of them, often outlining the various suspects. You have to bear in mind with some of these cases the numbers of suspects could be long and tedious. The author, thankfully, does not delve into every crackpot theory.
None of these are very long, making this a perfect beach read. Ron knows just how deep to take the reader into the subject, without diving down any rabbit holes. His prose are witting and wry at times, with obvious care to entertain the reader. I found myself humbled at some of his text in the Manson chapter. Franscell sets the bar pretty high for those of us in the genre.
It was a smart move to dedicate a chapter to Charles Manson. To have included it any other fashion would have been a distraction. With all of the locations he has tagged in the text, you are tricked into realizing the scope of the Manson family’s reign of terror.
This is not the kind of true crime book that breaks new ground, nor does it claim that it does. Instead it provides a wonderful tapestry of the darker side of Los Angeles in a comprehensive and entertaining format. Outlaw Los Angeles is a tour guide for every true crime fan that visits the city – written by one of the contemporary masters of the craft.
Fair play warning. While this book is from my publisher, I purchased my own copy of it and was not coerced into a book review. My opinions are my own.
Being a true crime junkie, (it’s part of being a true crime author) it’s hard not to get sucked into this book. It opens with the discovery of a beheaded and mutilated body. I was not familiar with Ms. Yates work up to this point, but I have to admit, she hooked me like a big dumb fish with that opening. How could anyone put it down after that kind of intro?
I refuse to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say the murderess lives up to every bit of the title. This book is not long – or I should more accurately say, I read it fast. The victim, Ejaz Ahmad, a Pakistani, embodies everything you desire of the American dream. He came here legally to carve out a new life. Had working doesn’t sound like enough of a description of him. In three chapters I found myself liking this man – a testament to Yate’s writing style.
But like all men, his choice in women was flawed…deadly flawed. His kindheartedness reminds you of a time when every young man meets a woman that takes advantage of him. You are caught between the love and lust and the betrayals.
Yates portrayal of Ahmad’s killer, Leah Ward, is such that you find no pity for her. It is as if she stepped off the set of a season of FX’s Fargo. The author does not make her a cardboard character, but instead twists the reader around the bizarre blend of mental instability, drugs, and horrific behavior. As a reader, you find yourself squirming in your seat as Yates recreates the events leading up to the murder. The mix of an innocent completely sympathetic victim and a gnarled and heartless murderess is something that leaves the reader trapped. You cannot casually put the book down and convince yourself you know the whole story. Yates compels you to read on.
The only critique I have of the book, albeit a minor one, is that the writing style is more contemporary than my preference. In other words, Yates writes in short, crisp, easy to devour chapters. I prefer somewhat longer (and fewer) chapters. On the plus side, you can easily cruise through three chapters in an evening (if you dare). This is purely a matter of personal preference and style on my part – and not a criticism of the book at all.
So, is this an addition to your summer reading list? You betcha! Kudos to Judith Yates for a great book and a perfect title. She is Evil