The Delphi Murders – A Cold Case That is Solvable

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When we went to CrimeCon, Victoria and I attended two sessions about this case and it is one that sticks with you once you know something about it.  As we approach the second anniversary of these senseless murders, I thought I would highlight it on my blog.  Please share this…because this case screams to be solved.

On February 13th 2017, the day before Valentine’s Day, Abigail “Abby” Williams and Liberty “Libby” German were dropped off by Libby’s sister at a local park in Delphi Indiana.  They were let off near an abandoned railway bridge that was part of a relatively new park, the Delphi Historic Trail.  It was 1:00pm in the afternoon, in broad daylight.  The girls were 13 and 14 respectively and the park was considered safe.  Delphi is a small community after all, with a population of under 3,000.

As I recall from my notes, school had been cancelled unexpectedly that day, so there was no reason for their killer to expect them to be in that park at that time.

By 5:30pm in the evening the girls were reported as missing.  A search by locals found their remains the next day, some 50 feet from Deer Creek, about a half mile from the railroad bridge.  Authorities have not revealed the exact cause of death of the two girls to the public.

The real shock about this case is that Libby’s phone contained an image of their suspected killer and a recording of his voice, saying “Down the hill.”  He is suspected to be between 5 foot 6 and 10 inches tall, weighing 180-220 pounds with reddish brown hair.  There is little doubt that Libby managed to capture her killer both audio and video.  Despite this, there have been some false leads and suspects, but their killer remains at large.

What struck me, as an author of cold cases, is as follows:

  • This is a small community.  Clearly this is an outsider, making this a crime of opportunity on his part.  Is he a passing truck driver who stopped in the community and came across the girls, or someone who was passing through for some other reason?  To me, it makes sense to check truck stop videos nearby or weigh stations for their records. I passed on that suggestion to one of the family members at Crimecon, though I’m sure the authorities would have already checked these out.
  • The girls were not supposed to be out of school that day.  Did he know that school was out that day or is it sad happenstance that they were in the park to begin with?
  • With two victims – the question must be asked…did he act alone?  It is possible to get and maintain control of two victims, but it is more difficult.  Libby clearly got images and audio of their killer, why didn’t they flee?  Did he get control of one of them to compel the other to stay there?
  • The authorities are keeping quiet how these victims were killed – which is prudent and frustrating at the same time.  Clearly there is something in the method of the murder which somehow factors into this.
  • The killer’s clothing and hat are clues because chances are, this isn’t the first time he wore them.  These appear as “comfort clothing.”  While the video is blurry, the police composite is pretty clear.  Someone knows this man, or knows someone matching his description that was out of town (in Delphi) at the time of the murders.  Do you know someone who wore that kind of hat and jacket who stopped after July of 2017, when the images were released?

The police site has the audio of his voice as well.  Take a listen to it. Does it sound like someone you know?

Indiana State Police Site

You may hold the key to solving this cold case.  The families deserve justice and the victims have given us the best clues as to who this killer is.  Please contact the Indiana State Police if you think you might know something.

Update on the book tour for A Special Kind of Evil – The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings

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We always appreciate the turnout to discuss cold cases.

My co-author (and daughter) and I are about half-way through our live lectures as part of our book tour for A Special Kind of Evil.  We are not big on book signing events at bookstores, but tend to favor lectures at libraries and colleges on the subject.  This gives us a chance to have more of a dialogue with participants and have them engage more.  We don’t sell books at these events but we do sign them.  This was never about selling books as much as it was about getting the stories out.

These events are hard to do. An hour cannot do complete justice to the stories.  I always say it is akin to trying to pour five gallons of water into a one gallon bucket.

We have some other events coming up, and we hope they too will generate some new leads as well.  Someone out there knows something…

  • November 4 – Culpeper County Public Library, Culpeper, Virginia, 3:00pm.
  • November 28 – Newport News Library, Grissom Branch, 7:00pm.
  • Williamsburg Library will be January 20 at 2:00pm in the Kitzinger Room at the James City County Branch.

We look forward to seeing you there and answering your questions.

Our session at the Tabb Library in York County was packed to overflowing.  For us this is an indication that the community there is still very interested in the cases.  More than a few things percolated up at that session.  One, a former-relative of Steve Blackmon, a former Gloucester sheriff’s deputy was there and claimed that he told family members he had been cleared of the crimes by polygraph.  That was the first time we had heard that he had been cleared.  Of course polygraphs are only as a good as the person administering them.  Blackmon, and Ron Little’s names come up a LOT in these cases as possible suspects.  Blackmon himself is out on parole for a pair of drug-related murders in South Carolina.  The attendee also told us he was aware the book had been published.  We would love a chance to speak with him…we have many questions that have come up in the last two-plus years of researching.  All-in-all, that was fascinating.

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Ten minutes before started!  A great turnout.

We were honored that friends of Robin Edwards and the family of Keith Call attended.  I am sure that it was comforting to know that their community was so engaged on finding the killer(s).

We also had a moment or two of intrigue.  Victoria was approached by one attendee, Gordy Price who asked us to call him.  Gordy was making a horror film called The Waterman and had heard about a man that had found a strange weapon buried not far from the Colonial Parkway in Seaford.  He graciously put us in contact with Keith William Krushel Jr. who had found the weapon.

Keith was clearing some property as part of a construction job back in July.  He found a machete wrapped in duct tape, buried three feet deep.  It was wrapped as if someone was trying to protect or preserve it for some reason.  His initial thought was that it was a lawnmower blade.  He handled it with gloves, just in case it was used in some sort of crime.  Smart guy.

Do you know of any crimes committed with a machete in the area?  Please reach out to the FBI if you do.  I’m confident they’d love to hear from you.

His aunt remembered the Thomas – Dowski murders both were committed with a knife and contacted the FBI who took it into their possession.  One of the agents, who had spent time on a Virginia farm, indicated he had never seen a blade wrapped for preservation like this.  This agent speculated that the knife may have been used in a crime but saved by someone else, perhaps as leverage against the perpetrator.  “You know, you turn me in, I will go and get that machete and turn it over to the authorities.”  They couldn’t come up with a reason that the killer would do that to a blade.

I was doubtful that it was used in the Thomas – Dowski case.  While a machete is a dangerous weapon, it could have been unwieldy to use to cut someone’s throat, presumably from behind.  Still, you can’t ignore something like this.  Nevertheless we turned the information over to Bill Thomas (Cathy’s brother) who followed up with the FBI.  While it is unlikely that it was used in the Colonial Parkway murders, it may have been involved with some other crime. I have included some photos to assist any would-be crime solvers.  Kudos to Mr. Krushel for doing the right thing and turning it in!

I received a half-dozen different theories and got a chance to correspond with someone that knew Steve Blackmon from his school days.  She was useful in fleshing out some details about him and his personality. It is pretty clear that Blackmon was a crooked cop.  Does that make him the Colonial Parkway murderer?  Perhaps time and new testing techniques will tell.

Our library session spurred another tip that came into our blog – one which I deleted at the behest of the requestor.  This happens more than you might think at these sessions.  This lead has been turned into the FBI via one of the family members who has regular contact with them.  More on that if anything useful does come of it.  This person claimed that they had family members that had been driving on the Parkway on October 9, 1986 and had seen Cathy Thomas’s white Civic, the two girls with their hands crossed, and may have even heard one of them calling for help.  They also saw another vehicle parked next to the Honda as well.  They called in this sighting to the police at the time.  Suffice it to say, it was fascinating.

We also did a session at the Norfolk Public Library and that was well attended as well.  What was great there was that we had a police officer in attendance and a former FBI agent. The latter assured Victoria that he sided with her, that it was likely two killers that had committed these crimes.

The Norfolk crowd had some interesting theories which is always fun.  True crime is so popular now that it has turned millions of people into amateur detectives.  We encourage this.  While we can offer our perspective on such theories, we cannot determine if they are accurate or not until an arrest is made.

So, as we move into the autumn and winter, we hope you will be able to join us soon at an upcoming event!

#ColonialParkwayMurders

#Truecrime

Anniversary of the fourth and last of the Colonial Parkway Murders – Daniel Lauer and Annamaria Phelps

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Daniel Lauer’s Nova as it was found.  Did you happen to see this car or its occupants?  

It has been 28 long years since the crime took place; 28 years from this weekend.  Labor Day will never be the same for me.  It is a reminder of two of the victims of the Colonial Parkway Murders – Daniel Lauer and Annamaria Phelps.  Even today I cannot drive that stretch of I-64 without thinking of the two of them.  I always point out the key scenes to my ever-patient wife as we drive by.  She understands my chronic fixation with these crimes.

Like most of these murders, it was a fluke the victims were even together.  Annamaria was in a relationship with Clint Lauer, Daniel’s brother.  Daniel had been visiting Virginia Beach for Labor Day and the Greek Week festivities (which were a literal riot that particular weekend).  He had decided to move in with the couple.  Times had been tough for Clint and Annamaria.  Clint had lost his job at Wendy’s and their power had been cut off.  Daniel’s contribution to the rent was a welcome and much needed source of income.

On the trip, Daniel had brought along Joe Godsey, his wife, and their infant girl.  By the end o the weekend, Daniel decided to move in with his brother and his girlfriend and was going home to Amelia County Virginia to drop off the Godsey’s and to pick up his clothing and personal items.  Annamaria innocently tagged along.  It would give her a chance to spend a few minutes with her family while Daniel went home and packed. Then the two of them could return to join Clint in Virginia Beach.

It seemed that everything went according to the ad hoc plan.  The Godsey’s were dropped off as was Annamaria.  Daniel packed and was paid by his father for some painting work that he had done.  Daniel was going off to start a new life at Virginia Beach.  Annamaria spent some time at her parents.  Daniel picked her up in his Chevy Nova and they headed back for the two hour or so drive back to Virginia Beach on eastbound I-64.

It was late at night.  There were reports were made after-the-fact that said the couple was seen at the rest area on the eastbound side of the highway in New Kent County.

The next day Daniel’s Nova was found in the rest area on the other side of the highway, in the westbound area, on the merge/acceleration ramp.  It was parked at a strange angle with the driver’s window half down.  Dangling from the window was a feathered roach clip which usually hung from his rearview mirror.  The vehicle had been placed there with the keys – staged so that someone might see it and take it.

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The back seat of the vehicle
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Was this roach clip hanging on the window a taunt to authorities?  

New Kent County Sheriff’s Department and the State Police searched the area but could find no sign of the missing pair.  A lot of the area was covered with helicopters, but the dense woods made it all but impossible for anyone to have seen anything on the ground.  Not enough effort was put into the search, that much is for certain.

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The rest areas as they appeared during the search, Labor Day weekend 1989.  They have changed considerably since then.  The eastbound area is a Virginia Welcome Center – the last clean restrooms between Richmond and Williamsburg

The families were interviewed as were the Godsey’s. Everyone was put under a microscope.  I cannot imagine what it was like for Clint Lauer.  He was the only person that tied the two people together – his girlfriend and his brother.  For him, their disappearance was a double love-loss.  No one, it seemed, had a motive for taking any harmful actions against either of the victims.

The search ended.  Then began the last days of dwindling summer.  It rained a lot during the next six weeks adding to the gloom the families struggled with.  No one gave up hope that they might yet be found. There were sightings in Williamsburg and other places, but they all turned out to be other people.

Then in October some turkey hunters found their remains just over a mile from the rest area just off of a logging road.  They had been covered up with an electric blanket that Daniel had in the car.  Their discovery helped investigators but was an embarrassment to the authorities.  Their search had been an utter failure.  No one knows what kind of evidence might have been gathered had they been found in the first 24 hours.

The bodies were just off a secluded narrow logging trail in the woods. On the trail itself was a locket that had been worn by Annamaria.  Had she dropped it as a breadcrumb in hopes someone might find it and in turn, find them?  Had it been cut off during the attacks that killed her and Daniel?  Or had the killer placed it there as some sort of message to authorities?  Perhaps it was a signal, some sort of sign to them.  I leave this to the behavioral experts to dig into.

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The logging trail as it appears today – not very different
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Annamaria’s locket.  

There were other questions that came up as well.  The covering of the bodies is sometimes done as concealment.  If the blanket had been placed over their head it could be that the killer was feeling guilty, perhaps pointing to a connection between him and the victims.  Unfortunately with so much time having passed, there was no way to be sure.

The only evidence of what happened that night to the pair was a nick on one of Annamaria’s skeletal fingers.  There was no way to know for sure if a knife or other weapon was used to kill them.  One thing is for sure, Annamaria fought and fought with tenacity. She did not go quietly into the darkness. I doubt Daniel did either.

What we know of the killer is revealed by the location of these crimes.  The logging trail was difficult to navigate in the darkness and almost impossible to turn around on.  There was no mud on Daniel’s car tires, so we know that the murderer must have taken them on that trial in his vehicle.  That meant that he had to have gotten control of them in the eastbound I-64 rest area and drove them the half mile further up the road to the exit, drove under the highway, then onto the logging road.  That means whoever the killer was, he had scoped out the area in advance or had previous knowledge of that road.  Otherwise he risked his own vehicle getting stuck or trapped back there too.  The killer chose the sight because of the seclusion.  The trees and dense growth muffle every sound, even today.

Further, the logging road was a tunnel through the trees.  On my own visit, I was reminded of the same effect on the Colonial Parkway.  Was this a killer hell-bent on duplicating the experiences he had thrilled at with his other murders?

The State Police’s theory is that the killer took control of the pair, drove them on the trail, and killed them.  He went back and got the blanket from Daniel’s car to cover them up.  He then returned again and moved Daniel’s car to the westbound rest area and staged the vehicle for possible theft.  It was the same kind of staging that had been done of the victim’s vehicles at Ragged Island and on the Colonial Parkway.

And what of the roach clip hanging from the window?  Larry McCann of the State Police believes that was a taunt to the authorities.  A signal of, “Look at what I can do and you can’t catch me.” If that is the case, there is an arrogance of this murderer.  To me I am drawn more the window being down.  It is as if someone approached Daniel and Annamaria in their car and asked for identification.  A law enforcement officer of some sort, or someone impersonating one.

When it comes to the Colonial Parkway Murders, the behavioral experts will tell you there is a distinct pattern that ties these crimes together.  It’s not just the killing of pairs of victims.  It is the staging of vehicles, the separation of the vehicles from the victims, open glove boxes and windows being down on the cars, and other things.  Investigators, on the other hand, try and pull these cases apart.  They ignore the connections and look at each one as merely a separate crime.  Some say that Ragged Island isn’t connected to the Parkway Murders.  Others say it is this case.  For them it is easier to look at each one separately rather than as part of a pattern.  Personally I find that thinking frustrating and confusing to the families.

My ultimate response to this approach is, “Fine, then make a damned arrest.” Even bringing charges in one of these cases is a victory for all of the families that have been horribly impacted by these tragedies.

Cold cases are justice denied.  Cold cases continue to inflict injury to the survivors every day of every year.  Cold cases demand resolution as much as any other murder…they are no less important.  Justice is a patient mistress indeed when it comes to the Colonial Parkway Murders.  Far too patient.

If you saw Daniel’s car or the occupants 28 years ago, please contact the authorities.  Any new information is greatly appreciated.  The truth is out there and someone always knows something – they may just not have had the context up until now.  If you want to know more about these cases, there is a Colonial Parkway Murders Facebook page or you can reference our book – A Special Kind of Evil.

#truecrime #colonialparkwaymurders

Review of Unsolved No More – A Cold Cast Detective’s Fight for Justice by Kenneth Mains

Unsolved No More

When I started reading Kenneth Main’s book Unsolved No More, I thought I was going to get stories of cold cases that he has resolved.  The book starts as his autobiography, and I wondered if I made a good choice.  I write about cold cases, so that was what I wanted.  Then I hit his chapter on why cases go cold.  That chapter alone should make this book required reading for law enforcement professionals.  He confirmed what Victoria and I have encountered in our own cold case research for books.  One word – “wow!”  I actually re-read portions of that chapter twice because it resonated with me so well.  I have seen the tunnel-vision of some investigators at the expense of the survivors and the victims getting resolution.

Mains knows his stuff, that much is true.  His autobiography portion of the book is there for two reasons.  One is to establish his credibility.  Done!  Two, explaining why he became drawn to the twilight world of cold cases.  Done again.  In fact, looking back at that portion of the book, it was masterfully done to achieve these goals.  “I see what you’ve done there Detective Mains – well played…”

The absolute best portion of this book is the actual cold cases themselves that he worked on.  Kenneth Mains is a law enforcement equivalent of a surgeon of cold cases…he diagnoses the issues and, working with precision, dissects the cases with consummate skill and care.  There is no flowery language here, these are written with the icy calculated care of a professional.

The case stories Mains has written about are beyond gripping, they draw you in and hold you tight as he puts you in his shoes in looking at them. These are not the kind of cases you see on Discovery ID, they are more of the gritty real-world cases.  Not all of them have the kind of red ribbon tied to them at the end that you might expect with a perfect resolution.  I was caught off guard by some of the resolutions, and as a reader, that’s a good thing.

The true crime genre is in its infancy when it comes to the subgenre of cold cases. I highly recommend this wonderful book if you want to understand the cold case investigatory process or if you want to dive into some cases that are filled with twists, turns, and more than a few surprises.  Pick up Unsolved No More, you won’t be disappointed.

#truecrime #coldcases

Visiting the Crime Scene of the First Colonial Parkway Murders

 

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Looking north on the Colonial Parkway from the turnoff where Cathy Thomas’s Honda was found. 

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.

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The curb was not in place when Cathy’s car was pushed over the embankment into the York 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.

Thomas Dowski Scene
FBI Crime Scene photograph of the pull off area at the time of the murders.  

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.

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The closed off entrance to Ringfield.  
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When twilight comes, the Parkway takes on an eerie feeling.  

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.

For more on the Colonial Parkway Murders, check out our upcoming book A Special Kind of Evil

#TrueCrime

#CrimeScene

#ColonialParkwayMurders

Our new true crime project – The Colonial Parkway Murders

parkway-entrance

As some of you know, I tend to focus on writing true crimes – specifically those tied to cold cases. I try and alternate between cold cases and other books (or closed cases) because of the incredible emotional investment you make with cold cases as an author.  Also, when you write about a cold case you are putting yourself out there, physically and personally.  Killers are often not fond of having their dirty deeds brought back into the spotlight – or their own involvement exposed. Also there’s the time you spend with families and friends of the victims.  If you don’t become emotionally engaged with them, then you’re not doing your job correctly as a writer.

On my true crime books for the last three years I partner with my daughter Victoria Hester as a co-author.  It helps greatly to have another set of eyes and hands work on a book – and our writing styles are similar.  We review ideas for books constantly.  It isn’t your garden-variety father-daughter relationship.  Yes, I haul her out to crime scenes.  For us, that’s oddly normal.

Many readers send clippings or emails with suggestions.  It’s part of being a true crime author.  Everyone’s murder is a potential book.

When we look at cold cases as possible subjects for a book there are things we look for that are more gut instinct than science.  People come to us all of the time with, “You have to look into the murder of X.”  In many cases we do just that, pulling newspaper articles and seeing if there is indeed something interesting there, something that catches our attention.

Ninety-nine percent of the time it is a tragic crime but not one that would compel us to spend 8-15 months of research and write.  That isn’t us downplaying the sadness of that loss, but a harsh reality – not all murders are worth the incredible investment of time.  Not every crime warrants a book about it.  I know people don’t like to hear that, especially if it is their friend or loved one – but that is often the truth of the matter.

Sometimes I do cursory research into a subject to write a magazine article about it – before jumping in and doing a book.  This allows me to test the waters.  This allows me to validate my assumptions about the case(s).

So what do we look for?

Is there a story to be told – one that will engage and captivate the reader?  We are not detectives; we are story tellers.  I say this often with people so their expectations are managed.   We investigate cases – that is true.  There has to be a narrative that is going to grab the reader. While it sounds cruel to say that some crimes are boring, a better choice of description might be “routine.”  People have to want to read the story.  In some ways they have to identify with the characters and events surrounding the crime(s).

Did the crime leave an imprint on the community where it happened?  People want to read about things their friends and family know or talk about.   Events of significance to a community often resonate with readers outside of that community.  I want to write books that people will talk about because they are already talking about them.

Is there a twist – something that will capture the reader’s attention?  This usually takes the form of something new that we can introduce to the story.  Are there misperceptions that can be set straight?  Are there new facts we can present readers?  We always want to be more than a regurgitation of what has appeared already in the newspaper accounts.  This is always hard to gauge at the start of a project – you don’t know what you don’t know.  Intuition plays a big part here.

Does the story speak to us as writers?  Do we feel any sort of connection with the victims?  We like writing about people that readers can identify with.  That first step is for us to feel some sort of connection with the victims and/or their families.  For us to write about people, we have to in some way have to empathize with where they were in life, what they were doing, what they were achieving.  It doesn’t have to be substantive or tangible – just a feeling.  Sometimes those connections are generational (I was a child of the 70’s and 80’s) sometimes it is geographical.

One reader/far keeps asking me to look into the death of a friend who was involved with drugs who had an abusive relationship with her boyfriend (who allegedly killed her).  While I am sympathetic; this victim did not lead a life that most people can connect with.  While her death was tragic, it is simply not relatable enough for most readers.

Do we have the support of law enforcement?  In most cases we strive to have a positive relationship with law enforcement.  It is never our intention to create problems for the successful prosecution of a cold case.  We’re not tools for the police, we operate independently.  Sometimes those connections are pretty strong, sometimes they are one-way doors where we share information and never hear the results.

Has enough time come to pass on the case?  Emotional wounds never heal completely, which is one reason we don’t go after current cases.  It is important for some time to have passed, so that the case is indeed truly cold.  Personally I like the older cases because they allow us to bake in some historical context to the book.  It is one thing to give a reader a mental picture of a place; it is another to give them a picture of that place in a different time.  It adds to the challenges and fun in the writing.

Is there intrigue?  Will the readers be curious about the case still?  Will they want more?  Will the readers care – either about the victims or the crimes themselves?  Cold cases are great for this because they have an element of mystery.  The reader is a detective, piecing together the information too. We simply provide the journey for the reader.

Can we do some good by writing the book (generating new tips or leads – righting a wrong)?  We do not solve cases.  We’re writers.  Our job is to take the facts and weave a good readable story.   Our readers will solve the cases – most likely one of them knows a tip or clue that could help resolve a case.  For us, what is important is an ability to generate tips.  Don’t kid yourself – I get a tip or so every month on one of the cases we’ve written about.  We turn them over to the police to act on.  Why?  Simply put, we want to write the last chapters on the cold case books – the arrest and conviction of the killers.

All of this criteria is entirely subjective on our part.

The Colonial Parkway Murders was an easy choice for us. 

I wrote an article about the case for Real Crime magazine last summer on the cases and became hooked.  I got Victoria in the loop and we’ve been diligently doing research on these murders for months now.  I’ve been holding back on revealing too much what we’ve been working on until we had some degree of contact with all of the victim’s families.  Also, in just a few hours, we are coming up on the anniversary of the first the string of murders and disappearances coined as the Colonial Parkway Murders.

Our weekends have been burned and churned with trips all across the state, especially the Tidewater region.  We have met some truly remarkable people – and the stories we have gathered are heart-wrenching and even inspiring.

It is a huge project and we have been helped by many fantastic people along the way so far.   We’ve had a fantastic publisher lined up for this for months now, Wild Blue Press.  They seem excited about the book, as are we. To be honest, this project is daunting.  It is hard enough to capture a single murder – and in this case we are dealing with six victims and two victims that are missing.

Folks, I have never written about a case this incredible.  There are stories here, compelling, tragic, and much more.  This book is forcing us to up our game, so to speak.

I’ll be writing more about these cases and what we’ve learned in our own long investigation into these crimes.  The working title for the book is A Special Kind of Evil – because for any one or any group of people to inflict this kind of horror on innocent victims and their families – they must possess a special kind of dark, twisted evil in their souls. I say working title, because publishers love to change things.

For now, I want to offer a moment of reflection as we approach this dark anniversary of the first of these murders.

If you have any good stories or memories about these cases or the victims, please reach out to me at bpardoe870@aol.com.  If you have any tips for law enforcement, please contact the Virginia State Police or the FBI.

For more information – please check out these newly released articles from the Daily Press.

http://digital.dailypress.com/static/parkway_main/Main/index.html

http://digital.dailypress.com/static/parkway_cottage/main/index.html

As my friend David Schock once said, “Somebody out there knows something…”