As a cold case true crime author you become emotionally invested in your work. If you are going to do your job right, you have it. Sometimes that connection is with investigators, other times it is with family members of the victims. You have no control over where those connections are going to come from, in many respects, you are along for the ride.
The first interview we did for the book was with Larry McCann, the Virginia State Police profiler who worked the case. Victoria and I needed the big picture, a strategic perspective. Larry was the guy to do that for us. Larry taught me more about criminal profiling in four hours than I got from three textbooks on the subject.
Next came my interview with the brother and sister of Annamaria Phelps. It was deeply moving, though I did my best to keep my poker face on. The love and frustrations they had been forced to endure and lose was incredible. They felt that the system had failed them…and it had. The killer of their beloved sister has not been brought to justice yet. Over the years they have been emotionally jerked around by investigators who flip-flopped on whether their sister’s case was tied to the Colonial Parkway Murders or not. Despite tantalizing leads, there has not been an arrest. For them, it tore them apart internally and brought them together spiritually.
If you think I didn’t get in the car after our interview and break down…you would be wrong.
The case is baffling and more complicated than it appears on the surface. Labor Day weekend, 1989, Daniel Lauer went to visit his brother Clinton and Clinton’s girlfriend, Annamaria Phelps, at Virginia Beach. He brought along three passengers, Joe Godsey, his wife, and their young daughter. It promised to be a weekend of partying. Unfortunately, it got out of hand – resulting in a large scale riot.
At the end of the weekend, Daniel had decided to move in with his brother and Annamaria. The plan on that Sunday night was to drive back to their home in Amelia County, Virginia. He would drop off the Godsey’s, grab his stuff, get paid by his father, then drive back. Annamaria decided to come along. Daniel would drop her off with her parents while he packed, then would pick her up and together they would drive back to join Clinton.
Everything seemed to go as planned. Annamaria saw her folks and Daniel picked her up for the drive back. The last place they were seen by witnesses was in the east-bound rest area on I-64 in New Kent County.
The next morning, Daniel’s car was found in the west-bound rest area on the merge ramp, abandoned. The glove box was opened and a roach clip hung from the driver’s side window which was partially lowered. The keys were in the vehicle, as if someone was staging the car for theft.
Authorities mounted a search but found nothing. It would be six weeks later when their bodies were found by turkey hunters just a mile from where Daniel’s car had been found. It would take experts from the Smithsonian to help the Virginia State Police to try and piece together what happened. All they could say for sure is that Annamaria had been cut by a knife on one of her fingers. There was no way to ascertain the cause of death. All we know for sure is that Annamaria fought with her killer that night.
I’ve been to the site a few times and it remains pretty much as it looked back then. Visiting the Crime Scene In talking with investigators that were on the scene at the time, we are convinced of one thing – the killer had stalked the site out in advance, or at least had familiarity with it. Otherwise getting back there and out again would have been a challenge.
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of their deaths. When you write true crime, the key dates stick with you. I cringe in August because it marks the bombing/murder in Marshall I wrote about and the murder of Maggie Hume in Battle Creek, MI. January always makes me think of Daisy Zick and her death. Labor Day, that is reserved for Annamaria and Daniel. In my mind I replay everything. How did their car end up on the other side of the highway? Why did the killer target them? What happened in those dark woods? What clues were lost because the police did not do an effective search? Why did the killer stop after this pair of victims? How did the killer get control of them? Why didn’t someone see something on that holiday weekend?
We have new techniques and technologies that can help crack the cases…but is time running out? No. I don’t believe that, not for an instant. The moment you go down that road, you only find despair.
Even today, when I drive to Williamsburg I make myself stop at the refurbished rest area – the last place they were seen. I take a minute or two and look around and think of what happened thirty years ago at that site. A great deal has changed, but not the mystery, and not the sense that more could and should have been done at the time.
This was CrimeCon’s second year. I didn’t attend last year because I was unsure just what it was going to be all about. This year I was on panelist for the Colonial Parkway Murders and, having reviewed the images and reports from last year, I felt pretty sure I was not attending some crazed weirdo cult gathering.
I had a good time. Incorrect. I had a GREAT time. CrimeCon is one of the few places on the planet when you can say, “I write true crime,” and people don’t wince or say things like, “Oh, that’s nice…” while backing away slowly. I get it, for decades true crime has been a secret pleasure for a lot of people. The people here were fans – some were die-hard fans. Others were dipping their toes into the true crime waters. It was a very friendly group.
A bit about the demographics. Most of the attendees were female…I don’t know the exact ratio but it seemed like 12 to 1. Many were younger than me, which is easy because I’m 55. There were fans of a wide variety of sub-genre’s too – TV crime show fans, author fans, serial killers, cold cases, podcast groupies, you name it.
The night we arrived at the Gaylord Resort in Nashville we were told we couldn’t go out to dinner at the mall because there had been a murder there. I admit, I thought they were joking at first. They weren’t. Talk about mistakes. We had a large number of FBI, law enforcement, lawyers and 3,500 armchair detectives only a half-a-mile away.
Victoria and I attended the session with Dianne Lake about her time with the Manson Family. It was an interesting presentation. It is hard to emotionally bond with Ms. Lake given where she was and who she was with in the summer of 1969. You get this weird feeling with her of sadness, pity, yet some degree of distaste given that she was a member of the Manson Family. I have to admit, I was fascinated on how Charlie got his talons into her. Dang it – I will have to buy her book now.
The next session I attended was by Jim Fitzgerald on cracking the Unabomber case. That’s right, it was “Fitz” himself. He explained to us what parts of the show were not based on real life and did it in an amusing way, with actual Facebook and Twitter posts he had received. Great stuff. His insights and role in cracking that crime were incredible to listen to. I want to go on Netflix now and re-watch it over again.
I talked to Fitz about a serial murder spree that Victoria and I are working on. More on this as we move forward…but our discussion was promising!
At the same time my co-author daughter attended the session on the Golden State Killer. They had a great panel including one of the officers involved with this scumbag’s takedown. New facts not in the press yet were presented. I won’t take her thunder, she promised me a blog post on it, but I was intrigued to learn they had recovered some of the souvenirs this bastard had taken from his victims. Oh, and that wheelchair? Totally for the press. I think his lawyer knows he’s going to lose the case but they want to try and mitigate the sentencing with a, “poor old feeble man,” routine. Well, it’s a routine…and not very convincing.
I met with Gemma from The Keepers. She was very nice. We are cold case comrades.
The panel on the Colonial Parkway Murders that I was on was outstanding. Bill Thomas and Joyce Call were on it; relatives of victims of Cathy Thomas and Keith Call respectively. Both were outstanding as was expected. We were moderated by former FBI agent Maureen O’Connell who did an admirable job of keeping us on task (no small feat mind you.) We had over 520 attendees for the session – which is outstanding. Get the word out about these crimes!
We both sat in on the Delphi Murders panel. Kudos to the family members and the Indiana State Police for coming. Deeply moving. I met with the grandfather of one of the victims later and offered him a couple of suggestions that he might consider. The guy looked like a truck driver for some reason. I suggested checking with the weigh-stations near the town. You never know…
Victoria and I attended the early morning podcast session with Nancy Grace on the Delphi Murders…which we totally enjoyed.
While the rest of my family took in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I sat in on a session by Steven David Lampley on How to Catch a Liar. Holy crudstunk – that was useful. Not only is it something I can use as a true crime author when I interview people – it is something I can apply in my day-job as well. Book purchased!
I attended the Nancy Grace Meet and Greet. Wow has she got some great fans. We were in line all talking and chatting about cases etc. A young woman was there telling us about her cousin and a highly suspicious suicide down in Mississippi. It was heart wrenching. We offered her some advice on how to proceed. I promised to post her information – so here it is. Spread the word true crime fans!
Nancy didn’t just do a meet and greet, we actually had a good conversation…so much so she asked for and got my phone number so we can talk at a later date. It helped that I had a little gift for her – an autographed copy of A Special Kind of Evil. It has been so long since an attractive lady has asked for my phone number, I was humbled by that alone.
Later, I attended a fantastic session on Serial Killer profiling by Jim Clemente and John White. They hit on some cases that I was unfamiliar with which made it interesting. Their banter was funny, but not disrespectful to the victims (a line some podcasters need to learn from.) I really enjoyed Dr. White’s perspectives on what make these killers tick. I need to touch base with him on some work we are doing.
During the time there Victoria and I connected with quite a few podcasters and got approached for autographs – which is always good. It is nice to meet our “fans.” True Crime has never been this popular and CrimeCon helps make it more respectable. Next year is New Orleans!
I was overjoyed with the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo for several of the Golden State Killer’s brutal crimes. For the victims, it means that his crime spree of 12 murders, 50 rapes, and over 100 burglaries, was finally over. He will never call his victims again and threaten them. He will never cause nightmares with the survivors. He looks like a pathetic old man who will likely spend the rest of his days behind bars…something I am quite comfortable with. His reign of fear and torment are done.
We will learn more about this douchebag’s activities over time. The nuts and bolts of the investigation will be played out the courts. He may talk, he may clam up. In the end it doesn’t matter. It is a rare thing, to beat DNA evidence.
I write true crime books about cold cases. I was thrilled when the news was announced. I listened to the press conference live in the background while I worked my day job, hanging on every word. It gives hope to the thousands of victims and family members out there waiting for resolution on their open cases. At the same time it sends a ripple of fear into every murderer who believes he or she had gotten away with their crimes. Justice comes…prodding painfully slow in many cases…but it comes. Every uncaught serial murderer out there had a restless night of sleep as a result of this arrest. Once more, they are forced to look over their shoulders and wonder when, if ever, the long arm of the law will apprehend them. Good. Let these bastards sweat. Let them worry. Let them have a healthy dose of fear and mental anguish.
When they held the press conference the first question asked was, “Did Michelle McNamara’s book on the case have any influence?” Law enforcement said no. I respectfully disagree. Her writing of that book, like any book written on a cold case, keeps it in the public’s eye. Books like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark keep the pressure on law enforcement when it comes to cold cases. While her book did not necessarily generate a tip that led to DeAngelo’s arrest, it spawned at least three documentaries to be produced in recent months. It made the phrase, “Golden State Killer,” become embedded as part of our true crime lexicon. It kept the public’s interest in the case and as such, keep the pressure on law enforcement. While they offered Ms. McNamara any credit, I will extend it at this time.
There are others that wrote books on the case that deserve equal credit. Countless podcasters covered the case over the last few years too and they deserve a professional nod from the true crime community. They were part of a secret army of citizens that were struggling to keep this case fresh in the minds of a generation that did not know this murder/rape spree. They are part of that unspoken True Crime brotherhood that refuses to let cold cases remain frigid. Hats off to all of them as well. A job well done!
When I proposed writing my first book on a cold case, Murder in Battle Creek, there were publishers that wouldn’t touch it. Not because of the writing or the content, but because it was about an unsolved murder. I remember one telling me, “Who wants to read about a case that never gets closed? True crime books have to have an arrest, a trial, and a conviction…that’s how they end.” It was such a narrow view…and discouraging. It was as if they were saying the victim (Daisy Zick) didn’t matter, that because their crime was unsolved that no one cared. I felt differently. I cared, and I didn’t think I was alone. I think the public likes to be a part of such an investigation. They want to know what went wrong and set it right. It is in the public’s nature to want to help. They want the facts and want to play armchair detective. They want the pain and suffering of the families to end too. I didn’t’ give up on trying to sell the book and was eventually successful.
The result – over two dozen new tips and leads…one just two months ago.
My second cold case book, I wrote with my daughter Victoria Hester. The Murder of Maggie Hume exposed the flaws in some of the investigatory work in that case, as well as exposed a suspect that the public had never heard of. The two of us had full cooperation with the prosecutor’s office and police. We reached out to the public in speaking events and made sure the story got to as many people as possible. The word got out.
The result – new tips and leads for the authorities to act on.
Our second book together, A Special Kind of Evil, The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings, has generated numerous new tips that have been turned over to the authorities. We have met with numerous people that are pounding the pavement in their own way, looking for resolution. I know some folks think true crime authors make their money off other people’s misery. They are wrong. Most of us, the ones I know, simply want to help.
I feel like we’ve done our small part in shaking the stigma about writing about cold cases in the publishing world. This recent arrest fills me (and my daughter) with renewed energy on the new cases we are exploring, as well as some of the new avenues we are looking into on the Colonial Parkway murders. The new cases we are looking into are exciting and bitterly cold. We look forward to thawing them out and bringing them into the light of public debate, investigation, and speculation.
Those of us that write about cold cases never are done with our work; not until the arrest and conviction takes place. We are on the cases until they are resolved. That’s part of the commitment on our part. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.
In the meantime, the good guys have racked up a heck of a triumph. This arrest is a victory for the law enforcement. It is vindication and resolution (hopefully) for the many victims of this scumbag. And, despite what was said in the press conference, it is a win for Michelle McNamara and her countless long hours of work and effort to keep this case in the public’s eye.
Every year April 9 passes, and every year there is no resolution to what happened to Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey. This year is no different other than this is one of those milestone anniversaries – three decades of more mystery than answers. Every five years the media pays homage the four pairs of Colonial Parkway Murders. Every five years the same questions are asked. Who did these crimes? Why? But the most nagging question of all remains, “Where are Keith and Cassandra?”
As a writer you get to know some of these families of the victims. The completion of the book does not end our relationships. My co-author/daughter likes to say, “We are never off the case.” She’s right. One thing I have come to appreciate is that these are, for the most part, good people. They too are victims of this killer, and carry the emotional scars to prove it. In the case of the Colonial Parkway Murders, the burden of remembrance of their loved ones has, in some cases, passed from the parents to the surviving siblings.
Almost all have said that this pair of murders stands out. In the other killings the murderer left mortal remains…the families know somewhat what befell their loved ones. Not so in the case of Keith and Cassandra. Their families have no graves, no memorials, nothing. It was as if they drove off April 9, 1988 into oblivion.
The facts of the case do not change materially over time. Keith and Cassandra went on a first date together. When you see their photos, they look as if they were stars of a John Hughes from the 1980s. This was not a romantic date. They went to a movie and a party new Christopher Newport Community College (now University.) At the party, they didn’t even spend time together. Keith was on a two-week break from his long-term girlfriend; and Cassandra spent her time at the kegger talking to her former boyfriend. They left the party before 2:00am, Cassandra’s curfew. It was just enough time for conscientious Keith to get her home in Tabb, Virginia.
The next day their car was found on the Colonial Parkway – abandoned. Their clothing was in the back seat. Three of their shoes were in the car as well. The keys were in plain sight as was Keith’s wallet and Cassandra’s purse. There was no sign of either victim.
Extensive searches were launched along the Parkway. In a strange twist, another body was found in the York River near where the car was found – but no sign of either of the victims.
So what happened to Keith and Cassandra? The Park Rangers foolishly suggested they went skinny dipping in the 40 degree weather. Most of the searches concentrated their efforts on the York River and the Parkway…but there never was a bit of physical evidence to put either of them there.
The truth is only their killer(s) know for sure. What I am confident of is that whatever happened didn’t happen at the Parkway. Even if we wildly stretch our imaginations and assume that Keith and Cassandra were going to go somewhere to make out, it would not be the Colonial Parkway. Keith didn’t frequent it because of the murders of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski there is 1986. Cassandra felt that he road was creepy and avoided it.
Whatever happened, in my opinion (and some in law enforcement) took place between the party at Christopher Newport and Cassandra’s home – along the Route 17 corridor. Yes, the car was found at the first rest area on the Colonial Parkway, but that was all. I doubt that either of them were on the Parkway. There’s no physical evidence of it. That was simply where the car was dumped by the killer(s).
There are questions that nag at me, both as a researcher/investigator and an author. The short version includes:
Where did Keith and Cassandra confront their killer(s)? If it was along Route 17, why weren’t they seen by someone that night?
How did the killer(s) get them to pull over? Was it someone impersonating police officers, or someone actually in law enforcement? Was it a flash of police lights or some other ploy to get their attention?
Where are their remains? With all of the development in the region, one would think that someone would have come across their remains over the years.
I have long believed that the removal of their clothing and shoes was a means for the killer to exert control. Why fold up their clothing and put it in the back seat of Keith’s car?
Why take the car to the Parkway to abandon it? Was it a taunt aimed at authorities? There were dozens of places that car could have been left – why on the Parkway?
Did the killer order them to drive around that night? There were empty beer cans in the back of Keith’s car on the floor. Did the killer take them for some sort of ride at gun or knife point? To where?
How did the killer get away? Remember – we are dealing with multiple scenes of this crime. One, where Keith and Cassandra were confronted. Two, where they were killed. Three, where their remains were disposed. Four, where the car was abandoned. Some of these may be the same scene, regardless, there was a lot of potential travel that night. After the car was left on the Parkway, did the killer have an accomplice pick him up – or did he walk off into the night? If so, how did no one not notice him?
What DNA, if any, can be recovered from this crime scene that is of use? Bear in mind, the Park Rangers rooted through this car twice, removing the clothing and contents then restaging the vehicle. How contaminated is the material they have left?
Of course, one of you may have the answers. On April 9, 1988 you may have passed Keith’s red Toyota Celica pulled over somewhere? Did you see the killer walking along the Colonial Parkway? Did you see someone at Keith’s car at the pull-off on the York River?
Sadly, we are left with more questions than answers. The passage of three decades has done little to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. While to me, it is important to know who this killer is; it is far more important to learn where Keith and Cassandra are. If the murderer is reading this, and there is a good chance that he is (organized killers follow their crimes), let the families know where you put their bodies. There are a lot of ways to do this without risking your exposure. Send a letter to the press, to me, or the authorities. Tell the families where they can find their loved ones.
After three decades…justice needs to be served. If that is not possible, perhaps closure for the families is a good place to start. Let’s hope that the killer is reading this and has an ounce of humanity still left in him.
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.
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!
October 9, 2017, marks the 31st anniversary of murders of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski. This was the first of the Colonial Parkway Murders and that makes it significant on several fronts. In a recent WAVY poll, over 90% of the people believe that this string of murders are the act of a serial killer. If that is the case, that killer attempted to recreate events that led to the deaths of Cathy and Becky over three decades ago; duplicate that experience. It makes their murders more important to fully understand since it is the lighting of this fuse that led to six additional murders.
Cathy Thomas was a dynamic individual from what we have been able to ascertain. She graduated from the US Naval Academy in the second class that allowed women…making her one of the true trailblazers in the service. By almost all accounts she brought a vibrancy and vitality to those around her. Cathy wanted to be a surface warfare officer in a Navy that barely accepted females to begin with. She was a homosexual in the Navy at a time when that was considered a security risk. The Naval Investigative Services (today known as NCIS) probed her lifestyle and it was one of the factors that caused her to eventually leave the Navy. She became a stockbroker in civilian life and was already very successful in her new career.
Rebecca Dowski was a transfer student to the College of William and Mary. Intelligent and energetic, she had completed her high school years in France. She attended Dickenson for a short time and became a standout athlete there. During her summers she taught at a summer camp where the kids and the parents thought highly of Becky’s enthusiasm and leadership. Her parents divorced and that hit her hard but she never lost focus or her drive. She transferred to William and Mary to pursue a career in international business.
Cathy and Becky were introduced by Cathy’s former girlfriend and were in the early stages of a relationship. On October 9, 1986, they were last seen on-campus, assisting another friend on a computer homework project. Becky’s car was packed to go home over the fall break (Columbus Day). They left campus in Cathy’s car, presumably to get something to eat and to spend some time together before Becky left.
Their car was found by a jogger near the 9.5 kilometer mark on the Colonial Parkway along the York River on October 12. It had been pushed over the edge of the river embankment and was nose-down.
The Park Rangers presumed the white Honda Civic was a crashed vehicle and smashed the back window out to get to the occupants and rescue them. The interior had been soaked in diesel fuel. Cathy was in the hatch portion of the car, Becky in the back seat. There was blood everywhere. It became almost instantly clear that this was no drunken driven accident. Because the bodies were found on Federal land, the FBI was called in.
The murderer or murderers came with several implements of death. The victims had been strangled with a nylon line commonly used by boaters. Their throats had been cut by a very sharp knife, nearly decapitating Cathy Thomas. The killer had removed the rope with his knife, leaving a small piece of it in Cathy’s red hair. The murderer put the bodies in the back of the Honda and had driven it to the spot on the Parkway where it was found. Dousing the vehicle interior with diesel fuel, he had tried to light it…spent matches on the ground told that part of the story that night. Diesel’s higher ignition point negated that. Finally he had tried to push the Honda into the York River in hopes that it would wash out to sea. Instead it had been stuck there on the embankment.
It was overkill. Why cut their throats if you had them tied up around the neck? What had triggered this kind of brutality? Was it someone offended at seeing two women together, perhaps intimately? Or was it something else that caused this level of violence in the killer?
There had been a struggle – Cathy Thomas had put up a fight. She had a knife cut at the base of one of her thumbs. The killer had spent considerable time with his victims. He had presumably struggled with Cathy, regained control, tied the two of them up – strangling them. Then he had cut their throats, put them in the car, and drove them to where they were found. This was not a small portion of time he spent with his victims; which begs the question – why? If his intent was to kill his victims, why not just shoot them as they sat in the car? No. This killer spent time with them as they struggled and suffered.
I could write pages of why the investigation went nowhere, attempt to lay blame and point fingers but that does not help at all and is likely a misguided effort. None of that changes the reality that this pair of murders became cold – frigid cold. There are questions I’d like to know, beyond the obvious “who was the killer?” These include:
Where did Cathy and Becky go after they left campus? There is a presumption they were killed either late on October 9 or the early morning hours of October 10. Where did they go after leaving William and Mary? There was meat in their stomachs, so they must have gone somewhere for dinner – where?
Where did these crimes take place? There was not enough blood to indicate they were killed where the car was found. So where did these murders happen? Was it on the Parkway at another pull-off, or somewhere entirely different?
When did the murders transpire? There is a long span of time from when the pair were last seen and when their bodies were found. How much time did the killer spend with them? The timeline often answers other questions for investigators.
Why leave their bodies on the Colonial Parkway – a heavily traveled roadway?
Why were they targeted? This is two bright (if not brilliant) young women. What triggered such a scene of carnage? What drew the killer to these two women?
Bill Thomas has remained a stalwart champion of his sister Cathy. He has established a Colonial Parkway Facebook page. If you have theories, suggestions, memories, or tips – it is a great place for you to go to offer your thoughts. I encourage you to go there and join that group. Or you can check out our book on the Parkway Murders – A Special Kind of Evil
Victoria Hester (my co-author and daughter) have a number of public events coming up this fall and into the winter – most centered on our book on the Colonial Parkway Murders.
As a note, we don’t bring books to sell at these events. These events are not about selling books, but rather about talking about the victims and the crimes. We are more than happy to autograph your books or your Kindles (no joke, people ask us to do this) at the events however. We encourage you to support your local bookstores or Amazon.com.
I will be keeping these dates current. Sometimes things change on-the-fly with some libraries. Bookmark this post or simply follow my blog to keep abreast.
We hope to see a lot of locals show up at these events to talk about the crimes.
October 4 – Olivet College, Michigan. Criminology Class discussing our book The Murder of Maggie Hume and that investigation.
October 5 – Battle Creek Math and Science Center, Battle Creek Math and Science Center, Battle Creek, Michigan. Two Forensic Classes discussing A Special Kind of Evil.
October 9 – Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Udvar Hazy Center at Dulles, 7pm. Blaine will be discussing his book on Frank Luke Jr. – Terror of the Autumn Skies, for the AHS Group meeting there. Open to the public.
October 17 – Tabb Library, Yorktown, Virginia, 6:30pm – Discussing A Special Kind of Evil.
October 25 – Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, Virginia. 5-8pm Discussing A Special Kind of Evil.
November 4 – Culpeper County Public Library, Culpeper, Virginia, 3:00pm. Discussing A Special Kind of Evil.
November 28 – Newport News Library, Grissom Branch, 7:00pm. Discussing A Special Kind of Evil.
Williamsburg Library will be January 20 at 2:00pm in the Kitzinger Room at the James City County Branch.
September 20, 2017 marks the anniversary of what has become known as the second pair of the Colonial Parkway Murders. At the time the connections between this crime and the deaths of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski on the Colonial Parkway were not contemplated. The crimes were treated separately, handled by completely different law enforcement agencies. The spiderweb of connections that would link the crimes had not been seen yet.
There are almost more unknowns than knowns about the late night of September 19th and the early morning of the 20th. The known facts are straight-forward, almost benign. David Knobling had agreed to take his cousin and his brother Michael and his brother’s friend, Robin Edwards out for some fun. They were supposed to go to a movie, but ended up hitting an arcade. David drove a black Ford Ranger that night, his pride and joy. On the trip to take Robin home, his brother and cousin opted to ride in the back so she wouldn’t get wet as the rain intensified. David and Robin were in the cab for the 15-20 minute ride…it was their only time alone that night.
Robin was dropped off after 11pm on September 19th. David took his cousin and brother home, ordered some pizza and watched TV. Later he left and picked up Robin who had sneaked out of her house. No one knew the two were going to connect, or why.
Early in the morning hours of September 20th, David’s truck was spotted by partiers at Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge across the James River. Police found the vehicle parked, one window down slightly, the door ajar, keys in the ignition turned to accessories, and the radio going. There was no sign of David and at that time, no one knew that Robin Edwards was with him. Robin’s family assumed she had run away from home.
It rained heavily for two days and police searched the James River and made a cursory attempt to search the refuge, but to little avail. David’s stepfather Karl went out on his own, wearing waders, searching the swamps for any sign of his missing son. The police towed David’s truck to his father’s house, accidentally dropping some of their fingerprint cards in the process – such was the shabby state of the investigation at this point.
Two days later a jogger running on the beach of the James River spotted the remains of Robin. David was found several minutes later, further down the beach by his father and an officer. Both had been shot. David had been hit twice, once in the back shoulder with the bullet angled up – the other shot to his head. Robin had been shot in the head from behind.
The anguished families were not told of the crimes by the authorities, but instead learned about it from the local news coverage.
Robin was fourteen years old. She had been a spitfire – having runaway several times and was aged beyond her years by the experiences she had endured. In the months before her disappearance she had begun to turn herself around. David was 20 and had just started a new job. He had a girlfriend who had recently discovered she was pregnant with his child. Why they got together, no one can say for sure other than their killer(s).
To say that the investigation was botched would be complimentary. David and Robin were found a mile or so from David’s truck. Their shoes were in the vehicle, so investigators had to know they had not gone far. The fact that a search had not turned up their bodies and that jogger had been running through the crime scene, discovering their remains, only points to the sloppy police work that had taken place.
Ragged Island is a rough place with a gritty reputation even to this day. There are only two paths that the killer and his victims could have gone. One was from the parking area straight to the James River Bridge. Lined by chain link fencing and a swamp, there was no avenue for escape. The second path is a winding trail through the swamp to the beach not far from where they were found. On a rainy night, with only the lights from the bridge, either path would have been dark and dangerous.
We learned during our research that David’s vehicle had been staged that night; poised for theft. He always backed his truck into its spot – and never left it unlocked. Also David and his brother had wired the radio so it could play without putting the keys in. The killer had turned the keys to accessories to turn on the radio – something that David knew he didn’t have to do.
The killer had left the truck with the keys in plain sight – practically begging for someone to steal it – to further muddy the waters of this investigation. It turns out this was a pattern that would be followed on the next two of the cases tied to the Colonial Parkway Murders…the staging of the vehicle for theft.
The Isle of Wight Sheriff’s Department later developed a theory that one Sammy Rieder may have been involved in their deaths. He failed a polygraph test and admitted that he had seen David’s truck in those early morning hours and had stolen money from David’s wallet in the vehicle. With his death there is no one to further validate in involvement – if any – with the murders. He may have been little more than someone seeking attention by linking himself to the case. It sounds crazy, but there were others that have done that with the Colonial Parkway Murders.
The Virginia State Police have their own theory. They believe that a local drug dealer had arranged to sell drugs to David and Robin as a pretense to sexually assault Robin. It is a colorful theory but lacks the evidence or witnesses to back it up.
As with the case in New Kent County, the Virginia State Police ignored their own behavioral specialist. The investigators in both of these pairs of murders tend to think their crimes are not connected to the Colonial Parkway Murders. They may be right. Until an arrest is made, no one will know for sure. For us, it is hard to disconnect these crimes. The Colonial Parkway is only a few minutes’ drive from Ragged Island. If they are not connected – then there are multiple killers that have managed to elude authorities for all of these decades, which is just as a chilling a thought.
What are the odds that these crimes, a murder of a couple with no known enemies, in such a brutal manner, are not somehow connected? Our talk with Larry McCann of the Virginia State Police who profiled these crimes summed it up best. “You have a better chance of winning the lottery than these crimes not being connected.”
As I stated earlier, there are more unknowns here than knowns. Did David and Robin meet their killer at another location and were brought to Ragged Island to be killed, or were they there the whole time? Why had they agreed to meet in the first place? Where did the crimes take place – where the bodies were found – or at another point in the wildlife preserve?
Right now, only their murderer knows – and the silent wind-swept trees of Ragged Island.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.