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

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

This is my third in a string of blog posts designed to take readers to the crime scenes related to the Colonial Parkway Murders (1986-1989). Our book, A Special Kind of Evil, comes out on July 12. This material augments what is in the book with my personal observations and experiences in visiting these sites…a glimpse into the journey a true crime author goes on.

As a bit of preface, my co-author and I were able to interview seven of the eight families of the Colonial Parkway Serial Killings.  Each and every one of them suffers a unique agony over the loss of their loved ones.  Almost every person said the same thing (or a variant of this).  “At least we know what happened with our loved ones.  The Call’s and the Hailey’s don’t have that.” Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey have never been found. After nearly three decades, the assumption exists that they are dead.  We tried to avoid saying that in the book or out loud to the family members.  To us, we prefer to think of them as missing though we humbly acknowledge the reality.

Keith and Cassandra went out for their first and only date on April 9, 1988.  Keith had been in a serious relationship for years and he and his special woman were taking a short break apart.  This was not a romantic, head-over-heels-in-love date between Keith and Cassandra.  They knew each other from Christopher Newport University where they both attended.  The two went to an off-campus party until around 1:45am.  They left together in Keith’s car. Most of the evening they didn’t even hang out with each other according to attendees at the kegger.

The next morning Keith’s car was found on the Colonial Parkway just north of Yorktown, Virginia. The vehicle appeared abandoned.  In the back seat was most of their clothing, two empty beer cans, and the keys were left in plain view in the car.  There was no sign of Keith or Cassandra. There was no clue as to where they went.  Just an empty red Toyota Celica.

We visited the crime scene with that in mind.  When you come onto the Colonial Parkway at Yorktown, you drive a short distance to arrive at the first half-moon shaped turnoff where Keith’s car was found.  It is along a gentle curve, so that headlights would bath any vehicle parked there. It has been a few decades since I parked with a young woman in a car, but this was not the place for it. For that kind of activity, you want some degree of privacy.  The headlights would have made that impossible. My co-author daughter and I shared awkward mutual experiences as we stood there in the darkness of early evening. The FBI’s early view that they had been there for romance didn’t make sense, on many levels.

When you look out over the York River, you can see the Navy dock jutting out in the distance to the north.  Trees surround the sight today, as they did then.  The low rumble of the Colonial Parkway announces the presences of any approaching vehicle.  Anyone committing this crime would have been best to walk to mile or so south and exit the park.  Like every other area of the drive, it is confined space – it limits where you can get in or out. This similarity with the other two crime scenes is difficult to ignore.  From the murderer’s perspective, this place offered a physical degree of control.  The Colonial Parkway killer is all about control.

The comparisons of the location to the first pair of Colonial Parkway Murders are hard to ignore.  In fact, if you weren’t familiar with the locale, you could be standing in either spot and not know which one you were at.

This crime scene was different though.  There were no bodies, only clothing.  The National Park Rangers actually put forth that the pair may have gone skinny dipping.  Victoria (my co-author and daughter) and I walked to the edge of the parking area and looked down to where they would have had to go.  If you could, in the dark, make your way through the tangle of growth, it was a 10-15 foot decent to the icy waters of the York River.  I doubt I could have done it in broad daylight.  The weather the night of their disappearance had been in the low 40’s.  Keith and Cassandra had not even held hands at the party, let alone demonstrated amorous behavior to where they might go skinny dipping together. It was a preposterous claim that defined common sense.

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The precarious climb down to the river.

The NPS (National Park Service) had a lot of reasons to offer distractions.  They had ruined the crime scene – something we spend some time on in the book.  The FBI found out about the incident on the radio news the next day.  The news media and rangers had tromped around the crime scene so much that it was difficult to obtain good evidence.  Footprints and tire prints were corrupted or utterly destroyed.  It was a mess.

The crime scene itself should have been a clue.  It was two years and one mile from where Cathy Thomas and Becky Dowski had been found. Common sense should have come into play.  Of course it is easy for us to look back at this in hindsight and armchair quarterback the series of mistakes that took place.  Was the NPS trying to downplay the finding of the car, and as a result, corrupting the crime scene?

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FBI crime scene photo of the Call Hailey crime scene

On a separate trip I walked from the crime scene north to Indian Field Creek.  Search dogs had allegedly tracked Cassandra Hailey’s scent north along the parkway to the creek – then the trial ended. Keith’s scent ended before the creek. I tried to picture them, afraid, a weapon held on them, naked, being marched into the night.

I found that image hard to believe during my visit and I do still.  You are on a parkway, with no cover, and you walk a half a mile with a naked couple, supposedly to kill them? Any vehicle coming on the parkway would have seen the killer and his victims in their headlights.  Perhaps the murderer took their clothing with them driving north and threw it in the creek.  Why north though?  The shortest exit was to the south.  It didn’t make sense.  My co-author agreed.  “The parkway always has traffic.  Even Keith’s brother (Chris) was driving it that morning.  Someone would have seen them.”

The search dogs detected a dead body in the York River and one was found, but it was neither of the missing youth.  It was merely a disturbing circumstance.  The river was thoroughly searched and no sign of either victim was found.

One my first interviews was with Major Ron Montgomery of the York County Sheriff’s Department.  He said something that burned in my head.  “They were never on the parkway.”  He said the car was dumped there.  I think Ron was right.  Whatever happened to Keith and Cassandra, at least in my mind, didn’t happen there on the parkway.  Ron had encouraged me to walk the area and with good reason – I quickly came to his thinking.

Keith had left the party to try and get Cassandra home around her curfew at 2:00am.  He was only a few minutes from her house, well short of the parkway.  Whatever happened to the two of them happened between Christopher Newport and Cassandra’s house. There is another crime scene out there, one that has not been found yet.

Law enforcement kept its focus on the parkway though, harboring the illusion that these were kids that had gone there to do what kids in their early 20’s do.  It doesn’t add up though.  Both Keith and Cassandra didn’t like going to the parkway after dark.

The FBI and NPS conducted searches for Keith and Cassandra along the parkway.  The lack of information as to the actual crime scene leaves them with little alternative.  The families also have tried to organize their own searches of the parkway.  These have been met with a cold shoulder from the NPS.  The Park Service is worried that teams out with cadaver searching dogs might disturb the park’s plants and animals. It is appalling that they have treated the families as disruptions to the wildlife rather than victims.

Keith and Cassandra’s disappearance did one positive thing – it drew a connection to the Dowski/Thomas murders.  The press arrived at that connection long before law enforcement.  It drew attention to the cases; not as isolated murders but a pattern.  Soon the experts in criminal behavior saw the connection between these two cases and that of Knobling/Edwards at Ragged Island.  Like at Ragged Island, the killer had left Keith Call’s vehicle staged for theft. This was possibly done to further throw-off the authorities chasing car thieves rather than the true killers.

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Keith’s car

There was one thing that the crime scene did give us both, a sense that in this case, the murderer left the least amount of evidence.  With no mortal remains, there was no way to determine the cause of death or other vital information that could have helped the case.  The killer was learning, evolving.  He was not making it easy for authorities.  It was not the perfect crime, some evidence was left behind.  In some respects the murderer was aided and abetted by the bumbling of the NPS.

When the twilight came and Victoria and I surveyed the road, letting the headlights of cars douse us, we understood the significance of this crime scene.  It was after the disappearance of Keith and Cassandra that these crimes became known as the Colonial Parkway Murders.  This would spurn media attention and with that, police attention.  A task force was formed between the Virginia State Police and the FBI.  Information was shared. The people of the Tidewater region understood they had a serial murderer stalking the killing in their midst.

It was small solace to the Call and Hailey families. Each passing day was another in an unending vigil for closure.

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Visiting the Crime Scene at Ragged Island, the Second of the Colonial Parkway Murders

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The shotgun blasted map of Ragged Island Refuge

This is my second in a string of blog posts designed to take readers to the crime scenes related to the Colonial Parkway Murders (1986-1989). Our book, A Special Kind of Evil, comes out on July 12. This material augments what is in the book with my personal observations and experiences in visiting these sites…a glimpse into the journey a true crime author goes on.

Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge is adjacent the James River Bridge on Route 17. On a map is seems benign enough. As researchers/authors, we had already started to form an opinion of the locale though. There was a seedy side to the site. There were rumors supported by newspaper accounts and our discussions with law enforcement seemed to confirm that the wildlife refuge was not a place that we should find ourselves visiting in the night.

My first visit there I went by myself during one of my many research visits to the area. My journey started in Newport News, the town of my birth, cruising on Route 17. Newport News is an eclectic mix of neighborhoods, some pristine, others much less so. Sometimes the line between these neighborhoods is little more than a street or a plaza built in the 1970’s.

As you cruise towards the James River, you hang a hard right on Route 17 to begin your trek across the James River Bridge. The bridge is 4.5 miles long. Most of it is just above the water, flat and long. Then in the middle of the river is the huge hump of the bridge, complete with small control house structures over the far tops. As you continue the drive your vehicle drops back down to just above the water level again to reach Isle of Wight County. Mentally you picture this journey in bad weather and cringe. There is a feeling of exposure on the bridge.

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The James River Bridge from the Newport News side of the river.

Arriving in Isle of Wight County I noticed an immediate change. Gone are the sea of plazas, apartments, and neighborhoods of Newport News. You are in the middle of brine water wetlands. The air had a river smell to it, that kind of humid aroma of plants and growth, not at all beach-like. On my solo trip I felt like I should be right at the refuge entrance but didn’t see it. I pulled over at a small war memorial to check my phone’s GPS. A road patrol person pulled in next to me, possibly thinking I might have a car problem. I greeted him warmly and thanked him. “I’m looking for Ragged Island.”

“You here for a blow job or to score some weed?”  He said it seriously for a moment, then chuckled.

“Um no, but thanks. I’m looking into a pair of murders that took place there.”

He nodded. “That place has had a reputation for a while. Been that way since I was a kid.” He showed me that I was only 40 yards from the entrance. He departed with the words, “Take care.”

I pulled in and it was a trip through time. My only impressions of the area were through newspaper accounts and crime scene photos, and the site didn’t look very different at all. The parking area was where David Knobling’s black Ford Ranger truck had been discovered. The trees and growth were thicker, but the site looked almost the same as the crime scene photographs.

David Knobling had driven his brother and cousin and fourteen year old Robin Edwards out for a night of kid-based fun the night of September 19, 1987. David had been nineteen at the time. On their way back home it had started to rain. David’s brother and cousin rode in the back of the truck allowing Robin to ride up front. They spent only a few minutes together before David dropped her off.

Apparently they made plans to connect later on. Robin snuck out of her house and the pair met up. From that point on – the facts are subject more to speculation than detail. What is known is that on the following Monday, David’s truck was found in the parking area of the Ragged Island Refuge. Two more days later a jogger running along the beach at Ragged Island found Robin’s body. David’s was discovered a few minutes later. Both had been shot in the head. David had an additional wound in the shoulder. They had been found a mile from David’s truck, testimony to the failure of the police search.

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Crime scene photo – David’s prized truck.

When you stand in the parking lot, there’s not a lot of options as to how to get to the river. One is a direct roadway, parallel to the road that takes you right to the base of the bridge at the James River. The other is a raised wooden and gravel walkway that snakes through the bogs and tall grass of the refuge, twisting and turning to the river’s edge about a mile away.

My research told me that the walkway had been replaced at least once since 1987. My study of the shore maps showed me that erosion had taken away the exact spots where David and Robin had been found. From the photos I had obtained from the era the walkway was twisting and turning, just as it is now. There are no lights. To reach the beach in the dark would have been precarious. On top of that, it was raining heavily. If you stepped off the path more than a few feet you could be mired up to your knees in mud. I went out on the walkway and I have to admit, it creeped me out. It was a turning and twisting trail. You can’t see if someone is only 30 feet ahead of you at any point in time.

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The walkway to the James River.  This has been updated and moved since 1987.  

The Virginia State Police theorized that they were killed on the sandy banks of the James River, a beach area popular with the kids. Their bodies were shot at or close to where they were discovered. How did they get there?  No flashlight was found. That trek in the dark would have been frightening, even if they were there to do what young people do in such isolated spots. It was raining that night, so there was no way they were down on the beach area for anything romantic. David had a girlfriend at home, one that had recently announced her pregnancy with his child. If David and Robin had gone down to that beach, it had been coerced with the barrel of a gun.

My focus shifted away from the beach to the other path, the roadway leading directly to the James River from the parking area. I walked down the roadway that led directly to the river, a few hundred feet. It is lined with trees on both sides. Along the road is a chain-link fence that is covered with a web of vines. At the end you can stand a few yards from the footing of the bridge. Vehicles passing you would not be able to see you. The lights from the bridge and roadway would have provided some degree of lighting in the middle of the night. I’m no criminologist, but this seemed to a more logical spot for a killer to perform his grizzly deed.

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The road/pathway from the parking area to the river.  

While I’m not expert, I looked for similarities in the between the first set of murders. Both paths where the victims were found or killed share one thing in common with the Colonial Parkway…they were channels, a funnel lined with trees. Did the killer choose this location because it mimicked the feeling of the Parkway?  Nature provided the murderer control of the victims. This killer was about control. Whichever pathway David and Robin were taken, there was nowhere for them to go. They were hemmed in by nature, the swamp, the darkness, and a killer with a gun on them.

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From my first visit. where the pathway reaches the James River at the base of the bridge. 

One theory that law enforcement had floated in the press was that someone could have killed the pair somewhere else, stopped on the bridge, and deposited their bodies over the side. They then would have washed up ashore. I don’t think so. There is no stopping lane on that long flat stretch of bridge, and the killer would have been exposed for a few minutes performing his gruesome task, under the lights of the bridge. Not only that, the people manning the structure atop the bridge would have possibly seen the car and assumed that it had broken down. The bridge is a magnet for accidents at night or during foggy periods, and it was raining hard the night that David and Robin were killed. No. No one stopped threw the bodies off of the bridge. This was one of those police theories that didn’t go anywhere.

When we went to interview the families of David and Robin, I took my coauthor/daughter Victoria to Ragged Island. The moment we arrived she noticed that the small visitor map had been blasted by a shotgun. We walked along the roadway/path along the bridge and at the end there were several bikers set up doing some fishing. Standing behind them, I told Victoria that this is where I think the killer would have done his horrible deed. “Going out on the walkway was too risky, too long, too much of a chance of losing control. This murderer is all about controlling his victims. Also I think murderers take the path of least resistance. This is a place you can get to easiest from the parking area, shoot your victims, push them in the water, and leave.”

Victoria nodded towards the fishermen. They could hear everything I was saying, casually talking about murders only a few feet behind them. None turned around and even gave us a glance. It was as if this was to be expected at Ragged Island.

We went back to the parking lot where David’s truck had been discovered. We didn’t know at the time that the vehicle had been staged, laid out as bait for someone to steal. That would come later that night when we met with some of the members of the Knobling family. We also didn’t realize that this was to be a signature of the killer going forward.

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The parking area in 2016, showing the only entrance roadway.  

Victoria and I only explored a short distance down the wooden walkway to the waterfront. Night time was coming and we had people to meet with and interview. “The answers to this crime are not down there anyway,” I told her. We turned around and headed back to the parking area.

“This place is beyond creepy,” she replied.

It was hard to deny that.

 

If you missed my visit to the first crime scene, here’s the link:  The First Crime Scene of the Colonial Parkway Murders

Other posts on the Colonial Parkway Murders  The Anniversary of the Disappearance of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey

A 2016 Update on our Book – A Special Kind of Evil

Feel free to follow me on Facebook or Twitter @bpardoe870

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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.

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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

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#ColonialParkwayMurders

Visiting Crime Scenes

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Ragged Island Refuge – where Robin Edwards and David Knobling were murdered.  The map of the refuge has been blasted with a shotgun, an indication of how creepy and dangerous some of these locales are.  

As a true crime author, I visit crime scenes.  I feel obligated to do so.  The only way you can really appreciate or even describe a place is to stand there and look at it yourself.  I’m not looking for clues, but for the kind of subtle nuances that you cannot pick up when you pull up a place on Google Earth.

I primarily write about cold cases.  I’m not looking for any evidence or something that will change the case.  I just try and get a feel for the locations.  You wish the trees or the road could talk though.  They bore witness to horrific acts and stood mute as the crimes unfolded.  If only…

I was talking with my publisher, Steve Jackson, and we both relayed stories of how we have found there are true crime readers that make pilgrimages to these locations.  Steve actually was driving by one such locale in Colorado and spotted a woman walking in the snow, carrying a copy of his book.  Both he and the fan were a little surprised when he approached her in the frigid snow.

Ron Franscell, an outstanding true crime author, goes so far in his Outlaw series (the latest being Outlaw Los Angeles which you should go purchase) to include GPS coordinates for the key locations.  Ron clearly is ahead of the curve on this topic and gives his fans what they want – a physical connection to his written words.

I encountered this with every true crime book I’ve written.  Readers go to these spots to see them for themselves.  I remember after writing about the murder of Daisy Zick (Murder in Battle Creek) the owners of her house told me that they had been unaware of the murder that took place in their home.  They noticed right after the book came out that there was a steady stream of cars on their little dead-end road, all slowing as they drove by.  People went to Jono Drive to see the home where Mrs. Zick died.

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The former Zick home in Battle Creek, from my own convert visit.  

Similarly I get people asking me online where the Tasty Café was in Marshall Michigan, the subject of my book, Secret Witness.  I understand the curiosity.  For me as a writer, the location is important.  It is a stage where heinous acts took place.  It is a setting, a tangible link to a crime.

On one instance, for the book, The Murder of Maggie Hume, my daughter (and co-author) went with me to compare the confession of Michael Ronning with the physical placement of the apartments.  It proved important.  From where Ronning said he saw Maggie in the window, it was physically impossible to have done so because of the angle of the building.   We retraced her steps as best we could that night, even grabbing a bite at the Ritzee in Battle Creek, where she had been before her murder.  Distances and travel time become important for us to try and replicate.

As an author, I don’t advocate or recommend that people go to the sites I write about.  In some cases, they are downright creepy, if not dangerous.  I don’t recommend it – but I know people do it anyway.

For our upcoming book, A Special Kind of Evil, The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings, I will be doing a number of blog posts in the coming weeks talking about the crime scenes we visited and our observations and some photos we were unable to include in the book.

Victoria Hester and I spent time at all of the spots, so that we could get it right in the book. There are problems we faced with the visits, as well as some weird stories along the way.  In the case of one of the murders, David Knobling and Robin Edwards, the exact spot where the bodies were found has long since eroded away, the victim of storms over the decades.  In the case of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey we can only visit where Keith’s car was abandoned.  There has not been any physical evidence they were actually on the parkway.  With Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski; we visited where their bodies were found, but again, there is no evidence they were killed in that spot.  Only in the case of Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer can we be relatively sure they were killed at or very near where they were found.

For those of you that visit the sites, I offer this advice – be careful.  Some locales attract bad people.  #TrueCrime  #ASpecialKindofEvil

 

Anniversary of the Disappearance of Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey

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Crime scene photo of where Keith Call’s car was found on the Colonial Parkway near Yorktown, Virginia.

For those of you that follow my blog, you know I take the anniversaries of victims of unsolved crimes seriously.  April 9 marks the 29th anniversary of the disappearance of Richard “Keith” Call and Cassandra Hailey. I say, “disappearance,” because their remains have never been recovered. While it is surmised that they were murdered, we do not know what their final fate was.  We only know that they have never been seen since the night of their journey into the unknown.

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Keith Call – Student at Christopher Newport
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Cassandra Hailey – Christopher Newport student

Over two years ago I had no idea who they were or how they were intertwined to the murders dubbed the “Colonial Parkway Murders.” A lot has changed in two years.  Like most cold cases, the story is often treated as a footnote in the annals of law enforcement.  Keith and Cassandra are not a mere statistic, they were vibrant young people with the world and lives ahead of them.

In working on our book on these murders (A Special Kind of Evil) we’ve had a chance to interview Virginia State Police, FBI, and, most importantly, family members of this pair.  I can’t call them a “couple.”  They disappeared on their first date, and it was not a romantic affair but a trip to a movie and a visit to a college party off-campus near Christopher Newport in Newport News, VA.

It started out so innocently – like a scene from a 1980’s teen movie.  Keith picked up Cassandra at her parent’s home.  They went to the movie then onto the party and mingled, and Keith left to take her home.  That’s the short version.  In the early morning hours, only a short time later, Keith’s car was spotted on the Colonial Parkway by several people…including his brother.  It was at a pull-off right after Yorktown heading north on the Colonial Parkway, less than 15 feet from the road in plain sight.  Keith’s father found the car on the way to work but was not entirely alarmed by what he saw.

The majority of their clothing was in the car and the National Park Service rangers proposed to the media that they had gone skinny dipping in the York River.  It was a preposterous suggestion – it had been in the low 40’s that night and just getting to the river would have been treacherous, especially if you were naked and in the pitch darkness of the historic roadway.

On top of that, both of them had an aversion to the Parkway.  Two years earlier, a mile or so from where Keith’s red Toyota Celica was found, there had been a brutal killing of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski.  Their deaths were horrific and proved to be the first of four pairs of killings on the Virginia peninsula.  Their murders cast the first shadow on the Colonial Parkway.

Most in law enforcement have contended that Keith and Cassandra went there to make out. Empty beers were found in the back seat of the car near their clothing. When you find clothing and an abandoned car in a place known for wild partying and young couples parking to do what young couples do when they park, it almost made sense.  Almost.  The thing was that Keith was in a serious relationship at the time.  He and Cassandra had not demonstrated any romantic inkling towards each other.  Many authorities still cling to the concept they went there to park.  This was reinforced by search dogs that seemed to indicate they were taken separately from the vehicle to the icy cold York River.

I favor Major Ron Montgomery’s (York County) thinking however.  In my interview with him he told me he doesn’t believe they were ever on the parkway…that was just where Keith’s car was abandoned.  Honestly, there’s a lot to back that theory up. There is no tangible physical evidence that verifies they were on the Parkway.  On top of that – the Parkway is past where Cassandra’s house was.  They would have had to driven her past her home to go to the Parkway, and when they left the party Keith’s intention was to get Cassandra home before curfew.

I used to love driving the parkway before I worked on this book.  Now I drive it and I go slow, noting the changes to the terrain over three decades.  I am always torn between the natural beauty of the drive and the horrible things that happened there.

All of the crimes tied to the parkway murders are horrible.  This one stands out for most people for one reason – there were no bodies.  Keith and Cassandra were simply gone.  Having a body does not ease the pain but it is important beyond description.  It means their remains are someplace known.  I cannot fathom the anguish of not knowing where your loved brother, sister, or child is.  Keith and Cassandra left that party and drove off into nothingness.  It is an open wound that tears at you as a writer or as a human being.

The sad part is that someone out there must now something about what happened to them on the drive between Christopher Newport and Sandra’s home in Grafton, VA – most likely on or near Route 17, J. Clyde Morris Boulevard.  In that short distance, someone had to see something – even if it was a faux police car pulling over Keith’s red Toyota Celica.  At the time you probably didn’t give it a second thought.  Today your information could help re-energize this 29 year old cold case.  There is no such thing as an inconsequential tip.

Keiths Car
Keith’s car…did you see it that night?  

If you do have any information, please contact the FBI at (757) 455-0100 or me at bpardoe870@aol.com. I will be passing along any tips directly to the authorities.

Having spent considerable time crawling through these murders each one is special…and I will cover them as each couple’s crime arrives on the calendar.  Today however it is about Keith and Missy (as she was known to her family.)  Today, we need to focus on solving their disappearance.

And to the insidious monster that was responsible for these crimes – my daughter Victoria and I are your worst freaking nightmare.  We are going to get the full story out, as full as possible, and we are going to generate new tips and leads.  Our books on cold cases generate tips for law enforcement all of the time – and this book will do the same.  Your days of living free thinking you got away with these murders are limited.  Why?  Simply put, we are not alone.  The people of the Tidewater want justice and the families demand it. We won’t let this story be a footnote.  We want it to be page one.

It is time for us all to work together to bring Keith and Cassandra home once and for all.  It is time for justice.

Update on our Colonial Parkway Murders Book

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Walking the crime scene in search of something…anything. 

When you write a non-fiction book, at the beginning it is all research.  Researching is constant and ever-present.  In your head you are mentally writing, but most of what you are doing is digging, sifting, requesting – capturing information, organizing it, etc.  You want to write, but you know that you need to keep soaking in the data.  Oddly enough, when you get to the point where you are ready to write, there are still a lot of little holes in your information you are seeking to fill.  So you end up researching and writing full time.  I am willing to bet on the last week of writing I will still be talking to people, trying to get that last tid-bit of information squeezed in. Up until the last day before you ship the book off, you’re doing interviews.

Candidly, we end up doing some after the book is in print.  With a cold case book you are never really done until there is an arrest and conviction.  My co-author and daughter, Victoria and I know we are signing up for the long haul with the Colonial Parkway Murders.  That was part of the decision process.  People will reach out to us and we will continue our efforts.  Why?  Our books generate tips.  That’s the reality folks.  Those tips go to the authorities so they can do their job.  When we undertake a project like this we know we are diving in deep, making a potentially lifelong commitment.  That is – until an arrest is made.

The writing process (if that is what it is) can be confusing to an outsider.  You end up calling people back to get clarity as you go.  Think of it this way – you talk to Person X for an hour or two.  Then two months later you talk to Person Z and they say something that forces you to go back to Person X, and reach out to Person W for additional information or corroboration.  And we track all of this too.  Writing a true crime book on this scale is as much as a research challenge as it is a logistics exercise.

There’s some fringe interviews too – people we need to just track down and talk to. Fringe may not sound fair – but they are often folks that are not adding to the narrative of the story – but have some tid-bit that is worth extracting.  You never know where the evidence will take you.

A project like this is also a huge emotional drain.  Someone recently asked me what it is like to write a true crime book and my answer was, “I feel like I make a lot of people cry.”  It is not intentional but it happens.  There are laughs too.  Summoning memories in people is bittersweet, joyous, and painful all at the same time.  Anyone that thinks this doesn’t take a toll on an author is wrong.  I don’t break down during the interview – but usually afterwards, alone, I let the tears flow.  You couldn’t be human if you didn’t weep for the dead and what has been lost. Emotionally books like this take a toll on you as a writer. I get oddly depressed and short of temper in this stage of working on the book.  Thank God for my medication.

Yet weirdly, I love every minute of it.

When I was a kid, like most kids, I wanted to be a superhero and fight crime.  Now I’m doing that, in my own weird way – writing about cold cases, generating tips for the authorities, etc.  I lack a cape and tights (for which we are all thankful) but there is a satisfaction with the effort that is hard to describe.  Sometimes just telling the story is the best justice that you can shoot for.  You want the crime to be solved with cold cases, hell, you live for the crime to be solved. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hope that a ringing phone is someone in law enforcement telling me that charges have been filed.

This book is different though – very different.  As writers, Victoria and I have the responsibility of making sense out of three decades and eight victims and four or more crime scenes and locales spread from Amelia County south of Richmond to Virginia Beach.   While a wealth of material is out there, it can be confusing to organize it into a narrative that a reader will want to read that is accurate.

All around me are piles of paper.  They look in disarray to everyone but me.  There are two massive notebooks filled with my interview notes.  Digital recordings chat in the background.  My big-honking notebooks doggedly marked flank the chaos. It is daunting.  Letters and mail everywhere around my workspace are all pieces of the puzzle.  Each fills in a little gap for me.  Each is precious in its own weird way.

Thanks to this book I have been to places in Virginia that I didn’t know existed.  I’ve done interviews in garages, police stations, and the homes of strangers – now friends.  I go out to the murder scenes as often as possible.  It is difficult to explain why.  There’s zero chance of me finding or seeing anything new after three decades.  Still, I go, hauling Victoria with me.  Some of it is respect.  Some of it is wishing that the road or the trees could talk, fill in that most important delta of information – who did it.  The locations are irrelevant, mere settings for the stories, but they are important.  In this case I learned a lot about the killer looking at where he plied his evil trade.  The strange similarities of the locations of these crimes can creep you out once you see them.

With the Colonial Parkway Murders, the work we have done has ruined the Parkway for me.  Up until this book, I used to look forward to driving the Parkway when I visited the area.  Now it is nagging reminder of what may or may not have happened there.  I cannot help but think of how eerie it is at twilight and how different it was at night.  The splendor is now overpowered by the events tied to that place in my mind.

So now, it’s back to the stacks of paper, the blurred handwriting, the cackle of the audio recordings.  It’s back to the darkness in search of the light.  It’s back into the confusion in search of the truth.  It’s back in time and in space.  It’s back trying to make sense of the senseless.  It’s back looking for the justice.

I would’t change a thing.

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An eerie walk in the woods – one of the crime scenes today.

Our new true crime project – The Colonial Parkway Murders

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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…”