Tantamount – Episode 7 – Profiles of the Freeway Phantom

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To further support our podcast Tantamount: Season One, the Washington DC Serial Killer the Freeway Phantom, I had a friend suggest I post the transcript of the episode up.  Obviously I encourage you to give us a listen.  We’re on most of the Podcast providers.

Link to Podbean Episode on Profiles of the Freeway Phantom

Here’s the transcript of the Episode:

Hello, this is Blaine Pardoe

And this is Victoria Hester –co-author to my dad and a bestselling true crime author too.  Sorry it has taken so long for another episode but I am a Director of Nursing and this whole pandemic-thing has really eaten into my free time.

I’m glad we are able to get back to putting out some content.  .

Me too. It’s great to talk about something other than this damned spicy virus.  Okay then, welcome to Episode 7 of Tantamount Season One – Profiles of the Freeway Phantom.  Up to this point we have covered the crimes of the Phantom in 1971 and 72.  We talked about how these victims are connected.  We explored the, and I am quoting here, ‘confessions’ of the Green Vega Gang.  We also dug into Robert Askins as a suspect.  This episode we are stepping back a bit and looking at the criminal profiles the authorities have used on these cases.  If you are a fan of the Netflix series Mindhunter, you’ll get a kick out of this one.

For me, I think it is important to frame the early profiles in terms of the years the crimes took place.  Remember, profiling really didn’t emerge until the early 1980’s.  So there was no model for it, no established precedent for investigators.  There weren’t any true experts, though some were starting to emerge in the early 1970’s.

So where does that leave the police?  With a lot of guesswork by local psychiatrists and mental health experts.  The authorities went to local psychiatric hospitals, not so much to get a profile, but to see if any of the doctors had patients that could be the killer.

You couldn’t do that today, not with the HIPPA rules.

Boy that’s true.  And none of these doctors seemed to have the kind of training, such as studying past serial killers, that could help them frame their thinking.  So what you get is little fragments of their best guesses.

Let me go through some and you’ll see what I mean.

One doctor said the killer should be, “considered quite clever.”  He was likely to have  a “sociopathic personality disorder,” and was likely able to function in society without attracting much attention to himself.

Another doctor at the Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville, Maryland, said that killer was “extremely dangerous…bordering on psychopathic extremes in behavior.”  Such a person would exhibit paranoid delusions, possibly triggered by phonetic sounds. His belief that sounds may trigger an explosion of violence was tied to the name “Denise.”

So, what he’s saying is that the name ‘Denise’ is what triggered the behavior?

Apparently.

I see what you mean about these being best guesses.

He wasn’t alone with the whole Denise-connection – a number of doctors interviewed by the Washington DC newspapers called out that name and said that the killer had an obsession with girls that had that name.  Of course, none of them could explain the real question – how would the killer know that the girls had that as middle names?  I mean this is an age before the internet and social media – so how could he have known?  They went to different schools, lived in different parts of the city…so how could that possibly be a connection?

It can’t.

I agree.

Anyway, A doctor Radauskas of the Perkins State Hospital in Jessup, Maryland,said the killer “likely functioned very well in society.”  He suggested it was a “personality quirk” that manifested him to opt for strangulation as the means to kill his young victims.  Calling what the Freeway Phantom did as a ‘quirk’ seems a bit disingenuous to me.

It does make me wonder just how much information the authorities shared with these doctors?  If they didn’t tell them much, then their responses might be pretty vague.

That’s a part of the problem.  The records we were able to obtain from our confidential sources really don’t go into that much depth.

One that stood out for me was Dr. Regis Riesenman, a forensic physician from Arlington Virginia.  He suggested that the suspect felt inadequate and/or insecure, and that this is likely stemming from having a weak or absent male or father figure and a dominant or strong mother. He said that this would have led to him demonstrating, “cowardly traits.”

I think I know where you are going here.

Yup – this sounds like Robert Askins.

In his analysis, the suspect is paranoid and schizoid…a likely sadist since he appears to obtain sexual thrills from the use of physical violence. Dr. Reisenman did not rule out that the suspect practiced necrophilia.  That is interesting because it doesn’t seem to fit the pattern of the Freeway Phantom – that we know of.

The doctor believed that the suspect may be under the influence of drugs, and he is possibly a megalomaniac, braggart, who labors under a strong compulsion to kill. In his thinking, the likely suspect is clever, with above-average intelligence.

I think the best one they got early on was from a former FBI agent named Walter McLaughlin.  He was old school FBI, but was a pioneer in criminal sexual classification and what would become known as profiling.  He was years ahead of the others in this field.

He believed that the unsub was a young Negro male. In his words, “This is mostly substantiated with his free and undetected movement in the close-knit neighborhoods. He may have a job or even live in those areas.”  In other words he definitely has familiarity with the streets he hunted on.

“The unsub demonstrated a degree of higher learning, with at least one or two years of college education. The killer had ready access to an automobile. Based on the note left on Brenda Woodard and his actions – he harbors a hatred towards women.”

McLaughlin further theorized that the unsub sought out victims who appealed to him in a personal manner, possibly linked to his mother, wife, or girlfriend. He didn’t see the victims as children at all – simply as females. The name Denise meant nothing; it was simply coincidental that some of his victims shared this name. He believed that the killer had previous brushes with the law, likely being minor incidents.

His suggestion to the investigators was to contact the high school English teachers in the area to determine whether any students they have had in the past used or misused the word, “tantamount.”

What adds credibility to this is that he says that the name Denise is coincidental.

It does.  Another interesting opinion was offered by Dr. Oscar Prado, the Director of Forensic Psychiatry at the Springfield State Hospital.  In his interview with investigators he said that he believed that the killer was akin to a man, “going on a hunt,” choosing an area to operate were he would find a “pool” of potential victims who met his mental criteria. In his mind, this was a white male, based mostly on the fact that his victims were black. Interestingly, he said if all the victims were white, he would have thought it was a black suspect. He said that the killer was likely a “leg man,” because all the victims were in skirts or shorts.

The potential suspect would be “typical” looking in appearance, be in his late twenties in terms of age, extremely clever with above-average intelligence. He would likely be an unreliable employee, most likely working in some sort of blue-collar capacity. The murderer had likely not been hospitalized, but if he had, it would have been for a crime related to violence rather than sex.

Dr. Prado suggested that the person they should be looking for was potentially suffering from a “superman complex,” with grandiose delusions. He was complex and consumed with a severe hatred of women.

Prado was the only person authorities consulted with that suggested that the Phantom was a white man.  He said that if the victims had been white, he would have suggested the killer was a black man.

It is interesting and says something about the times and the race tensions.

He said that the killer was likely a “leg man,” because all the victims were in skirts or shorts.

These were young kids in some cases…I call bullshit on the theory that he chose his victims based on their legs.  Clearly these folks were just taking stabs in the dark.  What I found the most compelling was the FBI profile that had been done in the 1990’s.  We were able to obtain it from a confidential police informant.  What makes it stand out is that it was done two decades later, when profiling was a tool for investigators.

The first thing that stands out is that Teara Ann Bryant was included in the profile.  The Washington DC and Prince George’s County had always excluded her.  For reasons we covered earlier in these podcasts, we think she is a part of the Freeway Phantom crimes and clearly the FBI did as well.

From a victimology perspective, the FBI highlights that the victims were essentially at low risk of being the targets of violent crimes. What may have made them more susceptible was their age and naiveté. Combined with being alone at night and outdoors increased their risk factors.

Their common denominator was being adolescent, black females, alone at the time of initial contact with their killer in highly populated areas. The FBI concluded that their killer was not someone they knew but a stranger.

The FBI determined that the nature by which the victims were killed, the depositing of the bodies and the fact they had no relation to their attacker, all point to, and I quote here, “…our conclusion that these homicides were perpetrated by the same assailant.”

“The offender offset his risk somewhat by approaching the older victims later at night.” His approach to his prey was to not apply immediate physical force. The lack of defensive wounds, other that Brenda Woodard, “seem to suggest that at least for a time the victims were willing to be in the company of the offender. Either they did not perceive him to be an immediate threat or he was able to gain complete control of his victims by fear and the threat of immediate and serious bodily harm. More likely, it is suggested that the offender used a combination of the two. His approach to the victims may not even have been perceived by them as an immediate threat. Yet, once he had the victims alone, he was able to dominate and control them by the display and threat of a weapon (possibly a knife). With younger victims, the display of the weapon may not have been necessary as they could have been intimidated by the offender’s age, size, and/or verbal threats.”

The FBI hit on other key points that stand out to me.  They said the Phantom’s contact with his victims was “opportunistic.” The victims were out alone, at night, walking…not necessarily following a standard pattern. Some were known to accept rides from strangers. The killer had to have used an automobile to abduct his victims. He may have simply used his car and an offer of a ride as part of his initial contact with them. “This does not preclude the possibility that he was driving around looking for potential victims,” the profile highlights.

Another key piece they surfaced in their profile was, “the offender reduced his risk of having the bodies connected to him. If confronted near the disposal areas, he could have the same ‘alibi” as thousands of other travelers, ‘I was just driving down the road.’ This procedure also offset the offender’s risk of being seen in the short amount of time it took him to ‘dump’ the bodies.”  They added, “He, essentially, removed any chance of being identified by killing the only witnesses he believed to exist, the victims.”

The Bureau believed that investigators are dealing with a black male suspect. This is substantiated by the finding of Negroid head hair on many of the victims and the racial make-up of the neighborhoods where the victims were first approached and abducted.

The killer was likely to be between 27 and 32 years of age. This was arrived at by examining the ages of the victims, the degree of trauma inflicted, the amount of control the killer had to use over his victims and, to a lesser degree, the willingness of the victims to initially be in the presence of their killer during their first contact. The FBI admits though that the age of the killer was difficult to access. It proved difficult for them to compare the chronological and emotional age of the Freeway Phantom. “This estimate relates to a suspected chronological age, however, no suspect should be eliminated based on age alone.”

The murderer was smart – possessing a high school education and likely a higher education such as college.

The killer most likely held down a full-time job. All his victims were confronted after what would be considered normal working hours. Their bodies were all disposed of late at night or early in the morning. The killer never demonstrated a desire to rob his victims, everyone he picked was too young to have any money of consequence on them. The FBI believed he could be working as a delivery man, postal worker, medical assistant, a role in security, the military or possibly in recreation.

The Freeway Phantom is able to have relationships with people, even women but likely does not have the skills to maintain “healthy” relationships. The FBI believes he is single and either lives alone or with an older, significant female.  He follows his crimes in the media – hence having Brenda Woodard write a note found on her body.

The FBI acknowledged that the killer owned his own vehicle – a late model car and kept it well maintained.

The Freeway Phantom was not a drinker or drug user, at least during the times of his crimes. His control obsession would not have allowed it. The use of such substances would have lowered his inhibitions and possibly ruined the experience he felt.

As an investigator and author, when I read that profile, it was pretty chilling to me.  You get a mental picture of the killer.  Almost all of the profiles, even the quirky ones early on, all point to one thing – this is a person that is smart. According to the FBI profile, he is able to blend in well in the community.  This guy is all about control – of his victims – of himself.

I remember reading in the profile we obtained, that the Phantom was most likely intimidated by women his own age or older. That was why he chose younger women as targets. They were easier to control and allowed him to act on his disdain for the opposite sex.

They went onto say that if the murderer did have an arrest record, it would probably include, “…vice-related offenses, such as solicitation for prostitution or assault on women.”  So for me, this was another arrow pointing squarely at Robert Askins.

I have to agree with you on that.  He also had no father figure – he was raised by his mother and aunt.

Listen to this from the report, “The offender feels no remorse or guilt, as to him killing the victims had no consequence. His only concern was that he may have been seen with the victims. Once he became assured he was not a suspect, he would have felt safe.”

The FBI explored his deposition of victims too.  When done with the murders and disposing of his victims, he went home or to another “safe place.” There was little on him physically in the way of evidence that linked him to the crimes.

They had an interesting section on why there was such a long period between Brenda Woodard and Dianne Williams.  There were two possibilities for the gap according to the FBI. One, after the resistance he experienced with Brenda Woodard, he may have had, “some difficulty and retreated into his fantasies of past killings,” rather than return to his hunting patterns. Her fighting back against him ruined the experience for him or even scared him that he could not maintain control.

The other possibility was that he had moved on, been institutionalized/jailed, or left the area. When he was trolling for Dianne Williams, he returned to the same area where Spinks and Johnson had lived – returning to his old stalking grounds.

What stand out to me is that this is probably the most up-to-date victim-based profile out there on the killer.  It’s certainly the first one that was done with knowledge of how serial killers operated.  Even so, from the 1990’s, it is slightly dated.  I remember reading one portion, worth repeating here:

Consideration must be given as to why this series of murders has stopped. Based upon research conducted by the NCAVC (National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime), this type of offender does not just stop because he wants to. The offender has either died, been incarcerated in an institution of some kind, or has moved from the area. If the offender has moved, it is likely that the new jurisdiction has experienced similar murders of similar victims.”

Of course when this was written, we didn’t have information on the Green River Killer or BTK where there were instances where serial killers stopped.

True.  At the time, the thought was that he was dead, moved on, or in jail.  Now we know more about the minds of serial killers.  They can stop – due to a change in their lives or a dangerous brush with law enforcement.

It is also important to note that the profile doesn’t solve the case on its own.  It is a framework that helps you narrow potential suspects.  The FBI profilers were clear to the investigators, ‘don’t rule out a suspect just because he doesn’t 100% fit the profile.’

And in this case, the profile still has not generated the desired outcome – and arrest.

For me, this makes me settle on a few things.  First, this is a smart killer, smarter than average. Second, he is black.  These are not racially motivated crimes.  Third, the killer has some deep-rooted mommy issues…that’s where his issues with women comes into play

I don’t disagree.  He also has a very good knowledge of the areas where he is picking up his victims and where he is dumping their bodies.  All of which leads us to take a look at the geography of these sites.  We can probably get closer to who the killer is with an in-depth look at geographic profiling…narrowing the search even more.  I was toying with jumping into it here, but it really deserves a full episode all on its own.

I agree.

In the next episode of Tantamount – We dive into the intriguing area of geographic profiling that was done on the case in 2006, and where that leads us.  Join us for Episode 8, The Phantom of St. E’s

 

Review of HBO’s: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered

The Atlanta Child Murders were an American tragedy.  Anytime a serial killer targets small children it is horrific.  What the authorities did after Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the 29 murders was gut-wrenching.  They closed all of the murders – slamming the door on the victim’s families.  If you watched Netflix’s Mindhunter, it isn’t too far off from the reality. 

This short series cracks open the case files as the City of Atlanta starts looking into the cases anew.  I came into it hopeful to get a well-rounded documentary series that would give me a solid sense of the crimes, evidence, and witnesses.  My expectations were not met – despite the stunning production quality. 

It is clear that this series is focused on Wayne William’s being innocent of these crimes, almost the point where they gloss over and downplay the evidence against him.  The producers throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it sticks with the viewers.  We get everything from Klan informers to pressures allegedly from the White House to smother the investigation because it was bad for Atlanta’s public image.  The producers quickly mention that many of the accounts and alleged killers were cleared by alibi and polygraph, but instead drill in on a web of speculative intrigue that is hard to contemplate.

I wanted something that was balanced, but what I got was something crafted to try and manipulate me.  As a true crime author, I know that pushing an agenda is dangerous. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I strongly doubt that Williams was responsible for all of these murders. That isn’t the same as being innocent.  Three of the witnesses against him admitted that they lied, but there were other witnesses, including family members, who saw Williams with some of his victims. 

The claim that the fiber evidence was tainted by the FBI overlooks the fact that the GBI did their own analysis and could map fibers and hairs from William’s environment to 23 of the victims.  Remember as well that Williams was first on their radar when he was caught on a bridge when a splash was heard in the river, and a body was found a mile downriver days later.  He lied about his reason for being out at 2am on that bridge, just as he lied about his music promotion business being a viable entity.     

Much of this series is William’s defense team making the pitch that he is innocent.  Rather than admit they didn’t do a good job, they point of a vast conspiracy by the prosecution against them and their client.  I get it, that’s their job.  Again, evidence contrary to their theories is disregarded or ignored by the producers. 

Williams revels in the role of victim.  He accepts zero responsibility for any of his crimes.  That is maddening and sick.  Did he kill all 29 victims though?  No.  I doubt it. 

Some of the misdirection presented was obvious.  A person claimed a Klan member said he killed one of the victims who had run into his car with a go-cart.  In reality the victim was at a shopping center with a family member at the time of his abduction, left alone for only a few minutes.  There was no go-cart. No witnesses saw a go-cart.  Rather than point that out the producers chose to ignore the inconsistency to plant the seed that this alleged confession was valid.

Material presented said that another victim had been seen with a known pedophile who was named at or near the time of his disappearance.  That is useful information, but we don’t know why that individual was excluded at the time.  I have spent hundreds of hours of my life reading police reports from that era.  Often times in a murder you will get a half-dozen different witnesses who will point out completely different suspects. Investigators run those things down – they want to solve crimes.  We don’t know why investigators cleared this individual – either the case files were incomplete or the producers simply didn’t say. 

In the middle of all of this is the surviving family members.  Some believe Williams is guilty of some of the murders, others believe he is innocent.  They have been told so many things over the years, sometimes by those in authority, some appear unsure what to believe.  One thing they all share however is the anger and frustration that the authorities arbitrarily closed their cases. 

Reopening the cases is good public relations and long overdue with the family members – but it is unlikely to result in new charges or change anyone’s mind in the end.  The seeds of doubt were planted decades ago and even compelling evidence for or against Williams is going to change most people’s minds.

Having said that, this was a good and compelling documentary series.  You are torn emotionally by the stories and the terrible way that the community and victims’ relatives were treated during all of this.  At the same time you get a sense of frustration on the part of the investigators interviewed because most are quite sure they caught the right man.  As much as I have taken shots at the approach of the series, I still recommend it. 

Tantamount Podcast Episode Six – The Mysterious Case of Robert Askins – Supplemental Material

Of all of the suspects in the Washington DC serial killings attributed to the Freeway Phantom, none stand out more than Robert Ellwood Askins.  Episode six is dedicated to him and can be accessed via iTune (search for Tantamount) or via the link below:

Tantamount – Episode 6

Obviously I encourage you to follow our podcast and to share it with your friends.

It was hard to find a photograph of Askins after all of these years.  We did track down a lineup photo of him:

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That’s Robert Ellwood Askins, in the middle.  He would later claim he was identified because he was the only one in the lineup that had a shirt tucked in.  In reality, he was one of four that had their shirts that way.  

Askins was involved with multiple murders in his life, but only convicted of one – and that one, the poisoning of Ruth McDonald, was overturned on a technicality.  He spent most of his early life locked up at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC.  That is important in a future episode of the podcast.

Askins died in prison, but we were able to get copies of most of his prison records via a FOIA request.  It includes his psychiatric evaluations.  I have included a few for those of you who want to dive into the nitty-gritty work of a true crime author.

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Tantamount Podcast Episode Five -The Green Vega Gang – Supplemental Material

This material supplements episode 5 of our podcast on the Washington DC serial killer, the Freeway Phantom.  Please follow us on Spotify, Podbean, iTunes, etc.

Podbean – Tantamount – Episode 5

The focus of the Freeway Phantom investigators shifted to the members of a serial-rape gang in Washington DC.  The gang operated in the same neighborhoods as the Freeway Phantom at the same time.

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Melvin Gray.  Postal worker and member of the Green Vega Gang, he confessed to two of the Freeway Phantom murders but his confession was a work of fiction

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Paul Brooks, member of the Green Vega Gang – responsible for possibly hundreds of gang rapes in the District of Columbia

 

Warren
Morris “Fatsy” Warren.  His confessions into the involvement of the Green Vega Gang in the Freeway Phantom murders spurred the largest criminal task force in the city’s history up to that point.  Later he recanted all involvement with the crimes.  

 

Epicenter of Evil – St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington DC – The Freeway Phantom

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My co-author and daughter, Victoria Hester, looking at St. Elizabeths through the fence

Between 1971 and 1972 a serial killer stalked Washington DC.  Dubbed “The Freeway Phantom” he killed up to seven victims, perhaps more.  All were young girls between the ages of 10 and 18; strangled and in one case stabbed, all sexually assaulted.  The murders most likely stopped in 1972, but the quest to bring this killer to justice did not stop.

What I like about writing true crime is that I have to learn things.  When we dove into the Freeway Phantom case for our book, Tantamount, there were two hurdles I had to jump.  One was forensic linguistics – which we were helped by none other hand Jim Fitzgerald, the guy that was behind the apprehension of the Unabomber.  The other was geographic profiling.

Geographic profiling can be complicated…mostly because of the math involved.  I actually purchased the textbook written by the person that did the profiling for the Freeway Phantom case so that I could become at least fluent when I wrote about it.

It is a fascinating field of study but it is math-based, so I had to reacquaint myself with algebra.  See kids, it DOES get used when you are an adult…in my case it simply took five decades.

I prefer to keep things simple.  So think of it this way.  Most serial killers have anchor points in their lives.  These are places where they lure in their victims, where they live, where they work, or where they have a strong and meaningful attachment. Anchor points are important geographic places for a killer.

A “typical” serial killer will not operate (intercept his victims, dump their bodies, etc.) where he is known.  That neighborhood is familiar to him, but there’s too high of a risk of him being seen and identified. This creates a zone or bubble where the killer will not conduct his nefarious affairs.

Outside of that is the typical hunting zone.  Here the killer has a strong familiarity with the area, but is less likely to be identified.  He knows the neighborhood, but is not well-known there.  He knows the streets, the escape routes, etc., but doesn’t live there.

Outside of that sphere is where the killer is not familiar with the geography nor is he known there.  Chances are he will not operate there.  There is too much risk involved for him there.

Geographic profiling crunches in all of the data about a serial killer.  In the case of the Freeway Phantom, it looks at where the victims lived, where they were last seen (their abduction areas) and where their bodies are dumped.  Then the algebra happens.  Traffic patterns, maps, key terrain features, population density are all crunched.

What emerges is the anchor point for the killer – that one special place for them, a place of significance.  Often times it is their home, or where they do their heinous acts.

When the geographic profile was prepared for the Freeway Phantom the model came up with the killer’s anchor point – St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in Washington DC.

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The results of the geographic profile, from a 2006 confidental police report

This was where the killer had a strong connection.  He may have been a doctor there, or, more likely, a patient.  For him, St. E’s (as it is known locally) was a place he knew well.  It was an important part of his life.  The Freeway Phantom may have beaten the investigators, but you can’t beat the math.  For the killer, St. Elizabeths was a vital part of his life, either before or during the murder spree.

It makes perfect sense when you look at the murders in retrospect.  Two of the victims were left along I-295, right at the edge of St. Elizabeths grounds.  Another was less than a half mile away from the mental hospital.

Like any profile, you can’t exclude suspects because they don’t fit it, but it does give you a very strong indication of where investigators can focus their efforts.  Unfortunately, the profile didn’t exist during the initial investigations, but decades later.

Several suspects had ties to St. E’s, the strongest being Robert Ellwood Askins, who lived there for decades – committed to the hospital for committing murder. Considered one of the prime suspects for these murders, Askins died in prison a few years back.  Of all of the key suspects, Askins was the only one that spent years at St. Elizabeths, sent there for murder of young women.  More on him in another post.

Today, St. E’s is crumbling one building at a time. Even now, it is eerie, the iron bars on the windows no longer hold occupants.  The crises that must have echoed the hallways are now filled with the flutter of pigeons or the scurry of rats.  The Department of Homeland Security expressed interest in the land and the rumble of demolition equipment during the daytime hours echoes between the tile-roofed buildings.  Chain-link fence surrounds the complex, no longer aimed at keeping patients in, now it is in place to keep homeless people out.

St. E’s as it looks today…still creepy 

Want to dive deeper into this serial killing spree?  Check out our book, Tantamount – The Pursuit of the Freeway Phantom Serial Killer.  

The 30th Anniversary of the Last of the Colonial Parkway Murders

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The roach clip hanging in Daniel Lauer’s car

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.

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The logging road.  The victims were found just off it, just around the bend to the left. 

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.

Review of the True Crime Podcast – Man in the Window

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I am not a huge podcast follower when it comes to true crime.  When I do listen, I put one on in the background when I write.  There is a lot of people competing in the true crime space for podcast time.  Some don’t resonate with me well.  I don’t like the ones that joke a great deal.  I get it, you want to stand out and lighten the mood.  To me, it feels disrespectful.  Same for the drinking and true crime podcasts.  I never got into the concept you could pair a wine with a crime…but that is a matter of personal preference on my part.

We drove to Michigan this week to visit family and my wife asked me to play some true crime podcasts on the trip.  This was high on my list and I was not let down.

Man in the Window is gripping.  One, it was done by a writer for the LA Times who has dived deep into the Golden State Killer case.  This podcast really grabs you with a mix of interview snippets and a compelling story.  It is professionally produced, top-notch stuff.  At the same time, the most gripping part is not the production – it is that it provides us all with an in-depth view of the Joseph DeAngelo, the accused Golden State Killer.

Accused is a light word here, a formality.  It is hard to dodge multiple DNA hits.  He totally did it.  But what we have never gotten is “why.”  This podcast gets us much closer to that answer, delving into his background.  The interview with his former girlfriend is creepy, and weird, and the kind of stuff you can’t pause.

This is good investigative journalism colliding with social media to produce a wonderful and sufficiently eerie experience.   I highly recommend this podcast to any true crime aficionado.  An easy five out of five stars.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation by William J. Martin and Bill Kunkle

Crime of the Century

I had heard of these crimes but only became truly aware when the serial killer Richard Speck died and a video of him in prison was released.  His callous behavior and the fact that he was seemingly enjoying life behind bars appalled me.  I read about his heinous crimes, killing eight young nurses in Chicago in 1966, and I was even more appalled.

When this book came up on my feed on Amazon as a suggested read, I picked it up.  I wanted to read a definitive account of the crimes and the conviction and was hoping this would provide that.  I wanted all of the nuts and bolts detail of what happened that one macabre night when Speck slaughtered eight women, but ignorantly left one alive – one that would, in the end, take him down.  There was almost an Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) story there.

I didn’t want to read the older book, Born to Raise Hell, because I had heard that it was one that seemed to favor the perspective of the criminal.  As a true crime author, I don’t like the criminals being the focus of true crime books.  I know some readers like those…I do not. I wanted not a shred of sorrow for this brutal murderer as I read about the crimes.

This book did not disappoint.

The authors have provided a well-balanced and comprehensive account of the killer, the victims, and a crime that shocked the nation.  This is not a light read, which I embraced.  I have nothing but respect for these authors.  In the pages of Crime of Century, they have recreated the seedy, dingy neighborhoods and characters of 1966 Chicago.  They put you back there as the police stalked a spree-killer through grungy bars and flop-houses.  They masterfully take you on the journey of the surviving nurse, Corazon Amurao, to eventually take the stand against the man that killed her friends and roommates.

Recreating such an old crime is never easy, but the authors have clearly done their homework.  This is one of the better true crime books I have read in recent years and I highly recommend it.  Add this one on your Kindle for your late-summer reading. Five stars and kudos to Martin and Kunkle!

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

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

This is my fourth in a series of blog posts designed to take readers to the crime scenes related to the Colonial Parkway Murders (1986-1989). Our book, A Special Kind of Evil, covers these serial killings in detail. This material augments what is in the book with my personal observations and experiences in visiting these sites…a glimpse into the journey a true crime author goes on.  I ask your indulgence as you join us as authors on these trips.

I made three visits to New Kent County to explore the crime scene where Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer met their untimely fates.  Out of all of the crime scenes, this was one that I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding of.  Some of it was personal.  Some was that so many newspaper accounts seem to think of this pair of murders as separate from the others.

For background:  On Labor Day weekend, 1989, the pair were on their way back from a short visit to Amelia County.  Daniel and Annamaria were not a couple – they were friends connected by Daniel’s brother.  Daniel was moving in with his brother Clinton and Annamaria was Clinton’s girlfriend.  She had come back with Daniel to visit her family while he hastily packed.  They set off back to Virginia Beach where Clinton and Annamaria lived, heading eastbound on I-64.

Annamaria Phelps
Annamaria Phelps

Daniel Lauer
Daniel Lauer

The next day Daniel’s Chevy Nova was found in the westbound rest area, parked with the driver’s side window half-down, keys easily accessible and a roach clip with feathers dangling from the window.  There was no sign of the couple.

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

A search was made of the area by the Virginia State Police (VSP) and New Kent County Sheriff’s office, but no trace was found of the pair.  The families held out hope that the couple would be found but it would be six weeks later before a group of turkey hunters came across their remains in the woods under an electric blanket that Daniel had packed in the car.  They were just over a mile from where the car had been found, a testimony as to how badly the search had been conducted.

Exit on I 64
The rest areas as they appeared in 1989.  Both have been upgraded.  

The Logging Trail
Crime scene photo taken when the bodies were found in October of 1989 of the logging trail.  Much of the search for their remains had been done from the air, which, in such a wooded area, was pointless.  

Once the bodies had been found the VSP did an outstanding job of processing the crime scene, but a long time had passed.  Several clues were found that were important.  One was a knife wound on one of Annamaria’s finger bones, proof that this fireball of a young woman put up a fight with her killer.  Sadly it was a losing battle.  In my mind I always hoped that she inflicted some pain on her assailant before she died.  The second important clue, some 50 feet or so from the bodies, Annamaria’s locket with photos of her nephews was found.

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

While the crime scene was the farthest from the Colonial Parkway, it was a relatively short drive to reach the other crime scenes.  Because of the distance from that Parkway, people always question whether it is tied to the others.  I don’t.  The criminal behavioral specialists from the FBI and the Virginia State Police didn’t either.  This killing easily fit the pattern of the others, well, as easily as any of them fit together.

My first visit to the area, I explored the grounds between the rest area (which has been dramatically upgraded since 1989) and where the logging trail still exists where the couple had been found. Even looking at photos of the time, it was pretty evident that they had not been marched out to this spot in the middle of the night.  Whoever murdered these two drove them from the eastbound rest area to the first exit, hung a left, drove them to the logging trail and back into the woods.  Walking in the darkness that distance through that terrain would have represented a loss of control the killer needed over his victims.

My second visit was after I had stopped in at the West Point, VA, Tidewater newspaper.  Their editors kindly allowed me access to their bound archives.  I asked the editor there about the sheriff at that time of the murders.  Her comment was, “If you want to contact him, swing by the New Kent Sheriff’s office and ask them.”  Always trust your small town newspaper editors.

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

I arrived there and met with the Sheriff in the lobby.  It was an awkward meeting, me popping in out of the blue.  I told him I was writing a book on the Colonial Parkway Murders.  He told me he had been a deputy at the time and had been a first responder at the crime scene.  He also declined commenting on the case but agreed to pass on my contact information to the previous Sheriff.  I was a little surprised.  It’s been 30 years.  I know the case is still open, but my questions were not about suspects, but about the crime scene itself. He was very professional, but to the point. I had to remind myself I dropped in on him unannounced.

The sheriff asked if I had been out the crime scene.  “No, I was going to swing by there, after I leave here.”  He gave me appropriate warning.  “Well, that’s private property.”  I told him I understood.

When I arrived at the logging road (fully intending to trespass) there was a deputy’s car parked some 50 yards further up the road, lights on.  The deputy was standing outside the car and nodded in my direction as I parked along the road.  The message was pretty clear to me. One, any venturing in the woods was not happening today.  Two, this was a sheriff that knew this county and was pretty protective of his turf.  Welcome to small town Virginia.  I had been put in my place and I knew it.  Message received kemo-sabe.

Then again, it could have been just a coincidence…

I went back with Victoria (my daughter and co-author) a few weeks later, two weeks off from Labor Day, so we could see the trail as it was at that time of the year.  We went back into the woods (trespassing – for which we are sorry).  We got back about 100 feet or so and Victoria let out of a “whoop!”  The sound disappeared into the woods.  “This place just absorbs the noise.  Even if they called for help, no one would have heard them,” she said.  She’s brilliant that way, using all of her senses to take in a crime scene. I like to think I raised her well, despite the fact we were technically breaking the law.

Chief Danny Plott, formerly of the Virginia State Police (now Chief of Police at Colonial Beach) gave me directions to follow during my interview with him.  We passed two trail cameras and waved, what else could we do?  We reached the spot where the crime scene was.  Danny’s and Larry McCann’s interviews with us were incredible helpful since both had been there during the investigation.  It was eerie being back this far on unfamiliar ground, surrounded by woods.

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

Very little had changed here over time.  The logging road was a muddy trail leading back into the woods.  Turning around would have been very difficult, you had to know where the wide spots were to attempt it and you risked getting stuck if you didn’t have four-wheel drive.  When you stand on the logging trail and look back it is striking how similar it is to the Colonial Parkway.  Isolated – a tunnel through the trees.  Nature blocks avenues of escape.  I cannot help but wonder, did the killer(s) pick this spot because it psychologically reminded them of the Parkway?  Maybe he or they were trying to recreate their previous experiences.

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

We stood there a long few minutes and it became pretty clear that the killer knew the ground.  This site had been chosen for a reason, not at random.  It was isolated and provided natural control.  This meant that whoever killed them knew the terrain, knew the area, and had scouted out this particular piece of ground or knew it from experience.

We walked out and at the entrance to the logging trail – on the correct side of the no trespassing signs, we pondered how this crime had unfolded.  Testing of Daniel’s car tires didn’t show the dirt that he would have picked up on the logging trail, so the Nova was never out there.  That meant that murderer drove them in his vehicle to the scene.  The electric blanket was Daniels…so he either brought it with the victims, or as the VSP surmised, he went back for it to cover the bodies.  At some point, the killer drove Daniel’s car from the east bound rest area, exiting and re-entering I-64 to abandon it in the west bound area.  Then the killer had to get back his own vehicle in order to leave the area.

He left Daniel’s car staged for theft – just like he had with David Knobling’s truck and Keith Call’s Celica.  The hanging of the roach clip on the window…the founder of the VSP’s Behavioral Science unit Larry McCann told us that was a taunt to authorities.  He was rubbing the VSP’s nose in virtual poo.

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

This was Labor Day weekend and the highway would have been busy, even late night, between Richmond and Virginia Beach.  How is it that no one saw all of this activity?  Someone did.  They just didn’t realize what they were witnessing at the time…that is the only logical answer.

I wondered about Annamaria’s locket.  Danny Plott had told me they surmised that it had been cut off when she had been attacked, but the necklace itself had not been found.  Danny’s theory made sense.  At the same time I wondered…did the killer leave it there on the trail, perhaps out of guilt?  Or did Annamaria deliberately leave it as a breadcrumb so that someone might find them? That locket bothers me to this day.  It was separate from the bodies by some 50 feet or so.  How it got there and why has awaken me several times from a deep sleep.  What does it mean – if anything?

“You know,” Victoria said as we stood there looking back into the forest, “If the police had found those bodies that day, they would have had a lot of evidence.  They would have known for sure what killed the pair, they would have had trace evidence – fibers, etc.  I mean it was only a mile away.  What kind of search did they do?”

“Not a good one,” was all I could reply.  I thought back to Rosanna Phelps Martin Sedivy, Annamaria’s sister, one of the first family members I interviewed for the book.  She told me how it had rained so hard during that six weeks while her sister’s fate was unknown and how the rain still depressed her to this day.  All the while her sister’s remains were a mere mile or so from where Daniel’s car had been found.  Rosanna really got to me that day.

Her anguish and pain pushed me through that moment at the foot of the logging trail in New Kent. “The bastard that did this needs to be brought down.”

“And hard,” she added, unconsciously patting the holster of her own CCP (conceal carry permit) sidearm.

She’s definitely daddy’s little girl…

#Truecrime

#Colonialparkwaymurders

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?

Call Hailey Site
FBI crime scene photo of the Call Hailey crime scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keith’s car

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

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

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

#TrueCrime

#ColonialParkwayMurders