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

#TrueCrime

#ColonialParkwayMurders

New Major Book Project – Unsolved Battle Creek

I am pleased to announce that I will be writing another true crime book this spring – Unsolved Battle Creek.   This book will be published by The History Press who did such a masterful job with Murder in Battle Creek.  I am even more excited that I will be doing this book with a very talented co-author, Victoria Hester.  Victoria comes by her skills genetically – she’s my daughter.

I have dropped hints, some subtle, some less-so, about the subject of this project over the last five months.  We were waiting to make sure we had extended contact to the family of the victim.  This is a matter of respect on our part.  We also had to make sure we properly initiated/filed the appropriate Freedom of Information Act request with the authorities to obtain access to the case files.  Having done our due diligence, we’re comfortable with saying that the subject of this book will be the unsolved murder of Maggie Hume August 17-18 1982.

On August 17-18 of 1982 Margaret “Maggie” Hume was brutally attacked and strangled in her apartment in Battle Creek Michigan.  It has been acknowledged as one of the city’s best known unsolved murders.  Maggie and her family were deeply respected fixtures in the Battle Creek community.  She was not the kind of person that generated enemies, yet someone savagely killed this young woman. She is a woman that deserves to have her story told and the facts/evidence laid bare for the community.  She deserves justice.

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Personally I have to consider any project like this carefully.  To me, it comes down to some basic questions.  Is the story worth telling?  Is there plenty here to keep people engaged when they read the book?  With an unsolved case, is there a chance to make a difference and perhaps help the case by generating attention and possibly new leads?  Are people even interested in this case?

I had no less than 15 people tell me that I needed to look into this murder, including several involved with law enforcement.  That, is what you call, “a subtle hint.”  Still, I did my due diligence and poked at the case just to make sure for myself that it was a sound potential project.  It is.  In fact, I think it is one of the most intriguing murders I’ve looked into in years.

Just from the handful of interviews we’ve done, it is clear that there is a lot of complexity in this case; many twists and turns.  There is much that the public never knew about the crime and the suspects.  Add into the mix that a convicted murderer, Michael Ronning, confessed the crime.  So why is the case still unsolved?  You’ll have to read the book for that level of detail.  Which means, of course, we have to get going and write it.

The Hume family has been through a lot and has asked for privacy on this matter, which we are respecting.   The Hume’s are deeply respected in Western Michigan and in Battle Creek proper, so I ask that anyone reading this extend them the same respect we are.

I decided to have my daughter write with me on this because she’s good at writing, she’s won awards for her historical writing and research  – and she’s the same relative age as the victim.  Sometimes a different perspective makes for a better product.  In this case, I’m sure it will.   At the same time, Maggie and I graduated the same year, 1980, (from different high schools) so this crime is something I can offer some perspective of – namely Battle Creek in the 1980’s.  Our writing styles are very compatible.  Between the two of us, this should be a good book for readers to consume. I’m once more relying on the good people of Battle Creek to help us.

Victoria and I are going to Battle Creek the first full week of January to do the bulk of the primary research (and some interviews).  Should you have information you think might be pertinent, we’ll be happy to discuss it with you.  Bear in mind, we can’t do the real heavy interviewing until we complete reviews of the case files etc..  In the meantime my email is bpardoe870@aol.com.

It will take us several months (at least) to research and write the book.  During that period we will be reaching out to the Battle Creek community to ask for your help, insights, memories, etc..  I encourage you to tell us any memories you have about Maggie or about the crime.

This case is solvable…I am convinced of that.  The few informal discussion I’ve had with individuals familiar with the case certainly points to possible resolution. I also know that any case like this has to be handled carefully.  There is a killer out there.  Unlike my book on Daisy Zick, this is not a senior citizen or dead person that committed these crimes.  This individual might very well still be alive and free.

Personally, I have already been contacted by people who don’t want this book published.  They have their reasons.  We understand their concerns but we have to error on the side of justice for the victim.  We, as always, are going to stick to the facts.

Our job is not to solve the crime but to tell the story in a compelling manner, present the facts, and engage the community.  One of you may hold the key to resolving this murder.

What was it that Shakespeare wrote in King Henry IV?  Ah yes, “…the game is afoot…”