In the 1980’s along a historic parkway, the cliche Hollywood horror film was being carried out in the state of Virginia. Beginning in 1986, over a three year course four couples were murdered along the Colonial Parkway and to this day – this case remains unsolved. Were these cases connected? Was a Serial Killer responsible? Perhaps we will never know…
The series began on October 12, 1986 when a couple was found brutally murdered in their car. It was a popular spot for couples given the seclusion this particular spot provided. However somebody managed to find Cathleen Thomas, 27, and Rebecca Dowski, 21. While they enjoyed each others company, the suspect approached the car and caught them off guard. He then forced them from their car and tried a number of different techniques to murder the two women before strangling and cutting their throats. They would be found days later stuffed inside Cathy’s car after it had been pushed down an embankment.
Before pushing the car down the embankment the suspect had made a futile attempt to set the car alight using diesel fuel and matches. The level of violence displayed by the killer shocked many of those involved with this case. It lead some to believe that this could only have been committed by someone who knew both of the victims and had some form of score to settle. Both of the victims former partners were investigated but never charged and there was no evidence of sexual assault. This lead some to believe a far more sinister scenario…
The drivers side window was rolled down and Cathy’s wallet with her drivers license lay on the floor just next to the door, giving birth to the theory that the suspect may have been a Park Ranger or another form of authority figure. Investigators found complaints against a Ranger from a number of women that claimed he had harassed them and made a variety of inappropriate comments towards them. However, the Ranger in question was interrogated by Police but never charged.
Some may have thought this terrible tragedy as an isolated case until almost a year later, the unthinkable happened again. September 22nd, 1987, David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, stopped at another lovers lane along the James River only 20 miles South from where the Dowski-Thomas murders took place. At some point during the course of the night a suspect must have walked up to their car and forced them to exit the vehicle. Again the drivers side window was rolled down partially but this time the terror would play out differently.
Knobling and Edwards were marched into the woods at gunpoint by the suspect and were eventually gunned down in cold blood. The scene suggests that Robin was killed first and after realising was happening, David tried to make a run for it before being cut down the killers bullet. They again would be found three days later lying in the mud. David’s truck was first found abandoned before their bodies would be located by David’s father.
Some were skeptical that these two cases were related given the different approach taken by the suspect to commit the crimes. That debate still exists today. However those who do believe in the connection believe the suspect was in a stage of evolution in his approach to murder. They particularly note that much like the former, the state of the vehicle suggests the couple had an encounter with an authority figure of some kind. The partially rolled down window might suggest to some that they thought it was mere routine encounter with law enforcement and thought they just wanted to question them. Could it have been a Park Ranger, a Police Officer or worse – Someone impersonating one…
Someone who approaches the car with a torch pointed towards the car much like Police Officers do. Given the level of control the suspect exhibited in someone forcing both couples from their vehicles before carrying out his crimes. It is not hard to procure the necessary items to impersonate a member of law enforcement, particularly if you only need a few moments to establish control over a couple sitting in a vehicle. But by this point in the investigation, detectives had no idea that shroud of darkness that has enveloped this case would only continue to grow.
On April 9th, 1988, A Third Couple were believed to have been murdered when Cassandra Hailey, 18 and Keith Call disappeared while driving along the Parkway. On their first date together, they were going to the movies and then to a party at the university. Around 1.30AM, Keith and Cassandra were seen walking through the parking lot as they left the party. What happened next? Perhaps we will never know…
The next morning Keith’s father would find his son’s car abandoned next to an overlook along the Parkway, not far from where Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski were found murdered almost two years earlier. After stopping to observe the car, he noticed the keys were not in the ignition and there was no trace of Keith or Cassandra. But that would not be the case when the investigators would arrive at around 7.00AM.
When they arrived to the scene, Keith’s car was littered with items of clothing belonging to both him and Ms. Hailey. Which could only lead to one conclusion and that is somebody had returned to the vehicle after forcing both Keith and Cassandra from the car. Initially they believed that the couple had gone swimming in the lake and drowned and would be found in a few days. But even then they felt that theory was a stretch given the incline of the hill down to the lake next to where the car was found and how cold the water was at that time of year.
Even so the idea that a serial killer being active at this stage of the series was yet to be considered so without a body, they had almost nothing to go on. But when days turn into weeks and weeks to years, the mystery of what happened to Keith and Cassandra that night along the Parkway remains uncertain. However, the only conceivable option is that they encountered the same individual responsible for the Knobling-Edwards and Dowski-Thomas murders in years past.
This would not be the last time the suspect would strike. On the 19th of October 1989, hunters found the bodies of Annamaria Phelps, 18 and Daniel Lauer, 21 in the woods near a rest stop along the Interstate 64 between Williamsburg and Richmond. Ms. Phelps was helping her Dan move into from Amelia County into the home she shared with her boyfriend, Dan’s elder brother, in Virginia Beach.
But as the next morning came and went, nobody had heard from Anna or Dan. Their vehicle was then located but on the opposite side of the freeway from the direction they were travelling. Some would suggest that this would indicate that the killer used Dan’s car to dump the bodies. A theory further supported by the vegetation found underneath the vehicle matched to that of the surrounding woods. But by the time they are found, much of the physical evidence had been washed away by the elements. All they were able to determine was that it was likely the victims were stabbed by the perpetrator.
However, one of the most consistent trademarks of the suspect was apparent. The slightly rolled down window suggesting they had stopped to talk to the suspect as if he were some of law enforcement figure. Maybe it was a Park Ranger, Maybe it was a Police Officer, but to this day nobody knows. By now one thing was apparent to all those involved, a serial predator hunting apparent young lovers along the parkway.
Even to this day, that is all we know. There isn’t even a composite sketch of the suspect. The closest thing to even identifying the suspect we have on record occurred the night Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey disappeared. Keith’s older brother was driving home late that same night and noticed a dark coloured van speeding away from the same area of where his brothers car would be found only hours later.
No suspects have ever been named in these crimes, only theories as to who the offender was. Families have been left in complete disarray by these crimes and it appears we are no closer to a resolution. Some even believe that this was not the work of a serial killer despite the similarities in each of the cases. Some believe that the Dowski/Thomas case was a hate crime.
Almost ten years later, some believe the suspect struck again. In May of 1996 at the Shenandoah National Park, another couple was found brutally murdered in a manner that resembled the Dowski/Thomas murders. Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were a couple simply seeking an escape to a place where they could be together and enjoy each others company.
Until an evil, sadistic individual had other ideas. The couple would be found with their throats slashed from left to right – just like the Dowski/Thomas case a decade prior. Albeit nearly 200 miles from where the Dowski/Thomas case occurred, one cannot help but wonder if the two cases are related given the obvious similarity in the modus operandi of the offender.
Perhaps these cases are all unrelated except for the Williams/Winans & Dowski/Thomas cases and we are hunting multiple suspects rather than a single individual. But one thing should remain constant in the minds of all those who ever research this case, that no matter if it is proven to be one offender or multiple, the victims and their families deserve the justice that they have sought for the past nearly thirty years.
Maybe one day we will know the truth in its entirety, but until then all we can do is hope. Hope that Law Enforcement finds whomever or whoever was responsible for these heinous crimes and will be bought to trial. One thing remains certain in this case and that is that five couples were murdered and that each deserve to see justice. Regardless of whether it is with this prosecution of a single individual or multiple, Ten young people were taken just when they had the world at their fingertips and they deserve to have their voices heard in a court of law.