Colonial Parkway murders

The Colonial Parkway murders were the serial murders of at least eight people in the U.S. state of Virginia between 1986 and 1989.[1] The killings mostly took place along the Colonial Parkway, a 22-mile long thoroughfare that cuts through the Colonial National Historical Park and connects Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. Long stretches of the road are devoid of any streetlights and are extremely isolated, making it a popular lovers' lane location frequented by young adults.

Colonial Parkway Murders
Span of crimes
October 12, 1986 – September 5, 1989 (Confirmed)
CountryUnited States

In each incident, a young couple sitting in a vehicle was targeted and both were killed. Three pairs of victims were recovered, and another couple remains missing and presumed dead. Several additional homicides have also been tentatively linked to the four confirmed cases. The causes of death included strangulation, gunshot and stabbing. There was no evidence of burglary or sexual assault in any of the cases. The killer drove his victims’ vehicles away from the murder sites. The linking of the four crimes is circumstantial.

In January 2024, authorities announced that at least two of the murders (David Knobling and Robin Edwards) had been conclusively linked to an official suspect, Alan W. Wilmer Sr., a local fisherman who died in 2017. Wilmer was also identified as a suspect in the unrelated murder of Teresa Lynn Spaw Howell.[2][3]

Victims edit

Rebecca Dowski and Cathy Thomas edit

The first two known victims were Cathleen Marian "Cathy" Thomas (27), a United States Naval Academy graduate, and College of William & Mary senior Rebecca Ann “Becky” Dowski (21), a business management major working as a stockbroker at the time of the murder. On the morning of October 12, 1986, a pedestrian jogger saw a car, a white 1980 Honda Civic, down an embankment at the Cheatham Annex Overlook on the Colonial Parkway, seven miles east of Williamsburg. The vehicle had veered off the road and into thick, dense shrubbery, only a few feet from a 15-foot drop into the York River. A highway patrolman was called to the scene and discovered Thomas and Dowski's bodies inside Thomas' Civic.[4] The lesbian couple had disappeared after leaving a computer lab at William & Mary on October 9.

An autopsy found rope burns on both womens necks and wrists as well as signs of strangulation. Their throats had been slashed so deeply that they were nearly decapitated, and the killer had covered the bodies and vehicle with diesel fuel but had not lit them on fire.[5] Over 100 latent and full prints were found on the interior and exterior of the car, but they matched to no one in police records. Dowski’s body was found in the backseat of the car, while Thomas' was found stuffed into the hatchback. Thomas apparently struggled with her attacker as a clump of hair was later found between her fingers. Both women were fully clothed and there was no evidence of sexual assault. Authorities ruled out robbery as a motive, since both women’s purses were located within the vehicle, and no money or jewelry had been taken. At that time the police believed that the murders happened elsewhere, as there was not much blood in the car itself.

David Knobling and Robin Edwards edit

On September 23, 1987, salesman David Lee Knobling (20) and eighth-grade student Robin Margaret Edwards (14) were found shot to death around 100 feet apart after being washed ashore with the tide at the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge near Smithfield. The couple had been last seen on September 19 after Robin had snuck out of her house to meet with David at an arcade. Both victims had been shot; Edwards in the back of the head execution-style, and Knobling twice, once in the head and once in the shoulder. Both were partially clothed; Edwards was found with her jeans unfastened and her bra around her neck. Investigators were unsure if a sexual assault had taken place since, despite Edwards being underage, it was presumed that she and Knobling had a sexual relationship.

Knobling's pickup truck, a black Ford Ranger, had previously been discovered on September 21 by a patrolman at the wildlife refuge's parking area, with the wipers, engine and radio still running and some articles of clothing inside. Both doors were left open and the driver’s side window was partially rolled down, which caused police to speculate that the perpetrator either was or had been posing as a uniformed officer. Knobling's wallet was found inside the pickup, which ruled robbery out as a probable motive.

Authorities immediately linked the double-murder of Knobling and Edwards to that of Dowski and Thomas because although their deaths did not occur on the Colonial Parkway, both sets of victims were couples who had been killed at or around lovers' lane areas, and the two locations were only about a thirty-minute drive apart. [6]

On January 8, 2024, it was announced that DNA evidence revealed the identity of Knobling and Edwards' killer as Alan W. Wilmer Sr., a hunter and fisherman who was also linked, via DNA evidence, to the unrelated 1989 murder of Teresa Lynn Spaw Howell. Wilmer had died in 2017.[7]

Cassandra Hailey and Richard Call edit

On April 10, 1988, Christopher Newport University students Cassandra Lee Hailey (18) and Richard Keith Call (20) were reported missing. Hailey left her family's residence in Grafton the previous day when Call picked her up for their first date. The couple travelled in Call's red 1982 Toyota Celica. They were last seen attending a party in the University Square area in Newport News at 1:30 a.m. on April 10. Neither of them has been seen since.

Call's unoccupied vehicle was found at the York River Overlook in Yorktown on the day of the disappearance. The keys were on the driver's seat, and a watch and eyeglasses were left on the dashboard. Nearly all of the clothing Call was wearing, including his underwear, was also found in the back of the car, as were some of Hailey's. Police later confirmed that it was the same clothing the couple had worn the night they disappeared. Bailey's purse and Call's wallet, however, were missing. Police dogs tracked the two students’ scent to the York River shoreline. Authorities initially believed they had gone swimming and drowned, but an extensive search of the river turned up no sign of them. Foul play is suspected.

Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer edit

On September 5, 1989, Annamaria Phelps (18) and her boyfriend's brother, Daniel Lauer (21), vanished en route to Virginia Beach. Lauer's car, a gold 1972 Chevrolet Nova, was later found abandoned at the Interstate 64 rest stop in New Kent County. It is unclear whether Phelps and Lauer were killed at the rest stop or elsewhere. Both the driver and passenger side doors were unlocked, with the keys still in the ignition. Police found dirt and grass stains on the vehicle’s underside, suggesting the car recently been driven through the woods. Phelps' purse was found inside the car, once more ruling out robbery as a motive.

On October 19, the skeletonized bodies of Phelps and Lauer were found in a wooded area by hunters along Interstate 64 between Williamsburg and Richmond. They were covered in an electric blanket from Lauer’s car and were badly decomposed, which made it impossible to determine either the cause of death or whether there had been a sexual assault. The hunters discovered the bodies on a logging road about a quarter-of-a-mile from Courthouse Road, a location about a mile from the rest stop where Lauer's car was found. Even though the cause of death could not be determined, there were what appeared to be stab marks on Phelps' bones and abdomen.[citation needed]

In 2010, a note was discovered in a box taken years earlier from Phelps' apartment. The note, which was undated and purportedly written by Phelps, indicated that she was to meet someone in a blue van at a rest stop.[8] While the Virginia State Police claim the information in this note was previously examined, one of the original investigators told a television reporter from WAVY-TV that he was "unaware of the existence of the note".[citation needed]

Possible additional victims edit

Mike Margaret and Donna Hall edit

On August 21, 1984, the bodies of Michael Sturgis “Mike” Margaret (21) and Donna Lynn Hall (18) were found in a wooded area approximately 300 yards southwest of the Kings Crossing Apartment Complex in Henrico. Margaret and Hall had been dating for four years and were engaged to be married. On August 17, the couple had told their respective families they planned to go on a camping trip together. This was the last time they were seen alive.[9]

Three days later, a retired dentist walking his dog discovered Margaret’s Jeep backed into a depression off the trail with the passenger door open, keys in the ignition and ashtray open. One red bandana was hanging from the rear-view mirror, and another loosely tied around the clutch. The canvas top of the jeep had been rolled up and pinned back even though it had rained over the weekend. Inside the back end there were two suitcases and a paper bag filled with clothes. A trail of blood led to the bodies of Hall and Margaret underneath a checkered red and blue blanket about twenty feet away.[10]

Both victims had been stabbed and their throats slit. The state coroner stated they died at 2:00 a.m. on August 18, only hours after they were last seen. Both had the sedative Demerol in their systems. Hall’s body was found without shoes, no defensive wounds and clutching pine needles leading investigators to believe that she and Margaret were actually killed where their bodies were found. Mike also had defensive wounds and a comparatively lower dosage of Demerol in his system. Some detectives believe that Hall and Margaret were the first victims of the Colonial Parkway Killer due to similarities in modus operandi.[11]

Brian Pettinger and Laurie Powell edit

Brian Craig Pettinger, 25, a heavy equipment operator, was last seen at a Hampton, Virginia dance club on December 4, 1987, at 11:30 p.m. Two months later on February 3, 1988, Pettinger’s body was found by fishermen floating in a marshy area of the James River in Suffolk, Virginia near the mouth of the Chuckatuck Creek that flows into the James River. He was floating with his wrists and ankles tied, and a rope around his neck. The lead investigator in the case believed that Pettinger had likely been hog-tied. The autopsy showed that Pettinger had blunt force blows to the back of the head. He had also been thrown in the river alive, and then drowned. Pettinger's murder remains unsolved and occurred during and around the area where the Colonial Parkway murders took place. Pettinger also worked as a security guard and loss prevention officer for the same security services company where Colonial Parkway victim Robin Edwards' mother, Bonnie Edwards, worked as a receptionist at the time of Robin's murder.[12]

Laurie Ann Powell Compton, 18, a Gloucester High School graduate, went missing on March 8, 1988, after having an argument with her boyfriend which ended with Laurie getting out of his car. She was last seen by him at 11:30

p.m. walking on the “dark and deserted” Route 614 towards Route 17 in the White Marsh area in Gloucester County. She was wearing a purple pullover, cotton shirt with a white collar, purple and cream coloured pants, and a dungaree jacket. Laurie was not scheduled to be at work on March 9 and her family assumed she was staying with a friend. When she did not turn up for work on March 10 her stepfather reported her missing. On Saturday April 2, 1988, Laurie’s body was spotted floating in the James River off Craney Island near Ragged Island. Her body was found nude, no bindings, and with multiple stab wounds to her back. Her death certificate stated ‘unknown’ for date and place of injury. Compton worked for the same security company where Pettinger and Edwards' mother worked at the time of her murder.

Shenandoah National Park killings edit

The bodies of Julianne Marie Williams, 24, and Laura Salisbury Winans, 26, were found by Park Rangers at the Shenandoah National Park on June 1, 1996, after Lollie’s golden retriever Taj was located wandering near the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. The two young women were in a relationship, and on May 19, 1996, went on a camping trip in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Julianne and Laura were last seen alive on May 24 in the park. On May 31, their families reported them missing. Their bodies were found at a remote campsite in the park about a quarter-mile from Skyline Drive off the Appalachian Trail. Laura was found inside the tent. Julianne was found in her sleeping bag about forty feet away, down an embankment. Their hands were bound, their mouths were gagged, and their throats were slit. Both were partially undressed, but neither was sexually assaulted.

The FBI investigated whether Julianne and Laura's murders were related to the 1986 Colonial Parkway murders of Cathleen Thomas and Rebecca Ann Dowski. In that case, the victims were similarly bound and stabbed. They had also not been sexually molested. Both double murders occurred on National Park property - the historic Colonial Parkway and the Shenandoah - which were connected by Interstate 64.[13][14] Detective Steve Spingola who was asked to investigate the Colonial Parkway murders as a private investigator believed that the murders of Cathy and Rebecca were not related to the other Colonial Parkway murders at all and were, instead, connected Williams and Winans’ murders.

Media coverage edit

In 2007, the case of Hailey and Call was featured in the Investigation Discovery program Sensing Murder, whereby investigators brought in psychics Pam Coronado and Laurie Campbell to gain new insights into the crimes.[citation needed] In 2008, E! Entertainment Television presented a full-length documentary, THS Investigates Serial Killers on the Loose, which features a segment on the Colonial Parkway murders.

In September 2009, it was discovered by CBS News affiliate WTKR that nearly 80 highly graphic crime scene photographs of Colonial Parkway murders victims were used to instruct a class by a retired and now deceased former FBI photographer.[15] Former WTKR investigative reporter Mike Mather found that much of the evidence, stored for over two decades, had yet to be tested for DNA and other trace evidence.[citation needed]

In 2011, author Michelle McNamara published a two-part exploration of the Colonial Parkway murders in her True Crime Diary.[16]

In October 2016, there was extensive coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Colonial Parkway murders, including an eight-part multimedia presentation by the Daily Press newspaper.[17]

On October 8, 2016, the Richmond Times Dispatch ran an in-depth article on the 30th anniversary of the Colonial Parkway murders case: After 30 Years, Relatives in Parkway Murders Hope for a Break in Cases[18]

On May 4, 2018, the Colonial Parkway murders were covered in featured panel discussion at the annual "CrimeCon" true crime convention in Nashville. Moderated by former FBI Special Agent Maureen O'Connell, the panel featured family members and advocates Joyce Call and Bill Thomas along with Blaine Pardoe, coauthor of a book on the case, A Special Kind of Evil: The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings.[19]

On July 23, 2018. WTVR News 6 in Richmond reported that there was additional DNA evidence available for testing in the Colonial Parkway murders.[20]

Investigation Discovery, Virginian Pilot, Access Hollywood, The Daily Beast, Listverse, Daily Press, Dateline NBC and others have published later summaries of the case.[21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32]

On April 25, 2019, The New York Times published a story on the use of DNA in the Golden State Killer case, the Colonial Parkway murders and other unsolved homicides titled Sooner or Later, Your Cousin's DNA is Going to Solve a Murder.[33]

On July 30, 2019, The Washington Post ran a story on the search for answers in the Colonial Parkway murders and other cases titled Victims, Families and America's Thirst for True-Crime Stories [34]

On September 17, 2020, the publication Forensic Genomics published an article by family member Bill Thomas covering the Colonial Parkway murders entitled "The Family Perspective."[35]

On January 15, 2021, the Oxygen Network announced that a four-part true crime series, Lovers Lane Murders would cover the Colonial Parkway murders. The four episodes were to feature former FBI profiler Jim Clemente, as well as investigators including former FBI Agent Maureen O'Connell and former prosecutor Loni Coombs, together with crime scene reconstruction expert Dr. Laura Pettler. The series made its debut on February 11–12, 2021.[36]

On February 4, 2021, in advance of their Lover's Lane Murders television series, the Oxygen Network released a series of videos including "Why Would Law Enforcement Not Release All Records On a Case Like the Colonial Parkway Murders?[37] and "Was the Colonial Parkway Killer Pretending to be Law Enforcement?"[38]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Turner, Joe (December 19, 2020). "Colonial Parkway Murders Remain Unsolved". Historic Mysteries. Retrieved March 23, 2021.
  2. ^ "Virginia police identify suspect in 3 cold-case homicides from the 1980s, including victims of the "Colonial Parkway Murders"". CBS News. January 2024. Retrieved January 27, 2024.
  3. ^ Quinn, Liam (January 2024). "'Colonial Parkway Murders' of Couples Terrorized Va. in 1980s. Now, a Suspect Has Been ID'd in 2 of Them". People. Retrieved January 27, 2024.
  4. ^ Lohr, David (September 6, 2011). "Fred Atwell, Controversial Figure In Colonial Parkway Murders, Arrested In Georgia". HuffPost. Retrieved November 3, 2015.
  5. ^ "The Disturbing Facts About the Unsolved Colonial Parkway Murders". December 13, 2022.
  6. ^ "Is note a break in Colonial Parkway murders?". WAVY-TV. August 10, 2010. Archived from the original on October 30, 2010. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
  7. ^ "Police link Va. man to 3 unsolved murders, address Colonial Parkway connection". WTVR-TV. January 8, 2024. Retrieved January 9, 2024.
  8. ^ Knight, Matt (August 10, 2010). "New details published in Colonial Parkway murders". WTKR. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
  9. ^ 16 things to know about the brutal 1984 murder of a West End couple, Richmond News, retrieved 23 March 2016.
  10. ^ Too Close For Comfort, The Quester Files, retrieved 23 March 2016.
  11. ^ People sharing tips about 1984 murder of young couple in West End woods, Richmond News, retrieved 23 March 2016.
  12. ^ Could these two cold-case murders be part of the Colonial Parkway Murders?, WAVY News 10, retrieved 23 March 2016.
  13. ^ Burkett, Jon (May 17, 2010). "New Investigator Looking into the Colonial Parkway Murders". WTVR-TV. Archived from the original on May 20, 2010.
  14. ^ Spingola, Steven (August 3, 2010). Predators on the Parkway (1st ed.). Badger Wordsmith LLC. p. 37. ASIN B003YCPFN8.
  15. ^ Mather, Mike (September 22, 2009). "Sensitive FBI photos from Colonial Parkway murders leaked to the public". WTKR. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
  16. ^ McNamara, Michelle. "What'd We Miss?". Retrieved January 29, 2021.
  17. ^ Holtzclaw, Mike; Williams, Amanda. "Parkway". Daily Press. Archived from the original on May 27, 2019. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
  18. ^ Green, Frank. "After 30 years, relatives of victims in Parkway Murders hope for break in cases". Richmond Times Dispatch. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  19. ^ "Colonial Parkway Murders: Help Find a Killer". Retrieved February 3, 2021.
  20. ^ Staff, Web (July 23, 2018). "Authorities have 'potential perpetrator DNA' in Colonial Parkway murders, family says". Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  21. ^ "Dateline Crime Capsule: The Colonial Parkway Murders". NBC News. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  22. ^ Holtzclaw, Mike. "Former deputy's death leaves Parkway victims' families wondering what he knew". Retrieved January 30, 2021.
  23. ^ Welton, Benjamin (June 25, 2018). "10 Disturbing Facts About The Colonial Parkway Murders". Retrieved January 27, 2021.
  24. ^ "Who Committed The Lovers' Lane Murders? Inside The Unsolved Cases". Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  25. ^ Rohrlich, Justin (July 23, 2021). "Inside the Maddening Search for Virginia's Colonial Parkway Serial Killer". The Daily Beast. Retrieved July 24, 2021.
  26. ^ Kimberlin, Joanne. ""The killer could still be out there": 30 years later, still no answers in the Colonial Parkway Murders". The Virginian Pilot. Retrieved January 27, 2021.
  27. ^ "The Colonial Parkway Murders | Dark Minds". Investigation Discovery. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
  28. ^ "A cold case heats up: The Colonial Parkway murders". The Virginian Pilot. Retrieved January 29, 2021.
  29. ^ Mather, Mike (September 23, 2009). "FBI takes new approach in hunt for Colonial Parkway killer". WTKR. Retrieved July 16, 2016.
  30. ^ Schneider, Greg. "Part 1 | Agent stalks dark path of serial killer". Retrieved January 27, 2021.
  31. ^ Schneider, Greg. "Part 2 | Serial Killer's Trademark: Colonial Parkway Murders". Retrieved January 27, 2021.
  32. ^ Schneider, Greg. "Part 3 | Scores of suspects – but no serial killer". Retrieved January 27, 2021.
  33. ^ Murphy, Heather (April 25, 2019). "Sooner or Later Your Cousin's DNA Is Going to Solve a Murder". The New York Times. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  34. ^ Peterson, Britt. "Victims, Families and America's Thirst for True-Crime Stories". The Washington Post Magazine. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  35. ^ Thomas, William (2020). "The Family Perspective". Forensic Genomics. 1: 4–6. doi:10.1089/forensic.2020.0002.
  36. ^ Crist, Allison (January 15, 2021). "Lovers' Lane Murders Sets Out to Solve the Infamous Colonial Parkway Murders". Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  37. ^ "Why Would Law Enforcement Not Release All Records On A Case Like The Colonial Parkway Murders?". Oxygen. February 5, 2021. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  38. ^ "Was The Colonial Parkway Killer Pretending To Be Law Enforcement?". Oxygen. February 2, 2021. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  39. ^ "Murder Accountability Project: Tracking America's unsolved homicides". Retrieved January 31, 2021.

Further reading edit