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Authorities reexamine 'Colonial Parkway' killings in Virginia

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; B01

The attacker confronted Cathy Thomas more than two decades ago, putting a rope around her neck and cutting her throat. Instinctively, she reached out and grabbed some hair. Her brother said he hopes that it will be the evidence to point police to a suspected serial killer.

Thomas, a vibrant redhead who was among the U.S. Naval Academy's first female graduates, is one of as many as eight people slain in southeastern Virginia in the late 1980s in cases thought to be linked to a single killer or a team of them. The slayings -- known as the Colonial Parkway murders -- perplexed detectives for years. And then the cases grew cold.

But last year, an embarrassing mistake by the FBI -- the release of grisly crime-scene photos -- upset victims' families, and authorities vowed to restart the investigation.

Now, dozens of pieces of evidence, including the hair, are being reexamined at the FBI's lab in Quantico using modern technology. Results are expected in a few weeks, an FBI spokeswoman said.

Investigators are also putting fresh eyes on a list of about 130 suspects. FBI agents are reviewing more than 3,500 reports generated by the case. And FBI spokeswoman Vanessa Torres said the agency has asked "America's Most Wanted" to feature the information. A tipster could provide a fresh lead.

"We're committed to the families," Torres said. "We don't want to create false expectations. However, there is always hope."

Thomas's brother Bill said he hopes that the renewed interest will produce results. "We have always wanted answers," he said. "A lot of the families feel like this is our last shot because so much time has passed."

It was an October night in 1986 when Thomas, 27, and Rebecca Ann Dowski, 21, whom she had recently started dating, left a computer lab at the College of William and Mary, where Dowski was a student. Days later, a jogger spotted Thomas's white Honda in brambles on an embankment near the York River.

The women had been choked with a rope and their throats had been cut, Bill Thomas said. Their purses were in the car, which the killer had unsuccessfully tried to torch.

Six dead, two missing

The slayings along the Colonial Parkway, a scenic route that stretches from Yorktown to Jamestown, marked the beginning of a series of killings in the Tidewater area. Six people have been slain, and two others are missing and presumed dead.

No physical evidence has conclusively linked the crimes, but similarities in the cases have led authorities to suspect involvement by the same attacker or attackers. In each case, two victims were targeted simultaneously. All were young people traveling in cars.

Larry McCann, a retired Virginia State Police profiler who worked the case and is now a consultant to law enforcement agencies, said he thinks a team of killers is responsible. One person could victimize two, he said, but it wouldn't be easy.

"There is, more likely than not, a leader and a follower," McCann said. "There's one person to maintain control while the other commits the act."

Dowski's brother Robert agrees. Thomas was trained in martial arts, and Dowski played softball. Thomas had some defensive wounds on her hands, but there was nothing to indicate a significant struggle.

"These are girls that would have fought," Dowski said.

At first, it seemed as though the attack was an isolated incident, that the killer was probably someone who knew one or both women. Then, nearly a year later, the bodies of David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, were found at the Ragged Island Wildlife Management Area on the James River in Isle of Wight County. Both had been shot in the head, and Knobling's truck was parked at the refuge.

More killings followed, sparking a massive investigation in which FBI and Virginia State Police investigators tracked hundreds of leads and interviewed many suspects. Authorities never got a break. Attention faded, there were few new clues and the case grew cold.

Renewed investigation

It might have stayed that way. Then, last year, a Hampton Roads TV station reported that crime-scene photos from the killings had been used in training sessions run by a private security company. A former agency photographer, who has since died, took copies of the photos when he retired, FBI officials said later.

The FBI said it would refocus on the criminal investigation with a "top-to-bottom" review.

"If it wasn't for the FBI losing control of those crime-scene photos, this would still be a cold case," said Chris Call, brother of victim Richard Keith Call.

Call said he last saw his brother in April 1988 when he stopped by to borrow a shirt. The Christopher Newport College student had a first date that night with fellow student Cassandra Lee Hailey, and he wanted to look good.

The next morning, a park ranger found Keith Call's red Toyota Celica at a Colonial Parkway overlook. The glove box was open and Call's wallet was on the console, his brother said. Hailey's bra, purse and a single boot were in the car. Authorities have found no trace of the pair.

One theory investigators have considered is that the killer was a law enforcement officer -- or somebody posing as one. That would explain how the attacker could easily approach victims and then subdue them.

"It had to be someone posing as an authority figure," Call said. "The glove box was open like they were trying to get the registration out."

In September 1989, police found another abandoned car at a rest stop along Interstate 64. Annamaria Phelps, 18, and her boyfriend's brother, Daniel Lauer, 21, had been headed to Virginia Beach. The driver's window was cracked open, said Phelps's sister, Rosanna Phelps Sedivy.

A month and a half later, hunters found the pair's remains in the woods about a mile away. Both had been stabbed. Phelps, a feisty free spirit who liked to go barefoot, was wearing Lauer's socks and shoes, her sister said.

'Dead or in prison'

Then the killings stopped. McCann, the former profiler, sees only two possibilities: "They are either dead or in prison," he said. "People like this don't stop."

The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward in the case, hoping that the killer or an accomplice confided in someone at some point.

"I want this solved," Sedivy said. "Our lives are forever changed. If [the killers] are dead, they should be labeled a killer."

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