Authorities reexamine 'Colonial Parkway' killings in Virginia

Becky Dowski is one of as many as eight people murdered in southeastern Virginia in the late 1980s in cases believed to be linked to a single killer or a team. Her brother Robert talks about the case.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

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.

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