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Loni Coombs felt a kinship to Colonial Parkway victim Cathy Thomas, which she cited as one of the reasons that she decided to investigate the unsolved string of murders.
Coombs, a former criminal prosecutor featured in Oxygen’s “Lovers’ Lane Murders” — a two-part special about the Colonial Parkway murders — said at a CrimeCon panel Sunday that while all the victims in the case are important, she felt the closest to Thomas.
“Some victims just stand out to you and you feel a connection to them,” she said, sitting on stage next to Thomas’ brother, Bill Thomas.
Cathy was 27 when she was killed in 1986 along a lovers' lane popular within the local LGBTQ community. Both she and Rebecca Dowski, 21, were strangled and had their throats cut after they were approached in a parked car. While both their deaths were brutal, Cathy's was particularly horrible; she was nearly decapitated. The pair were among four double homicides that occurred from 1986 to 1989 on or near Virginia’s Colonial Parkway. There has been a longstanding debate whether the killings were the work of one single serial killer or several murderers.
Cathy had entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981, as part of the institution's second class that admitted women. Gays and lesbians were banned from the Navy at that time, and she had been investigated by nine agents regarding her sexuality, her brother told producers of “Lovers’ Lane Murders.”
Coombs explained at Sunday’s panel that she immediately related to Cathy while learning about her. They are just five years apart in age and both began careers in the 1980s.
“In the 1980s as women were entering the workforce we were dealing with a lot of issues that people just take for granted now,” she said. “We were trying to be taken seriously. The #MeToo and wage equality issues were pipe dreams.”
She noted that Cathy “was going through this to the extreme” due to her gender and sexuality.
“You can imagine that in this traditional military agency, there may have been a few people who were happy about that, but there probably were a lot of people who weren’t,” she said. “Talk about harassment, hazing, abuse. Cathy got all of that.”
Coombs noted that Cathy stood up to it all and defied the odds by excelling in the academy both mentally and physically. She was acing all the tests while playing on the basketball team, the baseball team, and participating in martial arts and track.
“She was setting records in all these areas,” Coombs said. “Not only was she a woman in the academy but she was standing out as a force to be reckoned with and then when she graduated she wanted to get into the positions that they were still not allowing women to have.”
Coombs called her “a badass” and her “favorite kind of woman.”
“She went through it to try to break these barriers. ... She was followed, she was interrogated, she had people combing through her private life to try to take her down and she stood up to all of that. ... This is a woman who is a hero to me and I want to find out what happened to her," Coombs said.
Both she and the “Lovers’ Lane Murders” executive producer David Karabinas expressed concern on Sunday that Cathy was specifically targeted by the killer or killers because of the severity of her wounds.
Karabinas said that because Cathy was a “fundamental challenge to the naval community” and “she represented such a threat, it is hard to not think that attack was very targeted towards her.”
Their sentiment mirrors what was said on the Oxygen show.
“I think the offender was targeting Cathy,” Dr. Laura Pettler, a forensic criminologist, told “Lovers’ Lane Murders.” “He dealt with the body with a lot more contempt.”
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