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In 1986, a 23-mile scenic road run by the National Park Service in Virginia became indelibly linked with a series of double homicides that came to be called the Colonial Parkway murders. The brutal crimes claimed the lives of eight young people, including one couple who’ve never been found.
The odds of four double homicides in as many years are extremely rare, which is why the slayings are often attributed to a serial killer. But is it possible they are tragic, separate events?
“Lovers’ Lane Murders,” a new four-part Oxygen series, uses fresh interviews with criminologists and victims’ family members as well as crime-scene reconstructions and analysis to puzzle out the still-unsolved Colonial Parkway murders. Here are prominent theories that have been put forth over the years.
Theory: A Serial Killer Stalked The Parkway
From a macro view of the murders, the fact that they all took place in close proximity bolsters the popular belief that a serial killer stalked the Colonial Parkway. Series co-host Maureen O’Connell, a former FBI special agent, sees telltale signs to support this theory. Murders all occurred, she said, “within a 30-mile radius” and all on a “weekend or holiday.”
Moreover, the slayings occurred at night, and mostly in areas that look like lovers’ lanes. Victims were in cars and all were young and killed in pairs. Most crime scenes were near the water. There is a pattern that O’Connell said she “cannot ignore.”
A more micro look reveals that victims weren’t all killed in the same way. Cathy Thomas, 27, and Rebecca Dowski, 21, were strangled and had their throats cut in 1986; David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, were shot in 1987; Keith Call, 20, and Cassandra Hailey, 19, disappeared after a college party in 1988 and are still missing; and the remains of Annamaria Phelps, 18, and Daniel Lauer, 21, were found by hunters in 1989. The remains were too decomposed to reveal the manner of death.
Nonetheless, “to me, this is the work of a serial killer,” said O’Connell, who views variances among the dual homicides as an eerie sort of shapeshifting. “I see the killer evolving,” she said, “not just in his methods but in his motives.”
Theory: A Serial Killer Was (Or Posed As) Law Enforcement
Many who believe the homicides are connected think the killer presented himself as a police officer or park ranger, or someone with authority. It helps explain how the killer could take control of two people at once.
Stoking this belief is the fact that victims’ car windows were found rolled down at crime scenes, according to Irvin Wells, retired FBI special agent. He told “Lovers’ Lane Murders” that it suggests the driver was responding to authority.
Wallets found open in the victims’ vehicles on the floor and on the dashboard respectively in the first and third homicides add heft to the law enforcement theory, former FBI profiler Jim Clemente told “Lovers’ Lane Murders.” They could have been preparing to show their license or registration.
"That tells me that either they were getting ready because they thought they were pulled over by a police officer or park ranger or whoever approached them pretended to be a cop -- or was a cop,” he said.
Although it is compelling and plausible, there is “no evidence that it was law enforcement,” said former prosecutor and series co-host Loni Coombs.
Theory: Murders Are Linked By Location, Not One Killer
After a deep dive into the four Colonial Parkway murders, Coombs and O’Connell reviewed commonalities and dissimilarities in terms of location, treatment of bodies, method of murder, time and date, victims, motive, and crime scene.
Unlike O’Connell, Coombs doesn’t see the work of a serial killer. “My gut tells me that these cases are not connected,” she said. “There's too many differences."
Daniel Plott, retired Virginia State Police, concurred. He told “Lovers’ Lane Murders” that there may be links between the first and third murders, which are firmly tied to the Colonial Parkway. “They could be related,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see links among all four.
“There is this allure of serial killers,” said Steve Spingola, former homicide detective and author of “Predators on the Parkway,” who has spent more than 20 years looking into the murders. He explained it might be easier to wrap one’s mind around one killer, not four or even more different ones. It's difficult to imagine that a community could “be infiltrated” in that way, he emphasized.
Theory: A Savage Hate Crime Set Off The Series Of Killings
In the 1980s, the Colonial Parkway was known as a gay lovers’ lane, according to Spingola. “It was known, not only by the homosexual community, but by the haters of the homosexual community,” he said. “That kind of opens up the window for somebody else to come along and pick on them.”
Because of the Colonial Parkway’s reputation, Thomas and Dowski could have been chosen at random. However, these victims were known to frequent the area on Thursday nights. The killer could have been lying in wait specifically for them.
“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.”
Thomas’s throat had been slit so savagely ear-to-ear that she was almost decapitated. The violence suggests, Pettler said, that the killer may have been someone who knew Thomas.
“Becky’s wound isn’t as deep as Cathy’s wound,” Pettler added. “They’re very, very different in force and intensity. Becky was collateral damage.”
The theory the first murder was a targeted hate crime adds heft to the notion the murders were unconnected events. It also fuels a theory about a possible copycat killer who used the 1986 Colonial Parkway slaying as a way to misdirect investigations into the 1988 double homicide.
Theory: A Moral Enforcer Became A Deadly Predator
There is a possibility that the murders happened at the hand of a “moral enforcer” who viewed homosexuality, public sex, or a 20-year-old man with a teenaged girl as punishable acts, according to Clemente. He may have been watching victims, the former profiler theorized, “and when the opportunity arose he became a predator.”
Theory: Victims Were In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time
Karl Knobling’s theory behind the murder of his son David and Robin Edwards in 1987 doesn’t have sinister overtones -- and it’s all the more chilling because of that. He believes it came down to chance, he said.
“My theory is that David saw something he wasn’t supposed to see,” Karl Knobling told “Lovers’ Lane Murders.” O’Connell’s response: “Wrong place, wrong time.” Knobling’s theory points to why innocent people become victims all too often.
To learn more about the case, watch “Lovers’ Lane Murders" on Oxygen, or stream episodes any time on Oxygen.com.
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