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8 People Dead By One Road: Were The Colonial Parkway Murders The Work Of A Serial Killer?

Between 1986 and 1989, four double homicides occurred on or near the Colonial Parkway in Virginia. A suspect has never been identified in any of the murders.

By Oxygen Staff

One Virginia highway. Three years. Eight people dead. And over 30 years later, still no leads. 

Between 1986 to 1989, four double homicides occurred near or on the Colonial Parkway, a 23-mile scenic roadway that cuts through Virginia. In 1986, Cathy Thomas and girlfriend Rebecca Dowski were strangled to death and their throats were slashed. In 1987, David Knobling and Robin Edwards were shot to death. In 1988, Cassandra Hailey and Richard “Keith” Call completely vanished. Only their vehicle was located, close to where Thomas and Dowski were murdered. In 1989, Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer were found dead in the woods. No one has been arrested for any of the murders.

It’s a chilling story: After all, double homicides are rare, and yet somehow this scenic stretch has been dotted with them in such a short amount of time. At first glance, it certainly sounds like a serial killer was prowling the area — but the methods of murder and disposal of the bodies were so different in each case. Could it have just been coincidence? That’s the question explored in Oxygen’s new two-night special event “Lovers’ Lane Murders”, airing Thursday, Feb. 11 and Friday, Feb. 12 at 9/8c and 10/9c. Former prosecutor Loni Coombs and former FBI agent Maureen O’Connell investigate to determine the similarities and differences in each case. And after all, what’s scarier? A single serial killer — or four different murderers who all managed to avoid capture?

 

"I think that some of the Colonial Parkway murders are related, but I think one or two of these cases prove to be independent events." - Bill Thomas

We hope this digital evidence kit will give you more insight into the crimes and the theories surrounding them. Check it out and watch along.

 

October 1986: A Couple Is Viciously Murdered

Cathy Thomas, 27, and Rebecca Dowski, 21, had been dating for several months when they went out for food on Oct. 9, 1986. It was the last time they would be seen alive.

Just three days later, they were found murdered inside Thomas’ 1980 Honda Civic. The car had been pushed down an embankment off the Colonial Parkway. Their throats had been viciously slashed and they had been strangled to death.

 

September 1987: Two People Are Shot To Death

It’s still unclear what David Knobling, 20, and Robin Edwards, 14, were doing together the night of their murders in 1987. Knobling had taken Edwards out with his little brother and cousin that day. He dropped Edwards off at her home, but later that night she snuck out to meet him.

On Sept. 20, 1987, Knobling’s truck was found abandoned by the James River Bridge. The keys were still in the ignition, the door was open, and the windshield wipers were going. Three days later, their bodies washed up on the beach at Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge. They had both been shot in the head, execution-style.

 

April 1988: A Pair Of College Students Goes Missing

In April 1988, Richard “Keith” Call, 20, and Cassandra Hailey, 19, went on a date, going to a movie and attending a party. They were never seen again after that night. Call’s beloved Toyota Celica was discovered at a York River overlook, just a few miles from where Thomas and Dowski had been murdered two years prior. Several clothing items were found in the vehicle, as were the car keys. Dogs traced their scents to the river, but soon lost it.

 

September 1989: Another Two Are Found Killed

Annamaria Phelps, 18, was dating the younger brother of Daniel Lauer, 21. The couple lived together in Virginia Beach. However, the young couple was struggling financially, so Lauer had agreed to move in with them to help them out with money.

Lauer needed to go back home to get his belongings, and Phelps decided to accompany him for the drive to see her own family in their hometown. However, on their way back to Virginia Beach, on Sept. 5, 1989, Phelps and Lauer disappeared, too. Their car was found at an I-64 rest stop in New Kent County. Hunters discovered their remains in the nearby woods six weeks later, but their bodies were too decomposed by then to reveal how they both died.

 

Was It A Serial Killer? There Are Eerie Similarities

“There’s no fingerprints in common. There’s no DNA in common. There’s no weapon in common. As a prosecutor, I couldn’t put that in front of a jury." - Loni Coombs

Location: All of the victims were found on or near the Colonial Parkway in Virginia. Three out of four of the double homicides occurred near the water, too.

Time and Date: All happened on a weekend or holiday and at night. 

Victimology: All the victims were young, white, and in a pair that could at least seem couple-y or romantic to outside eyes.

Crime Scene: The cars in all cases seemed to be moved and were not where the murders themselves happened. Clothes and shoes were also left in all the cars. And of course, all the killings happened near or on the Colonial Parkway.

 

The Murders Were Different In Many Ways

"To me, this is the work of a serial killer [..] I see the killer evolving, not just in his methods but in his motives." - O'Connell

Method of Murder: These were all very different. Thomas and Dowski were strangled and had their throats cut. Knobling and Edwards were shot. Call and Hailey vanished entirely, and the bodies of Phelps and Lauer were too decomposed to tell how they were killed. It’s rare for a murderer to switch up their methods.

Treatment of the Bodies: Thomas and Dowksi were brutally treated, their throats sliced. They were left dead in the car. Knobling and Edwards were thrown in the James River, their bodies only found when they washed up on a beach. Call and Hailey disappeared, and dogs were only able to trace their scent to a river. Phelps and Lauer, meanwhile, were found wrapped in a blanket in the woods, which seemed less vicious and almost more respectful toward the bodies.

 

What Were Possible Motives?

"To me, it still says drug deal or illegal activity of some kind. That's the only thing that makes sense to me." - Bonnie Edwards

Many theories have popped up around the Colonial Parkway murders. Some 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 the 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, according to former FBI profiler Jim Clemente. They could have been preparing to show their license or registration.

 

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Others believe Thomas and Dowski were killed in a hate crime. 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.

There is also 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.”

Some however, theorize it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time.

“My theory is that David saw something he wasn’t supposed to see,” David Knobling's father, Karl Knobling, told “Lovers’ Lane Murders."