The Colonial Parkway Murders are a set of killings in which at least four couples had their lives cut short. Over 30 years later they remain unsolved. Here is the story of perhaps the most infamous unsolved case in Virginia’s history.
Cathy Thomas And Rebecca Dowski
The First Victims
On 9th October 1986, Rebecca Dowski said goodbye to her college friends. She was taking a three-day trip back home along with her partner Cathy Thomas for Columbus Day weekend. It was the last time the couple were seen alive. This would mark the beginning of a series of killings that would become known as The Colonial Parkway Murders.
On October 12 at around 5:30 pm a jogger had gone for his regular run. As he approached a run-off area near the Bellfield Plantation he noticed that the bushes behind the parking area were damaged and went over to examine closer.
The run-off area was more like a small parking lot, capable of fitting around seven cars. Behind it was an embankment with a fifteen-foot drop which led to the York River. Upon checking the bushes the runner immediately saw a car on the embankment so he called the police.
The Discovery Of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski
Park Rangers attending the scene at first assumed the car had accidentally driven over the edge of the embankment.
They carefully made their way down the embankment towards the Honda Civic. As they got closer the rangers spotted the car’s occupants were still in the vehicle.
The park rangers broke open the back window to see if the occupants were alive. Sadly, they were too late.
Inside the vehicle were the bodies of Cathy Thomas, 27, and Rebecca Dowski, 21. Rebecca was in the back seat and Cathy was in the rear of the hatchback. Both women had had their throats slashed.
The Crime Scene
The Colonial Parkway was a National Park Service and so was classed as federal land. This put the case under the jurisdiction of the FBI.
Law enforcement found both women were still fully clothed and there was no sign of sexual assault, so law enforcement thought rape was an unlikely motive. Both victims purses were also still in the vehicle along with some money, so robbery was ruled out too.
Special Agents John Mabry and J. C. Cross both noticed the strong smell of diesel coming from the interior. Back at the run-off area, near where the vehicle had gone down the embankment, they also found several burned matches.
The FBI agents came to the conclusion that the killer had originally attempted to set the vehicle on fire. The killer obviously didn’t realize diesel doesn’t ignite in the same way petrol does and so the killer had to come up with another plan.
In his next attempt, the FBI believed the killer tried to dump the car over the embankment and into the river below. The thick bramble and bushes on the embankment stopped the second plan from reaching its fruition.
One more thing was detected by the Special Agents – a lack of blood. Although there was some blood in the vehicle it was nowhere near the amount there would be if the two women had been killed in that spot.
A search of the area failed to find the location the pair had been killed. This led the FBI to determine Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski had been murdered elsewhere before been taken to the location they were found.
The autopsy showed just how brutal the murders of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski had been. The cut made to Cathy Thomas throat was particularly grim. Her head was almost severed.
Both women had ligature marks around their necks, showing signs of strangulation. Bruising was also evident on both victims. This was likely from been manhandled by the killer whilst Cathy and Rebecca were still alive.
Rebecca Dowski had several small cuts on her left thigh. Cathy Thomas had a cut on her thumb but more interesting was a small clump of hair she had in her hand. It appeared that in her desperation Cathy Thomas may have pulled a clump of hair from the killer.
It was also determined that the killer had cut the throats from left to right. This indicated they were looking for a right-handed killer.
The autopsy put the cause of death for both Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski as respiratory arrest due to strangulation. The cutting of the throats was, therefore, a needless barbaric extra act after both women were already dead.
David Knobling And Robin Edwards
A Late Night Rendezvous
On September 19, 1987, twenty-year-old David Knobling had offered to drive his younger cousin Jason and his fourteen-year-old date Robin Edwards to the cinema. The movie they intended to see had sold out si instead David, Jason, Robin and David’s younger brother Michael decided to go to the arcade.
As it was raining when they left. Michael and Jason in an act of chivalry took the decision to ride in the back of the Ford Ranger pick-up truck. The twenty-minute drive home was the only time Robin Edwards and David Knobling spent alone, yet it was enough for them to arrange to meet later that night without the others knowledge.
David dropped off Robin first at around 11 pm just in time for her curfew. Robin rang her mum to confirm she was home and sat down to watch TV with her younger sister.
David Knobling then dropped off his cousin before returning home. At around 12:30 am both David and Robin would go back out and meet up.
The Strange Discovery Of David Knoblings Ford Ranger.
On September 21 after both Robin and David had been reported missing David Knobling’s Ford Ranger was found. The pick-up truck was parked at the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge.
Both doors were wide open with the keys still in the ignition. The radio was still playing and the windshield wipers were still on. It was an eerie scene with something obviously amiss.
Inside the vehicle, underwear was found along with a bra. There was also a pair of women’s Keds shoes. The shoes had writing all over them so Robin Edwards mother identified them as her daughters. It was the first clear sign that David and Robin had been together.
Despite the odd findings, there was a lack of urgency in searching for the pair from law enforcement. Robin had a history of running away in her past so perhaps that was the reason why but it didn’t explain the way the vehicle was found.
The Discovery Of David Knobling And Robin Edwards
Two days later on September 23 for the parents of David Knobling and Robin Edwards hope turned to despair. Along the James River at Ragged Island at around 4 pm, the body of Robin Edwards was discovered. She had washed ashore from the river. David Knobling was found 30 yards away tangled in roots.
Robin Edwards had been shot in the back of the head, execution-style. David Knobling had suffered two gunshot wounds, one to his shoulder and the other to the back of the head. Law enforcement believed the shoulder wound was caused whilst David was trying to make his escape before the killer executed him.
Robin was wearing a blouse and pants when her body was discovered. David just his pants. Robin’s wallet was missing, although it couldn’t be shown whether the killer had taken it or it had was taken by the river.
Was The Car Staged?
It was theorized by David Knobling’s family, and others, that the Ford Ranger scene was staged by the killer.
The radio was on due to the keys been turned to the accessory mode in the ignition. David would have known this wasn’t needed. He had hard wired the radio to the battery, the radio could be turned on without the keys.
The Knobling family were also adamant that David always parked his truck with the front facing out. This wasn’t how the vehicle was found.
The items of underwear also appeared laid out, too neat. This is not what you’d expect if these were items taken off by a couple of lovers in the heat of the moment.
Why Did David Knobling And Robin Edwards Meet?
The question has often been asked why the pair had decided to meet that night and if it could’ve been related to there deaths. Until the killer is caught we will never truly know.
David Knobling had just found out he was to be a dad, with his long-term girlfriend now pregnant. That and the fact Robin was only 14 perhaps points towards it not been a sexual hook-up. However, it cannot be ruled out as it’s reported that Robin was sexually active.
If unconnected to the other Colonial Parkway Murders a suspected drug deal gone wrong or witnessing something they shouldn’t have has also been suggested. The truck was discovered in a location with a reputation for been “shady” and it’s known such deals took place at the site.
Cassandra Lee Hailey And Richard “Keith” Call
On April 9, 1988, Keith Call, 20, took Cassandra Hailey,18, to a party in Newport News. It was the first time the couple had gone out together, although it wasn’t really a proper date.
Keith was on a break from his on again off again girlfriend and Cassandra wasn’t looking for anything serious. It was more of a social hook-up than one intended to lead to romance.
At around 1:30 am the couple left the party as Cassandra had to be home by 2 am. It was the last time anyone would ever see Keith Call or Cassandra Hailey.
The Car As Discovered By Richard Call Snr.
The next day, April 10, Keith’s dad Richard Call (the reason Keith preferred to be called Keith was to avoid confusion with his dad’s name) was on his way to work at around 7 am. On his way, he saw his son’s 1982 Toyota Celica parked at the York River Overlook turnoff. Richard pulled over to check it out.
He found it strange that the driver’s door was slightly open. Keith’s watch was still in the car and Cassandra’s purse was on the passenger seat along with several empty beer cans.
As he was in a hurry to get to work Richard assumed that Keith and Cassandra had taken a walk on the beach. Richard returned to his car and headed off for work.
The Car As Discovered By The Park Ranger
Around an hour later Park Ranger John Seager came across the vehicle. The park ranger reported a completely different scene.
He found almost all of Keith’s clothing inside the vehicle folded up and placed on the back seat including his wallet. Cassandra’s bra and one of her boots was there too.
Another man’s wallet containing $12 was found as was Cassandra’s purse. Cassandra’s wallet was missing and some items of jewellery which she had worn to the party were also absent.
Richard Call would be left wondering for the rest of his life how he failed to notice the clothing or the keys. Unfortunately, the park rangers never told him the truth of why the scene was so different.
The Real Reason For The Differences.
According to Danny Plott, a detective who worked for a task force on the Colonial Parkway Murders, the park rangers actually came across the vehicle first. He states this was only admitted some years later.
In Plott’s version, the park rangers found the vehicle and took some of the belongings hoping to ID who had left the vehicle. It eventually occurred to them it may not simply be an abandoned vehicle.
They returned to the car and tried to put the items back where they found them. At this point though, Richard Call had already seen and inspected the car but rather than admit to the mistake the park rangers stayed silent.
It wasn’t the only time the park rangers were accused of being incompetent throughout the Colonial Parkway Murders.
The FBI were particularly scathing of the way they had handled the crime scenes in both the Dowski-Thomas and Call-Hailey cases. It was even considered a park ranger may be behind the Colonial Parkway Murders and deliberately messing up the scenes.
Press and family members had already made the link to the Colonial Parkway Murders, especially those of Rebecca Dowski and Cathy Thomas. To add to that belief, Cathy Thomas’s Honda Civic was found just a mile away from the spot were Keith Call’s Toyota Celica was.
The park rangers though had a firm belief that Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey had gotten into trouble skinny dipping. They were convinced they had no connection with any of the Colonial Parkway Murders.
The FBI Join The Investigation…Eventually.
Perhaps in a show of their confidence, or perhaps in a show of incompetence, no one saw fit to contact the FBI.
The FBI found out about the missing couple when Special Agent John Mabry heard it on the radio the next day. He immediately thought of the Dowski-Thomas case and soon the FBI began to investigate their second couples case on the Colonial Parkway (Knobling-Edwards was investigated by the state police as it didn’t happen on federal property).
They quickly shot down the skinny dipping theory and the FBI ordered a massive search of the area. Sadly, there was no trace of Keith Call or Cassandra Hailey.
The FBI still held hope that the couple were alive. No evidence had been discovered in the vehicle or its surroundings to suggest the two had been killed, but they also couldn’t understand why anyone would abduct them.
Keith Call’s car was checked for fingerprints. Unfortunately, due to the haphazard management of the crime scene by the park rangers, the number of fingerprints on the vehicle were vast.
Despite there best efforts to search the area Keith Hall and Cassandra Hailey were never found.
The Theory Of The FBI
The FBI theorized that the couple went to the parkway to make out, it was a common lover’s lane at night. They then believe an authority figure or someone posing as one approached the car. The killer asked the couple to step out of the vehicle before revealing his true intentions.
The offender took the couple somewhere along the parkway and down by the York River. He would then proceed to murder the young couple and dispose of the bodies in the river.
Both families disagree. Keith Call and Cassandra Hailey had both told family members in the past that they didn’t like the parkway. Cassandra especially seemed to have a fear of the place at night.
Numerous witnesses from the party they attended also stated that the couple didn’t appear to hit it off with one another. It was reported that they barely spent any time together, instead choosing to hang out with others. If true it seems unlikely Keith and Cassandra would go off to a lover’s lane together.
The families instead believed the couple was abducted sometime shortly after the party on the way to drop off Cassandra. The car was parked at the location afterwards to throw police in the wrong direction. The belief in this theory was shared by Major Ron Montgomery of the York County Sheriff’s department.
Annamaria Phelps And Daniel Lauer
A Fatal Invitation
In September 1989, 21-year-old Daniel Lauer accepted an invitation from his younger brother Clinton. Clinton had asked Daniel to travel to Virginia Beach to spend Labour Day weekend with him and his girlfriend, Annamaria Phelps.
As Daniel didn’t want to make the long journey alone he also invited his friends Joe and Jeanette Godsey, who also took their 18-month-old daughter Ashley along.
During the course of the weekend’s partying, Daniel received yet another offer from his brother. Clinton and Annamaria asked him to leave the family home and come live with them in Virginia Beach. Daniel Lauer accepted the invitation and wasted no time putting the plan into action.
On September 4, 1989, Daniel took the trip back home with the Godseys with the intention of collecting his things and then returning to start his new life in Virginia Beach. Annamaria decided to go along on the journey so that she could pay her family a short visit whilst Daniel collected his stuff.
The Return Journey
Daniel Laur and Annamaria Phelps began their return journey after leaving Phelps parents home at just after 11 pm. They headed eastbound on the I-64 through New Kent County. The pair would never complete their journey back to Virginia Beach.
Clinton Lauer became concerned when the pair hadn’t returned home. Fearing they had broken down he and a female work colleague went to look for Daniel and Annamaria. They travelled westbound but just before they reached the rest area they decided to turn back as they were getting low on fuel and had no money on them.
Had they made it to the westbound rest area they would have seen Daniel Laur’s car.
The Discovery Of Daniel Lauer’s Car
The next morning the vehicle was found by a state transportation official. The car drew attention because of how it was situated.
The car was parked near the exit ramp of an area designated for trucks. It was half on the shoulder and half on the road at a strange angle near a no parking sign.
A Virginia State Trooper was to have the car towed. However, just as he was about to make the call a missing person’s report came through on his radio. He instead took a closer look at the car.
The window on the driver’s side was partially down. Dangling from it was a roach clip decorated with feathers which had previously always hung from the rearview mirror.
The passenger door was locked but the driver’s side wasn’t. The trooper noticed the keys were still in the ignition. Although definitely strange there were no obvious signs of a struggle having taken place.
The Early Investigation Into The Disappearances
The Virginia State Police arrived on scene and began the search for Daniel Laur and Annamaria Phelps. Dogs were used to find a scent of Daniel and Annamaria as the theory was the two had wandered off into the woods and gotten themselves lost. Strangely the dogs could find no sent from either of them leading away from the car.
It was considered that the vehicle may have been left parked the way it had due to a mechanical issue. This wasn’t the case. The car was later tested and it ran just fine. Fuel also wasn’t the reason it was seemingly dumped where it was.
A three-day search of the area, including the use of a helicopter, found nothing.
The families also told Virginia State Police that several items were missing. Daniel Laur’s dad paid Daniel $800 before they left but the money was missing.
Annamaria owned two matching purses, one for cosmetics and one for money. The one carrying her money was missing. As too was a brown electric blanket.
Connection Made To The Colonial Parkway Murders
The press quickly linked the missing person’s case of Daniel Lauer and Annamaria Phelps to the other Colonial Parkway Murders. Virginia State Police could see the connection too, although publicly they played down the link.
They didn’t want to cause a panic, especially with no proof that a serial offender was responsible for all the Colonial Parkway Murders. Plus there was still doubt, especially concerning the distance between New Kent and Colonial Parkway.
Sightings Of Annamaria and Daniel
A truck driver reported seeing Daniel and Annamaria in the eastbound rest area just after midnight. Another witness claimed he had seen them in a picnic area on the westbound side at about midday on the 5th.
The volume of sightings at times changed the focus of the investigation. Instead of looking at the case as an abduction, at times they leaned more towards that of looking for a couple who had run off with one another.
The Discovery Of Daniel Lauer And Annamaria Phelps
On October 19, 1989, that theory would be put to bed once and for all. At around 8 am two deer hunters out in the woods near the westbound rest area discovered two human skeletons.
The New Kent County Sheriff’s Department attended the discovery. A brown blanket found at the scene immediately gave a link to the Lauer-Phelps missing person’s case. The Virginia State Police were informed of the macabre discovery.
After six weeks out in the open terrain and with wild animals doing what wild animals do there was no chance of a visual identification or one using fingerprints. Several days later after checking medical and dental records, it was confirmed the bodies in the woods were those of Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer.
The Colonial Parkway Murders Come To An End?
The medical examiner had a tough job on his hands due to the condition of the remains. Finding a definitive link to the Colonial Parkway Murders or any killer would be a tough ask.
He checked the bones around the neck area. There was no clear sign of strangulation but he also couldn’t rule it out.
The examiner looked for knife wounds but only found one clear sign. On one of Annamaria’s finger’s was a cut which had not shown any signs of healing. This meant it most likely it occurred the night of her death.
No gunshot wounds could be found either. However, a bullet or knife could still be the cause of death. It just meant if they entered the body they avoided making contact with bone.
Police could rule nothing out after the examiner’s report. Most investigators, however, believe that due to the one cut found on Annamaria a knife was the more likely murder weapon.
Officially the deaths of Annamaria Phelps and Daniel Lauer would be the last in the Colonial Parkway Murders case.
Other Possibly Connected Murders
The Shenandoah Murders
Couple Julianne Williams and Laura Winans, along with their dog Taj, went camping in Shenandoah National Park on May 19, 1996. Julie and Lollie, as both were affectionately known, were supposed to return from their hiking trip on May 27 but failed to do so.
On June 1, park rangers found their bodies near the spot they had been camping half a mile from Skyline Lodge.
Julie Williams, who was 24, was in her sleeping bag. It seemed she had been thrown near the bank of the nearby creek. Inside the sleeping bag, Julie was naked. Her throat had been viciously slashed.
Lollie Winans, who was 26, was discovered still inside the tent. She two had been stripped of her clothes and had her throat slashed.
Lollie and Julie’s wounds were so severe that the cuts had almost decapitated their heads. The couple had also been bound and gagged during the atrocious attack.
Similarities To The First Victims In The Colonial Parkway Murders
Although still a part of Virginia, Shenandoah National Park was a three-hour drive from were the Colonial Parkway Murders had occurred. Still, it was immediately apparent that the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans had a lot in common with the murders of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski.
- Both were lesbian couples.
- A knife was involved in both sets of murders and was used in a similarly brutal manner.
- There was no sign of sexual assault on any of the four women.
- Robbery wasn’t the motive as valuables hadn’t been taken.
- The murders had also both taken place on federal property.
- The ages of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans are closer to that of Cathy Thomas than any other victim in the Colonial Parkway Murders.
There were, of course, plenty of differences too. The biggest of which was the location. The Colonial Parkway Murders, including that of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski, had all featured a vehicle pulling up at some point. The Winans and Williams murders had taken place out in the forest at a campsite.
Despite the differences, it is hard to argue with those who believe the murders were committed by the same person. In fact, the murders probably share more similarities with each other than with any of those labelled as part of the Colonial Parkway Murders.
Law Enforcement believed that Williams and Winans had been killed solely because of their sexuality. The case went cold until investigators found a possible suspect in Darrell Rice.
In 2002 Rice was charged with the murders whilst he was serving time for a previous assault. A lack of physical evidence meant Rice was found not guilty of the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans.
Despite been found not guilty of the Shenandoah Murders he remains the prime suspect in the eyes of law enforcement.
Heidi Childs and David Metzler
On August 26, 2009, David Metzler, 19, and his girlfriend Heidi Childs, 18, went to the Caldwell Fields on a date. The couple, who were both students at Virginia Tech, had been dating since high school and told several friends they were meeting each other that evening.
The next morning a man was walking his dog when he discovered the bodies of the young couple in the parking lot at Caldwell Fields, an area for camping in the Jefferson National Forest.
The Childs-Metzler Crime Scene
David and Heidi had both been shot multiple times, though it was never revealed how many times (at least that I can find). The scene was littered with 30.30 shell cases.
David Metzler was found sat inside the vehicle. Heidi’s body was nearby in the parking lot. Law enforcement theorized that Heidi had attempted to escape before been gunned down.
Several items, all seemingly belonging to Heidi Childs, had been taken. These included her credit card, camera, purse and cell phone. Later checks revealed that the credit card was never used.
Few other details have ever been released about the case. However, it was revealed that touch DNA was found at the scene.
Despite rumours of a prime suspect and DNA evidence no arrests have been made and the case remains unsolved nearly 10 years later.
There is nothing concrete to link the killings to the Colonial Parkway Murders.
The Curious Case Of Fred Atwell
The Crime Scene Photos
In 2009 a former Gloucester deputy by the name of Fred Atwell called a reporter at WTKR asking to meet in a parking lot.
Before becoming a deputy at the Gloucester County Sheriff’s Office in 1981 Fred Atwell had bizarrely been a felon. He had served time more than once for burglary, yet somehow found himself working in law enforcement, where he stayed for several years.
Over the years Fred Atwell inserted himself into the Colonial Parkway Murders. He had started his own private investigation and constantly been in touch with the families of the victims. The question no one could answer was why?
The meeting between Fred Atwell and the reporter Mike Mather would bring the seemingly forgotten Colonial Parkway Murders back into the spotlight.
According to Fred Atwell, the owner of a security company told him he had a bunch of materials which would aid Atwell in teaching a class about the Colonial Parkway Murders. Atwell instantly recognised what the images were. He was looking at images from the crime scenes of the Colonial Parkway Murders.
The FBI Reinvestigate
Fred Atwell told the reporter he tried for almost a year to get the FBI to investigate the leak of the crime scene photos. Frustrated with the FBI’s lack of interest Atwell decided to go to the press with the images.
The families of the victims were understandably furious that the FBI could be so careless with evidence they had control over. The relationship between the FBI and the families was already poor, this latest development virtually destroyed it.
In an attempt to mend fences the FBI told the families they would partake a full review of the Colonial Parkway Murders they were responsible for (Cathy Thomas-Rebecca Dowski and Cassandra Hailey-Keith Call). After pressure from the media, the state police agreed to do the same with the Colonial Parkway Murders under their investigation.
Fred Atwell The Suspect
After the release of the crime scene photos, the FBI certainly considered Fred Atwell a suspect. Was this merely payback for causing the FBI embarrassment or did they have a genuine belief Atwell was involved somehow?
Fred Atwell and his association with the Colonial Parkway Murders wouldn’t end there. Later in 2010, he would go on to defraud the families of the victims and the local community whilst running a raffle in aid of the Colonial Parkway Murder victims families.
Despite his role in defrauding the families, they did have something to be thankful for. Thanks to Fred Atwell the case was finally been talked about again and investigated.
Shortly after defrauding the raffle run in aid of the families Atwell held up his wife at gunpoint in a robbery. Fred Atwell was sent back to jail.
Atwell knew he was a suspect but denied any involvement in the Colonial Parkway Murders. Some close to the case believe he knew more about the crimes then he would reveal.
On December 16, 2018, Fred Atwell passed away in a prison hospital. If he did know anything more about the Colonial Parkway Murders Atwell sadly took it with him to his grave.
Despite it now being over 30 years since the first murders took place there is hope. In 2018 it was reported that potential perpetrator DNA had been collected in 3 of the 4 cases. It hasn’t been stated whether those DNA samples could link one individual to the crimes or if each sample indicates a different perpetrator.
As of writing this post on the Colonial Parkway Murders, no one has been charged in relation to any of the crimes.
If you believe you have any information which could help the investigation on the Colonial Parkway murders contact the following:
FBI’s Norfolk Division: (757)-455-0100
Virginia State Police: (804)-674-2000.
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