As a result investigators are divided as to how many of these murders were done by the same killer. There is even some wonder if there was an accomplice involved. This is how sparse evidence is, and this is how contradictory the clues are. There is no footprint impression to give us the stride, weight, or height of the killer. There’s no impression to even tell us if the killer worked in tandem with an evil toady. There was never a witness. There is no police composite of any person of interest.
Due to the division of opinions on the case, both official and non official, the murder of two women in Shenandoah National Forest in May 1996, ten years after the first Colonial Parkway murders and seven years after the last, has been considered and linked by some official and private investigators. If the Shenandoah murders of 1996 are linked, then the crime spree would be spread over a 10 year period.
Two years before the CPM (Colonial Parkway Murders) began there was a particularly pointless, confusing, and vicious murder of two youths at a wooded though not national or state location in the West End of Richmond, Virginia. Both of their throats had been slit. This was the method of dispatching 4 of the victims attributed to the CPM— the first victims Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski (October 1986) and the Shenandoah victims Lollie Winans and Julie Williams (May 1996). These victims obviously were pairs of women whereas the murder of Mike Margaret and Donna Hall, the victims in the 1984 case above, were those of a male-female couple. However, since the other Colonial Parkway victims were male-female couples there is room to wonder about the connection of the 1984 double murder in the West End of Richmond, Virginia.
All crime scenes are accessed by I-64 and tributaries right off it.
All occurred during the school year. All occurred during Fall Semester with the exception of the missing couple, who vanished in April 1988. Except for the April disappearance the others were separated by the span of a year. The first was October 9, 1986 (Thursday); the second September 20, 1987 (Sunday); the fourth on September 5, 1989 (Tuesday), with the April disappearance being on April 9, 1988 (Saturday), midway between the third and fourth attacks.
Except for the October 9, 1986, attack all were on weekends or holidays. David Knobling and Robin Edwards went out on Saturday September 19, 1987, with their deaths occurring by gunshot on Sunday morning; Keith Call and Sandra Hailey went on their date Saturday April 9, 1988, with Keith’s car found Sunday April 10; Daniel Lauer and Annamaria Phelps were driving to Virginia Beach on late night September 4, Labor Day holiday, and their deaths occurred on Tuesday September 5, apparently by knife.
In October 1986, the first victims were found in their car which had been pushed off the bluff of the parking turnout on Colonial Parkway known as Cheatham Annex. If we are to backwork the intentions of the killer from the facts known, the murder would seem a drawn-out affair in which the sadistic killer bound them at their wrists and then slowly strangled them to insensibility. Then he viciously cut their throats. This would indicate a cold-blooded and calculated killer. However, the way in which the car was found would indicate a clumsy, first time killer trying to hide his evil handiwork. There had been an attempt to light the car on fire inside and apparently burn up the interior and the clues and evidence indicating the girls had been murdered. Since the car had been pushed off the bluff and down to the bank of the York River, presumably the killer was trying to make this look like a crash. However, if that was his aim the location is a poor choice, for it was not off the road proper but off a tourist parking lot where no car is going to be speeding. The diesel fuel did not ignite and the evidence remained intact that testified to brutal and premeditated murder.
In short this seemed like a first time killer who botched up the disposal of the car and victims to cover the evidence of murder. However, this conclusion should be held only tentatively. A 3 inch piece of the rope that bound the neck of one victim was found between her collar and neck. For some reason the killer saw fit to remove the bindings from the wrists and then cut the rope from around the neck. Why if intending to incinerate them would the killer go to the trouble to remove the bindings? And why did he have to cut the rope from around the neck? And, more importantly, why did he have to cut the ligature twice in order to leave a 3 inch or so piece in place behind the collar of one victim?
These represent mistakes, or so they would seem; and the fact that the 3 inch piece of rope was found lodged in the collar of one victim indicates the rope had been wrapped around the neck twice and had to be cut in two different places to remove it. What for?
His murders thereafter apparently came off without a hitch, indicating he was refining his modus operandi. This too is a point of view that should only tentatively be held. Dowski and Thomas were the only female-female pair whereas the others were male-female. The female-female pair were fully clothed and not molested. This has caused some questions as to whether Dowski and Thomas were killed by some other killer than the one who a year later went on to kill male-female couples. This is possible, but the killer could also have mistaken Dowski/Thomas in the darkness of night for a male-female couple— one had long hair and the other had short hair. When he discovered his mistake he may have killed them in the fashion he did whereas with the others apparently he made them undress first. However, he did not attempt to dispose of any other couple by fire.
This has inspired some to believe that Dowski and Thomas and Winans and Williams murders may be linked, but the male-female couples were committed by a different perpetrator. Although this might be possible, there are many similarities between the murders whether the victims are male-female or female couples.
For instance, David Knobling, the next victim, had left his wallet on the dash of his pickup in the parking lot at Ragged Island. Cathy Thomas’s wallet had been found loose in her car, as if she had removed it for a reason; the theory amongst investigators being that the killer was playing cop and they removed their wallets to show him their i.d.
The third pair of victims are represented on the Colonial Parkway only by their car and the clues therein, found the day after they vanished on April 10, 1988. Keith Call and his date Sandra Hailey are missing and have never been found. His car was found abandoned at York Overlook about a mile or two from the Cheatham Annex but far closer to the main entrance of Colonial Parkway. The location of the car indicated it had been driven there and dropped off. The clues inside— including most of the man’s clothes— indicated the couple had been skinny-dipping. Put together it would seem another bad attempt to make it look like the couple simply vanished, perishing by drowning in the York River. It was, however, a blatantly poor attempt. York Overlook is not a convenient place from which to go down to the river, and the water was 40 degrees that night.
In terms of location and staging, however, there is a connection to the first victims. There the killer was skillful in how he dispatched them but clumsy in how he tried to hide the evidence of murder. Here the killer was skillful in having taken the victims unawares somewhere but then clumsy in dropping the car off at the first quick turnout he found (the first overlook is a deep parking lot whereas York Overlook was the first quick circular driveway of sorts right off the road) at which no skinny-dippers were have parked.
The circumstances in both Case 1 (Dowski and Thomas) and Case 3 (Call and Hailey) at first strike one as suggesting an accomplice, for having dropped off the car how did the killer then get away from the wooded Colonial Parkway?
While the killer did not try and use fire to obliterate clues in the cases that followed, it is true that he made sure the victims would not be found quickly. It was 3 days before the Case 2 victims were found; Case 3 victims were never found; Case 4 victims were found 6 weeks after-the-fact.
The coincidence of the wallets being found loose in the car in Case 1 and Case 2 may also exist in Case 3. Keith Call’s wallet was found in back with his clothes, though it is not mentioned that the wallet was loose or in the back pocket of his pants. If it was loose, this might explain why the FBI began to suspect the killer was playing cop or a real cop had gone bad. In Call’s case the killer would have made the naked, skinny-dipping youth return to his car and retrieve his i.d. from his wallet. This is, of course, not written in stone. The circumstances of his clothes in the back and some of his date’s clothes in the back only indicate they were not dressed at the time; but like the car this could have been staged.
Most of the clothes (including the pants) of David Knobling and some of the clothes of his date (Robin Edwards), the double murders at Ragged Island (September 1987), were found in his pickup, as the clothes would be found in Case 3. The victims themselves were found nude and about a mile from their car, which was found in the parking lot. Investigation uncovered the car must have arrived there after 2 a.m. the morning of September 20, 1987. It was a known petting spot. The killer must have arrived later. From the circumstances the youth were marched out into the marshy wild life refuge naked or practically so and there executed by gunshot to the head. Thus it seems hard to imagine that the killer dropped their car off at the parking lot and staged it like it seems he did in Case 3.
The above three locations were considered petting spots or “lovers’ lanes.”
The Fourth strike (and officially considered the last) revealed a chain of events which shed light on the previous double murders. Evidence was solid. The victims’ car had been driven to the woods where the murder had been committed and then driven back to the New Kent Co. rest stop on I-64 and dropped there. Since this couple was not romantically linked (the female victim was merely assisting her boyfriend’s brother in moving), it was deduced they had stopped at the rest stop on I-64 and there had been approached by the killer and forced to drive a mile down the road, take the next cutoff and drive into the woods. They must have had to strip before being shot. Thus we may wonder if the previous male-female victims had been forced to strip first and the circumstances in the cars, wherein their clothes or most of it was found, was also staged by the killer. Thus we may be completely blind as to where the couples had first been approached by the killer.
The couples may have been abducted at the petting spots, taken elsewhere and then their car returned. This would explain how the killer had a means of leaving the area after dropping off their car, though it would seem his car parked close by and left unattended for sometime would cause him to risk its license being taken down by a ranger.
The circumstances in this last strike (Case 4) suggest there was only one killer and not an accomplice. Daniel Lauer, the male victim, was moving and his car was full of his things. Doubtless there wasn’t enough room for 4 persons in it. Also, if the accomplice followed in another car, why bring the victim’s car back to the rest stop? It seems the killer had to return to get his own car. If there had been an accomplice, the killer could have driven the victims’ car anywhere and dumped it and then fled with the accomplice in their own car.
The drop off location of this victim’s car (half on the truck ramp) once again seems a clumsy gesture on the part of the killer, and it links this case to the others. There was the bungled attempt to dispose of the evidence in the Thomas and Dowski case and make the car look like it crashed where it could not have crashed; the drop off of Call and Hailey’s car where they could not have been skinny-dipping; and now here the obvious act of dropping off the victims’ car at a rest stop but, curiously once again, in a spot where Lauer never would have parked it and indeed in a spot where it attracted immediate attention.
Such apparent bungling would suggest that in the end the killer did not mind giving the appearance of staging the car. This surmise is supported by the fact he left the female victim’s roach clip with feathers dangling in the car window as a sort of taunt. Were the cars in the previous crimes also left in poor staging for a reason? There are not enough clues to speculate at length.
Only the women in the male-female couples were robbed. Their wallets were missing even if their purses were found in the car. Dowski and Thomas and not been robbed.
One thing is certain: the killer was careful or incredibly lucky. He must have left touch DNA, especially in Daniel Lauer’s car, but nothing was preserved. He must have left footprints at Ragged Island, but a rain wiped out any trace. Likewise he must also have left some kind of clue in the woods where he killed Lauer and Phelps, but the rains came and the weeks went by and there was no trace of the killer.
Apparently there are over 150 latents from Cathy Thomas’ car, but none have ever been linked to any known person. Again, if those were the killer’s prints he has been very careful and not arrested for anything else.
The first victims were killed by rope and knife. The second by gun. The third we do not know. The fourth presumably by knife. Only skeletons remained and it seemed the female had been killed by knife, which may have been deduced by scoring found on bones.
These were lovers’ lanes murders, in the loosest sense of the term. The 4th victims were certainly not at a petting spot per se and it is questionable whether the others were killed where their cars were found, though it would seem that at Ragged Island this was the case. Fire was also an added element in the first victims’ case. The perpetrator would not be the ‘Zodiac’ Killer of 1968-1969 San Francisco Bay Area, but it is interesting to note that the Zodiac proclaimed he would kill by just such varied methods. The year the Colonial Parkway Murders began was 1986, the year the first comprehensive book on the Zodiac Murders was released. Both The Zodiac and the “Shadow Slayer” were lovers’ lanes killers and both changed their killing tools.
Dry summer weather in Napa County allowed the sheriffs to get Zodiac’s footprints and estimate weight. Zodiac’s clumsy killing style at petting spots also allowed him to be seen twice. On the other hand, the rains of Virginia erased every clue to the perpetrator there, and the same perp was very careful from the beginning. Even in his mistakes he left no clues that extend far from the crime scene.
The Zodiac spent very little time with all of his victims save the Lake Berryessa couple. At an opposite, it is obvious the Shadow Slayer or “Phantom of Colonial Parkway” spent a large amount of time with each couple.
Altogether there is little reason to link the two series of crimes. A third lovers’ lane killer struck in 1946 in Texarkana, Texas and Arkansas, and likewise went uncaptured. Similarities can be explained simply in the logistics of committing crimes in similar circumstances. Lovers’ lane are, of course, invariably on the outskirts of towns. Nevertheless, all three retained very, very distinctive differences in their MO, with the “Shadow Slayer” of Colonial Parkway either being the most careful or the luckiest inasmuch as not one clue suggests his height, weight, or any features whatsoever.
As much information as necessary to reveal the detailed chain of events and killing tools should be released. In the case of the Zodiac Killer almost all police logs, crime photos, crime scene sketches, caliber of weapons, ballistics, even summary though redacted reports on persons of interest and suspects has been released without compromising anybody’s privacy. This has led to a better understanding of the clues and evidence, extensive interest in the case and, hopefully, soon its solution.
Over 30 years has now gone by since the first Colonial Parkway murder. All other lovers’ lanes murderer pale by comparison to the “Shadow Slayer” and his careful interdiction of his victims. He was like a spider perfectly poised to catch those he desired. The first character trait dominant in any such killer is arrogance. It is not some perverse kink. It takes a haughty mind to deem others worthy of death to satiate their will, whim, thrill or convenience. The Shadow Slayer or Phantom of Colonial Parkway was indeed very clever, but with the clues and evidence released to the public a far greater gene pool of investigators can take their turn to finally reveal this evil and calculated spider.