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 A Long Weekend: The First Strike

   Cathleen Thomas & Rebecca Dowski

     The clues were curious and up to a point they made sense. Cathleen Thomas, 27 years old, had popped around William & Mary College in Williamsburg,Virginia, to pick up her chum, 21-year old student, Rebecca Dowski. From the looks of Becky Dowski’s car, packed with luggage, she was ready to leave for autumn break. However, before going she and Thomas were going to go out for a night together. It was Thursday, the date October 9, 1986. They jaunted off in Thomas’ little white Honda Civic. This is apparently the last time they were seen alive.

     Where did they go? Nobody knows, but obviously they were going to be back by the evening, so Becky could head back home on the weekend.

True Crime Index

   On Sunday morning, October 12, 1986, a jogger along the York River came across an alarming scene. He was jogging along the wide river’s bank and there hanging almost straight down the steep embankment was a white Honda Civic. Someone had driven it off the road. Actually, up the steep edge of the embankment was a parking lot known as the Cheatham Annex. It was one of a number of such tourist parking areas along the historic Colonial Parkway, a two lane road that leads from nearby Yorktown to Interstate Highway 64. It is a Federal National Park, a road through the woods and along the river, preserved in its rustic, colonial glory.

   The jogger’s first thought was natural. Someone hit the gas instead of the brake pedal when pulling into the parking stall. The little hatchback car then went over the side and straight down, its bumper near the river’s edge.

     However, looking a little closer revealed two bodies inside. It was a gruesome site. Blood was everywhere. The bodies were, of course, Thomas and Dowski. Since this Honda Civic2was Federal property, it was the jurisdiction of the FBI. Agent Mabry of the Norfolk Field Office was on the case. He peaked in.

     The two young women were in curious positions. Rebecca Dowski was in the back seat and Cathy Thomas was in the back area under the hatchback. From the looks of the deep purple marks around their necks, they had been strangled with a thin rope or cord. Then their throats had been cut, cut deeply, almost removing the head as far as Wells could later remember. It looked and smelled as if someone had tried to set the car on fire with diesel fuel, but it hadn’t ignited — a horrible murder and botched up disposal . . . or so it seemed.


           First Victims
     Dowski & Thomas

         Second Victims
   Knobling & Edwards

         Third Victims
   Keith Call/Sandra Hailey

         Fourth Victims
       Lauer & Phelps

             Fifth Victims
       Winans & Williams


Donna Hall & Mike Margaret

David Metzler & Heidi Childs

     A number of FBI agents worked on the case aside from Mabry. One of them was Irv Wells. His first instinct at seeing the bodies was “over kill.” What was the point of the perpetrator cutting their throats when the strangling would have finished the job . . .if it had been aloud to continue. It got a little more confusing than this, however.

   The forensic guys would find hair between Cathy Thomas’ fingers— hair of the perpetrator. She had put up a hell of a fight, and it seems Becky Dowski had as well. How could only one perp have done this? And indeed Wells came to believe there was an accomplice. How can one man struggle with two strong women? Naturally, this is assuming that the girls were attacked at the same time.

     Information in the public forum is scant on the case. From Cathleen Thomas’ brother comes the information that the forensic guys also found a piece of the rope used to strangle Cathy. It was lodged between her collar and the back of her neck, under her long red hair. Thus it seemed the killer had cut the cord by which he had strangled her insensible— and cut it twice. Obviously, he had not pulled the cord around her and choked her from behind. It almost sounds as it he had wrapped it around once. What a curious way to choke someone on the spot. Apparently, there were 150 partial latents found on or in the car, in addition to full prints. To whom did they belong? How stupid was this killer to leave so many clues? They matched to no one in the records, however.

     Rope burns were also found on their wrists. Both were fully dressed. No sexual molestation. Their money was found in their car. But Thomas’ wallet was loose and not in her purse.

     Wells’ assessment of more than one perp may have been influenced by the parking lot and not by the clues. He believed that both girls were killed at the parking lot and then thrown into the back of the car. The killer/s then pushed the car over the side to the river and thought it would explode, thus destroying the clues. . . but the diesel fuel had failed to take and he/they were gone.

     Yet why cut the rope around her neck if the killer intends to burn everything? Something about that rope he must have viewed as significant.

     The motive for the murder? There was none at first. But the overlooks along Colonial Parkway were considered “lovers’ lanes” for the locals because they afforded parked couples a beautiful and often secluded view of the setting sun over the magnificent York River. These were two girls . . . so, well. . . you see.

     They were now thought to be lesbian lovers and as such it popped to many a mind that a Simon Pure had killed them.

     Cathleen Thomas was s pretty 27 year old redhead. She had graduated the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and spent 5 years in the Navy. She then went into business as a stockbroker in Norfolk. Rebecca Dowski was a senior in business administration at W&M. Obviously, they had met somehow and became close friends.

     From the evidence he had, Wells came to suspect that watermen might have been involved. The killer/s may have come and gone via the river and took the girls by surprise. There was, of course, the diesel fuel. Why would a killer be cruising the parkway’s lonely arboreal stretches in a truck (presumably) with a can of diesel fuel in the back and want to burn his victims or, having killed spontaneously, how many people have diesel fuel handy to use it to cover a crime? Indeed.


Civic-icon Cathy-Thomas-cadet-icon RDowski-icon
Colonialparkway-aerial1-icon Colonialparkway-aerial2-icon Colonialparkway-aerial3-icon Colonialparkway-aerial4-icon
ColoPrkway-HippsPond-icon Old Williamsburg Rd-icon
Williamsburg-bridge-VO-icon Welcome-sign-VO-icon
Jamestown-dusk2-VO-icon Jamestown-dusk3-VO-icon Another Parkway lookout-VO-icon
Parting shot-Cheatham Annex-VO-icon Cheatham Annex1-VO-icon Cheatham-Annex--excellent-VO-icon
Cheatham Annex-angle-VO-icon Angle-from-roadway-VO-icon Another angle-VO-icon
Cheatham Annex4-VO-icon
Another angle York River-VO-icon
York River-bottom of turnout-VO-icon
Site-1-sign2--Cheatham Annex-VO-icon
Opposite angle-VO-icon Cheatham Annex3-VO-icon Across Cheatham-VO-icon

     The alternative to the “watermen theory” is hard to logistically consider and make work. A theory hinging on a Simon Pure or a cruising pair of killers would require that the killer/s prowled the dark, lonely strands of Colonial Parkway assured they would come across a lesbian couple in the right circumstances in which to determine they were lesbian and then to commit a rather involved and lengthy killing. After all, it takes time to approach a couple, struggle wildly with them, bind them, and in this case strangle them to insensibility, then throw them in the back of the car, cut their throats, remove the ligatures, push the car, while steering it, to the right spot to then dowse it and push it over, then light it to set is ablaze— all of this without being seen by another passing car or hopeful parkers coming along.

     In what circumstances would the two young women appear to be lesbian? If it was late at night they are only two silhouettes in a parked car. If it was at sunset the girls may have been sitting out on the edge and watching the sunset— at which ideal tourist time it is quite likely others would be driving by. Perhaps they were walking along the York River’s rugged bank? Such circumstances would not indicate they were lesbians, but maybe they were holding hands? Perhaps they sat on the grass and had their arms around each other. I really don’t know. But at any other time but late night or early morning tourists could easily have come by, and the killer/s could not even risk the amount of time involved at any other time but late night/early morning. Thus there is a problem with both scenarios. If they were approached very late, there is no way a perp could know their gender. If earlier at sunset, no killer could risk taking the time that had to be involved.

     There is a conflict on the last time they were seen. One account says that Cathy Thomas popped around Becky’s dorm around 9 p.m. Agent Meadows later had the case. In an article written by Greg Schneider for the Virginia Pilot Meadows admitted that he found Cathy’s former girlfriend and granted her immunity for anything but violence if she could shed light on where Cathy might have taken Becky for a farewell night out. From this, I suppose we should deduce that drugs or something illicit might have been involved.

     This inspires one to consider the alternative. Namely, that the double murder happened somewhere else than the Cheatham Annex.

     I have no information as yet when the couple died, but I’d guess Thursday night since they never returned to the campus from the look of Becky Dowski’s car still in place and ready to go. This is confusing, for it proposes that the car was there at Cheatham Annex for the whole weekend, at a popular overlook, along a busy river docked with naval ships . . . and no one saw a white car hanging down from the overlook to the river’s edge.

       It could be, however, that the full crime did not take place at the overlook; that the car was driven there with the girls unconscious in back and then there they were murdered late at night, the car then dumped over the side. If so, the killer/s had a means of escape. Then it does sound like an accomplice was involved with his own car.

     There is not enough clues and evidence released to the public to say either way. But the logistics of pulling off such a detailed sequence of binding, restraining, strangling, murdering, disposing, doesn’t sound like it could happen at any time but very, very late night or early morning, and by this time one would assume that Dowski and Thomas would have wanted to be back at campus.

     So just what really did happen? One thing gnawed at the original Feds. It seemed as if Thomas had taken out her wallet from her purse. This strikes one as if she was showing her i.d. to a cop.

     This is a preliminary study. It will be expanded with more details. The concentration here is the crime scene. As the photos above show, they help place the area in context. A comparative analysis between Cheatham Annex and the other overlooks will also reveal a clue. Cheatham was one of the best annexes at which to quickly push a car over the edge. How convenient of Cathy Thomas to park there, if she really did. This would favor the theory that the abduction took place elsewhere and the car was driven to the annex for disposal. This possibility will be expanded on the analysis page.

     For almost a whole year, the case would stand on its own. Then come September 23, 1987, another couple— a guy and a gal— would be murdered, in circumstances that are just as confusing.

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