He is the silent Zodiac.A lovers’ lane killer, for lack of a better expression. He is the third of the major lovers’ lane killers– the Phantom of Texarkana (1946), The Zodiac Killer (1968-1969), and then in 1986 The Phantom of Colonial Parkway began to strike.
By fire, by rope, by gun, by knife. He used them all. And possibly for one case he used the sea– the couple was never found.
Sadly, the bizarre case of the Phantom of Colonial Parkway is little known outside of the Virginia and DC area. He is known as the Colonial Parkway Killer there. I gave him the name Phantom. It seems to fit with the locale and with his method. Mixed with the rustic, colonial beauty that is old Virginia, there is something of Sleepy Hollow here. The old woods, the sequestered old houses and barracks, recall primitive American beauty. They contain a modern legend now. It is not so nice in the retelling like Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow from his Scratchbook. And there is far more truth in this one.
The Phantom was a careful predator. Except for one strike, he came out only in autumn, and he tainted this beautiful, sleepy area with death and mystery.
Colonial Parkway is a carefully maintained road. There’s no curb, no gutters. It is asphalt and winds through woods. In autumn the trees are a dazzling display of red, amber, orange, burnt umber. The York River is on one side for quite some distance. Open areas allow the moonlight to reflect into the arboreal areas. The moonglow glitters off its methodical wriggle and dances with the trees. Then the deep woods again– leaves gently falling down, like the sandman dousing you with slumber.
It is such an historic roadway that it is carefully maintained. There are a number of “Overlooks”– viewing areas of the York River on one side. The section of Colonial Parkway in question here begins at historic Yorktown, where America won its independence. These “Overlooks” are of particular importance. Couples come here and park. They are not particularly wooded portals to the beauty of the area. They are largely open, shallow turnouts from the parkway.
In the autumn of 1986, it began. On October 12, 1986, two young women were found dead in their car. They were Cathleen Thomas, a US Naval officer, and her friend Rebecca Dowski. They had been killed by rope and by knife, and then the killer apparently pushed their car over the embankment and tried to light the car on fire. He had poured diesel fuel– curious– over it but it failed to ignite. An attempt to hide the crime it would seem. The murders were brutal– their throats had been cut.
Naturally, there was talk that the couple were lesbians. The news likes to root out stuff like that and then speculate it was a Simon Pure who did it. Just how does someone anticipate lesbians on a parkway? Does someone go out there with diesel fuel on hand, rope and a knife, and lay in wait? How would he know what they were? It was nighttime. One had short hair. At night, on the parkway, they could easily have been mistaken for a guy and girl. The killer did not sexually molest either, it is reported. He killed them and disposed of them, in a rather crude way.
It is hard to imagine he did it on the parkway. How does one man do this to 2 women on a turnout? Like a phantom he left no real trace.
The idea that this phantom killer was after couples was underscored when the next victims were found. They were not on the Parkway, but at the Ragged Island Game Refuge, south of the James River. It was now the autumn of 1987, the time of the equinox on September 23. David Knobling’s pickup was found in the parking lot. Its door was open, its windshield wipers still sweeping the dry windshield. Who would have gone out here in rainy weather? Three days later his body and that of his companion Robin Edwards was found. They had been shot to death.
As in all serial killing sprees, the attacks seemed to be getting closer– on April 10, 1988, Richard Call and his date Cassandra Hailey vanished from Colonial Parkway only a few miles from where Thomas and Dowski had been murdered. His abandoned car was found parked in an overlook. They have never been found. There is no place along the Parkway to hide the bodies. Were they taken out to sea? How did the Phantom get their car here and get away if he had not attacked them here? Did he have an accomplice?
Nothing happened in summer. As a serial killer learns his grotesque trade his strikes usually increase in frequency, but the Phantom of Colonial Parkway did not. He did not even strike again in autumn. He waited until summer ebbed to autumn in 1989– September 5, 1989, to be precise. Daniel Laurer and Annamarie Phelps vanished from a rest stop on I-64. Their bodies were found later. Due to the time interim, it was impossible to say how Phelps had died, but Laurer had been stabbed.
Four couples had been murdered– one couple was officially missing and presumed dead– and no one has been tagged with the murder spree.
The killer was careful. He was the kind that bided his time. He killed only in September and October each ear, except 1988 when Call and Hailey went missing in the same area. Each couple appears to have been killed a different way, with Call and Hailey missing. Gun, strangling (partial), knife, fire, rope.
The rest stop abduction on September 5, 1989, suggests forced kidnapping, spontaneous (in terms of the couple selected) but the area preplanned. How could the same killer do this in the case of Call and Hailey? How could he arrive at the right time, catch Knobling and Phelps in the parking lot at Ragged Island and lead them into the woods? How could he do all that he did to Thomas and Dowski on the spot?
There was nothing again until late May 1996 when Lollie Winans and Julie Williams were found murdered Friday the 13th style at their campsite in the Shenandoah National Park, about half a mile from the lodge house on Skyland Drive. This was 180 miles west of Colonial Parkway, but there was great similarity to the murder of Thomas and Dowski. The news pollinated the airwaves with the possibility of a hate crime (as opposed to a love crime?) when it was suspected that they too were lesbians. Yet like with Thomas and Dowski there was little way for the killer to have known this beforehand. The circumstances, as known, suggest that the killer might not have even known they were both females. Instead of thinking Thomas and Dowski were not victims of the Phantom of Colonial Parkway, many investigators thought the Phantom was afoot in a national park. That was the one constant in these– all were near or in a national wildlife or scenic area tended by rangers.
Slowly but surely, we must developed these cases in detail here in order to see what progress can be made. It is 30 years now for the first victims, 20 for the last. Perhaps they are all not linked, but only details will tell us. Sadly, there are very few out there.
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Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.