The Silent Zodiac– The Phantom of Colonial Parkway

Gimme a braggart killer who likes to communicate. You can follow them. They’re doing half your work. “Keep your friends close, but your enemy closer” is the perfect maxim to guide you in stalking a serial killer.

It is rare, however, to come across a killer like The ZODIAC, one who likes to send letters and keep you and the world updated on his latest fiendish exploits.

Without that a serial killer can go unidentified. It takes a lot of gray cells to put it all together to reveal a pattern, especially when the killer is using more than one signature. This is very true of the Phantom of Colonial Parkway in Virginia.Colonial

Nevertheless, there are a few things in the greater crime spree that suggest the same killer was afoot, and that it is only one man and not a man with an accomplice or more than one killer acting separately. This evidence has been clouded by too much misdirected press, but logistics helps us to clear the way.

As I wrote in my first Phantom of Colonial Parkway post there is no evidence that a Simon Pure was involved. It is a logistic impossibility that a killer simply roams a parkway on the odd chance he will come across a lesbian couple, know what they are, and therewith be prepared to kill them. When Cathleen Thomas and Rebecca Dowski were found murdered on October 12, 1986, they were found down the embankment on Colonial Parkway in Thomas’ car. They had been bound. Rope burns indicated they had been partially strangled. Then their throats had been cut. The killer poured diesel fuel over the car (inside?) but it failed to do its job and erase the details of how they had been killed. This is quite a lot– rope, knife, diesel fuel, time to bind, etc.– to have handy.

I have been told they were known to come to this Overlook and park. However, it had been nighttime when they were attacked. At night what can an outsider discern in an “Overlook” on Colonial Parkway? A lot of youth came here to park and cuddle. One of the pair had a short hairstyle. At night they could be mistaken for a male-female pair.


But the idea of a Simon Pure enraged at lesbians made for better press fodder.

Behind-the-scenes, however, the idea that a lovers’ lane stalker was on the loose is suggested by the fact the next three couples to suffer murder (or disappear) were male and female. Families were not attacked. The Phantom of CP did not attack couples of college girls seeing the sights. Nor did he attack two buds out fishing. He attacked what appeared to be couples in the romantic or at least dating scene. He had stalked enough of Colonial Parkway, I-64, and Highway 17 to have a general knowledge of certain parking areas. But his victims were spontaneously chosen, just like ZODIAC chose his. As he drove up they must have appeared male and female, young, viable.

This is further underscored by the killing of David Knobling and Robin Edwards. He was 20 . . . but she was only 14. They were hardly a romantic couple. But they were in a parking lot at the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge. When the car finally attracted police attention, it had been found with the door open, the windshield wipers still squeaking over the shield. But the pair had been found gunned in the woods.

The Ragged Island Refuge parking area off Highway 17.

It does not seem that the Phantom sat there and studied his victims much. He made yet another mistake. This was not a couple in the dating sense of the word. At least they could not possibly be mistaken for that up close. The Phantom seems to have blocked Knobling from pulling out or tricked him to pull into the parking lot.

The rest stop killing of Daniel Lauer and Annamarie Phelps also suggests a spontaneous attack . . . but that the killer had knowledge of the rest stop.

Again, they were a male-female couple.

The similarities between the murders of Lauer/Phelps and Knobling/Edwards were obvious. The police suspected a cop-imitator . . . or a cop gone bad. It did not look like a lovers lane attack. The two pairs looked like they had been pulled over and then led away at gunpoint. Still, there were things that didn’t add up. For instance, this cop-imitator only need pull off his crimes in the autumn? It was noted that Edwards purse was missing. The cop-imitator need strike only once a year, and a 14 year old teen’s purse was enough to satisfy him until the next year? It doesn’t add up, does it?

So, by the end of 1989 there had been one pair killed per year in the general vicinity of Colonial Parkway, Virginia. Only one– Richard Call and Cassandra Hailey– were not in September or October.  They were also the only ones that vanished. It had been April 10, 1988, when  they had vanished. Yet their car was found parked at an Overlook on scenic Colonial Parkway.

Victim map

Map of victim locations in Virginia.

For 7 years nothing. Spring again, 1996– May. Two young women– Lollie Winans and Julie Williams– are found murdered 180 west of the Colonial Parkway area. They had been camping in the Shenandoah National park, but not too far in from the main lodge on Skyland Road. Williams had been sleeping about 40 feet from the tent, on her cushion, in her sleeping bag. Somehow, despite the fact they had a dog, the killer had approached and surprised her in her sleeping bag. She had been bound by duct tape. He then used the same tape to seal her mouth. He also wrapped her ankles with it, binding her legs together. Winans had been found inside the tent. She had been bound by the same tape, but her ankles had not been bound at all. She was not gagged with tape.

When finally found, both of their throats had been cut.

The press jumped on the sensation that they may be lesbians and a Simon Pure was responsible. In retrospect it seemed a link to the double murder of 11 years previous of Dowski and Thomas. Was it the same killer? If so, it fed the theory more than one unconnected killer was responsible for these murders– a Simon Pure for the two female couples; a cop-imitator/thief for the other male-female couples.

It is, of course, possible. After all, the details are so few out there. Winans/Williams-Dowski/Thomas are connected by certain similarities, this is true. But there are also clues that infer that the killer did not know they were female pairs. Given the circumstances, the clues do not allow him the ability to even suspect they were lesbian if he did know both were women. cover-Julie

Equally, it is a fact that similarities attach the Dowski/Thomas murders to the Phantom of Colonial Parkway murders. Rich Call’s car, for instance, was found only a couple of miles on the parkway from where Dowski and Thomas had been murdered. Every other couple-slaying that took place after Dowski and Thomas was male-female, with one, the Knobling/Edwards double murder appearing to be another misidentification of an “interested” couple.

I-64 and the main major roads off there appear to be the center of it all.

I am not familiar with the exact layout of Williams’ and Winans’ camping sight. But nothing suggests a killer who even could have known they were lesbians. The families and close friends had not known of this. So how does a stalker walking along at night with a knife and duct tape deduce this? Moreover, what are the logistic chances a Simon Pure is going to think he can come across a lesbian couple in the area? What does he do, just walk around prepared? We will delve into this case later, since more details exist, but the idea that a Simon Pure was afoot has no bearing based on information that is in the public forum.cover-Lollie

Collectively, the Phantom of Colonial Parkway appeared to make spontaneous mistakes in identifying couples– a 20 year old-14 year old couple; two young women– one with a short haircut. For nighttime and a rainstorm, they fit the pattern. The killer was assuming what they were. The Williams and Winans killer seemed to do the same thing.

One independent detective argued about all of these being unconnected except for the supposed “hate crimes.” Knobling and Edwards were the victims of burglary, he suggested. Lauer and Phelps were victims of a police impersonator. Call and Hailey weren’t killed on the parkway, but some place else and their car driven there . . . by someone we must assume who then had another means of escape or an accomplice.

It must then be a coincidence that all these different killers struck only once per year in September-October or, for Call/Hailey-Winans/Williams, in spring. The FBI admits they have many different suspects, but they proceed on the case as though they were serial murders.

True, from the looks of the Kent County rest stop and the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge parking area, it seems like someone imitating a cop. But why lead them off into the woods? Taking a big chance that someone would come along and see the two cars parked there. Why leave the car door open and the windshield wipers on? Or did the killer stage these clues to mislead us?

The Kent County rest stop in 2003, just before it was redesigned. It was first built in 1976.


A cop pretender is hard to fathom as the culprit. He needs to thieve only in the autumn? A 14 year old girl’s purse was enough for him for a year? Why take the trouble to drive one victim’s car to the parkway and then, somehow, get away?

Yes, indeed, give me a braggart killer who creates a famous crime spree. They are so much easier to document. The fame of their crimes forces the release of much information in the public forum from which the crime spree can be comprehended and the killer, hopefully, pursued and brought to book. The details are thin in the Phantom of CP case, but the theories are even thinner.

From the clues we have, it still seems wise to call this killer the Phantom of Colonial Parkway.


*         *          *

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.


4 thoughts on “The Silent Zodiac– The Phantom of Colonial Parkway

  1. I agree with your premise, that Simon Pure is likely nonsense and only one perpetrator. I thought it was worth mentioning that Thomas and Dowski were known to frequent the same pullout on the same night of the week. This is the link that contains that info:

    Perhaps it was an aspiring murderer looking for a dependable target. It didn’t matter if they were lesbians. He possibly had noticed the same car at the same area several weeks in a row on a specific night. Planning commence.

    Thomas’ brother is still very active on this case, commenting on available videos if not appearing as guest. He emphasizes that detectives were fixated on the lesbian angle, far beyond the media, and focused on one of Thomas’ former lovers as the likely culprit, sidetracking the investigation for years. He says what those detectives knew about the lesbian scene and lifetsyle could fit inside a thimble. Yet that didn’t prevent them from being assigned and maintained. That aspect shows up in one true crime case after another, even today, authority figures who are not properly trained and have no clue regarding variables and probability and unique terrain, as opposed to a monotonous standardized pursuit of the badge. It’s often scary to hear them discuss the variables in play. Irrelevant becomes all powerful, and the reverse.

    These cases came to my attention because I often use Williamsburg as a timeshare base to attend multiple college football games in the fall. I’ll do it again this year. Awesome area of the country, especially at that time of year. Colonial Parkway is fantastic. But it’s true the sites can be extremely remote and often spooky. I’ll drive slowly into the woods toward old wartime sites, marked by aging signs but no threat of anyone else in the area.


  2. David Knobling, 20, lived in Hampton but had gone to Ragged Island many times in his beloved Ford pickup. He went there for the last time on the rainy night of Sept. 19, after making a secret rendezvous with Robin Edwards at her home in Newport News. Edwards was only 14, but her parents would later say it was nothing new for her to sneak off to be with an older man. When she was 11 she had a 21-year-old boyfriend.


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