Special Report: The Colonial Parkway Murders — 30 Years Ago


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — Rebecca Ann Dowski and Cathleen Thomas are two haunting names never forgotten by people in Hampton Roads.

They’re the first two victims of the Colonial Parkway murders. Both were found murdered 30 years ago Wednesday. To this day, there are no answers as to who killed them.

The day was Thursday, October 9, 1986. Cathleen Thomas, 27, and Rebecca Ann Dowski, 21, were last seen at Dowski’s dorm room at the College of William & Mary. Outside, the FBI would find Dowski’s fully packed car ready for a weekend getaway. The two would leave in Thomas’ car. 10 On Your Side was on scene at the site where Thomas’ car was found on the Colonial Parkway  in 1986.

“Three days later, on Sunday evening (October 12, 1986)  that car, a Honda Civic, had been rolled into these bushes and almost into the water,” the report stated at the time.

Investigators, loved ones still seek answers in Colonial Parkway murders

30 years ago, Irv Wells, now retired, had just arrived as the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Norfolk Field Division. He remembers the rage of the killing, which he called “over kill.”

Thomas and Dowski were a lesbian couple, and Wells thinks were taken by surprise on the Colonial Parkway lover’s lane.

“Both womens’ throats were deeply cut, the heads almost severed, diesel fuel had been reported and was poured over the bodies, and attempts were made to ignite it,” Wells told us from his Virginia Beach living room.

10 On Your Side has seen the crime scene photos, which are too graphic to show, but they show thin rope marks around their necks. There is a belief the two were asphyxiated to the point they were defenseless, and then the throats were slashed. Wells says a possible profile emerged.

“So the totality of those circumstances made us start looking at possible watermen, and it is also my opinion there had to be two killers, because these vigorous young women fought back, as we know.”

It is also known that Thomas had hair between her fingers and that was hair grabbed from the suspect’s head, which shows until the very end, she was fighting back. Wells thinks they both died in the area they were found, and the motive of killing was different. It is possible they were killed outside the car. Thomas’ body was then placed in the hatchback area of the car, and Dowski in the back seat. The car was then pushed down a hill, towards water and was hidden by brush until a jogger came by on Sunday, October 12, 1986, discovered the car and the bodies and law enforcement was called.

“It is my personal opinion that the killers in the Dowski-Thomas case were not the same as the others,” Wells says, referring to the other cases known as the Colonial Parkway murders. Some have speculated a serial killer is responsible for the murders and disappearances. Wells does not agree with that.

In September 1987, 14-year-old Robin Edwards and 20-year-old David Knobling were shot in their heads at the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge in Isle of Wight County. Autopsy photos confirm Knobling had a gun shot to his left shoulder, as if he were running away. He also had a shot in the back of his head, as did Edwards.

In April 1988, Cassandra Lee Hailey, 18, and Keith Call, 20, disappeared without a trace from the Colonial Parkway — one mile from the Thomas-Dowski killings.

In 1989, the bodies of 18-year-old Annamaria Phelps and 20-year-old Daniel Lauer were discovered in New Kent County on a logging trail. Due to the advanced stages of decomposition, the cause of death is uncertain, but it appears Lauer suffered stab wounds to his body.

Wells is sure the killers of Thomas-Dowski were not responsible for the other murders. WAVY’s Andy Fox asked Wells why he thought that.

“The M.O. was different. Although serial killers can and do change their M.O.’s, it’s not likely they will change their actual killing method.”

“I will never stop. This is very important to me and my family,” says Bill Thomas who is the brother of Cathleen Thomas.

30 years later, all are unsolved cold cases. The families are trying, fighting, begging for closure. Bill Thomas is encouraged by the flow of information from the FBI to the families.

“Typically what will happen, the FBI investigative agent will text me, saying, ‘We have some news,’ and we are talking a lot these days, and I am thrilled about that.”

The FBI claims they have made significant progress in the case.

FBI spokesperson Tina Pullen says, “We have a case agent who is actively investigating the case. She is looking for new leads. She is combing through the old case file, and pulling out new leads everyday.”

Technology has advanced with DNA testing, and old evidence is being retested. However, it appears to be a slow process.

“One of the frustrations is the pace of the testing that is done at Quantico. Everything is sent in small lots. We are always waiting for test results, and that has really slowed down the pace of the investigation.”

Back in 1986, for two months, Wells and his agents worked out of a field office near the Colonial Parkway. Their command post was at a local motel near the Colonial Parkway. Hundreds of tips came in, and one in particular led to the FBI to concentrate on the watermen profile — and two watermen in particular. Wells did not want to report exact details on who they were.

“They were both polygraphed by one of the bureau’s best polygraphers… It was his opinion the two watermen were not involved.”

Stumped, the FBI floated a theory on the two killers hoping for a break in the case.

“We got information from the Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico that suggested of the two killers, the weak one could be in danger, too. That the submissive partner would be in danger from the dominant partner. We put that out in the news at the time.”

10 On Your Side asked why they did that, and Wells answered.

“We were hoping the non-dominant person might come forward… but it didn’t work,” Wells added.

Past and present frustration for the families. Dowski’s brother, Bob, lives in Colorado and is shocked the FBI has been unable to solve the crimes.

“You try to put it out of your head, so you can function on a day to day basis. For me, it’s anger. Someone who committed this crime, who continues to enjoy his life, after taking the life of my sister.”

Wells also thinks about this case and the others.

“I just feel terribly, terribly grieved for the families of the victims. That has got to be really hard. I have great disappointment more than frustration.”

Wells says in the end, “it is possible the people who did this are either dead, or in jail, or one is alive and the other is dead. Nobody has talked about it. No one has come forward, or got rolled up in another crime, and cut a deal to tell them, ‘Oh, do you want to know about the Parkway murders in Virginia?'”

30 years, and no answers. Every year for four years, we will be reporting on the 30th anniversary of what is known as the Colonial Parkway Murders: 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989.