It’s not like the parkway is a main route to anywhere. Like Williamsburg, it is a preserved bit of history— a time capsule of an era in which it was once significant. Now it is a scenic route along the York River. It wends between many spendored woods and the mighty river. There’s no curbs or gutters. It is perhaps as all country roads should be. It is a lane through natural beauty and along a glistening river.
There are, however, several turnouts or “overlooks” of the York River. Some are quite grand things with many parking stalls. One, like the York River Turnout, is just a half loop like a half circle driveway. Being that the area is a national park there are, of course, signs at each Overlook informing the visitor of the significance of the scenery or the location’s history.
Over time these turnouts and overlooks became petting spots. Couples were known to go park here and cuddle or just watch the beauty of the sun setting over the historic York River. They might imagine the sound of distant cannon fire as frigates battled it out or as Washington’s army hammered Cornwallis at nearby Yorktown. Or they may just watch the modern US Navy ships being outfitted at a naval yard across the river.
In autumn the woods behind the overlooks appear like a painter’s easel-- daubed of so many warm colors. Many different types of trees grow in the thin woods— trunks of Renaissance earthiness like dull white, amber, light brown; leaves are of Rococo exuberance— red, amber, brown, orange. Great oaks form green umbrellas. There is no end of color. A few signs and only a few signs mar the natural landscape. They read “closed at sunset.” Whether these were in place back in 1986 I do not know. National parks do not like to advertise calamity. These signs at the overlooks may be the only reminders that over 30 years ago a killer started prowling here late at night.
It is hard to get information on the Colonial Parkway Murders. However, a few general things are obvious. The victims were couples. They came to the lovers’ lane area for the evening. The killer also knew that couples came here. On October 12, 1986, as the Technicolor woods were cast into shadows with the setting sun, he struck for the first time. He may or may not have made a ghastly mistake. The couple were women— Rebecca Dowski and Cathleen Thomas. But one had short hair and one had long hair. From a certain distance they may have appeared as a male/female couple. They were bound and gagged and their throats cut. Their car had then been pushed over the embankment to the river and there set on fire with diesel fuel. It didn’t take. The phantom wouldn’t make that mistake again.
A year later on September 23, 1987, he struck at the parking lot of the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge on Highway 17, an offshoot of I-64 on the James River. He led the victims into the woods, a 21 year old guy Daniel Knobling and a 14 year old Robin Edwards. He left their car sitting in the parking lot, one window partially down.
Come April 10, 1988, he apparently struck again. The couple vanished. Young Keith Call and Sandra Hailey were out on a date and have never been seen again. But Keith’s car was found abandoned at the York River Turnout on the Colonial Parkway.
It really isn’t surprising that the victims should have vanished. For the next strike, the phantom killer gives us a clue as to how it happened. He struck off I-64 at the Kent Rest Stop on September 5, 1989, and somehow got the victims to a place in the woods down a dirt access road and there killed them— Daniel Lauer and Annamarie Phelps. Somehow, presumably, he also got their car back to the rest stop and parked it in back by the trailer/tractor section. This seems to be what he did with Keith Call and Sandra Hailey, only their bodies have never been found.
After this there was no more phantom. Quite a spread in time for a lovers’ lane serial killer. The Phantom of Texarkana struck within a year’s time in 1946. The same can be said for the ‘Zodiac’ Killer (between December 1968 and October 1969). The Phantom of Colonial Parkway was very careful and selective. He must have planned things perfectly. He spent years. Accept for the Call/Hailey disappearance, he struck only in Autumn.
Clues are confusing. In fact, they are such that one might almost think the phantom had an accomplice. Since more than one jurisdiction was involved in the investigations, there were varied opinions. Some even thought that there was more than one killer; not an accomplice, but two separate and unconnected killers.
You see, the first two victims may have been lesbian. Therefore it was wondered if their murder wasn’t a “hate crime”— a designation that does more disservice than service. It really just replaces the older and better Simon Pure designation. Logistically, we have to ask ourselves— how could someone know? They were two silhouettes in a dark car. One had short hair. One had long hair. The killer may have mistaken them for a guy and gal. After he approached, it was too late (and this is a clue).
. . . But
Up I-64 some 180 miles is the majestic Shenandoah National Park. In the last week of May 1996 two girls were murdered, bound and gagged at their campsite and their throats slit. Was this done by a Simon Pure? He seems to have prepared for it. Was it by the same killer who had struck out of nowhere on Colonial Parkway 10 years before? If so, the double murder of young Lollie Winans and Julianne Williams must be added to the tally of the Phantom of Colonial Parkway . . . or there were two killers all along. Both struck along I-64 and knew the national park and wildlife areas and that the parking lots were petting spots. The alternative is that one killer varied his MO.
This section of the Quester Files will deal with documenting these cases. I had hopes of getting back to Virginia in order to explore the crime scene locations in detail and presenting here an analysis of the locations, both specific and in relation to each other. However, it did not seem this would be likely for a while. Fortunately, a generous independent investigator in Virginia, having seen how I do my crime scene photography, and grateful for what I did with the case of the EAR/ONS, has made this section possible. For years he has looked into these cases and recently (as of this writing, January 2017) gone once again to them and taken many dozens of photos to help both in a detailed analysis of the crime scenes and in the journalistic and historic necessity of placing the areas in context. As more information comes in, the crime scene information will be supplemented by more evidence. Eventually, it is my hope all will then be preserved and presented to the public and therewith this will help in not only making sense of a pattern but then finally outing the gruesome and most successful lovers’ lane killer in history.
Just as with my EAR/ONS investigation, I intend no book on this crime spree. Its solution can only best be served by an investigation showcased on the web. A real life independent investigator has begun it for us. His pictures, coupled with a logistic approach to the clues and evidence, will at least help start a more comprehensive public awareness of this unusual crime spree. For this, we owe him much thanks.
I have called the phantom the Silent Zodiac because he was a lovers’ lane killer but one who never sought publicity. He didn’t boast in the Press like The ‘Zodiac’ Killer. He adeptly and greedily clung to his phantom image, but he was just as arrogant as the most boastful killer. He assessed his innocent victims as worthy of death, as the objects of his own personal thrill. The locations where they casually parked were locations where the killer had carefully rehearsed what he would do. They were part of his web and like a spider he soon appeared. Then he quietly escaped. Ultimately he was the Phantom of Colonial Parkway. When the reader goes through the cases in detail, clues will jump out to tell you that his success was not chance. He worked out his crimes . . . and he worked out his clues as well. And this may be why he was never captured. Clues can be more important than evidence. An analysis of the crime scenes may reveal that we have been taking some clues for granted.