In the 1980s a serial killer stalked an area known as the Colonial Parkway in Virginia, United States. He killed 8 people. The killings became known as “The Colonial Parkway Murders”.
Below is my interview with Mr. Bill Thomas, brother of victim Cathleen Thomas. Despite a successful career in the entertainment business, Bill still dedicates lots of his time to pushing this case towards it’s conclusion.
Thank you, Bill, for agreeing to an interview with Books, Bullets and Bad Omens!
(Mr Bill Thomas. Photo: Alexa Welch Edlund / Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Who are you? Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My name is Bill Thomas. I am the older brother of Cathy Thomas, who together with her girlfriend Rebecca Dowski, were the first two victims in the unsolved Colonial Parkway Murders, in which 8 young people (4 couples, one lesbian and three straight) were murdered in lover’s lanes in and around Williamsburg, Virginia from 1986 to 1989. I have been an executive in the entertainment business in for the past 30 years, working as an Executive Director for artist advocacy organizations SAG-AFTRA, the American Federation of Musicians, the Art Directors Guild and ASCAP. I l have lived in Los Angeles for the past 11 years since moving here from New York.
At the risk of sounding like every other big brother in the world, my sister Cathy was amazing. She was the youngest of four kids, three boys and a girl. Cathy was a real pioneer, a trail blazer, a member of the second class of women to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. This was at a time when young women were not welcomed into the United States Navy. It is worth noting that Cathy, my older brother Richard and our father Joseph Thomas were the first father-son-daughter graduates of the United States Naval Academy.
Cathy was very pretty, with beautiful red hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion, very athletic. full of fire, intelligence and a sense of fun. At the same time, she was an outstanding Naval Officer– her senior officers raved about her work and level of dedication — Cathy was serious about her work and her service to her country.
Cathy had attended Annapolis, graduated and then served in the Navy for 5 years. She had decided to leave the Navy after her obligation was up– Cathy felt the opportunities for women were too limited, and after coming out to our family as a lesbian, she knew that gay people were being pushed out of the Navy. This was before the “Don’s Ask, Don’t Tell” policy– gay people, especially women in the Navy, were being hounded out of the service and even sent to jail. She left the Navy in June 1986 and was working as a stockbroker in Virginia Beach when she and her girlfriend Rebecca, or Becky, were murdered a few months later.
At the time she died, Cathy was talking with us about leaving the Norfolk, Virginia area to go back to graduate school perhaps in the Washington, DC area. She had been a Russian scholar at the Naval Academy and was interested in international business. At the same time, I think Cathy was enjoying dating Becky and living her life as a gay woman in a more open fashion after 5 years of a pressure cooker environment of being lesbian in a place where her sexuality could have resulted in being kicked out of the Navy she so loved.
I am not sure exactly the last time I spoke with Cathy; it was a few weeks before she died, talking about plans for Thanksgiving.
(Ms. Cathleen Thomas)
In your own words, tell us, what does the term “Colonial Parkway Killer” refer to?
Well, first of all, we never refer to this case as the “Colonial Parkway Killer.” We always refer to it as the “Colonial Parkway Murders,” and I hope you will, too. I feel very strongly that we should focus on the victims, and not the killer or killers. There is a person or persons who are responsible for the brutal murder of four young couples. That’s where the focus belongs.
My focus has been on moving the case forward for the last 8 years, since a story broke in September 2009 that the FBI had lost control of 78 highly graphic crime scene photos in the Colonial Parkway Murders. After I accidentally discovered the story about the leaked photos, once I got over my initial flash of anger, I realized we could leverage the FBI’s embarrassment about the crime scene photos to force them to put some resources into what was then a 23 year old cold case. We have been successful, although we had to overcome some institutional resistance at the FBI. As the Assistant Special Agent in charge of the case for FBI Norfolk said to me in a moment of candor, “Your sister’s case is at the bottom of a very dusty pile.” I think we have managed to shake the dust off the Colonial Parkway Murders, even though the FBI has largely been redeployed as an anti-terrorism agency since 9/11.
What was the killer’s modus operandi?
According to law enforcement experts, the killer or killers seem to have approached these couples while they were parked in places that were known to be lover’s lanes. He seems to have approached the couples and gained control over them. Although the methods of killing vary, there are certain common threads in all four crime scenes. You see cars, parking couples, isolated rural locations near Williamsburg, limited sign of struggle, no robbery, no sexual assault. In some cases, windows are halfway down, and wallets are out. A number of experts say they feel like a traffic stop, as if the couples were approached by an “authority figure,” which could be someone in law enforcement or someone pretending to be a cop, a police imposter.
3 of the 4 Colonial Parkway Murders happened in the same 5 week “back to school” time frame between Labor Day and Columbus Day. Two of the murders occurred on 3 day holiday weekends. All of them happened likely between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am.
One of the odd things is that nothing in the forensics currently links the four crime scenes. Keep in mind that these murders occurred before DNA was in common use in murder investigations; so far, the FBI and Virginia State Police have not informed the families of any forensic link between the murders. The circumstances are very similar, and the chances are that some or all of the murders are related. The Norfolk-Hampton Roads-Williamsburg area of Virginia, sometimes called the Tidewater area, just isn’t that big. It would be very unlikely that these homicides are all unrelated.
It has been reported that there have been about 150 persons of interest in the Colonial Parkway Murders, but not a single arrest to date.
(The Colonial Parkway at night. Photo: The Virginian-Pilot)
Again in your own words: what happened to your sister Cathleen in 1986?
It seems like Cathy and Becky headed to the Colonial Parkway on a Thursday evening after working with two other friends on a class assignment at William and Mary, where Rebecca was a senior. They went out to eat, and probably drove to the Parkway to be alone. It looks like they were approached while parking in Cathy’s car, and the offender (s) managed to gain control of the two of them. Cathy and Becky were restrained, strangled with rope, and then their throats were cut from beyond ear; Cathy was essentially decapitated. The killer or killers then placed the two bodies in my sister’s small 1980 Honda Civic two door. Rebecca’s body was placed diagonally on the back seat, and Cathy was placed in the hatchback area, a fairly tight fit for someone who was 5 foot 7, 135-140 pounds.
The killer then made an attempt to set the Honda on fire with diesel fuel or perhaps kerosene, but was unable to set the fuel alight. One of the many odd details is the fuel. Who has access to diesel but doesn’t understand you cannot set it on fire with a match? Finally, after failing to set the car on fire, they pushed the manual transmission car over the edge of an embankment along the York River, where the car got caught in underbrush and did not enter the river. They think the car remained hidden from the Parkway for 2.5 days, likely from late Thursday night until Sunday afternoon, when a passerby saw the car close to the water and called it in as a traffic accident to the National Park Service rangers who patrolled the Colonial Parkway.
(Car belonging to Ms. Cathleen Thomas being investigated for clues)
Your sister was killed together with a young lady named Rebecca Ann Dowski. Who was she? Did you know her personally?
Rebecca Dowski was Cathy’s girlfriend. They had been dating since the spring of 1986, so they had been seeing each other for about 6 months or so. They had been introduced by my sister’s first girlfriend, who was taking a class with Becky at William and Mary. Becky was a senior, a transfer student from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, originally from Poughkeepsie, New York, where her father was a senior executive with IBM. Like Cathy, she was athletic, an excellent student and someone who also like to have fun. This would have been Becky’s first romantic relationship with a woman, and Cathy’s second lesbian relationship.
We had heard great things about Becky from Cathy. We were all excited to be meeting Becky that fall, likely at Thanksgiving dinner at my parent’s home in Lowell, Massachusetts. Sadly, that never happened.
(Ms. Rebecca Ann Dowski)
The killer stalked and murdered couples. Why?
Well, we are not sure. There have been a lot of theories. He/they may have done this an exercise in control, stopping couples and then deciding to kill them or not depending on what happened. They may have been a peeping tom type who escalated to murder, or had a problem with love or romance, or couples engaged in sex, something that might have been sinful in his eyes. Or there may have been other motivation– some of them could have been a low level drug deal gone bad, although that does not seem to fit all of the crime scene scenarios.
A persistent aspect of the case is the idea that the killer(s) may have been dressed as a police officer, or possibly even actually a member of the law enforcement community. Any thoughts?
It is quite possible that the killer or killers could be law enforcement or someone presenting as such.
What are your thoughts on the “two killers” hypothesis?
Larry McCann, a very skilled profiler for the Virginia State Police, developed a theory that there were two killers. He talked about about this theory quite a bit during joint FBI/VSP task force meetings in 1989/1990 and in media interviews since. Part of that theory sprung from the idea that it would be difficult for one person to control eight healthy, athletic young people. Larry could very well be right.
Last year, when I met with the FBI Norfolk/Newport News team for nine hours, they walked me through the crime scenes, and made a pretty compelling case for how one person could control four couples, modifying his techniques as he went along, killing four couples in three years.
Did this killer just suddenly emerge out of the darkness, or do you think he had killed (or made himself known in some other way) before 1986?
I am not sure about that. There have been theories that attempted to link other cases from 1984 to 2006, but I am not sure they really fit with the Colonial Parkway Murders.
One doesn’t need to be an FBI profiler to realize that the killer was a genuinely f**ked up individual. But beyond that, what kind of a person are we looking for? What did he do outside his killing sprees? Do you think he’s still alive?
I think the FBI in particular has a good sense of who they are looking for in the Colonial Parkway Murders. I don’t speak with the Virginia State Police as often since my sister’s case is handled by the FBI. I do think he is still alive, yes.
How does one get over the trauma of losing a loved one in this manner? What was the process like for you of coming through such a dark experience with your sanity intact? Did you seek help?
The truth is that I don’t think you really do ever get over losing someone this way. These young people were ages 14 to 27 years old, and how so much more of their lives ahead of them. As my late mother Evelyn said, “It is out of the natural order of things,” for parents to be burying their children and not the other way around. It has been incredibly difficult, especially for me to see my own grief reflected in my family’s eyes, especially by brothers Jack and Richard and our parents. You just learn to live with it.I did see a therapist for a time while I lived in New York a few years after Cathy died. It was very helpful.
I do think that you have to make a decision, not right away, but probably in the first few years after losing someone this way whether you are going to let this loss destroy you, or whether you are going to incorporate your grief into your life and find balance and some peace. Time helps, and counseling if you are open to it.
Sadly, I know there are people in the families of the Colonial Parkway Murders who did let this terrible thing destroy their lives. Drugs, alcohol, depression are all part of that. You can’t just lock it away, or your grief will eat you up from the inside.
That said, I want to make it clear that I have a joyful life. I have a wonderful family, a great relationship with my partner Pamela, a son Chris who is now 19 years old and a sophomore in college, a busy career, and lots of positive things for which I am very grateful. And my sister Cathy would be so annoyed if she thought that we had all let her death somehow define us. I can seem her slapping me on the head, gently, for such foolishness. She would say, “Laugh, and you better get on with it!”
Did your heart ever really heal, or did the pain subside enough to let you go on with your life?
I think time is the great healer. For a long time, I divided up the world into those who knew my sister Cathy and those who did not. Those that did know Cathy were members of a very special club that was no longer accepting members. In recent years, though, I have met people who have never met Cathy who seem to have very much affected by her life, which can be very moving. It is sort of an amazing tribute to this wonderful person Cathy they have never had the privilege of knowing. I feel lucky to have been one of her three brothers and to have know Cathy for 27 years. I think my brothers Richard and Jack and my father probably feel the same way.
If people want to help out with the investigation somehow, or become involved with helping victims of violent crimes and their families, where would you direct them?
We have three Facebook pages, the most active is “Colonial Parkway Murders.” They can follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. My Twitter handle is BillThomas56, and they can search for the hashtag #colonialparkwaymurders. We also maintain a Wikipedia page, which we try to keep up to date, with a lot of links to media stories about the case. I am also working on a book about the case.
What is the status of the investigation as the year 2017 comes to a close?
The FBI and the Virginia State Police are both working their parts of the case actively. We are hoping that some advanced forensic testing will be approved, and that new tests will be conducted in early 2018.
FBI and Virginia State Police investigators are always looking for any new tips in the four double homicides, although many people contact us first and we put them in touch with the proper authorities.
Will the case be solved, in your opinion, and if it will, what is the element that will solve it?
I am convinced that the Colonial Parkway Murders will be solved. Experts tell us that is a solvable case– there is still a lot of evidence to be tested and re-tested to state of the art forensic standards. 2018 is going to be our year. I think the tens of thousands of hours of law enforcement work coupled with new forensic testing testing will be the key.
(all the victims in the murders)
Is there anything further you would like to add?
Yes, I am working on the fourth draft of a new book, tentatively titled “Colonial Parkway Murders: My 31 Year Search for Our Sister’s Killer.” We hope to have the book out later in 2018. I just started showing the manuscript to a few literary agents, so we will see.
Finally, I just wanted to thank you, Teemu and all of the people who have interest in solving the case and support for the Colonial Parkway Murders families.