What'd We Miss?

Date Published 08.12.11
No phones ringing.  No interruptions from colleagues.  The office was quiet.  It was early evening.  Most everyone in Bill Thomas's office had emptied out and gone home.

Bill focused his attention on his computer.  He was thinking about his sister, Cathy.  He thought about Cathy everyday, but even more so now that it was September, and the anniversary was just weeks away. 

Cathy should have been fifty years old.  Instead, she was forever twenty-seven.  A fearless redhead, physically strong, mentally tough, a lovely, whip-smart woman still young enough when she died to be navigating a new career, a new love.

Bill clicked over to Google and typed in a phrase he knew well, but had never searched:  Colonial Parkway Murders.

He read the first article.  He read the next one.  And the next.  Four hours he spent poring over the articles as they appeared in the search results.  Bill hadn't avoided the circumstances of his sister's murder, but he hadn't immersed himself in the details either.

"I try and stay away from the graphic stuff.  My nightmares are vivid enough," he says.

Now here he was in his office in Los Angeles, transported back in time, to the occasional empty update by local media, all the way back to October 12, 1986, to an embankment overlooking the York River, near Williamsburg, Va.

A jogger glimpsed it first --- the back of Cathy's white 1980 Honda Civic hatchback, on a 45-degree slope, peeking from between some brambles.

A traffic accident, the first officers on the scene believed, until they slid down the bluff with flashlights and one of them smashed in the back window, and they saw inside.

Bill's experience that night, of sitting in his empty office delving into the facts of his sister's long unsolved case, proved transformative.  For him.  For the case.

It led him to connect online, and then in person, with family members of victims whose cases were believed to be linked with his sister's.  He became aware of an FBI screw-up that he sensed could be leveraged in the victims' families favor.

And it led him to the question that he returns to, the question that stokes and rattles the investigation whenever it grows sluggish, or moves off course.  A question so direct and bullshit-free that Bill knows if he keeps asking it, the answer will one day come.

"It's been 24 years.  Clearly we missed something.  What'd we miss?"

Cathy and Becky

The last time anyone saw Cathy Thomas and Rebecca ("Becky") Dowski, was at the College of William and Mary computer lab, Thursday evening, October 9.

Cathy had grown up in Lowell, Mass., the kid sister to three brothers, but ironically, says Bill, probably the best athlete among them.  She was ambitious, an achiever --- a 1981 graduate of the Naval Academy, only the second class at the school to include women.  After five years active duty in Norfolk, Cathy left the Navy.  It was 1986.  If gays in the military is a sensitive issue now, it was a non-issue then --- you weren't out.  You lived on the down low.  You might even feel pursued and persecuted by the military for your sexual orientation, as it seems Cathy did.  She got a job as a stockbroker.

Cathy Thomas

She was 27.  Bright red hair.  Blazing blue eyes.  Bill found out later she talked about maybe going to New York, or back to Boston.  She loved Washington D.C.

"She probably wouldn't have stayed in Virginia," he says.  "In retrospect, I wish she'd left sooner."

Becky, 21, was a senior at William and Mary.  Like Cathy, she was the youngest of a family from the Northeast --- Poughkeepsie.  Her father was a businessman whose work took him abroad; for several years the family lived in Paris, an experience Becky described in a college paper as "the most influential" of her life.

Becky Dowski

Cathy and Becky had been dating just a few months.  Cathy's ex-girlfriend, Jolene, who was taking a computer class with Becky, had introduced them.  The three women, along with another friend, were visiting together in the computer lab that Thursday night because Becky and Jolene had an important paper due the following day.

The next morning Cathy was a no-show at work.  Becky didn't attend her important class.  Their friends knew such absences were extremely out of character for both women, but sounding the alarm proved difficult.

Then, Sunday night, the sight of a car where it shouldn't be --- jammed in the bushes down an embankment.

The Colonial Parkway is a 23-mile federal road linking Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown.  It's a National Scenic Byway, meaning it's designated by the government for its natural beauty and historical qualities.  There are no commercial distractions, traffic signs are at a minimum, and frequent pull-offs allow visitors to stop and enjoy river views.

The Colonial Parkway

It's isolated.  Dark.  The pull-offs provide an ideal area for couples to park and enjoy some privacy.  Cathy lived about an hour away, in Virginia Beach, and Becky lived in the college dorms.  Every Thursday night they stole away and parked in the same pull-off along the Parkway.

It was at this beautiful spot, overlooking the river, that a killer, or killers, attacked the two women.  The level of violence was extreme.  This wasn't a coldly detached assassin with a gun.  The women were strangled with clothesline, and their throats were deeply cut --- most likely while they were still alive.

Cathy was found in the hatchback, Becky in the backseat.  The car was doused in diesel fuel and an attempt was made to light it on fire.  It didn't work, and the car was pushed down the embankment, perhaps in an attempt to roll it into the river.

Investigators believe the women were killed somewhere outside the car.  Bill, having been a passenger in his sister's cramped car numerous times, agrees.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the crime scene was the limited sign of struggle.  Becky was a standout softball player in top physical shape.  Cathy was trained in martial arts.

"Would your sister have --- " I begin, and Bill doesn't have to wait for the rest.

"Absolutely my sister would have fought back."

Cathy was clutching some strands of hair.  She had a small, possibly defensive wound from a knife on her hand.  Other than that, there was no evidence of a great battle.

How does a killer or killers approach a car on an isolated, dark road without the passengers sensing some danger?

Cathy's wallet was out, lying on the floor.

Later, when three other cases of double homicides in the same area are examined for similarities, investigators will note that in all the cases either glove compartments were open, or wallets were out, as if the victims were reaching for their license and registration.  In one case, even though it was raining, the driver's window was rolled down partway.

The idea that a law enforcement officer, or someone impersonating one, was behind the killings would slowly grow like an urban legend, Bill says, but he recalls that "within forty-eight hours" of Cathy and Becky's murders, investigators were saying they felt the women "may have been approached by an authority figure."

The implication made some people in law enforcement very uncomfortable, Bill remembers, but it was hard to get past the image the Colonial Parkway crime scenes conjured --- parked cars with wallets left on the dashboard, glove compartments hanging open, little to no sign of struggle.

"These feel like a traffic stop."

Part 2 coming soon: The other murders, FBI mishap, and new doubt about an old theory...

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.