Between 1986 and 1989, a series of homicides took place in the Williamsburg, Virginia area that came to be collectively known as the Colonial Parkway murders, and more than a quarter of a century later, these murders remain unsolved. One of the first victims was Cathleen “Cathy” Thomas, who was killed alongside her then girlfriend Rebecca “Becky” Dowski. Her brother Bill Thomas wished to share his experience with her murder and the subsequent investigation that followed. All words are his unless specified otherwise in italics.
TW: murder, violence, loss, death.
With the Colonial Parkway Murders around Williamsburg, Virginia, what we have are four double-homicides of couples, one gay couple and three straight couples, over a period of four years from 1986 through 1989. My sister Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski’s case was the first of these four double-homicides. The murders were grouped together as the Colonial Parkway murders, but only two of the four cases even took place on the Colonial Parkway, and nothing in the forensic evidence actually links these four double-homicides. There is a lot of additional information available online if you search for “Colonial Parkway Murders,” and there are several Facebook pages about the cases for family members and others interested in helping solve these murders.
The media, and the families refer to them as the Colonial Parkway murders, but nothing definitively links these double-homicides. There are actually other potentially related cases that took place around the same timeframe in Virginia. That pattern could be very disconcerting, because you might think, ‘Does that mean that one, or more likely two, people killed all these young couples and got away with it, or does this mean that multiple double-homicides took place in Virginia and no one was even charged?’ For all of the talk about the Colonial Parkway murders, I’m far from convinced that these murders are actually related.
The Colonial Parkway Murders cases heated up again a couple of years ago, in the fall of 2009. An investigative news story broke on WTKR/Norfolk television that the FBI had lost control of a PowerPoint presentation of slides containing approximately 80 highly graphic crime scene photos of the four double-homicides. FBI and Virginia State Police agents had used these slides to brief other people in law enforcement on the status of the case. Sadly these disturbing photos had been leaked by an FBI photographer and were actually out in public.
I became aware of the story in September 2009, and in reaching out to the other families of the Colonial Parkway murder victims, it became clear to us that even though this situation was obviously very upsetting it actually created an opportunity for us. I said something like “We could leverage the FBI’s embarrassment about losing control of the crime scene photos into pushing them to do finally something about the murders.” We began to talk in interviews about what the families wanted—more attention and resources. I coached the other families on how we should speak to the media, and how to use this FBI screw-up as an opportunity to push them to do put resources into a cold case and to start investigating the Colonial Parkway Murders after all of these years.
At this point (fall 2012) we still don’t have a resolution, but we do have one full-time FBI agent back on the case for the first time in decades. The Agent has been working on the case for the last couple of years now. Just as importantly, the FBI did run a number of advanced forensic tests, many of which had never been conducted in the Colonial Parkway Murders. To be fair to the FBI and the Virginia State Police, these murders took place in1986-89; DNA testing hadn’t even been invented at that point. We have all kinds of advanced technology available now that was not available then. We have made significant strides in the investigation, but still no resolution.
In terms of my sister Cathy and Becky’s case, the possibility that this could be a hate crime aimed at two young lesbian women has always been part of the mix. Cathy and Becky were not ‘out’ back then – remember, this was a long time ago, 26 years ago in Virginia, and my sister Cathy had been a Naval Academy grad. This time period is actually before the military had developed the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, so being found to be gay or lesbian meant that you were thrown out of military service.
Just a few years before her death, while Cathy was still in the Navy, I remember my family watching a special report on 60 Minutes that they had discovered a “cell” – that was the word that they used – a cell of lesbians living and working onboard a submarine tender home-ported in Bremerton, Washington. At the same time, Cathy was serving on a U.S. Navy sub tender out of Norfolk, Virginia and was involved with a former shipmate, who was her first girlfriend. We had 60 Minutes covering this sort of purge of lesbians on board this submarine tender, and Cathy was living the exact same lifestyle on this same class of ship a continent away but the same rules applied. That purge mentality was common back then and it represented a real challenge for gay and lesbian people who were in the service.
Cathy had been a very proud Naval Academy graduate in the class of 1981. She was in the Navy for five years before she decided to get out, despite the fact that she was an amazing officer and very well liked by her senior officers. I think that Cathy began to realize she might want to live her life in a more open fashion. Had Cathy lived, and that would have been a wonderful thing, My guess is that her world would have been radically different. In my opinion, things are better now than they were in the 1980s; it was very difficult for gay and lesbian people at that time.
To our knowledge, Cathy only had two lesbian relationships – her first with her former shipmate that lasted four years and it was a pretty good partnership. Eventually Cathy and her girlfriend broke up but they remained close friends and then Cathy and Rebecca Dowski began seeing each other. That was only Cathy’s second relationship with a woman, and for Becky, who was a bit younger, it was her first such romance.
The idea that Cathy and Becky’s case could have been a hate crime directed against a lesbian couple has certainly been there from the beginning. The FBI had also looked into that it could have been a jealous boyfriend of one of the two women, who might have been particularly enraged about the idea that not only was he no longer with Cathy or Becky, but he’d been passed over for a woman which somehow, in his mind made things even worse. A former boyfriend of Becky’s was actually very upset when he found out that he had been thrown over for this very reason.
I feel very strongly – and I’ve said this in the media – that the four cases in the Colonial Parkway Murders really need to be looked at individually. You can’t just place Cathy and Becky’s murders in with the other Colonial Parkway murders and say, “This is the work of a serial killer.”
For example, the murder of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, another lesbian couple at the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia which occurred ten years later – also, sadly, still unsolved – had substantial similarities. I can’t tell you for sure that the two cases are linked, but there are some very strong parallels between the two cases. In both examples, you have a young athletic lesbian couple in a national park located in Virginia, on a holiday weekend, in an isolated rural location, and, without getting too graphic, the method of killing was very similar. There are also weird coincidences – there were three National Park Service Rangers who were stationed at the Colonial Parkway in 1986 who were then stationed at the Shenandoah National Park in 1996, including one who was a person of interest, (a suspect) in Cathy and Becky’s murder.
This same National Park Service Ranger was working at the Shenandoah National Park ten years later and was permitted to actively participate in the Williams-Winans murder investigation, despite the fact that he was a person of interest in Cathy and Becky’s murder. I find that shocking. Now I don’t know if there was a lack of communication, if the two FBI offices (FBI Norfolk and FBI Charlotte, Virginia) didn’t share information. For this National Park Service Investigative Ranger to be a suspect in Cathy and Becky’s murder, and then allowed to be an active participant in the investigation of a murder which the FBI publicly admitted was a substantially similar case, it strikes me as very sloppy.
There are lots of other suspects as well– supposedly 150 different suspects in the Colonial Parkway cases. Only one or two probably had anything to do with Cathy and Becky’s murder. The possibility that has come up over and over again is that it could have been a police officer or a park ranger, which is very disturbing in and of itself. If it turns out to be someone that Cathy and Becky knew the crime might be a little bit more likely to be solved. If it turns out to be a complete stranger-on-stranger case of violence, we’re going to have to get really lucky now, to solve this case 26 years later.
At the start of the case, within 24-48 hours of Cathy and Becky’s death, they had gone to my sister’s apartment and they had gone through her letters and cards. It turned out Cathy had saved everything – every letter, every postcard from family, every Christmas card, the whole thing. She was very sentimental that way. The FBI had read correspondence between Cathy and the rest of the family. That was something that came up – “The girl is gay and the parents know.”
So they knew it wasn’t going to come as a complete shock when they sat down with my parents and my brothers and I to talk about the case, to find out, “Your sister, your daughter was a lesbian” – which is what happened to the Dowski family. When the FBI met with them, they also had to break the news that, “Oh, by the way, you didn’t know about your sister, your daughter’s sexuality.”
The FBI just made a lot of mistakes in this case. They were sending out these white, conservative straight guys out to investigate these crimes and trying to talk to that very tight circle of lesbian women Cathy and Becky were a part of. Not that the bureau intended to be offensive, but my understanding is that they were pretty insensitive, said a lot of things that didn’t go over particularly well. It wasn’t very smart of them to send the people that they sent, though at the time it was probably the only kind of people they had to deploy.
I think that the FBI is a lot more sophisticated now than it was back then, but some of friends of Cathy’s told us later that these investigators were total jerks. They had no clue whatsoever how gay women and men lived their lives, especially the women who were in the Navy. Also, quite frankly, how highly conventional these gay and lesbian relationships were.
For me, coming from a family with gay and lesbian members, and then having a lot of friends of all stripes, people really aren’t all that different based on who they love, but the bureau back then…I think they didn’t get it. The FBI had some crazy theories, really offensive kind of stuff. This is the same time there were concerns about these “cells” of lesbians.
They were working on this theory that Cathy’s first girlfriend, who had introduced her to Becky, was recruiting young women into the lifestyle, and all this crazy crap. It was all really offensive. So here they were trying to ask these women for ideas about what might have transpired with Cathy and Becky’s murder, and they’re coming out with this really offensive bullshit, that didn’t get anybody anywhere. I understand that they pissed off a lot of Cathy’s friends in that circle of women. Since the case has heated up over the last three years, I’ve actually tracked down a lot of these friends to talk to them and try to figure out what we missed. People are a lot more open now than they were then, but at the same time, it’s appalling what missed opportunities there might have been because the FBI didn’t have anybody – they didn’t have that many women agents at all, never mind someone that might have been gay or lesbian– they could have gotten to talk with the members of this community.
This idea of just how closeted it was – my younger brother Jack, who is also gay, and I had driven across the country in the in about 1984 or so. Jack was leaving a job in New Mexico and we were driving from there back to my family’s home in Massachusetts. We stopped in Virginia to stay with Cathy and her first girlfriend. I ended up having to go back to work but Jack stayed with them for a few more days. I remember Jack telling me later how he and Cathy and her girlfriend were going out to a women’s only nightclub.
They had to call ahead and leave his name with the door, and Jack was thoroughly checked out on the way in. It was a private club for women only, and my brother said the only guys in the entire place were he and the DJ. The other guests were very standoffish until he was introduced as Cathy’s brother and was no longer seen as a threat. That’s just how closed the lesbian community had to be in southern Virginia in the 1980s.
Imagine sending in these straight, conservative-leaning FBI agents into a place like that. I don’t think the conversations went particularly well either way. I like to think that if this crime were to happen tomorrow, in 2012, that the law enforcement would be more sophisticated than they were back then. Maybe I’m being totally optimistic, but I’d like to think that, anyway.
Over the past few years, I have spoken to hundreds of people about our case, and most everybody that I’ve connected with has been absolutely terrific and very helpful. One of the things I decided to do when the case heated up again was to go back to my father Joseph and my two brothers, Richard and Jack. I asked for their permission to reverse roles with my father and begin to act as the family spokesperson and to deal with law enforcement. They all said yes.
I did say to them, “Look, back in ’86, when Cathy died, I know we circled the family wagons and we never spoke publically about the case, not a single time, not even to reporters who were family friends. No one. We never spoke on the record.” My parents were very concerned about the fact that Cathy was gay, and it was going to come out in the media. At the time, Cathy’s sexuality did not come out; later it did, which was fine.
In talking with my brothers and my dad, I told them, “I’m going to be much more aggressive about speaking out on this case. My attitude is the fact that Cathy and Becky were lesbians is neither here nor there. It’s 2009, 23 years later. Cathy and Becky weren’t doing a thing wrong back then, not at all. Cathy and Becky certainly have nothing to be embarrassed about now; they’re dead. I want to be able to talk about this case very openly, and talk about the possibility that this is a hate crime, or the possibility that it could be linked to the murder of other women or other lesbian couples.”
It’s a different world now– let’s just get down to it. Our family members are all good with that approach and very supportive. Now, it’s a lot easier to talk about things in a more straightforward fashion. Our sister and Rebecca Dowski were murder victims, number one. The fact that they were lesbians may be related to what happened to them, but if someone’s got a problem with it, they can go right ahead and have a problem with it. I just don’t have any time for that.
I agree that putting a human face to these crime victims is incredibly important. For us, Becky was a new relationship. We knew Cathy’s previous girlfriend very well; they were together for four years. So we’d heard about Becky – it was a new relationship that had just started up that summer. As a matter of fact, we were looking forward to meeting Becky when Cathy and Becky were planning on coming up to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. That was going to be the first time, that next month in November, that we’d have had the chance to meet Becky. At the time the case heated up three years ago, we had never spoken to any of the other families, even Rebecca Dowski’s. When I talked to Becky’s older brother Bob, I said, “I feel like the conversation is 23 years late.” He’s a smart man, very driven, also very interested in seeing this case move forward.
One of the things that sadly happened in our case is because this has dragged on for so long now, we’ve had this generational shift. Where originally it would have been the parents of these murder victims trying to get the case to move forward, now it’s the siblings of these murder victims. It’s not like anybody says on their deathbed, at least to my knowledge, “You have to pick this up and you have to figure out what happened to your kid sister or your kid brother”; it’s not like that. But it is interesting that there is this shift from father, mother to sister, brother.
It’s more important for us to know what happened – obviously figuring out what happened would help solve the case, but since we’re talking about a quarter of a century later, it’s entirely possible that the perpetrator or perpetrators are dead or imprisoned for another crime. This effort isn’t really about putting bad guys in jail from my family’s perspective; we want to know what happened to Cathy and Becky. If those bad guys are still out there, we would love to see them brought to justice but it’s not revenge or anything like that.
People always talk about “helping the families to achieve closure”, and that’s frankly ridiculous. There is no closure. We would just really like to know what happened and can we at least solve this case and understand why these two beautiful young women were taken from us. My mother Evelyn has passed away, but she and my sister were very close. I remember my mom saying, “Nothing is ever going to bring Cathy back,” so it isn’t really about that either.
I remember when the Colonial Parkway Murders case really heated up in 2009. I was very stirred up as a result of the news. I was lying in bed with my mind racing, trying to go to sleep and found myself thinking, we have had 23 years for Cathy’s case to move forward. “What if it takes another 23 years?” I thought to myself, “If that’s how long it takes, then that’s how long it takes”, but hopefully that won’t be the case.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with and am still in touch with Morgan Harrington’s parents. I reached out to her dad just to offer him some advice. I remember saying to him, “Can I offer you some unsolicited advice?” and he said, “Absolutely; you’ve been there.” I said, “You have to take the long-term outlook. You have to assume this case is not going to be solved quickly, and you need to start taking copious notes. You need personal cell phone and home phone numbers for your investigators because they’ll suddenly be yanked off the case, with no explanation whatsoever.” He replied, “That’s already happened!” I said, “You need personal contact information for these people, not just their office numbers and office cell numbers – you need personal email addresses and everything. Because the law enforcement’s agenda may be completely different from yours, and you need to take the long-term outlook that Morgan’s case is not going to be solved immediately.”
Here it is three years later, and the Morgan Harrington case is still not solved. I’m sorry that I was right and I would have loved to be wrong – it would have been great if they could have that case more quickly, and I think ultimately they will, because they’ve found a DNA link between Morgan’s case and another rape up in northern Virginia – but the safest option is to assume that the situation will not be resolved quickly. If I’m wrong, that’s great, but sometimes I’m not.
Someday, I would like to write an on-line book for the family members of those who have been victimized by serious capital crimes. It’s on my to-do list. Sadly, your loved one’s been raped, murdered, assaulted, whatever – how to manage the investigation of your loved one’s assault. Because no one prepares you for this. Hopefully very few of us will ever be touched by this level of violence – whether it’s anti LGBT violence or other violence; it’s all the same – but no one can prepare you for this.
I think it was John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted who said, “You’re a member of the club that no one wants to be invited to join,” and I think he’s right. At some point, I’d love to try to put together, ideally after Cathy’s murder is resolved, a sort of manual for how someone could prepare himself or herself for the very unusual challenges ahead.
Of course I would also focus on lesbian and gay people – they have additional challenges ahead of them, because of the ignorance and prejudices that we still experience all these years later. I think things are somewhat better, but I can’t guarantee that anyone wouldn’t run into those same kinds of prejudices in lots of places. There are lots of places around the United States where I’m sure that you would be very challenged to get people to take a crime against someone like Cathy and Becky as seriously as they would the same crime committed against a straight couple. That’s the ugly reality of the times we live in. Things are better, but far from perfect. While these are challenges I hope no one has to deal with, there continue to be serious crimes against all sorts of people.
I think it’s especially troubling if the circumstances of an individual person’s life allow other people to diminish them in some way. “Well, you know, they were killed as a result of their sexuality, their lifestyle,” that sort of attitude. To me, people are people and what happened to these two young women should not have happened to anyone.
Most of the hundreds of people that I’ve talked to have been nothing but supportive. But if they have a problem with gay and lesbian people, it’s not my problem. I’m not going to be embarrassed just because they have a problem; I either push past it or I’ve got nothing more to say to them. If you don’t like me because I have red hair, or you don’t like me because my late sister was gay, how in the world is that my problem? That’s completely you. I try to be polite and respectful with everybody, and I’m nice to someone until they’re not nice to me. I’m looking for people who can help us move our sister’s case forward, and I’m sure as hell not embarrassed that my late sister was involved in a relationship with a woman.
I remember thinking a couple of years ago that my sister would have been fifty years old. And I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, all the wonderful things she could have done!” And what an interesting life she would have had – she was a positive, caring, thoughtful, brilliant person. She could have done amazing things and what a wonderful life she might have had. She could be staying in the guesthouse with us at this weekend house as we speak, with her longtime girlfriend from Virginia. She could be talking to you right now, telling her own story. I try to stay focused on the positive, but that is hard for me to think about, what Cathy has missed out on, all these wonderful other aspects of the next parts of her life.
Note: Bill Thomas has requested, upon telling his story, that if you ever encounter anything that reminds you at all of Cathy and Becky’s case, you let him know via email or other means. He is always looking for cases with parallels to his sister’s case, and would be happy to be able to help another family through something he might uncover in his own personal searches.