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Families want evidence checked in Shenandoah double slaying

Families want evidence checked in Shenandoah double slaying

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After Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were killed at their Shenandoah National Park campsite in June 1996, the FBI noted "striking" similarities to the slayings of two other young women found dead in another national park in Virginia a decade earlier.

The next month, an FBI supervisor said the two cases would be compared to see if the four women were victims of the same killer.

But 14 years later, 24 years after Cathleen Thomas and Rebecca Dowski were found dead in Colonial National Historical Park, information from law enforcement sources, government documents and victims' family members reveals that those forensic tests were not conducted.

Families of the victims are shocked not only that the evidence in the two cases was not compared, but also that some men who fit the FBI profile for Thomas' and Dowski's killer and who were suggested as suspects in the Williams and Winans case were not fully explored.

"I am horrified that after publicly maintaining that they saw strong parallels between my sister's and Rebecca Dowski's deaths and Julie Williams' and Lollie Winans' deaths that they failed to do what they said they were going to do," said Bill Thomas, brother of victim Cathleen Thomas.

He and other family members of victims want the cases forensically compared and all suspects thoroughly evaluated.

"Even for their own protection, why don't we rule these people out?" Thomas said.

The FBI has renewed its investigation into what's known as the Colonial Parkway murders, sending 130 pieces of evidence to its lab at Quantico for retesting earlier this year. And FBI supervisor A.J. Turner, who is in charge of that probe, said the Shenandoah slayings would be reviewed for possible links.

But he stopped short of promising lab comparisons of evidence from the two cases, saying the tests would be requested only if investigators believe it would be "fruitful."

Given the FBI's failure to follow up in the Shenandoah case on a possible link to known serial killer Richard Marc Evonitz, victims' families question whether their loved ones will ever receive justice.


In October 1986, Rebecca Dowski, 21, and Cathleen Thomas, 27, had begun a romantic relationship.

Dowski, a college senior in Williamsburg, and Thomas, a stockbroker living about 75 minutes away in Virginia Beach, often drove to the Colonial Parkway to find some privacy.

That's where they were found dead on Oct. 12, 1986, inside Thomas' Honda Civic hatchback. The car sat on an embankment near the York River off the Colonial Parkway, a 23-mile federal road linking Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown in Colonial National Historical Park.

Both women had been bound and then cut across their throats, nearly ear to ear. Neither was sexually assaulted.

Almost 10 years later, on May 19, 1996, Julianne "Julie" Williams, 24, and Laura "Lollie" Winans, 26, arrived at Shenandoah National Park.

They had also begun a romantic relationship and had traveled to the park from Vermont to hike and camp.

When they hadn't returned home by the end of the month, Williams' father contacted park authorities.

The young women were found dead June 1, 1996, at their campsite, about 500 yards down a trail that begins at Skyline Drive--the main roadway traversing the park — and across from a parking lot for the busy Skyland Lodge.

Like the other pair of women, Williams and Winans had been bound and their throats cut ear to ear, and there was no evidence of sexual assault.

Both pairs of victims were athletic women in their 20s whose bodies showed no signs of a struggle.

And both pairs were found on national park land, just off the main roadways that run through them.


Thomas' and Dowski's deaths in 1986 were the first of four pairs of slayings that came to be known as the Colonial Parkway murders. But theirs was the only Colonial Parkway case involving two women.

The other three pairs of slayings occurred one per year over the next three years. They included a couple whose vehicle was found along the Colonial Parkway but whose bodies have never been found, another couple found shot to death near Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge in Isle of Wight County, and a pair whose remains were found near an Interstate 64 rest area in New Kent County.

In July 1990--10 months after the fourth case--Virginia State Police and the FBI held a news conference to say the slayings might be linked. They said they suspected they were the work of two people, and that the weaker person should come forward for his safety.

But victims' family members remain open to the possibility that the cases are unrelated.

Investigators have never claimed they have forensic evidence to link the cases. What they have is a similarity of circumstance.


Vehicles of the Colonial Parkway victims suggest they may have been approached by someone claiming to be in law enforcement. Some windows were partially down, keys were in the vehicles, wallets were out and glove compartments were open as if the victims were getting out IDs and registrations.

Bill Thomas, now 53 and living in Los Angeles, vividly recalls the autumn day in 1986 when FBI agents came to his parents' home in Lowell, Mass., to talk about the death of their only daughter.

Thomas, his two brothers and their parents gathered in the dining room and listened to the shocking news.

"From the very beginning, police said it appears it was likely someone in authority approached my sister, someone like a park ranger," he said.

Statements from the FBI and state police four years later at their July 1990 news conference remained consistent with that.

They said they suspected an "authority figure" could be responsible. They encouraged people to stay away from isolated locations and to be cautious when approached by someone claiming to be with law enforcement.

But they also acknowledged that anyone with a gun could readily control a situation.

News reports from over the years show that the list of 130 or so suspects in the Colonial Parkway killings has included current and former police officers from a variety of agencies, including sheriff's deputies, former state troopers and National Park Service rangers.

Though Park Service personnel are generally thought of as naturalists or historians, some investigate crimes and others patrol park grounds and roads.


Months into the Williams and Winans investigation, a National Park Service ranger suggested he and other park personnel be given polygraph tests.

He noted that some colleagues had worked at Colonial National Historical Park in the 1980s when the killings occurred there and then were working at Shenandoah National Park when Williams and Winans were killed there.

"Coupled with the four murders at Colonial, [he] believes that someone close to the investigation is involved in murdering the two women [at Shenandoah National Park]," an FBI agent wrote in his report after polygraphing that ranger.

That ranger's recommendations weren't ignored, but they weren't fully investigated, either, according to FBI reports obtained by The Free Lance-Star.

FBI agents interviewed approximately 120 Shenandoah National Park employees, sought polygraphs from at least three and gathered physical evidence from at least two, the reports show.

Agents obtained fingerprints and hair samples and vacuumed two pickups of some employees, sending the items to the FBI Lab in early 1997.

Fingerprints from one of those people didn't match prints found at the scene and one person passed his polygraph test, but not all evidence exams were completed.

One polygraph test suggested deception, but that man denied involvement and agents felt he had a "credible alibi," according to the FBI reports.

Then, 13 months into the investigation, with forensic exams unfinished, the focus of the Williams and Winans case shifted.


On July 9, 1997, FBI and National Park service investigators converged after 29-year-old Columbia, Md., resident Darrell David Rice frightened a woman bicyclist inside the park.

Rice was arrested shortly afterward and eventually charged with attempted kidnapping. Investigators immediately began questioning him about the slayings of Williams and Winans and the death of 25-year-old Alicia Showalter Reynolds, who disappeared while driving through nearby Culpeper County two months before the Shenandoah slayings.

The lead FBI agent in the Williams and Winans case left "urgent" messages with the FBI Lab, asking examiners to "expedite" all forensic comparisons involving Rice, an October 1997 lab memo shows. Because of that, a lab scientist got the agent to agree to "discontinue" some other exams, the memo states.

In April 2002--despite five years of forensic tests failing to establish any link to him--Rice was indicted on federal capital murder charges in the deaths of Williams and Winans.

He was weeks from trial and the threat of a death sentence when the FBI Lab delivered a bombshell.

Additional testing couldn't rule out serial killer Evonitz as the source of two head hairs found at the Shenandoah scene--one on a glove located near Winans' body and the other within layers of duct tape wrapped around her wrists.

Evonitz had killed himself in June 2002 while fleeing police after his last victim escaped. Later that year, the FBI Lab conclusively linked him to the 1996 and 1997 slayings of three girls in Spotsylvania County.

In February 2004, federal prosecutors dropped the charges against Rice.

But they didn't request additional forensic exams to determine whether Evonitz killed Williams and Winans, even though the FBI, state police and local authorities had earlier vowed to check Evonitz against other unsolved slayings nationwide.

Evonitz lived in Fredericksburg at the time of Reynolds' killing and in Spotsylvania at the time of the Shenandoah slayings.

He was in the Navy at the time of the Colonial Parkway slayings and trained in nearby Norfolk, but not on the dates of those killings.


FBI supervisors now overseeing the Shenandoah and Colonial Parkway cases weren't assigned to them when the slayings occurred. They said they couldn't comment on what happened in 1996, when a supervisor said the cases would be compared.

But late last fall, Norfolk FBI supervisor Turner assigned cold-case Agent Crosby Brackett to review the voluminous files on the two Colonial Parkway cases the FBI is investigating.

In January, Brackett resubmitted 130 pieces of evidence from those cases to the FBI Lab at Quantico in the hope that applying the latest forensic science could yield information not available when the cases were examined two decades ago.

Results of the latest tests are expected soon.

Turner said Brackett would also check for any similarities between the Colonial Parkway slayings and any unsolved murder cases across the state, including the Shenandoah killings. But he made no promises about forensic comparisons.

"If it is deemed fruitful by the investigators and it hasn't been done, it will be done," he said.

Michael Morehart took over as supervisor of the Richmond FBI office in February and now oversees the Shenandoah case.

Like Turner, he made no promises of lab comparisons of the Colonial Parkway and Shenandoah evidence, nor did he commit to further tests for a possible link to Evonitz in his case.

When Evonitz was identified as a serial killer in August 2002, a predecessor of Morehart's said Evonitz would be evaluated against unsolved crimes across the state and nation. When The Free Lance-Star revealed in a special report five years later that testing had not been done even for cases in the region, that supervisor reiterated that tests should be done in the Shenandoah and Reynolds cases.

When asked specifically if he would now order a complete forensic evaluation of Evonitz in his case, Morehart refused to commit.

"If it's appropriate, we're going to take whatever steps are necessary for the investigation. If it's not, we won't," he said.

Pressed as to why the FBI wouldn't want to test a known serial killer in a case that remains unsolved after 14 years, he said: "I feel confident if something needs to be done, we're going to do it."


The fathers of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans have pressed unsuccessfully in the past for forensic tests to determine if Evonitz killed their daughters in Shenandoah National Park. Now Tom Williams and John Winans want possible links to the Colonial Parkway slayings checked, too.

"I would certainly encourage and ask authorities to pursue every avenue in the hopes of finding my daughter's killer," Williams said.

Bill Thomas feels the same way about the probe into his sister's slaying on the Colonial Parkway. He wants every suspect, including law enforcement personnel or impersonators, ruled out scientifically.

"I'm not alleging anybody did anything wrong, but you'd sure think [the FBI] would want to get to the bottom of this," Thomas said.

John Winans was more critical in his assessment of the need to check for a link between his daughter's case and that of Thomas and Dowski.

"If the two girls were around the same age and were murdered in the same way, I don't think it takes a mental giant to know it at least needs to be looked into," he said. "It ought to at least be investigated."

Pamela Gould: 540.735.1972

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