The Story Behind The Story — 23 Miles

Cathleen Thomas in 1981

Cathleen Thomas in 1981

On March 1, 2015, my fourth novel, 23 Miles, was published by Affinity eBooks Press. The mystery/romance is named after the twenty-three mile stretch of road in Virginia that connects Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown. 23 Miles follows the growing relationship between ex-cop Shay Eliot and admitted liar Talia Lisher, and revolves around the murders of two fictional characters on the parkway. The characters are fictional, but the crime itself closely follows the real-life murders of Cathleen Thomas and Rebecca Ann Dowski on the parkway in 1986. I tried to keep the details of the crime scene and location accurate because my goal in writing the novel was to try to reignite the dialogue about those murders and thought that would best serve my purpose.

While researching for 23 Miles, I befriended Cathleen Thomas’ brother, Bill Thomas. He graciously answered my questions and talked to me about his sister. We decided to do a blog together, where we ask one another questions related to the book and/or case. This blog is the product of that collaboration.

Renee: I’ll start. Bill, what was your first thought when I contacted you about this novel?

Bill: My first thought was “Great!”  I am always open to anyone who wants to promote conversation about the still unsolved Colonial Parkway Murders, because I think that people talking about the case is a good thing. You never know where the conversation might go, and the FBI is still actively looking into the case.

My second thought was “Time to do some research,” since I usually like to check out who I am dealing with, make sure they are legit, and get a better idea of with whom we are dealing.  And of course, you checked out fine, and that allowed our conversation to move forward.

Bill: Renee, what made you choose Cathy and Becky’s case as the basis for 23 Miles?

Renee: I had been following the Colonial Parkway murders since Cathy and Becky’s murders in 1986. The fact that I lived in York County and hung out on the parkway where Cathy and Becky’s bodies were found, and that I was a part of the lesbian community in Norfolk where Cathy had a lot of friends, really struck a chord with me.

I wanted to write Shay Eliot’s story after I introduced her in my second novel, Flight, and was thinking about the mid to late 80s for that (Flight is set in 1983). I had already decided her love interest would be from York County. As I was bouncing ideas around for that story, I saw a post my friend Chris Call had shared or commented on from the “What Happened to Richard “Keith” Call and Cassandra Hailey” Facebook page. I knew Chris from school many years earlier, and I remembered when his brother disappeared. When I saw the reference to what is considered the third double murder on the parkway, I knew I would write about the parkway. I also knew I had to use Cathy and Becky’s story because of the ties to my Norfolk community.

Renee: Here is a two part question, Bill. What are your thoughts on how the investigation has been handled? What do you think should be the FBI’s next step?

Bill: I think that there is no question that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and law enforcement in general, made some serious mistakes in handling Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski’s murder investigation.  Let me give you a few examples:

Valuable evidence was destroyed during the initial investigation – the back window of my sister’s Honda Civic was smashed, for example, by one of the first officers on scene. This likely cost us valuable fingerprints and other evidence.

The rape kits for both Cathy and Becky were destroyed in 1994 after being preserved for eight years.  While Cathy and Becky do not appear to have been sexually assaulted, forensic experts tell me that the rape kits should have never been destroyed – you never destroy evidence in an unsolved murder. The kits had been mixed up with the evidence for another case and were sent over to another law enforcement agency, the York-Poquoson County Sheriff’s Department.  After some back and forth with the FBI about whether they were going to be returned by the Sheriff’s Office or picked up by an FBI agent, the Bureau ordered them destroyed as medical waste.

A number of people have told me that the FBI was very insensitive in their approach to friends of Cathy and Becky’s, many of whom were lesbian and some of whom were still in the service.  You can imagine how different the world was 29 years ago, how different the Navy was, William and Mary, and the Norfolk, Virginia area, how gay people had to live their lives. Then add to the mix a group of FBI agents, most of them men, probably pretty conservative and likely straight.  As I understand it, some of the interviews did not go well. Law enforcement had this crazy theory about “cells of lesbians” recruiting young women like Becky into their twisted ways.  No, I am not kidding – when you hear this stuff dozens of times you realize that there is likely something to it.

We have also been told that FBI, the Virginia State Police, and local and county law enforcement did not work well together in the 1980s. There were lots of turf battles and lack of cooperation. I am told that things are much better now.

After the story broke that the FBI had lost control of more than 80 highly graphic crime scene photos in 2009 – which was obviously very upsetting to the families of the victims – we discovered that much of the case evidence had never been retested since the murders were active from 1986 to 1990.  That testing process was restarted, but there is still evidence that needs to be retested.

In terms of next steps, I think the FBI needs to review the case from top to bottom, retest all of the available evidence, and move the Colonial Parkway Murders case forward again.

Bill: One more question: In a perfect world, what would be the outcome of the book’s release?

Renee: In a perfect world, every detail of the crime scene in 23 Miles would be a product of my imagination and eight amazing people would still be with us. But that’s not really answering the question, is it?

Since my reasons for writing the book were to tell a compelling story and to shine the spotlight on the unsolved Colonial Parkway Murders, my answer is twofold. First, in a perfect world, someone reading 23 Miles would remember something from that time – or would finally realize what they’ve known all along could help – and contact the FBI with that information. And in that perfect world, the FBI would give that new information the attention it deserves, the investigation would move forward, the victims’ families would get answers, and someone would pay for these crimes.

Second, I’d like to sell a ton of books. I’m a writer, so of course that is one of my goals. I mean, in a perfect world I would be a fulltime writer and could chose if I worked another job instead of needing to.

Renee: Okay, Bill, here is your final question. What would you like the world to know about your sister?

Bill: I think the thing I would like people to know about Cathy was she was so much fun.  Yes, she was whip-smart, and hardworking and dedicated, and very proud of attending the Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1981, the second USNA class with women.  Yet she was also funny, and loved crazy jokes, Gary Larson cartoons, awful puns, and t-shirts with iffy slogans on them.  She was a great friend with a big smile who could light up a room, and bring out the best in people.  Cathy was amazing, and any one of her many friends can tell you even more stories about her.

Renee: Thank you so much, Bill. Thank you for taking the time out to talk to me so many times during my researching for, and writing of, this novel.

If anyone has any questions they would like to ask us, feel free to do so in the comments. I would like to also ask that if you have any information that might help with any of the Colonial Parkway murder investigations to please come forward. You can email the FBI at Colonial_Parkway_Murders@ic.fbi.gov or email me at the address I set up for just this reason, 23Miles.tips@gmail.com.

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5 thoughts on “The Story Behind The Story — 23 Miles

  1. This is familiar to a few people but here is the link to my Facebook note about this. I have never changed my story but there is nothing more that I can add.

    In addition I posted the same on Youtube though the video is of me searching for the site. The whole system was reworked shortly after the event so the landmarks mostly are now gone including the parking lot I saw them in.

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