After a weeklong search for missing evidence from the first Colonial Parkway killings, law enforcement officials located records showing the two small boxes were destroyed at the FBI's suggestion in 1994. But it is the unusual eight-year path the evidence traveled before destruction - passing from the medical examiner's office to a York County investigator who never asked for it - that's sparked worry among family members.
They fear other crucial material has been mishandled or lost.
"Now we are just learning that they've destroyed what could have been valuable evidence after hanging onto it for eight years," said Bill Thomas, brother of Cathleen Thomas who was among the first couple murdered. "There is no way to demonstrate the depths of my family's frustration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
At the October 1986 autopsies of Cathleen Thomas and Rebecca Dowski, a medical examiner collected swabs that would determine if the women, found fully clothed, had been raped. Neither were.
The women were discovered in Thomas' small Honda, shoved off a Colonial Parkway bluff. The killer slit their throats. They were the first in a series of slayings and disappearances that became known as "The Parkway Murders." The killings stopped in 1989.
Norfolk FBI spokeswoman Vanessa Torres said in a statement Friday that because the women were not sexually assaulted, the Physical Evidence Recovery Kits assembled by the medical examiner "did not contain evidence of value." That's why the FBI never took the kits.
Dr. Angela Williamson, director of forensic casework for Bode Technology, a private laboratory specializing in DNA science, said the FBI's decision "seems logical."
However, the strange way the kits ended up in a York County evidence room six years after collection has caused concern for Bill Thomas. The FBI has promised advanced testing on the old evidence, but Bill Thomas says he cannot convince the agency to reveal what evidence still exists.
"After 23 long years, I would say we're mildly hopeful," said Bill Thomas, speaking from Los Angeles. "However, all of this is provided the FBI has properly stored and hung onto this valuable evidence."
Recently, the Thomas family received from the state a full accounting of evidence recovered at Cathleen Thomas' autopsy, including strands of hair found in Cathleen Thomas' hand; a small section of rope somehow left behind after the killer cut the cord from Thomas' neck; and nail clippings that could contain the killer's DNA if Thomas managed to touch or scratch her attacker.
Autopsy photographs leaked by the FBI and later obtained by NewsChannel 3 show the two-inch rope fragment tangled in Cathleen Thomas' hair. The photographs also show Cathleen suffered a knife wound to her left thumb, possibly indicating she struggled with the killer. Her brother, Bill Thomas, said the hair found in his sister's hand must either be Dowski's or the killer's.
In an earlier telephone interview with NewsChannel 3, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Leah Bush said evidence collected at the Colonial Parkway autopsies more than two decades ago could yield leads when subjected to new DNA science.
Dr. Bush and her predecessor, Dr. Marcella Fierro, are reviewing all the autopsies at the request of the families. That review sparked the search last week for the missing evidence. Richmond records show the two Physical Evidence Recorvery Kits, or PERKs, were given to a York County investigator in 1992, but York County officials last week could not recall a reason to request that evidence.
However, days later, Maj. Ron Montgomery of the York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office said reviews of case files showed an investigator traveled to the medical examiner's office in 1992 to retrieve skeletal remains from a separate case. The Colonial Parkway evidence kits were somehow included with the remains, Montgomery said. He doesn't know how or why.
According to Montgomery, when the investigator realized he had the kits, he put them in an evidence room and contacted the FBI. Montgomery said the investigator placed calls to agents over a two-year period until March, 1996, when an agent suggested the boxes be destroyed.
Vanessa Torres, a spokeswoman for the Norfolk FBI, said agents did not retrieve the evidence because it was not helpful to the case.
The PERKS "... did not contain evidence of value inasmuch as neither victim was sexually assaulted. This finding was made by the state," Torres wrote. "Therefore, the FBI did not take possession of the kits."
Bill Thomas is pressing the FBI to reveal whether the other evidence taken from his sister's autopsy still exists, and if so, when it will be tested.
"I cannot get a straightforward answer from them in terms of, do they still have this evidence, and when do they play to move forward with the advanced testing they promised us," he said.
Torres would not discuss any specific pieces of evidence, saying only "all evidence of value collected by the FBI or turned over to the FBI regarding this investigation has been maintained and remains stored."